A very little reflection will enable us to judge, even at this day, the magnitude of the contest in which O'Connell was the great popular leader, during the reign of George IV. In Great Britain, a very considerable section of the ancient peerage and gentry, with the Earl Marshal at their head, were to be restored to political existence, by the act of Emancipation; a missionary, and barely tolerated clergy were to be clothed, in their own country, with the commonest rights of British subjects --protection to life and property. In Ireland, seven-eighths of the people, one-third of the gentry, the whole of the Catholic clergy, the numerous and distinguished array of the Catholic bar, and all the Catholic townsmen, taxed but unrepresented in the corporate bodies, were to enter on a new civil and social condition, on the passage of the act. In the colonies, except Canada, where that church was protected by treaty, the change of Imperial policy towards Catholics was to be felt in every relation of life, civil, military, and ecclesiastical, by all persons professing that religion. Some years ago, a bishop of Southern Africa declared, that, until O'Connell's time, it was impossible for Catholics to obtain any consideration from the officials at the Cape of Good Hope. Could there be a more striking illustration of the magnitude of the movement, which, rising in the latitude of Ireland, flung its outermost wave of influence on the shores of the Indian ocean?
The adverse hosts to be encountered in this great contest, included a large majority of the rank and wealth of both kingdoms. The King, who had been a Whig in his youth, had grown into a Tory in his old age; the House of Lords were strongly hostile to the measure, as were also the universities, both in England and Ireland; the Tory party, in and out of Parliament; the Orange organization in Ireland; the civil and military authorities generally, with the great bulk of the rural magistracy and the municipal authorities. The power to overcome this power should be indeed formidable, well organized and wisely directed.
The Lord Lieutenant selected by Mr. Canning, was the Marquis of Anglesea, a frank soldier, as little accustomed to play the politician as any man of his order and distinction could be. He came to Ireland, in many respects the very opposite of Lord Wellesley; no orator certainly, and so far as he had spoken formerly, an enemy rather than a friend to the Catholics. But he had not been three months in office when he began to modify his views; he was the first to prohibit, in Dublin, the annual Orange outrage on the 12th of July, and by subsequent, though slow degrees, he became fully convinced that the Catholic claims could be settled only by Concession. Lord Francis Leveson Gower, afterwards Earl of Ellesmere, accompanied the Marquis as Chief Secretary.
The accession to office of a prime minister friendly to the Catholics, was the signal for a new attempt to raise that "No-Popery" cry which had already given twenty years of political supremacy to Mr. Perceval and Lord Liverpool. In Ireland, this feeling appeared under the guise of what was called "the New Reformation," which, during the summer of 1827, raged with all the proverbial violence of the odium theologicum from Cork to Derry. Priests and parsons, laymen and lawyers, took part in this general politico-religious controversy, in which every possible subject of difference between Catholic and Protestant was publicly discussed. Archbishop Magee of Dublin, the Rev. Sir Harcourt Lees, son of a former English placeman at the Castle, and the Rev. Mr. Pope, were the clerical leaders in this crusade; Exeter-Hall sent over to assist them the Honourable and Reverend Baptist Noel, Mr. Wolff, and Captain Gordon, a descendant of the hero of the London riot of 1798. At Derry, Dublin, Carlow, and Cork, the challenged agreed to defend their doctrines. Father Maginn, Maguire, Maher, McSweeney, and some others accepted these challenges; Messrs. O'Connell, Shiel, and other laymen, assisted, and the oral discussion of theological and historical questions became as common as town talk in every Irish community. Whether, in any case, these debates conduced to conversion is doubtful; but they certainly supplied the Catholic laity with a body of facts and arguments very necessary at that time, and which hardly any other occasion could have presented. The Right Rev. Dr. Doyle, however, considered them far from beneficial to the cause of true religion; and though he tolerated a first discussion in his diocese, he positively forbade a second. The Archbishop of Armagh and other prelates issued their mandates to the clergy to refrain from these oral disputes, and the practice fell into disuse.
The notoriety of "the Second Reformation" was chiefly due to the ostentatious patronage of it by the lay chiefs of the Irish oligarchy. Mr. Synge, in Clare, Lord Lorton, and Mr. McClintock at Dundalk, were indefatigable in their evangelizing exertions. The Earl of Roden--to show his entire dependence on the translated Bible--threw all his other books into a fish pond on his estate. Lord Farnham was even more conspicuous in the revival; he spared neither patronage nor writs of ejectment to convert his tenantry. The reports of conversions upon his lordship's estates, and throughout his county, attracted so much notice, that Drs. Curtis, Crolly, Magauran, O'Reilly, and McHale, met on the 9th of December, 1826, at Cavan, to inquire into the facts. They found, while there had been much exaggeration on the part of the reformers, that some hundreds of the peasantry had, by various powerful temptations, been led to change their former religion. The bishops received back some of the converts, and a jubilee established among them completed their reconversion. The Hon. Mr. Noel and Captain Gordon posted to Cavan, with a challenge to discussion for their lordships; of course, their challenge was not accepted. Thomas Moore's inimitable satire was the most effective weapon against such fanatics.
The energetic literature of the Catholic agitation attracted much more attention than its oral polemics. Joined to a bright army of Catholic writers, including Dr. Doyle, Thomas Moore, Thomas Furlong, and Charles Butler, there was the powerful phalanx of the Edinburgh Review led by Jeffrey and Sidney Smith, and the English liberal press, headed by William Cobbett. Thomas Campbell, the Poet of Hope, always and everywhere the friend of freedom, threw open his New Monthly, to Shiel, and William Henry Curran, whose sketches of the Irish Bar and Bench, of Dublin politics, and the county elections of 1826, will live as long as any periodical papers of the day. The indefatigable Shiel, writing French as fluently as English, contributed besides to the Gazette de France a series of papers, which were read with great interest on the Continent. These articles were the precursors of many others, which made the Catholic question at length an European question. An incident quite unimportant in itself, gave additional zest to these French articles. The Duke de Montebello, with two of his friends, Messrs. Duvergier and Thayer, visited Ireland in 1826. Duvergier wrote a series of very interesting letters on the "State of Ireland," which, at the time, went through several editions. At a Catholic meeting at Ballinasloe, the Duke had some compliments paid him, which he gracefully acknowledged, expressing his wishes for the success of their cause. This simple act excited a great deal of criticism in England. The Paris press was roused in consequence, and the French Catholics, becoming more and more interested, voted an address and subscription to the Catholic Association. The Bavarian Catholics followed their example, and similar communications were received from Spain and Italy.
But the movement abroad did not end in Europe. An address from British India contained a contribution of three thousand pounds sterling. From the West Indies and Canada, generous assistance was rendered.
In the United States sympathetic feeling was most active. New York felt almost as much interested in the cause as Dublin. In 1826 and 1827, associations of "Friends of Ireland" were formed at New York, Boston, Washington, Norfolk, Charleston, Augusta, Louisville, and Bardstown. Addresses in English and French were prepared for these societies, chiefly by Dr. McNevin, at New York, and Bishop England, at Charleston. The American, like the French press, became interested in the subject, and eloquent allusions were made to it in Congress. On the 20th of January, 1828, the veteran McNevin wrote to Mr. O'Connell--"Public opinion in America is deep, and strong, and universal, in your behalf. This predilection prevails over the broad bosom of our extensive continent. Associations similar to ours are everywhere starting into existence--in our largest and wealthiest cities--in our hamlets and our villages--in our most remote sections; and at this moment, the propriety of convening, at Washington, delegates of the friends of Ireland, of all the states, is under serious deliberation. A fund will erelong be derived from American patriotism in the United States, which will astonish your haughtiest opponents."
The Parliamentary fortunes of the great question were at the same time brightening. The elections of 1826, had, upon the whole, given a large increase of strength to its advocates. In England and Scotland, under the influence of the "No-Popery" cry, they had lost some ground, but in Ireland they had had an immense triumph. The death of the generous-hearted Canning, hastened as it was by anti-Catholic intrigues, gave a momentary check to the progress of liberal ideas; but they were retarded only to acquire a fresh impulse destined to bear them, in the next few years, farther than they had before advanced in an entire century.
The ad interim administration of Lord Goderich gave way, by its own internal discords, in January, 1828, to the Wellington and Peel administration. The Duke was Premier, the Baronet leader of the House of Commons; with Mr. Huskisson, Lord Palmerston, in the cabinet; Lord Anglesea remained as Lord Lieutenant. But this coalition with the friends of Canning was not destined to outlive the session of 1828; the lieutenants of the late Premier were doomed, for some time longer, to suffer for their devotion to his principles.
This session of 1828, is--in the history of religious liberty--the most important and interesting in the annals of the British Parliament. Almost at its opening, the extraordinary spectacle was exhibited of a petition signed by 800,000 Irish Catholics, praying for the repeal of "the Corporation and Test Acts," enacted on the restoration of Charles II., against the non-Conformists. Monster petitions, both for and against the repeal of these acts, as well as for and against Catholic emancipation, soon became of common occurrence. Protestants of all sects petitioned for, but still more petitioned against equal rights for Catholics; while Catholics petitioned for the rights of Protestant dissenters. It is a spectacle to look back upon with admiration and instruction; exhibiting as it does, so much of a truly tolerant spirit in Christians of all creeds, worthy of all honour and imitation.
In April, "the Corporation and Test Acts" were repealed; in May, the Canningites seceded from the Duke's government, and one of the gentlemen brought in to fill a vacant seat in the Cabinet--Mr. Vesey Fitzgerald, member for Clare-- issued his address to his electors, asking a renewal of their confidence. Out of this event grew another, which finally and successfully brought to an issue the century-old Catholic question.
The Catholic Association, on the accession of the Wellington-Peel Cabinet, had publicly pledged itself to oppose every man who would accept office under these statesmen. The memory of both as ex-secretaries--but especially Peel's--was odious in Ireland. When, however, the Duke had sustained, and ensured thereby the passage of the repeal of "the Corporation and Test Acts," Mr. O'Connell, at the suggestion of Lord John Russell the mover of the repeal, endeavoured to get his angry and uncompromising resolution against the Duke's government rescinded. Powerful as he was, however, the Association refused to go with him, and the resolution remained. So it happened that when Mr. Fitzgerald presented himself to the electors of Clare, as the colleague of Peel and Wellington, the Association at once endeavoured to bring out an opposition candidate. They pitched with this view on Major McNamara, a liberal Protestant of the county, at the head of one of its oldest families, and personally popular; but this gentleman, after keeping them several days in suspense, till the time of nomination was close at hand, positively declined to stand against his friend, Mr. Fitzgerald, to the great dismay of the associated Catholics.
In their emergency, an idea, so bold and original, that it was at first received with general incredulity by the external public, was started. It was remembered by Sir David De Roose, a personal friend of O'Connell's, that the late sagacious John Keogh had often declared the Emancipation question would never be brought to an issue till some Catholic member elect stood at the bar of the House of Commons demanding his seat. A trusted few were at first consulted on the daring proposition, that O'Connell himself, in despite of the legal exclusion of all men of his religion, should come forward for Clare. Many were the consultations, and diverse the judgments delivered on this proposal, but at length, on the reception of information from the county itself, which gave strong assurance of success, the hero of the adventure decided for himself. The bold course was again selected as the wise course, and the spirit-stirring address of "the arch-Agitator" to the electors, was at once issued from Dublin. "Your county," he began by saying, "wants a representative. I respectfully solicit your suffrages, to raise me to that station.
"Of my qualification to fill that station, I leave you to judge. The habits of public speaking, and many, many years of public business, render me, perhaps, equally suited with most men to attend to the interests of Ireland in Parliament.
"You will be told I am not qualified to be elected; the assertion, my friends, is untrue. I am qualified to be elected, and to be your representative. It is true that as a Catholic I cannot, and of course never will, take the oaths at present prescribed to members of Parliament; but the authority which created these oaths (the Parliament), can abrogate them: and I entertain a confident hope that, if you elect me, the most bigoted of our enemies will see the necessity of removing from the chosen representative of the people an obstacle which would prevent him from doing his duty to his king and to his country."
This address was followed instantly by the departure of all the most effective agitators to the scene of the great contest. Shiel went down as conducting agent for the candidate; Lawless left his Belfast newspaper, and Father Maguire his Leitrim flock; Messrs. Steele and O'Gorman Mahon, both proprietors in the county, were already in the field, and O'Connell himself soon followed. On the other hand, the leading county families, the O'Briens, McNamaras, Vandeleurs, Fitzgeralds and others, declared for their old favourite, Mr. Fitzgerald. He was personally much liked in the county; the son of a venerable anti-Unionist, the well-remembered Prime Sergeant, and a man besides of superior abilities. The county itself was no easy one to contest; its immense constituency (the 40-shilling freeholders had not yet been abolished), were scattered over a mountain and valley region, more than fifty miles long by above thirty wide. They were almost everywhere to be addressed in both languages--English and Irish--and when the canvass was over, they were still to be brought under the very eyes of the landlords, upon the breath of whose lips their subsistence depended, to vote the overthrow and conquest of those absolute masters. The little county town of Ennis, situated on the river Fergus, about 110 miles south-west of Dublin, was the centre of attraction or of apprehension, and the hills that rise on either side of the little prosaic river soon swarmed with an unwonted population, who had resolved, subsist how they might, to see the election out. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the eyes of the empire were turned, during those days of June, on the ancient patrimony of King Brian. "I fear the Clare election will end ill," wrote the Viceroy to the leader of the House of Commons. "This business," wrote the Lord Chancellor (Eldon), "must bring the Roman Catholic question to a crisis and a conclusion." "May the God of truth and justice protect and prosper you," was the public invocation for O'Connell's success, by the bishop of Kildare and Leighlin. "It was foreseen," said Sir Robert Peel, long afterwards, "that the Clare election would be the turning point of the Catholic question." In all its aspects, and to all sorts of men, this, then, was no ordinary election, but a national event of the utmost religious and political consequence. Thirty thousand people welcomed O'Connell into Ennis, and universal sobriety and order characterized the proceedings. The troops called out to overawe the peasantry, infected by the prevailing good humour, joined in their cheers. The nomination, the polling, and the declaration, have been described by the graphic pen of Shiel. At the close of the poll the numbers were--O'Connell, 2,057; Fitzgerald, 1,075; so Daniel O'Connell was declared duly elected, amidst the most extraordinary manifestations of popular enthusiasm. Mr. Fitzgerald, who gracefully bowed to the popular verdict, sat down, and wrote his famous despatch to Sir Robert Peel: "All the great interests," he said, "my dear Peel, broke down, and the desertion has been universal. Such a scene as we have had! Such a tremendous prospect as is open before us!"
This "tremendous prospect," disclosed at the hustings of Ennis, was followed up by demonstrations which bore a strongly revolutionary character. Mr. O'Connell, on his return to Dublin, was accompanied by a levee en masse, all along the route, of a highly imposing description. Mr. Lawless, on his return to Belfast, was escorted through Meath and Monaghan by a multitude estimated at 100,000 men, whom only the most powerful persuasions of the Catholic clergy, and the appeals of the well-known liberal commander of the district, General Thornton, induced to disperse. Troops from England were ordered over in considerable numbers, but whole companies, composed of Irish Catholics, signalized their landing at Waterford and Dublin by cheers for O'Connell. Reports of the continued hostility of the government suggested desperate councils. Mr. Ford, a Catholic solicitor, openly proposed, in the Association, exclusive dealing and a run on the banks for specie, while Mr. John Claudius Beresford, and other leading Orangemen, publicly predicted a revival of the scenes and results of 1798.
The Clare election was, indeed, decisive; Lord Anglesea, who landed fully resolved to make no terms with those he had regarded from a distance as no better than rebels, became now one of their warmest partisans. His favourite counsellor was Lord Cloncurry, the early friend of Emmet and O'Conor; the true friend to the last of every national interest. For a public letter to Bishop Curtis, towards the close of 1828, in which he advises the Catholics to stand firm, he was immediately recalled from the government; but his former and his actual chief, within three months from the date of his recall, was equally obliged to surrender to the Association. The great duke was, or affected to be, really alarmed for the integrity of the empire, from the menacing aspect of events in Ireland. A call of Parliament was accordingly made for an early day, and, on the 5th of March, Mr. Peel moved a committee of the whole House, to go into a "consideration of the civil disabilities of his Majesty's Roman Catholic subjects." This motion, after two days' debate, was carried by a majority of 188. On the 10th of March the Relief Bill was read for the first time, and passed without opposition, such being the arrangement entered into while in committee. But in five days all the bigotry of the land had been aroused; nine hundred and fifty-seven petitions had already been presented against it; that from the city of London was signed by more than "an hundred thousand freeholders." On the 17th of March it passed to a second reading, and on the 30th to a third, with large majorities in each stage of debate. Out of 320 members who voted on the final reading, 178 were in its favour. On the 31st of March it was carried to the Lords by Mr. Peel, and read a first time; two days later, on the 2nd of April, it was read a second time, on motion of the Duke of Wellington; a bitterly contested debate of three days followed; on the 10th, it was read a third time, and passed by a majority of 104. Three days later the bill received the royal assent, and became law.
The only drawbacks on this--great measure of long-withheld justice, were, that it disfranchised the "forty-shilling freeholders" throughout Ireland, and condemned Mr. O'Connell, by the insertion of the single word "hereafter," to go back to Clare for re-election. In this there was little difficulty for him, but much petty spleen in the framers of the measure.
While the Relief Bill was still under discussion, Mr. O'Connell presented himself, with his counsel, at the bar of the House of Commons, to claim his seat as member for Clare. The pleadings in the case were adjourned from day to day, during the months of March, April, and May. A committee of the House, of which Lord John Russell was Chairman, having been appointed in the meantime to consider the petition of Thomas Mahon and others, against the validity of the election, reported that Mr. O'Connell had been duly elected. On the 15th of May, introduced by Lords Ebrington and Duncannon, the new member entered the House, and advanced to the table to be sworn by the Clerk. On the oath of abjuration being tendered to him, he read over audibly these words--"that the sacrifice of the mass, and the invocation of the blessed Virgin Mary, and other saints, as now practised in the Church of Rome, are impious and idolatrous:" at the subsequent passage, relative to the falsely imputed Catholic "doctrine of the dispensing power" of the Pope, he again read aloud, and paused. Then slightly raising his voice, he bowed, and added, "I decline, Mr. Clerk, to take this oath. Part of it I know to be false; another part I do not believe to be true."
He was subsequently heard at the bar, in his own person, in explanation of his refusal to take the oath, and, according to custom, withdrew. The House then entered into a very animated discussion on the Solicitor General's motion "that Mr. O'Connell, having been returned a member of this House before the passing of the Act for the Relief of the Roman Catholics, he is not entitled to sit or vote in this House unless he first takes the oath of supremacy." For this motion the vote on a division was 190 against 116: majority, 74. So Mr. O'Connell had again to seek the suffrages of the electors of Clare.
A strange, but well authenticated incident, struck with a somewhat superstitious awe both Protestants and Catholics, in a corner of Ireland the most remote from Clare, but not the least interested in the result of its memorable election. A lofty column on the walls of Deny bore the effigy of Bishop Walker, who fell at the Boyne, armed with a sword, typical of his martial inclinations, rather than of his religious calling. Many long years, by day and night, had his sword, sacred to liberty or ascendancy, according to the eyes with which the spectator regarded it, turned its steadfast point to the broad estuary of Lough Foyle. Neither wintry storms nor summer rains had loosened it in the grasp of the warlike churchman's effigy, until, on the 13th day of April, 1829--the day the royal signature was given to the Act of Emancipation --the sword of Walker fell with a prophetic crash upon the ramparts of Derry, and was shattered to pieces. So, we may now say, without bitterness and almost without reproach, so may fall and shiver to pieces, every code, in every land beneath the sun, which impiously attempts to shackle conscience, or endows an exclusive caste with the rights and franchises which belong to an entire People!