Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Toward a New Nation

On April 15, 1840, the great Catholic leader in Ireland, Daniel O’Connell, announced his next political project. He would lead a great Irish movement to nullify the Act of Union of 1800 which made Ireland English. “I have the delight to feel that I shared in the struggle for the liberation of my country from the shackles of the penal enactments, but my heart never beat as warmly for Emancipation as it now does for Repeal.”
John Martin found the new  Repeal Association growing when he returned from America. Despite his strong desire for Ireland to be free and independent, John did not hurry to join the O’Connell movement. There was much work to occupy his time. He was an active and generous landlord, and a leader in his local Presbyterian Church. And he took on his first political assignment, one much closer to home.
The Poor Law which John so strongly opposed had established a new system of care for the poor peasants of Ireland. All help for the poor laborers of Ireland would be provided in prison-like Poor Houses. Funds to pay for care of each inmate were provided by a tax on the farmers of each Poor Law District. A Guardian was elected by the taxpayers to watch over the management of the Poor House and keep the taxes as low as possible. John had been elected Guardian for Ouley, the Poor Law district designated for Loughorne.
John hated everything about his job. He hated the idea of the law which placed all the cost of maintaining the poor people of Ireland on the backs of the farmers of Ireland. People with businesses and family income paid nothing.  He hated the sight of the huge Newry Poor House which hovered over Newry like a angel of death. In fact, many who entered died of rampant diseases. He hated that families were divided on entry through the tall walls that surrounded the new facility, wives from husbands, children from parents.  But most every Saturday when the Guardians met at the administrative building to conduct of the supervision of the poor, John was there.
Not long after the Newry Poor House opened in December 1841, the first link in the chain of events that led John into national political leadership took place in Dublin. One day in the summer of 1842 in Phoenix Park in Dublin, three friends, two Catholic, and one Protestant, sat in the shade of a large oak tree to discuss an idea new for Ireland. Charles Gavin Duffy, John Blake Dillon, and Thomas Osbourne Davis had met in the Repeal Association meetings.  These men were a bit younger than John and full of energy and ideas. Each of them had previous experience in the newspaper business, and saw the need for a new kind of newspaper, devoted to Irish nationality.  This paper would educate the Irish people about their heroic history and thereby promote a new pride in their country.  Before the men left the park, they had agree to try this new venture.

Charles Gavin Duffy would be the editor of this new paper, having already been the editor of a newspaper in Belfast. Thomas Davis was the visionary heart of this project. He believed that Irish, Protestants and Catholics alike, should unite for the good of their shared country, that it was a desire to be Irish that made each person Irish, not family history or time in country.
Thomas Osbourne Davis
Charles Gavin Duffy
John Blake Dillon
Newspapers were the best source of information sharing in Ireland. Each paper reached many people, as they were passed from the purchaser to many more friends and neighbors. Someone  would bring his copy to the local pub and read the papers aloud to the many laborers in the area who were illiterate.
The first edition of each new newspaper contained an early version of a mission statement. The Nation, as the editors chose to name their paper, had nationality as “their first object – a nationality which will not only raise our people from their poverty, by securing to them the blessings of a domestic legislature, but inflame them with a lofty and heroic love of country.”
Duffy, Dillon and Davis set up their new enterprise at 12 Trinity Street in the Temple Bar section of Dublin, almost within the shadow of the Castle, the seat of British power in Ireland. Daniel O'Connell liked the idea of a new weekly newspaper, as long as it was produced by some of his own young followers. In fact, John O’Connell, Daniel’s son and designated successor, was to be a contributor.
The first edition of the paper was published on Saturday, October 15, 1842. As soon as enough papers had been cranked through the large presses, stacks of them were handed over to newsboys who raced to their favorite corners to begin hawking the new paper. The Nation proved easy to sell, not a single copy being left in Dublin by noon. More papers were printed and shipped by carriage to important towns around the country.
John’s childhood friend, John Mitchel and his family were at this time living in nearby Banbridge. After some indecision about a career. Mitchel had become a lawyer. His practice took him frequently to Dublin. On some of his trips, he visited the Repeal Association meetings, and had actually become acquainted with the new editors of the new Nation.  Not surprisingly, he was most interested in reading the new paper as soon as the first copy reached Banbridge. When  he finished reading the paper, Mitchel sent it over to Loughorne, so John could read it.
When the Mitchel family, John, his wife Jennie, and children came to Loughorne to visit, the two men had much new material from The Nation to discuss. Though they were firm friends, the two men strongly disagreed about political affairs.  Mitchel was fiery and passionate, while John was much restrained and thoughtful.  Their friendship took them into strange places and down different paths. But it never faltered.

On one thing the two men agreed, the importance of The Nation. It helped propel John Martin from the quiet and peaceful country life he preferred into a life of political service his country.

Sources: Wikpedia, The Nation; The Newry Commercial Telegraph, Letter of William Harshaw, 1835, April 24, 1841; Life of John Mitchel, by William Dillon.