Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Day to Remember

I have been thinking a lot about John Martin today. This day marks the passage of 200 years since he took his first breaths in a small Irish cottage in the townland of Loughorne in County Down. John was the much desired heir of a prosperous Presbyterian family.

While this might be interesting information for those of us who share parts of his family tree, this anniversary would seem to be of little interest to the general public. But the terrible years through which he lived and how he conducted himself provide clear lessons for us in our painful times.

Let me explain how he deserved the title of “Beloved Politician” that I have given him as well as the title by which he was known during his life, “Honest John Martin.”  If it hadn’t been for the Irish Famine that devastated Ireland when he was a young man, he would have remained a private small landowner, much loved and admired by his friends, neighbors and tenants for his kindness and generosity. When he saw his nation’s need, he gave up all he cherished to help.

John was a man of strong principles that governed his life, principles that are useful to remember to day.

He believed in doing the right thing, not just when doing so was easy, but especially when doing so was very hard, when the price for doing so very high. Ireland was ruled by the English Parliament, and the laws to deal with the Famine were passed in London with little influence from the Irish. First John protested, then John joined those who were actively resisting British laws. The English government considered him a great threat, had him arrested and charged with treason. He was convicted in a rigged trial and sent off to exile in Tasmania.  This injustice did not make him bitter. He knew he had done his best to do the right thing for his country. He only regretted that he hadn’t succeeded.

John believed in the obligations of citizenship. He was first a landlord with responsibilities to the tenants who worked his farm. He would not allow them to starve during the Famine though paying for their food forced him to mortgage his land, reducing him from financial comfort to financial distress the rest of his life. 

For him, citizenship meant more than a call to serve his friends, and neighbors. It was an obligation to country as well, to serve his country, not fight for power. There came a time late in his life when he was the most powerful and most respected man in Ireland. For a few months, he enjoyed the acclamation of his countrymen. But when others stepped forward, he stepped back. But he didn’t step away. He continued to explain the Irish point of view in the English Parliament of which he was then a member.

Finally, John believed in the obligation to lead a moral and ethical life. No one could ever provide a better example. Like many others, he was an active member of his Presbyterian church, but he always went the extra mile. When the church needed land to build a manse for their minister, John gave them the land. He followed his religion’s call to serve the needy, using his medical training to provide free medical care for the poor.

This belief guided his political career as well. He would never participate in any project that wasn’t ethical. So people recognized that whatever project John Martin participated in was a worthy one. He never hated his opponents, even those who had attacked and belittled him. When he ran for a seat in Parliament, elections were bought by the powerful. John required his supporters to run a totally honest election, no bribery, no intimidation of voters, no slandering of his opponent. His victory shocked England, Ireland and America.

I often think about the leaders of today, and how much better we would all be if they followed John Martin’s pathway, leaders who did the right thing, leaders who believed in the obligations of citizenship, and who always strove to lead moral and ethical lives.

So Happy Birthday John. How I wish I could have spent an hour in your presence. How I wish that I could have given you just one hug. On this special day, as we remember you, I make you a promise. Those who so admire you will never allow you and your exemplary life to be forgotten.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Clontarf Crisis

Daniel O’Connell scheduled the last of his monster meetings for one of the most historic locations in Ireland,  the battle field of Clontarf. There Brian Buru had defeated the Vikings and united Ireland. For the first time, a monster meeting would be held within easy reach of the British forces in Dublin and the ships of British fleet whose canons could spray the meeting site with deadly fire.  O’Connell seemed not to consider the British advantages of this site. Furthermore, he announced the meeting well in advance to give the British government plenty of time to make their plans and gather their forces.

By Saturday, October 7, 1843, many Irishmen from Meath, Kildare and Dublin were already marching in good military form toward Clontarf. Just before dark, a message was delivered to Daniel O’Connell and his supporters that the British government had decided to declare the meeting illegal. O’Connell immediately submitted to the proclamation of the British,  dispatched riders to inform the marchers that they were to return home. It was a great testament to the Irish people that such an about-face could be effected without any conflict. On Sunday, at the time the meeting was to take place, only British troops occupied the field, beach and sea beyond. Daniel O’Connell instead was in Dublin where he held a meeting to vote for the resolutions intended for Clontarf. The usual post-meeting banquet took place in Dublin as planned.

The actions that O’Connell took seemed like the worst of all possible solutions O’Connell’s speeches had led his supporters to expect a brave confrontation with the British government. Instead, they had gotten a meek surrender. The Young Irelander part of the Repeal Association was particularly upset. Some of them believed that the march should take place to test whether or not the British troops would fire on unarmed men. Others believed that Daniel O’Connell and his closest supporters should appear at the field to offer themselves for arrest.

John Martin’s friend from Newry, John Mitchel, had a more militant solution. O’Connell should lead the country marchers to Clontarf. However, the Dublin Repealers should be kept back in Dublin to stage an uprising, seizing the weapons at the Castle Barracks,  destroying the Canal Bridge, and barricading the streets leading to Clontarf.  Mitchel believed these acts could succeed as Dublin, for a short time would be undefended.

But, O’Connell had no wish to  take any such dramatic actions against the British no matter how greatly he excited the Irish. Despite the fact that many Young Irelanders had suspected that O’Connell was more bluff than bluster, they were still bitterly disappointed at the fallout of Clontarf. British jubilation at their great triumph over the Irish was bitter enough. But worse was the recognition that O’Connell would never achieve Irish independence. They believed that O’Connell had pursued policies that led to a choice between “hopeless resistance or abject submission.”

O’Connell went ahead as though nothing negative had occurred. For a few days, new memberships poured into the Association. One of the new members was William Smith O’Brien who had pled Ireland’s cause before Parliament in July. In the letter which accompanied his application for membership in the Repeal Association, O’Brien wrote, “Ireland, instead of taking its place as an integral part of the great empire which the valor of her sons has contributed to win, has been treated as a dependent, tributary province; and at this moment, after forty three years of nominal union, the affections of the two nations are so entirely alienated from each other, that England trusts the maintenance of their connection, not to the attachment of the Irish people, but to the bayonets that menace our bosoms and to the cannon which she has planted on all our strongholds. I should be unworthy to belong to a nation which may claim at least as a characteristic virtue that it exhibits increased fidelity in the hours of danger. If I were to delay any longer to dedicate myself to the cause of my country, slowly, reluctantly convinced that Ireland has nothing to hope from the sagacity, the justice, or the generosity of the English Parliament, my reliance shall henceforth be placed upon our own native energy and patriotism.”

Business as usual ended on October 12, when the British arrested O’Connell and 8 others, including Charles Gavan Duffy, the publisher of The Nation. 

All of the accused quickly posted bail, so they could be present on October 22nd for the opening of the headquarters of the Repeal Association. It was located on Burgh Quay next to the Corn Exchange where the Repeal Association had been meeting since its founding.  Conciliation Hall, as O’Connell named it, was an oblong building with the entrance on the shortest side facing the river Liffey. The outside was fairly simple, pilasters leading to a balustrade above. A harp and crown chiseled into the stone was the only other ornamentation. The inside was grander and arranged to ensure that O’Connell was always the center of attention.

While the finishing touches were being put on Conciliation Hall, the dispirited Young Islanders discussed what actions they could take next. They knew that O’Connell didn’t like opposition, so silence from the group was the simplest course. Still, they had contributed greatly to the powerful group the Repeal Association had become, and they believed O’Connell had wasted that power.
After much discussion, they decided that they wouldn’t oppose O’Connell’s leadership, but would make clear they  dissented from his decision to retreat at Clontarf.  They reasoned that any breach between them and O’Connell could be healed later. Since a quarter of a million men and women across Ireland read The Nation, they resolved to use the paper to make their position clear. Thomas Davis summed up the Young Irelander position, “Retreat would bring us the woes of war, without its chances or its pride.”

Unfortunately, these earnest young men could not know how deadly this split in the forces of nationalism would be in two short years.

The trial of the 9 men accused of conspiracy against England dragged on for months before a carefully selected jury that favored England. On May 30, 1844, all men were convicted and removed at once to Richmond Prison.  John Martin immediately traveled to Dublin and joined the Repeal Association. With that action, John became a political figure of importance for the rest of his life.
John Mitchel wrote to Duffy in Richmond Prison about this new member. Mitchel told Duffy that Presbyterians were beginning to join the Association in small numbers, “some from patriotic motives, and some from party ones, some from high, some from shabby ones, will join the conspiring for old Ireland. But if there be a single member of the Association that has joined it for the pure love of justice and of his native land that one is John Martin.”
The 9 Accused of Conspiracy

Sources: Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) by John Mitchel; Life of John Mitchel, by William Dillon;  Young Ireland, a Fragment of Irish History, by Sir Charles Gavan Duffy.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Case For Ireland

John Martin kept busy with his farming duties, no matter how many Monster Meetings were held in Ireland or contentious debates on Irish gun control divided the British Parliament.  By July, hay was ready for harvesting. This was a labor intensive operation, as laborers cut each field with using only a long handled scythe. Since many hands were needed, John combined his workers with those of his neighbors and Uncle Harshaw to produce crews large enough to cut the hay quickly as each field reached the best time for cutting.

Haying (US Picture)
July was also a time for preparing turf for the winter fires. This too was hard, hand work, with a man and his specially designed shovel called a slane working from sunrise to sunset cutting and stacking the turf bricks. 
No matter how busy John was, he would find time to read the Nation. So he was well aware that an Irish landlord named William Smith O’Brien was going to make a motion in Parliament for a committee to study the grievances of the Irish, the full transcript of which would be printed in the Nation. Like many Irishmen who felt keenly the wrongs British law had inflicted on Ireland, he waited anxiously for that edition of the Nation to arrive in Loughorne.

O’Brien presented the case for Ireland on July 4, 1843 before members of Parliament who were decidedly disinterested in being called to account for their failures in Ireland. To Irish members and those who read the speech later, the speech justified their Monster Rally’s and general discontent, and introduced a new leader for Irish nationalists.
First O’Brien informed Parliament that the majority of the Irish people wanted to be a “happy” part of England , if only England would make the simple steps that would make this outcome possible. The Union, the basis of the current connection between the two countries, must be overturned.  The Union “could not have been accomplished without the basest corruption. . . By the united influence of corruption, fraud and force, an union was imposed upon Ireland which has never been recognized by the Irish people as a national compact. Its terms were unjust and offensive, and accordingly, they have produced in the continued discontent of the Irish nation, that retribution which always follows injustice.”
The first grievance on O’Brien’s list was financial.  The Union had brought increased taxes on many items important to the Irish such as tea. This money went to England. Many landlords who had lived in Ireland went to England after the Union, so the rent money paid in Ireland went to England for its benefit. O’Brien suggested that these absent landlords should pay a special tax which should be spent in Ireland to help mitigate the loss.
Religion was another major cause of dissension in Ireland.  Catholics and Presbyterians were still required to support the Established Church at the expense of their own churches. Except under the leadership of Whig Lord Lieutenant Normanby, Catholics held no positions of leadership. The current administration was unwilling to appoint its enemies to office, enemies they created with anti-Catholic policies.
The great Reform Act of 1832 didn’t help Ireland much either.  It increased the number of representatives Ireland and Scotland sent to Parliament. By population, Ireland should have had 200 members of Parliament, not the 100 they were allotted under the Union. Reform gave them 5 new members while much smaller Scotland got 8.  Ireland could not be allowed to influence Parliamentary legislation fairly.
The next major reform Great Britain produced was the Corporation Law which allowed for increased local control.  Reform in Ireland took an extra two years to implement because the Irish were “aliens in blood, in language, and in religion.”
The Poor Law placed a special burden on Irish land holders like John. It was administered by English imports most of whom knew little of Ireland and its needs.  This was true of most high offices in Ireland,  Irish high judges, for example, were mainly English, so the Irish doubted the quality of justice in Ireland.  On the other hand, few Irish held any positions of importance in England though they were members of the same country under the Union.
Access to land was a matter of life and death in Ireland. All Irish farmers must be protected by the rights of the Ulster Custom which allowed John and his neighbors the right to keep possession of the land they leased as long as they paid their rent, that rents would be fair, and that they would be compensated for the improvements they made to the property when they left. Farmers in most of Ireland had no such protection and were frequently ejected from their land without cause or compensation for their improvements to the landlord’s land.  This inequality had been much discussed in Parliament, but attempted solutions seemed designed to make the situation worse.
O’Brien concluded with an impassioned plea to start to redress Irish wrongs by creating a study commission. “Give us, by your decision tonight, something we may present to our fellow countrymen as a pledge of your disposition to repair the many wrongs which have been inflicted upon Ireland – give us arguments which we may address to them when they tell us of the many instances which prove that Ireland has lost much and gained little by the Union. . I invite you to pursue, in resorting to measures which shall soothe animosities, obliterate distinctions founded upon differences of race and religion, and consolidate the Union of the two kingdoms by the bonds of equal laws, common rights and of international justice.”
O’Brien’s request failed, but his exposition of Irish wrongs strengthened the determination of the Irish at home. They remembered one special line from the speech. “So long, however, as they [the Irish people] acquiesce without complaint in their degradation, the Parliament of Great Britain can scarcely be blamed for allowing it to be perpetuated.”
This speech moved John a step closer to joining the cause of Irish independence. He needed only one more push, a push that lay just a few months in the future.
Sources: Diary of James Harshaw, vol. 1; Hansard Parliamentary Debate July 4, 1843

Monday, January 2, 2012

Monster Meetings and Guns

Daniel O’Connell, the great Catholic leader of Ireland, announced in 1840 that he was going to put all his future efforts behind an drive to free Ireland from English control. He was quickly successful in putting together a powerful organization that drew support from the Catholic Church which traditionally had no great interest in the Irish independence. By 1843, the organization was constructing an impressive building on the banks of the Liffey in Dublin in which to hold their weekly meetings. O'Connell named this spacious and elegantly simple building Conciliation Hall.

John Martin followed the accounts of the Repeal Association in the Nation Newspaper. While he strongly agreed that Ireland had suffered greatly from British domination, he made no effort to join the organization himself. His focus remained on his responsibilities to the farmers who leased his land, and his work as a Poor Law Guardian for the Newry Work House.

Early in 1843, Daniel O’Connell announced that he would hold a series of “monster meetings” across Ireland to demonstrate to the British government that the Irish people wanted to be free. He dreamed that such large demonstrations of Irish opinion would convince England to grant independence. But he felt that the more likely beneficial result would be action by the British Parliament to pass laws that would make life in Ireland better for the poor people of the country.

O’Connell believed that his monster meetings would achieve his goals only if they were totally peaceful gatherings. He made his plans very public so that British would be aware of them. “I am a disciple of that sect of politicians who believe that the greatest of all ... blessings is too dearly purchased at the expense of a single drop of human blood.”

Groups gathering for his meetings would be accompanied by the Temperance Bands which had grown across Island in response to Rev. Matthew’s efforts to reduce excessive drinking throughout the country. In addition, Repeal monitors, carrying brightly painted long wands would act as a police force to ensure proper conduct both going to the meetings and returning home. Daniel's directive would be carefully followed.

The Young Ireland faction of the Association pushed for additional elements that made the Repealers appear more like an Irish army. They suggested and led an effort to encourage participants to march in good military order, and to create and carry banners decorated with nationalist themes.  The Monster Meetings turned out to be very impressive events indeed.

The British Parliament was certainly paying attention to this new threat.  The Lord Lieutenant in Ireland, Sir Edward Eliot, 3rd Earl of St. Germans (image here), was responsible for the administration of Ireland. He sent spies to each of the meetings to report on the smallest detail. He asked for and quickly received thousands of additional troops for areas he thought might become dangerous. And in late April, Parliament itself took the first steps to pass a new Coercion law for Ireland. They had no intention of allowing the Repeal marchers to become an army. Guns must be removed from dangerous hands.

This kind of legislation was always difficult to write, since under the English Constitution, each English citizen had the right to own and carry guns.  And they did want the Protestant Irish to be well armed. So the bills must be crafted to appear to protect the rights of all Irish to have guns, but at the same time to ensure that in practice, the Catholic population would be prevented from owning any guns at all.

When discussion of the new law began, members immediately pointed out that gun ownership was a Constitutional right. One of these members was Joseph Hume, a member from Scotland. He had a special interest in Ireland, however, as he had succeeded Daniel O'Connell as a member for Kilkenny.  “It was the privilege of free men to carry arms if they pleased, and a measure to preclude the exercise of such a privilege was nothing less than a measure to degrade freemen.”

Lord Eliot replied that this new version was a simple effort to correct some problems in the existing law which was really just a continuation of similar bills that had existed in Ireland since the Union.

The new provisions would maintain the fa├žade of the legal access to guns required by the British constitution. Anyone could own a gun who could get a signed statement of good character from anyone owning property valued at more than 20 pounds. Catholics would have a hard time getting such signatures, since most property of that value was held by Protestants. So the legislation would have the two-sided effect,  being supposedly fair, and at the same time producing the desired disarming of the Catholic population.

Another feature of the bill was the requirement that all permitted guns must be branded for identification and registered by local police. But the two most offensive provisions eased existing restrictions placed on searching Catholic cottages, and made suspected gun holders subject to arrest and detention for extended periods of time without any formal charges.

Many of the Irish MPs fought vigorously against this law. Sharman Crawford of County Down was one of them (portrait here). He claimed that they were really considering the question of “whether Ireland was to be governed by means of justice and good legislation, or whether that country was to be kept under coercion and force, and England would never be great if Ireland was enslaved.”

Mr. Crawford continued. “It was the system of oppression by Irish landlords which caused the desperation among people, to agrarian outrages. They could get no justice from the law, and they were compelled to make a law for themselves; and they said we must protect ourselves or starve.”

Irish voices against the legislation were able to draw out debate for much of the summer.  Sir Thomas Wyse, MP for Tipperary, pointed out that only the most dire situation, and terrible danger would allow Parliament to overturn the “sacred right to bear arms for self protection.” So, much debate focused on arguments over the extent of the actual danger in Ireland. 
Sir Thomas Wyse

The situation in Ulster where John Martin lived was different from the rest of Ireland.  Two speeches made this clear. Sir H. W. Barron from Waterford believed “if this bill became the law of the land, and were enforced, the result of it would be, especially in the north of Ireland, that Roman Catholics would be disarmed, and arms left exclusively in the hands of the low, violent and ill-conducted Orangemen… The Irish were a high-spirited and brave Nation which had never yet calmly submitted to be governed by force, and please God, they never would.”

Colonel Verner from County Armagh had a very different point of view but agreed on the situation in Ulster. “In the province of Ulster every member of the yeomanry corp was a member of the Orange institution and the reason was this that the only persons on whom the Government could rely there were the Orangemen and the Protestants.”

Parliament finally passed the Coercion Bill just before the session ended on August 17th.  This was the inevitable result of all such bills, but this time opposing members were able to get their opinions and concerns heard. By final passage, monster meetings had been held in several of the most sacred locations in Ireland, all drawing huge crowds and all conducted in perfect order.  And one of the most important speeches in memory had been delivered by William Smith O’Brien, who would soon become one of John’s good friends.

John Martin registered his gun with local magistrates in keeping with the new law.

Sources:  Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, April 27, May 29, May 31, June 15, June 16, July 24, July 27, Aug. 9, Aug, 14, Aug. 17, all in 1843; Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps), by John Mitchel; Wikipedia entries for Hume and Eliot.