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Chapter XIX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9


State of Ireland in 1866: Fenian Trials: Lord Wodehouse's Letter: Government introduces a Bill to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act in Ireland; it is rapidly passed into a Law: Numerous Arrests in Dublin: Arrival of Troops: Renewal of the Suspension Act in August; Mr. Maguire protests against it; it becomes Law: No actual Outbreak occurs in Ireland - Fenianism in America: Sweeny and Stephens: Fenian Raid into Canada; Skirmish with the Canadian Militia; Fenians retire: Another Raid from Vermont: Firm attitude of the American Government - Death and Character of the Queen Marie Amélie; of Dr. Whewell; of Bishop Cotton; of Mr. Keble.
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The state of Ireland in 1866 was such as to excite grave and sorrowful reflections in the minds of those citizens of either country who desire to see the day when old wounds shall be healed, old international wrongs redressed, old causes of animosity forgotten. We have described in a former chapter the circumstances under which Stephens, the chief head-centre, effected his escape from confinement in 1865, and how a special commission was appointed, in order to try Fenian prisoners. During January, the Fenian trials were going on in Dublin before Mr. Justice Keogh, and a number of the accused were sentenced to terms of penal servitude, varying from ten to five years. But the terrors of the law, and the grave and solemn tones of ermined justice, reprobating the guilt and folly of the Fenian conspiracy, were contumaciously set at nought by many of the prisoners. Patrick Hayburne, of the "Emmet Guard," in the Fenian brotherhood, a young man, the only support of his mother, on being found guilty, requested the judge to sentence him to a term of penal servitude rather than to two years' imprisonment. Mr. Justice Keogh expressed his pity for the misguided youth, and parsed the latter sentence, on which the prisoner exclaimed, " I will have the same principles afterwards." In Dublin, and still more in Limerick, the populace kindly cheered Fenian prisoners as they were being taken to gaol. A number of strangers continued to arrive in Dublin, many of them betraying by their military bearing that they had seen service in the field, whom the police knew to be in communication with those suspected of Fenianism, but who were careful to commit no overt act which could bring them within the grasp of the law, and, on being questioned, said that they were come to Ireland to see their friends. Arms of all kinds were continually being seized; even three pieces of artillery were discovered, just on the point of being dispatched to Drogheda. The attempts to seduce soldiers from their allegiance, in spite of the severity of the special commission against this particular offence, were found to increase in frequency. In addition to the former reward of £1,000 offered by the Government for the apprehension of Stephens, a further sum of £1,000 was now offered for such private information as should lead to his capture; but no informer came forward. All this was generally known before the meeting of Parliament; but the despatch of the Lord Lieutenant, dated February 14th, proposing the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, proved that matters were more serious than the public had any idea of. Lord Wodehouse wrote: -

" The state of affairs is very serious. The conspirators, undeterred by the punishment of so many of their leaders, are actively organising an outbreak, with a view to destroy the Queen's authority. Sir Hugh Rose details the various plans they have in contemplation, and he draws no exaggerated picture. There are scattered over the country a number of agents, who are swearing in members, and who are prepared to take the command when the moment arrives. These men are of the most dangerous class. They are Irishmen, imbued with American notions, thoroughly reckless, and possessed of considerable military experience, acquired in a field of warfare (the civil war in America) admirably adapted to train them for conducting an insurrection here. There are 340 such men known to the police in the provinces, and those known in Dublin amount to about 160, so that in round numbers there are 500. Of course, there are many more who escape notice. This number is being augmented by fresh men constantly arriving from America. In Dublin itself there are several hundred men (perhaps about 300 or 400) who have come over from England and Scotland, who receive Is. 6d. a day, and are waiting for the time of action. Any one may observe these men loitering about at the corners of the streets. As to arms, we have found no less than three regular manufactories of pikes, bullets, and cartridges in Dublin. The police believe that several more exist. Of course, bullets are not made unless there are rifles to put them in. The disaffection of the population in some counties, such as Cork, Tipperary, Waterford, and Dublin, is alarming; and it is day by day spreading more and more through every part of the country. But the most dangerous feature of the present movement is the attempt to seduce the troops. Are we to allow these agents to go on instilling their poison into our armed force, upon which our security mainly depends? " Lord Wodehouse concluded his despatch by declaring that he could not be responsible for the safety of the country, if power was not forthwith given to the Government to seize the leaders; on that condition he hoped still to avert serious mischief.

On the receipt of this letter, Sir George Grey, then Home Secretary, immediately requested Lord Russell to summon a meeting of the Cabinet, and when it was convened, laid Lord Wodehouse's letter before them, and urged that his application with regard to the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act should be acceded to. The Cabinet unanimously agreed that there was no choice but to accede to the application, and it was determined that a bill for the purpose should be introduced into the House of Commons on the next day (Saturday, February 16), and carried through all its stages, so as to receive the royal assent, and become law on the same day, and be carried into execution by the Irish Government not later than Monday. This was accordingly done. At twelve o'clock next day, Sir George Grey brought in a Bill to suspend for six months the Habeas Corpus Act in Ireland. His arguments were chiefly derived from Lord Wodehouse's letter, and they were of a nature that the governments of nations, in the legislative no less than in the executive branches, usually find irresistible. Yet it was a saddening thought, that sixty-five years after the Union, and thirty-four years after the first Reform Bill, so little progress had been made in attaching the masses of the Irish people to the constitution under which an Englishman thinks it his happiness to live! Mr. Bright gave impressive utterance to this feeling, when he spoke of the shame and humiliation which he felt at being called on for the second time, in a parliamentary career of twenty-two years (the first occasion was at the time of Smith O'Brien's rising in 1848), to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act in Ireland. He asserted that Ireland was in a state of chronic agitation, and that the numerical majority of the Irish people were in favour of a complete separation. Although this was not the occasion for entering upon the general question of the state of Ireland, and the nature of the remedial measures that were required, he could not but express his conviction that the institutions under which Irishmen were required to live were not such as could command their affection or call forth their loyalty; yet he believed there was a mode of making Ireland loyal, and lie threw the responsibility of discovering it on the Government and on the Imperial Parliament.

Mr. Roebuck, alluding to the asserted fact that the Catholic clergy in Ireland were opposed to the Fenians - who on their side scouted the notion of submission to priestly authority, and endeavoured to undermine the influence of the clergy over the people - said that nevertheless he attributed much of the present discontent to the Roman Catholic priesthood, who for years had taught the people to hate English rule, but who, now that they found themselves threatened by this conspiracy, had become wondrous loyal. He went on to ridicule the sentiment of nationality, on the ground that every great empire in the world's history had been made up of different nationalities. Mr. Roebuck's study of history had failed - his opponents asserted - to show him, that men will not sacrifice the nationality of race to the nationality of citizenship, unless the sacrifice is made worth their while. Justice - equality - sympathy - where these are, it is not so very difficult to weld populations differing in race and language into one common nationality. The German inhabitants of Alsace are thoroughly French in feeling - as Germany knows to her cost - because, at any rate since the Revolution, no Frenchman ever dreamed of talking to them about their being under " French rule; " being an integral portion of the French people, they were no more under the rule of the rest of their countrymen, than the Normans or the Bretons were. Did Mr. Roebuck ever realise to himself what would be the feelings of an Englishman, if he were conscious of living under a rule other than English? Yet he expected the people of Ireland to love " English rule," and thought they would have come to do so, but for the priests! Leave was given to introduce the bill by a majority of 364 to 6 votes; it passed through all its stages without further discussion, and was then sent up to the Lords, who disposed of it with equal celerity. But the royal assent had to be given, before the measure could become law; and the Queen was at this time at Osborne. As soon as the bill had passed the Lords, a telegram announcing the result was sent to Earl Granville, who was in attendance on her Majesty at Osborne, and who thereupon solicited and obtained the Queen's signature to the usual formal document, authorising her assent to be given to the bill by Commission. The sittings of both Houses were suspended till 11 p.m., by which time it was calculated that the special train conveying the document might have arrived. But midnight came, and still the messenger did not appear; at half-past twelve, however, the despatch box, bearing the important document, was brought to the Lord Chancellor. Some time elapsed before it was properly filled up, and then the clerk entered, carrying the Royal Commission. The House of Commons was sent for to hear the royal assent given to the bill in question, and soon the Speaker, accompanied by about fifty members, appeared at the bar of the House. The Commissioners then stated that it was Her Majesty's will and pleasure to give her assent to the bill, and it became law. This was about twenty minutes to one on the Sunday morning. Probably no statute was ever passed with so much celerity as this, the first Act of the new Parliament.

But rapid as were the operations of the legislature, the Dublin executive considered the state of affairs so critical as to justify it in anticipating the passing of the law. On Saturday morning, February 17, the arrests of suspected persons commenced, and were continued through the day, nearly 250 persons being in custody at nightfall. No resistance was in any case offered to the police, nor were any captures of arms effected on this day. Thirty-seven American citizens, of Irish extraction, most, if not all, of whom had served in the civil war, were among the persons arrested. The suddenness of the blow appears to have utterly disconcerted the conspirators. The suspicious-looking strangers, who had for weeks past haunted the streets of Dublin, disappeared; the steamers to Liverpool were crowded with passengers; and for several days the steamboats sailing for America took away numbers of bellicose gentlemen, who found that the Irish revolution was not to come off just yet. The authorities, however, neglected no necessary precaution; the vans conveying prisoners to Kilmainham or Richmond were guarded by troops; all the soldiers of the garrison not on duty were confined to their quarters all night, ready to turn out at a moment's notice; and no strangers were admitted within the gates of the Pigeon-house Fort, which guards the mouth of the Liffey, on any pretence. The most important arrest was believed to be that of Patrick J. M'Donnell, said to have been at the head of the movement since the escape of Stephens. In the provinces some noteworthy incidents occurred. On the same night on which the arrests were effected in Dublin, a body of Fenians were practising drill at a place called Cullen in the county Tipperary; a patrol of police came up and endeavoured to disperse them; the Fenians then fired upon and wounded some of the police, one man mortally.

At Trim, in the county Meath, several arrests were made, among them that of Mr. Malone, one of the wealthiest and most respectable merchants in the town; other persons moving in a respectable position were also captured. At Queenstown about a month later, two of the Town Commissioners were arrested. 'These instances showed that the passage in the Queen's speech at the opening of the session, speaking of the Fenian movement as " a conspiracy adverse alike to authority, property, and religion, and disapproved and condemned alike by all who are interested in their maintenance," was unfortunately not quite exact.

In making a great display of force at the outset, the Irish executive was probably pursuing the wisest and also the most humane course. Troops kept pouring into Dublin; the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards and the 85th Regiment arrived there before the end of February, and were followed by the 6th Dragoon Guards and a body of artillerymen, as well as a detachment of the Military Train corps from Woolwich. The most stringent measures were taken for stamping out any signs of disaffection that might manifest themselves among the troops; nor was this severity without cause, for not privates only, but several non-commissioned officers, were found to have either taken the Fenian oath, or uttered treasonable language, or been seen habitually in the company of notorious Fenians. Through the greater part of March frequent arrests continued to be made; and by that time the ranks of the disaffected were so depleted and discouraged, partly by the arrest of the leaders, partly by the rush to America and England of those who knew themselves to be most compromised among their followers, that all fear of an outbreak was at an end.

The Act for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus was originally passed for six months only, and would have expired on the 1st of September; but as the new Ministry felt that to allow it to expire would endanger the public peace, they sought and obtained from Parliament at the beginning of August the enactment of a bill renewing the former Act for an indefinite period. Lord Naas, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, stated that from the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act up to the 23rd of July, 419 persons who had been imprisoned had been discharged, generally on condition that they should leave the country. From every authority lie learned that it would be dangerous to permit the sudden and simultaneous liberation of the 320 prisoners who remained in custody; yet such liberation was unavoidable if the Act were allowed to expire. He spoke of the fact that, although suppressed in Ireland, at any rate as to any public manifestations, the Fenian conspiracy still existed in force in another country; that there were still in Ireland newspapers advocating the Fenian cause, which disseminated seditious ând treasonable sentiments through the country; and that secret drillings of the population had been lately renewed. Mr. Maguire protested against the renewal of the Act, on the ground that there was no disorder now in Ireland which the ordinary powers of the law were not adequate to deal with. On the other hand, Mr. Gladstone - while stating his opinion that the renewal of the Act burdened the Government with a very heavy responsibility, and made it incumbent on them to investigate with renewed ardour, and to remove by wise legislation, whatever grievances and inequalities, existing in the laws and institutions of Ireland, supplied a necessary aliment to the disaffection of the Irish people - declared that if the late Government had been still in power it would have been their duty to have made the same application to Parliament as that which was then being made by the existing Government. The bill was passed by a large majority in the Commons, and on being sent up to the House of Lords, was supported in a remarkable speech by the Earl of Kimberley, formerly Lord Wodehouse. The ex-Lord Lieutenant declared that if he had remained in office he should have recommended the adoption of this bill by Parliament. No one except those intimately acquainted with the facts could be aware how formidable the Fenian conspiracy had been. Since 1798 there had not existed so dangerous a condition of the public mind as in the past year. The promoters of the scheme had not been found in the poorer and more ignorant classes, but belonged to the class which was best described as artisans and small tradesmen; whilst in the south-west of Ireland, if a rebellion had broken out, there was no doubt the farmers also would have been ready to take part in it. Adverting to the alleged grievances of Ireland, the speaker observed that the question of land tenure was one which must shortly occupy the earnest attention of Parliament, and that the anomaly of the Irish Church must also be considered. This sentence supplies, it must be owned, some sort of confirmation to the oft-repeated taunts of the Irish national press, to the effect that the Irish Land Bill and the Irish Church Bill were not dictated by a spontaneous desire to remedy the grievances of Ireland, but were extorted from England by the dread of Fenianism. The bill soon became law; and, although nothing like an open rising was attempted during the remainder of the year, nor was a drop of blood shed, still it is impossible to doubt that the extraordinary powers placed in the hands of the executive enabled them to act with far greater promptitude against the first symptoms of insurrection, and with far less of friction and popular irritation, than would have been possible in conjunction with the somewhat cumbrous safeguards and formalities which in quiet times protect the personal liberty of the subject. In the hands of a despotic and irresponsible executive, animated by motives of interest, fear, or hatred, such an arbitrary power of arrest as that now confided to the Irish Government might easily be abused - as it often has been abused - for the vilest purposes of tyranny. But in the present case, behind the Irish Government stood the Cabinet in England, and behind the Cabinet stood a free and watchful Parliament, and behind the Parliament stood the constituencies of the United Kingdom; so that three separate and successive grades in the great hierarchy of political responsibility remained for the protection of the peaceable and law-abiding Irishman, although the palladium of the Habeas Corpus Act was for the time removed from sight into the inner courts of the sanctuary of the constitution.

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Dr. Whewell
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Mr. Brights
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John Keble
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