Half measures of justice may satisfy the generation which achieves them, but their successors will look with other eyes, as well on what has been won as on that which is withheld. The part in possession will appear to their youthful sense of abstract right and wrong far less precious than the part in expectancy, for it is in the nature of the young to look forward, as it is of the old to turn their regards to the past. The very recollection of their fathers will stimulate the new generation to emulate their example, and will render them averse to being bound by former compromises. So necessary is it for statesmen, when they yield to a just demand long withheld, to yield gracefully and to yield all that is fairly due.
The celebrated group known to us as "the United Irishmen," were the birth of a new generation, entering together on the public stage. With few exceptions, the leading characters were all born within a few years of each other: Neilson in 1761, Tone, Arthur O'Conor and Lord Edward Fitzgerald in '62, McNevin in '63, Sampson and Thomas Addis Emmet in '64, and Russell in '67. They had emerged into manhood while the drums of the Volunteers were beating victorious marches, when the public hopes ran high, and the language of patriotism was the familiar speech of every-day life.
In a settled state of society it would have been natural for the first minds of the new generation to carry their talents, gratefully and dutifully, into the service of the first reputations of the old; but Irish society, in the last years of the last century, was not in a settled condition; the fascination of French example, and the goading sense of national wrongs only half-righted, inflamed the younger generation with a passionate thirst for speedy and summary justice on their oppressors. We must not look, therefore, to see the Tones and Emmets continuing in the constitutional line of public conduct marked out by Burke in the one kingdom, and Grattan in the other. The new age was revolutionary, and the new men were filled with the spirit of the age. Their actions stand apart; they form an episode in the history of the century to which there may be parallels, but a chapter in the history of their own country original and alone.
The United Irish Society sprung up at Belfast in October, 1791. In that month, Theobold Wolf Tone, then in his 28th year, a native of Kildare, a member of the bar, and an excellent popular pamphleteer, on a visit to his friend Thomas Russell, in the northern capital, was introduced to Samuel Neilson, proprietor of the Northern Star newspaper, and several other kindred spirits, all staunch reformers, or "something more." Twenty of these gentlemen meeting together, adopted a programme prepared by Tone, which contained these three simple propositions: that "English influence" was the great danger of Irish liberty; that a reform of Parliament could alone create a counterpoise to that influence; and that such a reform to be just should include Irishmen of all religious denominations. On Tone's return to Dublin, early in November, a branch society was formed on the Belfast basis. The Hon. Simon Butler, a leading barrister, was chosen Chairman, and Mr. Napper Tandy, an active middle-aged merchant, with strong republican principles, was Secretary. The solemn declaration or oath, binding every member "to forward a brotherhood of affection, an identity of interests, a communion of rights, and a union of power among Irishmen of all religious persuasions," was drawn up by the Dublin club, and became the universal bond of organization. Though the Belfast leaders had been long in the habit of meeting in "secret committee," to direct and control the popular movements in their vicinage, the new society was not, in its inception, nor for three years afterwards, a secret society. When that radical change was proposed, we find it resisted by a considerable minority, who felt themselves at length compelled to retire from an association, the proceedings of which they could no longer approve. In justice to those who remained, adopting secrecy as their only shield, it must be said, that the freedom of the press and of public discussion had been repeatedly and frequently violated before they abandoned the original maxims and tactics of their body, which were all open, and above-board.
In 1792, Simon Butler, and Oliver Bond--a prosperous Dublin merchant of northern origin--was summoned to the bar of the House of Lords, condemned to six months' imprisonment, and a fine of 500 pounds each, for having acted as Chairman and Secretary of one of the meetings, at which an address to the people, strongly reflecting on the corrupt constitution of Parliament, was adopted. In '94, Archibald Hamilton Rowan, one of the purest and most chivalrous characters of any age, was convicted, by a packed jury, of circulating the famous "Universal Emancipation" address of his friend, Dr. William Drennan, the poet-politician of the party. He was defended by Curran, in the still more famous speech in which occurs his apostrophe to "the genius of Universal Emancipation;" but he atoned in the cells of Newgate, for circulating the dangerous doctrine which Drennan had broached, and Curran had immortalized.
The regular place of meeting of the Dublin society was the Tailors' Hall, in Back Lane, a spacious building, called, from the number of great popular gatherings held in it, "the Back Lane Parliament." Here Tandy, in the uniform of his new National Guard, whose standard bore the harp without the crown, addressed his passionate harangues to the applauding multitude; here Tone, whose forte, however, was not oratory, constantly attended; here, also, the leading Catholics, Keogh and McCormack, the "Gog" and "Magog," of Tone's extraordinary Memoirs, were occasionally present. And here, on the night of the 4th of May, 1794, the Dublin society found themselves suddenly assailed by the police, their papers seized, their officers who were present arrested, and their meeting dispersed. From that moment we may date the new and secret organization of the brotherhood, though it was not in general operation till the middle of the following year.
This new organization, besides its secrecy, had other revolutionary characteristics. For "reform of Parliament" was substituted in the test, or oath, representation "of all the people of Ireland," and for petitions and publications, the enrolment of men, by baronies and counties, and the appointment of officers, from the least to the highest in rank, as in a regular army. The unit was a lodge of twelve members, with a chairman and secretary, who were also their corporal and sergeant; five of these lodges formed a company, and the officers of five such companies a baronial committee, from which again, in like manner, the county committees were formed. Each of the provinces had its Directory, while in Dublin the supreme authority was established, in an "Executive Directory" of five members. The orders of the Executive were communicated to not more than one of the Provincial Directors, and by him to one of each County Committee, and so in a descending scale, till the rank and file were reached; an elaborate contrivance, but one which proved wholly insufficient to protect the secrets of the organization from the ubiquitous espionage of the government.
In May, 1795, the new organization lost the services of Wolfe Tone, who was compromised by a strange incident, to a very serious extent. The incident was the arrest and trial of the Rev. William Jackson, an Anglican clergyman, who had imbibed the opinions of Price and Priestley, and had been sent to Ireland by the French Republic, on a secret embassy. Betrayed by a friend and countryman, named Cockayne, the unhappy Jackson took poison in prison, and expired in the dock. Tone had been seen with Jackson, and through the influence of his friends, was alone protected from arrest. He was compelled, however, to quit the country, in order to preserve his personal liberty. He proceeded with his family to Belfast, where, before taking shipping for America, he renewed with his first associates, their vows and projects, on the summit of "the Cave Hill," which looks down upon the rich valley of the Laggan, and the noble town and port at its outlet. Before quitting Dublin, he had solemnly promised Emmet and Russell, in the first instance, as he did his Belfast friends in the second, that he would make the United States his route to France, where he would negotiate a formidable national alliance, for "the United Irishmen."
In the year in which Tone left the country, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, brother of the Duke of Leinster, and formerly a Major in the British Army, joined the society; in the next year--near its close--Thomas Addis Emmet, who had long been in the confidence of the promoters, joined, as did, about the same time, Arthur O'Conor, nephew of Lord Longueville, and ex-member for Phillipstown, and Dr. William James McNevin, a Connaught Catholic, educated in Austria, then practising his profession with eminent success in Dublin. These were felt to be important accessions, and all four were called upon to act on "the Executive Directory," from time to time, during 1796 and 1797.
The coercive legislation carried through Parliament, session after session--the Orange persecutions in Armagh and elsewhere--the domiciliary visits--the military outrages in town and country--the free quarters, whipping and tortures--the total suppression of the public press --the bitter disappointment of Lord Fitzwilliam's recall--the annual failure of Ponsonby's motion for reform--finally, the despairing secession of Grattan and his friends from Parliament--had all tended to expand the system, which six years before was confined to a few dozen enthusiasts of Belfast and Dublin, into the dimensions of a national confederacy. By the close of this year, 500,000 men had taken the test, in every part of the country, and nearly 300,000 were reported as armed, either with firelocks or pikes. Of this total, 110,000 alone were returned for Ulster; about 60,000 for Leinster, and the remainder from Connaught and Munster. A fund, ludicrously small, 1,400 pounds sterling, remained in the hands of the Executive, after all the outlay which had taken place, in procuring arms, in extending the union, and in defending prisoners arrested as members of the society. Lord Edward Fitzgerald was chosen Commander-in-Chief; but the main reliance, for munitions, artillery, and officers, was placed upon the French Republic.