Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 41.djvu/393

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.


Judgment was delivered on 30 May. He was sentenced to imprisonment for twelve months, a fine of 2,000l., and to find surety to keep the peace for seven years. The same afternoon he was removed to Richmond Bridewell. He was treated with every consideration by the prison authorities, and allowed to receive his friends. Meanwhile an appeal was made on a writ of error to the House of Lords. On 4 Sept. 1844 the lords reversed the judgment delivered in Ireland, and O'Connell and his fellow-prisoners were instantly liberated. O'Connell, who had not expected such generous treatment from his political enemies, was much touched when the news was communicated to him. ‘Fitzpatrick,’ he reverently exclaimed, ‘the hand of man is not in this. It is the response given by Providence to the prayers of the faithful, steadfast people of Ireland.’ Seated on a car of imposing structure, he was borne through Dublin, amid the plaudits of the populace, to his house in Merrion Square.

But the hand of death was even now upon him. ‘A great change,’ says the editor of his correspondence, ‘was observed in O'Connell not long after he left prison. The handwriting is tremulous; a difficulty is often expressed in connecting the letters of simple words. Petty vexations worried him, and the death of a grandchild all but crushed him.’ His wife had died on 31 Oct. 1836, and pecuniary embarrassment had long, he wrote, been literally killing him (ib. ii. 331). During his imprisonment a movement had originated in the north of Ireland in favour of federalism as opposed to simple repeal. The movement attracted a number of wealthy and influential persons in the kingdom, and O'Connell, who eagerly welcomed the prospect of uniting Irishmen of all classes and creeds in a demand for a domestic legislature, however restricted its powers, wrote strongly in its favour. His letter was regarded as precipitate by the extreme section of the repealers, who interpreted it as a practical abandonment of repeal. In consequence of their opposition he withdrew his offer of co-operation with the federalists, and again declared in favour of repeal pure and simple. Meanwhile Peel was endeavouring to grapple with the Irish difficulty in a bold and statesmanlike fashion. At the beginning of the session he submitted to parliament proposals to increase and make permanent the grant to Maynooth College, and to found a system of middle-class education by the establishment of secular colleges at Cork, Belfast, and Galway. O'Connell strongly favoured the programme of government so far as it related to Maynooth; but believing, as he said, that ‘religion ought to be the basis of education,’ he went over to England expressly to oppose the establishment of the provincial colleges. His conduct in this respect brought him into collision with Thomas Osborne Davis [q. v.] and the extreme wing of the association. At this time the report of the Devon commission was attracting much attention in England and Ireland. O'Connell, who had no confidence in the suggestions of the commissioners for alleviating the perennial distress of the peasantry by wholesale clearances, insisted that nothing would give satisfaction but ‘fixity of tenure’ and ‘an absolute right of recompense for all substantial improvements.’ His criticism of the commission drew down upon him the vengeance of the ‘Times,’ and a special commissioner was sent over by the newspaper in the autumn of 1845 to investigate the condition of the people of Ireland. The commissioner did not spare O'Connell in his private position as a landlord. Cahirciveen was described as a ‘congregation of wretchedness,’ and his property generally as being in a most deplorable condition (Times, 21 Nov.). O'Connell had little difficulty in meeting the accusation; but the charge irritated him, and, added to his other troubles, told seriously on his health.

Owing to the failure this year of the potato crop, the shadow of the great famine loomed ominously over the land. On 17 Feb. 1846 O'Connell called the attention of the House of Commons to the prevalence of famine and disease in Ireland, and moved for a committee to devise means to relieve the distress. Government promised relief, but at the same time introduced a coercion bill for the repression of disorder in certain counties. O'Connell, while not denying the existence of outrages on life and property, attributed them to the clearance system, and insisted that the only coercion act that was required was an act to coerce the landlord who would not do his duty. The bill was rejected, owing to the opposition of Disraeli, and in July Lord John Russell came into power. Lord Duncannon, now Earl of Bessborough, was appointed lord-lieutenant, and O'Connell, believing that justice would at last be done to Ireland, entered into a cordial alliance with the whigs. His conduct was censured by the Young Ireland party, who shortly afterwards seceded from the association. Worn out with the struggle, he retired to Darrynane. But the recurrence of the potato famine, with all its attendant horrors, recalled him to activity, and led to the suggestion of the formation of a central board of Irish landlords, ‘in which religious differences would never be heard of,’ to consider the