At the beginning of the year 1821, O'Connell, during the intervals of Ms laborious occupations in court and on circuit, addressed a series of stirring letters to "the People of Ireland," remarkable as containing some of the best and most trenchant of his political writings. His object was to induce the postponement of the annual petition for Emancipation, and the substitution instead of a general agitation for Parliamentary reform, in conjunction with the English reformers. Against this conclusion--which he ridiculed "as the fashion for January, 1821"--Mr. Shiel published a bitter, clever, rhetorical reply, to which O'Connell at once sent forth a severe and rather contemptuous rejoinder. Shiel was quite content to have Mr. Plunkett continue Grattan's annual motion, with all its "conditions" and "securities." O'Connell declared he had no hope in petitions except from a reformed Parliament, and he, therefore, was opposed to such motions altogether, especially as put by Mr. Plunkett, and the other advocates of a Veto. Another session was lost in this controversy, and when Parliament rose, it was announced that George IV. was coming to Ireland "on a mission of Conciliation."
On this announcement, Mr. O'Connell advised that the Catholics should take advantage of his Majesty's presence to assemble and consider the state of their affairs; but a protest against "connecting in any manner the King's visit with Catholic affairs," was circulated by Lords Fingal, Netterville, Gormanstown, and Killeen, Messrs. Baggott, Shiel, Wyse, and other Commoners. O'Connell yielded, as he often did, for the sake of unanimity. The King's visit led to many meetings and arrangements, in some of which his advice was taken, while in others he was outvoted or overruled. Nothing could exceed the patience he exhibited at this period of his life, when his natural impetuous temperament was still far from being subdued by the frosts of age.
Many liberal Protestants at this period--the King's brief visit--were so moved with admiration of the judicious and proper conduct of the Catholic leaders, that a new but short-lived organization, called "the Conciliation Committee," was formed. The ultra Orange zealots, however, were not to be restrained even by the presence of the Sovereign for whom they professed so much devotion. In the midst of the preparations for his landing, they celebrated, with all its offensive accompaniments, the 12th of July, and at the Dublin dinner to the King--though after he had left the room--they gave their charter toast of "the glorious, pious, and immortal memory." The Committee of Conciliation soon dwindled away, and, like the visit of George IV., left no good result behind.
The year 1822 was most remarkable, at its commencement, for the arrival of the Marquis of Wellesley, as Lord-Lieutenant, and at its close, for the assault committed on him in the theatre by the Dublin Orangemen. Though the Marquis had declined to interfere in preventing the annual Orange celebration, he was well known to be friendly to the Catholics; their advocate, Mr. Plunkett, was his Attorney General; and many of their leaders were cordially welcomed at the Castle. These proofs were sufficient for the secret tribunals which sat upon his conduct, and when his Lordship presented himself, on the night of the 14th of December, at the theatre, he was assailed by an organized mob, one of whom flung a heavy piece of wood, and another a quart bottle, towards the state box. Three Orangemen, mechanics, were arrested and tried for the offence, but acquitted on a technical defect of evidence; a general feeling of indignation was excited among all classes in consequence, and it is questionable if Orangeism, in Dublin, ever recovered the disgust occasioned by that dastardly outrage.
The great and fortunate event, however, for the Catholics, was the foundation of their new Association, which was finally resolved upon at an Aggregate Meeting held in "Townsend Street Chapel," on the 10th of May, 1823. This meeting had been called by an imposing requisition signed with singular unanimity by all the principal Catholic gentlemen. Lord Killeen presided. Mr. O'Connell moved the formation of the Association; Sir Thomas Esmonde seconded the motion; Mr. Shiel--lately and sincerely reconciled to O'Connell--sustained it. The plan was simple and popular. The Association was to consist of members paying a guinea a year, and associates paying a shilling; a standing committee was to form the government; the regular meetings were to be weekly--every Saturday; and the business to consist of organization, correspondence, public discussions, and petitions. It was, in effect, to be a sort of extern and unauthorized Parliament, acting always within the Constitution, with a view to the modification of the existing laws, by means not prohibited in those laws themselves. It was a design, subtle in conception, but simple in form; a natural design for a lawyer-liberator to form; and for a people strongly prepossessed in his favour to adopt; but one, at the same time, which would require a rare combination of circumstances to sustain for any great length of time, under a leader less expert, inventive, and resolute.
The Parliamentary position of the Catholic question, at the moment of the formation of the Association, had undergone another strange alteration. Lord Castlereagh, having attained the highest honours of the empire, died by his own hand the previous year. Lord Liverpool remained Premier, Lord Eldon Chancellor, Mr. Canning became Foreign Secretary, with Mr. Peel, Home Secretary, the Duke of Wellington continuing Master-General of the Ordnance. To this cabinet, so largely anti-Catholic, the chosen organ of the Irish Catholics, Mr. Plunkett, was necessarily associated as Irish Attorney General. His situation, therefore, was in the session of 1823 one of great difficulty; this Sir Francis Burdett and the radical reformers at once perceived, and in the debates which followed, pressed him unmercifully. They quoted against him his own language denouncing cabinet compromises on so vital a question, in 1813, and to show their indignation, when he rose to reply, they left the House in a body. His speech, as always, was most able, but the House, when he sat down, broke into an uproar of confusion. Party spirit ran exceedingly high; the possibility of advancing the question during the session was doubtful, and a motion to adjourn prevailed. A fortnight later, at the first meeting of the Catholic Association, a very cordial vote of thanks to Plunkett was carried by acclamation.
The new Catholic organization was labouring hard to merit popular favour. Within the year of its organization we find the Saturday meetings engaged with such questions as church rates; secret societies; correspondence with members of both Houses; voting public thanks to Mr. Brougham; the penal laws relating to the rights of sepulture; the purchase of a Catholic cemetery near Dublin; the commutation of tithes; the admission of Catholic freemen into corporations; the extension of the Association into every county in Ireland, and other more incidental subjects. The business-like air of the weekly meetings, at this early period, is remarkable: they were certainly anything but mere occasions for rhetorical display. But though little could be objected against, and so much might be said in favour of the labours of the Association, it was not till nearly twelve months after its organization, when O'Connell proposed and carried his system of monthly penny subscriptions to the "Catholic Rent," that it took a firm and far-reaching hold on the common people, and began to excite the serious apprehensions of the oligarchical factions in Ireland and England.
This bold, and at this time much ridiculed step, infused new life and a system hitherto unknown into the Catholic population. The parish collectors, corresponding directly with Dublin, established a local agency, co-extensive with the kingdom; the smallest contributor felt himself personally embarked in the contest; and the movement became, in consequence, what it had not been before, an eminently popular one. During the next six months the receipts from penny subscriptions exceeded 100 pounds sterling per month, representing 24,000 subscribers; during the next year they averaged above 500 pounds a week, representing nearly half a million enrolled Associates!
With the additional means at the disposal of the Finance Committee of the Association, its power rose rapidly. A morning and an evening journal were at its command in Dublin; many thousands of pounds were expended in defending the people in the courts, and prosecuting their Orange and other enemies. Annual subsidies, of 5,000 pounds each, were voted for the Catholic Poor schools, and the education of missionary priests for America; the expenses of Parliamentary and electioneering agents were also heavy. But for all these purposes "the Catholic Rent," of a penny per month from each associate, was found amply sufficient.
At the close of 1824, the government, really alarmed at the formidable proportions assumed by the agitation, caused criminal informations to be filed against Mr. O'Connell, for an alleged seditious allusion to the example of Bolivar, the liberator of South America; but the Dublin grand jury ignored the bills of indictment founded on these informations. Early in the following session, however, a bill to suppress "Unlawful Associations in Ireland," was introduced by Mr. Goulburn, who had succeeded Sir Robert Peel as Chief Secretary, and was supported by Plunkett--a confirmed enemy of all extra-legal combinations. It was aimed directly at the Catholic Association, and passed both Houses; but O'Connell found means "to drive," as he said, "a coach and six through it." The existing Association dissolved on the passage of the act; another, called "the New Catholic Association," was formed for "charitable and other purposes," and the agitators proceeded with their organization, with one word added to then--title, and immensely additional eclat and success.
In Parliament, the measure thus defeated was followed by another, the long-promised Relief Bill. It passed in the Commons in May, accompanied by two clauses, or as they were called, "wings," most unsatisfactory to the Catholic body. One clause disfranchised the whole class of electors known as the "forty-shilling freeholders;" the other provided a scale of state maintenance for the Catholic clergy. A bishop was to have 1,000 pounds per annum; a dean 300 pounds; a parish priest 200 pounds; a curate 60 pounds. This measure was thrown out by the House of Lords, greatly to the satisfaction, at least, of the Irish Catholics. It was during this debate in the Upper House that the Duke of York, presumptive heir to the throne, made what was called his "ether speech"--from his habit of dosing himself with that stimulant on trying occasions. In this speech he declared, that so "help him God," he would never, never consent to acknowledge the claims put forward by the Catholics. Before two years were over, death had removed him to the presence of that Awful Being whose name he had so rashly invoked, and his brother, the Duke of Clarence, assumed his position, as next in succession to the throne.
The Catholic delegates, Lord Killeen, Sir Thomas Esmonde, Lawless, and Shiel, were in London at the time the Duke of York made his memorable declaration. If, on the one hand, they were regarded with dislike amounting to hatred, on the other, they were welcomed with cordiality by all the leaders of the liberal party. The venerable Earl Fitzwilliam emerged from his retirement to do them honour; the gifted and energetic Brougham entertained them with all hospitality; at Norfolk House they were banqueted in the room in which George III. was born: the millionaire-demagogue Burdett, the courtly, liberal Lord Grey, and the flower of the Catholic nobility, were invited to meet them. The delegates were naturally cheered and gratified; they felt, they must have felt, that their cause had a grasp upon Imperial attention, which nothing but concession could ever loosen.
Committees of both Houses, to inquire into the state of Ireland, had sat during a great part of this Session, and among the witnesses were the principal delegates, with Drs. Murray, Curtis, Kelly, and Doyle. The evidence of the latter--the eminent Prelate of Kildare and Leighlin--attracted most attention. His readiness of resource, clearness of statement, and wide range of information, inspired many of his questioners with a feeling of respect, such as they had never before entertained for any of his order. His writings had already made him honourably distinguished among literary men; his examination before the Committees made him equally so among statesmen. From that period he could reckon the Marquises of Anglesea and Wellesley, Lord Lansdowne and Mr. Brougham, among his correspondents and friends, and, what he valued even more, among the friends of his cause. Mr. O'Connell, on the other hand, certainly lost ground in Ireland by his London journey. He had, unquestionably, given his assent to both "wings," in 1825, as he did to the remaining one in 1828, and thereby greatly injured his own popularity. His frank and full recantation of his error, on his return, soon restored him to the favour of the multitude, and enabled him to employ, with the best effect, the enormous influence which he showed he possessed at the general elections of 1826. By him mainly the Beresfords were beaten in Waterford, the Fosters in Louth, and the Leslies in Monaghan. The independence of Limerick city, of Tipperary, Cork, Kilkenny, Longford, and other important constituencies, was secured. The parish machinery of the Association was found invaluable for the purpose of bringing up the electors, and the people's treasury was fortunately able to protect to some extent the fearless voter, who, in despite of his landlord, voted according to the dictates of his own heart.
The effect of these elections on the empire at large was very great. When, early in the following spring, Lord Liverpool, after fifteen years' possession of power, died unexpectedly, George IV. sent for Canning and gave him carte blanche to form a cabinet without excepting the question of Emancipation. That high spirited and really liberal statesman associated with himself a ministry, three-fourths of whom were in favour of granting the Catholic claims. This was in the month of April; but to the consternation of those whose hopes were now so justly raised, the gifted Premier held office only four months; his lamented death causing another "crisis," and one more postponement of "the Catholic question."