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.