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Chapter XIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 3


Pages: 1 2 <3> 4 5

The letters sent by Mr. Vesey Fitzgerald to Mr. Peel, pending the contest, show how painful were his apprehensions, and how deep his distress, at the utterly unforeseen turn things had taken in his native county. On the 17th of June he wrote, "I have every reason to fear a violent and exasperated contest. The association has taken the field, and addresses are directed to be prepared to the bishops, the clergy, and the population of Clare. On Sunday, I am informed, that exhortations were to be addressed to the congregations, and a circular letter is to be read at all the altars on next Sunday. I am told that, though there is a great schism among them, O'Connell and the violent ones have carried it all their own way. Mr. O'Connell says he cannot go down, but that, I know, is because he is afraid of personal risk and danger. I am now embarked in, and I must go through with it. I am greatly harassed by all this, and if I write incoherently, you must excuse it. I only write because you desired it, and because I know you will be anxious about me and my prospects in this cursed affair." In reply to this, Mr. Peel gave his friend some prudent advice. He said: - "Disregard entirely all personalities, whether proceeding from O'Connell or others of his stamp. It really is quite unnecessary for a gentleman and a minister of the crown to notice the low slang of a county election. It gives a vast advantage over the gentlemen of a county, if they are to place themselves on a level with every blackguard who wantonly attempts to provoke them. File an information against Mr. O'This and Mr. MacThat, and every real gentleman will applaud the true courage of doing so." From Clare Mr. Fitzgerald wrote as follows: - " Nothing can equal the violence here. The proceedings of yesterday were those of madmen; but the country is mad, and they have been allowed to proceed in the career of revolution. It will not, cannot, end well. I fear it will be a tremendous contest. An ineffectual attempt was made to resist Mr. O'Connell, but all was borne down by the violence of the meeting. I only hope that some man whom I can notice without dishonour may repeat the calumnies and the language which Mr. O'C., in the impunity which he enjoys, has dared to address to me. - Most affectionately yours, W. Y. Fitzgerald."

On the 5th of July he again wrote to Mr. Peel: - "The election, thank God, is over, and I do feel happy in its being terminated, notwithstanding its result. I have polled all the gentry and all the fifty pound freeholders - the gentry to a man. All the great interests broke down, and the desertion has been universal. Such a scene as we have had! Such a tremendous prospect as it opens to us! The conduct of the priests has passed all that you could picture to yourself. I have kept on for five days and it was a hopeless contest from the first. Everything was against me; indeed, I do not understand how I have not been beaten by a greater majority. For the degradation of the county I feel deeply; and the organization exhibited is so complete and so formidable that no man can contemplate without alarm what is to follow in this wretched country."

There was however, no violation of the peace, which lord Anglesey had taken effective measures to preserve. He had placed at the disposal of major Warburton 47 artillery, with two 6-pounders; 120 cavalry, and 415 infantry. These were at Clare Castle, close at hand; within a few miles there were 183 cavalry, and 1,313 infantry; within thirty-six miles, 28 cavalry, 1,367 infantry, and two 6-pounders; and at a further distance there was a regiment of cavalry and above 800 infantry. There were besides, on duty at Ennis, 300 of the constabulary.

Mr. Peel's reflections on the Clare election are deeply interesting. "It afforded," he writes, in his Memoirs, "a decisive proof, not only that the instrument on which the protestant proprietor had hitherto mainly relied for the maintenance of his political influence had completely failed him, but that, through the combined exertions of the agitator and the priest - or, I should rather say, through the contagious sympathies of a common cause among all classes of the Roman catholic population - the instrument of defence and supremacy had been converted into a weapon fatal to the authority of the landlord. However men might differ as to the consequences which ought to follow the event, no one denied its vast importance. It was seen by the most intelligent that the Clare election would be the turning point in the catholic question - the point -

" 'Partes ubi se via findit in ambas.' "

The home secretary thus refers to a letter of lord Eldon, written to his daughter soon after the event, as follows: - "After observing, 'Nothing is talked of now which interests anybody the least in the world, except the election of Mr. O'Connell,' he makes these memorable remarks: - 'As Mr. O'Connell will not, though elected, be allowed to take his seat in the house of commons unless he will take the oaths, &c. (and that he won't do unless he can get absolution), his rejection from the commons may excite rebellion in Ireland. At all events, this business must bring the Roman catholic question, which has been so often discussed, to a crisis and a conclusion. The nature of that conclusion I do not think likely to be favourable to protestantism.' It is clear, therefore," continues Mr. Peel, " that lord Eldon was fully alive to the real character and magnitude of the event."

Having given the letters above referred to, Mr. Peel resumes: - "The last letter of Mr. Fitzgerald is especially worthy of remark. Can there be a doubt that the example of the county would have been all-powerful in the case of every future election in Ireland for those counties in which a Roman catholic constituency preponderated? It is true that Mr. O'Connell was the most formidable competitor whom Mr. Fitzgerald could have encountered; it is possible that that which took place in Clare would not have taken place had any other man than Mr. O'Connell been the candidate; but he must be blind, indeed, to the natural progress of events, and to the influence of example, in times of public excitement, on the feelings and passions of men, who could cherish the delusive hope that the instrument of political power, shivered to atoms in the county of Clare, would still be wielded with effect in Cork or Galway.

" The Clare election supplied the manifest proof of an abnormal and unhealthy condition of the public mind in Ireland - the manifest proof that the sense of a common grievance and the sympathies of a common interest were beginning to loosen the ties which connect different classes of men in friendly relations to each other, to weaken the force of local and personal attachments, and to unite the scattered elements of society into a homogeneous and disciplined mass, yielding willing obedience to the assumed authority of superior intelligence hostile to the law and to the government which administered it. There is a wide distinction (though it is not willingly recognised by a heated party) between the hasty concession to unprincipled agitation and provident precaution against the explosion of public feeling, gradually acquiring the strength which makes it irresistible. 'Concede nothing to agitation,' is the ready cry of those who are not responsible - the vigour of whose decisions is often proportionate to their own personal immunity from danger, and imperfect knowledge of the true state of affairs. A prudent minister, before he determines against all concession - against any yielding or compromise of former opinions - must well consider what it is that he has to resist, and what are his powers of resistance. His task would be an easy one if it were sufficient to resolve that he would yield nothing to violence or to the menace of physical force. In this case of the Clare election, and of its natural consequences, what was the evil to be apprehended? Not force, not violence, not any act of which law could take cognisance. The real danger was in the peaceable and legitimate exercise of a franchise according to the will and conscience of the holder. In such an exercise of that franchise, not merely permitted, but encouraged and approved by constitutional law, was involved a revolution of the electoral system in Ireland - the transfer of political power, so far as it was connected with representation, from one party to another. The actual transfer was the least of the evil; the process by which it was to be effected - the repetition in each county of the scenes of the Clare election - the fifty pound freeholders, the gentry, to a man polling one way, their alienated tenantry another - all the great interests of the county broken down - 'the universal desertion' (I am quoting the expressions of Mr. Fitzgerald) - the agitator and the priest laughing to scorn the baffled landlord - the local heaving and throes of society on every casual vacancy in a county - the universal convulsion at a general election - this was the danger to be apprehended; those were the evils to be resisted. What was the power of resistance? ' Alter the law, and remodel the franchise,' was the ready, the improvident response. If it had been desired to increase the strength of a formidable confederacy, and, by rallying round it the sympathies of good men and of powerful parties in Great Britain, to insure for it a signal triumph, to extinguish the hope of effecting an amicable adjustment of the catholic question, and of applying a corrective to the real evils and abuses of elective franchise, the best way to attain these pernicious ends would have been to propose to parliament, on the part of the government, the abrupt extinction of the forty shilling franchise in Ireland, together with the continued maintenance of civil disability.

"I well know that there are those upon whom such considerations as these to which I have been adverting will make but a faint impression. Their answer to all such appeals is the short, in their opinion the conclusive, declaration - The protestant constitution in church and state must be maintained at all hazards, and by any means; the maintenance of it is a question of principle, and every concession or compromise is the sacrifice of principle to a low and vulgar expediency. This is easily said; but how was Ireland to be governed? How was the protestant constitution in church and state to be maintained in that part of the empire? Again I can anticipate the reply - By the overwhelming sense of the people of Great Britain; by the application, if necessary, of physical force for the maintenance of authority; by the employment of the organised strength of government, the police and the military, to enforce obedience to the law."

Then - by a process of argument so close, so logical, as to amount to a demonstration - Sir Robert Peel meets this objection, and shows that the proposals of the conservative party afforded no solution of the real difficulty. Granted that the overwhelming sense of the people of Great Britain Was against concession, what aid could they afford in the daily, practical administration of the law in Ireland? If seditious libels were to be punished, or illegal confederacies, dangerous to the public peace, to be suppressed, the offenders could only be corrected and checked through the intervention of an Irish jury, little disposed, if fairly selected, to defer in times of political excitement to the authority of English opinion. But the real difficulty to be surmounted was not the violation of the law; it lay, rather, in the novel exercise of constitutional franchises, in the application of powers recognised and protected by the law, the power of speech, the power of meeting in public assemblies, the systematic and not unlawful application of all these powers to one definite purpose - namely, the organisation of a force which professed to be a moral force, but had for its object to encroach, step by step, on the functions of regular government, to paralyse its authority, and to acquire a strength which might ultimately render irresistible the demand for civil equality. If, then, Irish agitation could not be repressed through the action of Irish juries, if the agitators kept strictly within the letter of the law, so that even a conviction by an Irish jury might be pronounced, by the highest legal authorities in England, an act making trial by jury " a mockery, a delusion, and a snare," how was the public opinion of England and Scotland to be brought to bear in putting down the popular will in Ireland? Through what channel was the control of the people of one nation over another to be exercised? It could be done only through the imperial parliament, by having a law passed to suspend or abolish the constitution in Ireland. But the existing parliament could not be got to pass any such measure, for the house of commons had just voted that the proper way to put down agitation in Ireland was to grant catholic emancipation; and that the remedy of establishing civil equality ought to be tried without delay. Was there any hope that a dissolution of parliament would produce different results? No; for at the general election of 1826, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Middlesex, Surrey, Kent, and Devonshire sent representatives to parliament, a majority of whom voted against the maintenance of protestant ascendancy in Ireland. The members for London, for Liverpool, for Norwich, for Coventry, for Leicester, were equally divided on the question; while the members for Westminster, Southwark, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Preston, Chester, and Derby voted unanimously for concession. Now, the parliament which assumed this liberal complexion had been elected under circumstances calculated to call forth the strongest manifestation of protestant feeling; for it was only the previous year that, after long discussion and a severe contest, the commons had sent up to the lords, by a majority of twenty-one, a bill for the repeal of Roman catholic disabilities. Then, with regard to Ireland, what would have been the effect of a general election there? Would not the example of Clare have been imitated in every county and borough where the Roman catholic electors were the majority? And what would have been the effect of such an attempt on the public peace? Probably, to involve the whole island in the horrors of a civil and religious war; to be followed by another penal code. Referring to the means at the disposal of the government for putting down the agitations by military force, Sir Robert Peel has the following remarkable passage: - "This is a very delicate matter to discuss; but why have I deferred for twenty years this vindication of my conduct? Why have I consented to submit for that long period to every reproach which malice, or mistake, or blindness to the real state of affairs could direct against me, except in the hope that the time would come (I cared little whether I were in the grave or not when it should come), when delicate matters might safely be discussed, and when, without prejudice to the public interests, or offence to private feelings, the whole truth might be spoken? I deliberately affirm that a minister of the crown, responsible at the time of which I am speaking for the public peace and the public welfare, would have grossly and scandalously neglected his duty if he had failed to consider whether it might not be possible that the fever of political and religious excitement which was quickening the pulse and fluttering the bosom of the whole catholic population - which had inspired the serf of Clare with the resolution and energy of a free man - which had, in the twinkling of an eye, made all considerations of personal gratitude, ancient family connection, local preferences, the fear of worldly injury, the hope of worldly advantage, subordinate to the all-absorbing sense of religious obligation and public duty - whether, I say, it might not be possible that the contagion of that feverish excitement might spread beyond the barriers which, under ordinary circumstances, the habits of military obedience and the strictness of military discipline opposed to all such external influences."

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Pictures for Chapter XIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 3

The Priest of Corofin and Mr. Shell.
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Lord Morpeth
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