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An essay by Thomas De Quincey

Daniel O'connell

Title:     Daniel O'connell
Author: Thomas De Quincey [More Titles by De Quincey]

With a single view to the _intellectual_ pretensions of Mr. O'Connell, let us turn to his latest General Epistle, dated from 'Conciliation Hall,' on the last day of October. This is no random, or (to use a pedantic term) _perfunctory_ document; not a document is this to which indulgence is due. By its subject, not less than by its address, it stands forth audaciously as a deliberate, as a solemn, as a national state paper; for its subject is the future political condition of Ireland under the assumption of Repeal; for its address is, 'To the People of Ireland.' So placing himself, a writer has it not within his choice to play the fool; it is not within his competence to tumble or 'come aloft' or play antics as a mountebank; his theme binds him to decency, his audience to gravity. Speaking, though it be but by the windiest of fictions, to a nation, is not a man pledged to respectful language? speaking, though it is but by a chimera as wild as Repeal to a question of national welfare, a man is pledged to sincerity. Had he seven devils of mockery and banter within him, for that hour he must silence them all. The foul fiend must be rebuked, though it were Mahu and Bohu who should prompt him to buffoonery, when standing at the bar of nations.

This is the law, this the condition, under which Mr. O'Connell was speaking when he issued that recent address. Given such a case, similar circumstances presupposed, he could not evade the obligations which they impose. From such obligations there is no dispensation to be bought--no, not at Rome; from the obligations observe, and those obligations, we repeat, are--sincerity in the first place, and respectful or deferential language in the second. Such were the duties; now let us look to the performance. And that we may judge of _that_ with more advantage for searching and appraising the qualities of this document, permit us to suggest three separate questions, the first being this: What was the occasion of the Address? Secondly, what was its ostensible object? Thirdly, what are the arguments by which, as its means, the paper travels towards that object?

First, as to the _occasion_ of the Address. We have said that the date, viz., the 31st of October, is falsified. It was _not_ dated on the 31st of October, but on or about the seventh day of November. Even that falsehood, though at first sight trivial, is enough for suspicion. If X, a known liar, utters a lie at starting, it is not for him to plead in mitigation the apparent uselessness of the lie, it is for us to presume out of the fact a use, where the fact exists. A leader in the French Revolution protested often against bloodshed and other atrocities--not as being too bad, but, on the contrary, as being too good, too precious to be wasted upon ordinary occasions. And, on the same principle, we may be sure that any habitual liar, who has long found the benefit of falsehoods at his utmost need, will have formed too profound a reverence for this powerful resource in a moment of perplexity ever to throw away a falsehood, or to squander upon a caprice of the moment that lie which, being seasonably employed, might have saved him from confusion. The artist in lying is not the man to lie gratuitously. From the first, therefore, satisfied ourselves that there was a lurking motive--the key to this falsification of date--we paused to search it out. In that we found little difficulty. For what was the professed object of this Address? It was to meet and to overthrow two notions here represented as great popular errors. But why at this time? Wherefore all this heat at the present moment? Grant that the propositions denounced as erroneous _were_ so in very deed, why should criminals standing under the shadow of public vengeance ready to descend, so childishly misuse the interval, mercifully allowed for their own defence, in reading lectures upon abstract political speculations, confessedly bearing no relation to any militant interest now in question? Quite as impertinent it would be, when called upon for the answer upon 'Guilty or not Guilty?' to read a section from the Council of Trent, or a rescript from Cardinal Bellarmine. Yet the more extravagant was the logic of this proceeding, the more urgent became the presumption of a covert motive, and that motive we soon saw to be this. Let the reader weigh it, and the good sense of the man who at such a moment could suffer such a motive to prevail. Thus it is: when Clontarf was intercepted, and implicitly, though not formally, all similar meetings were by that one act for ever prohibited, the first days of terror were naturally occupied with the panic of the conspirators, and in providing for their personal terrors. But when the dust of this great uproar began to settle, and objects again became distinguishable in natural daylight, the first consequence which struck the affrighted men of the conspiracy was the chilling effect of the Government policy upon the O'Connell rent; not the weekly rent, applied nobody knows how, but the annual rent applied to Mr. O'Connell's _private_ benefit. This was in jeopardy, and on the following argument: Originally this rent had been levied as a compensation to Mr. O'Connell in his character of Irish barrister--not for services rendered or _to be_ rendered, but for current services continually being rendered in Parliament from session to session, for expenses incident to that kind of duty, and also as an indemnification for the consequent loss of fees at the Irish Bar. Yet now, in 1843, having ceased to attend his duty in Parliament, Mr. O'Connell could no longer claim in that senatorial character. Such a pretension would be too gross for the understanding even of a Connaught peasant. And in _that_ there was a great loss. For the allegation of a Parliamentary warfare, under the vague idea of pushing forward good bills for Ireland, or retarding bad ones, had been a pleasant and easy labour to the parish priests. It was not necessary to horsewhip[1] their flocks too severely. If all was not clear to 'my children's' understanding, at least my children had no mutinous demur in a positive shape ready for service. Recusants there were, and sturdy ones, but they could put no face on their guilt, and their sin was not contagious. Unhappily, from this indefinite condition of merit Mr. O'Connell himself had translated his claim to a very distinct one founded upon a clear, known, absolute attempt to coerce the Government into passive collusion with prospective treason. This attempt, said the peasantry, will the Government stand, or will it not? 'Why, then,' replied the Government, on the 17th of October, 'we will _not_.'

The aristocracy of Ireland may not have done their duty as regards the Repeal; it is too certain that they have not, because they have done nothing at all. But it is also certain that their very uttermost would have been unavailing for one principal object concerned. Other great objects, however, might have been attained. Foreign nations might have been disabused of their silly delusions on the Irish relations to England, although the Irish peasantry could _not_. The monstrous impression also upon many English and Scotch parties, that a general unity of sentiment prevailed in Ireland as to the desirableness of an independent Parliament--this, this, we say loudly, would have been dissipated, had every Irish county met by its gentry disavowing and abominating all sentiments tending towards a purpose so guilty as political disunion. Yet, in palliation of this most grievous failure, we, in the spirit of perfect candour, will remind our readers of the depressing effect too often attending one flagrant wound in any system of power or means. Let a man lose by a sudden blow--by fire, by shipwreck, or by commercial failure--a sum of twenty thousand pounds, that being four-fifths of his entire property, how often it is found that mere dejection of mind will incapacitate him from looking cheerfully after the remaining fifth! And this though it is now become far more essential to his welfare; and, secondly, upon a motion tending upwards and not downwards, he would have regarded five thousand pounds as a precious treasure worthy of his efforts, whether for protection or for improvement. Something analogous to this weighs down the hearty exertions of the Irish gentry. Met at the very threshold, affronted at starting, by this insufferable tyranny of priestly interference--humiliated and stung to the heart by the consciousness that those natural influences which everywhere else settle indefeasibly upon property, are in Ireland intercepted, filched, violently robbed and pocketed by a body of professional nuisances sprung almost universally from paupers--thus disinherited of their primary rights, thus pillaged, thus shorn like Samson of those natural ornaments in which resided their natural strength, feeling themselves (like that same Samson in the language of Milton) turned out to the scorn of their countrymen as 'tame wethers' ridiculously fleeced and mutilated--they droop, they languish as to all public spirit; and whilst by temperament, by natural endowment, by continual intercourse with the noble aristocracy of Britain (from whom also they are chiefly descended), they _should_ be amongst the leading chivalries of Europe, in very fact they are, for political or social purposes, the most powerless gentry in existence. Acting in a corporate capacity, they can do nothing. The malignant planet of this low-born priesthood comes between them and the peasantry, eclipsing oftentimes the sunshine of their comprehensive beneficence, and _always_ destroying their power to discountenance[2] evil-doers. Here is the sad excuse. But, for all that, we must affirm that, if the Irish landed gentry do not yet come forward to retrieve the ground which they have forfeited by inertia, history will record them as passive colluders with the Dublin repealers. The evil is so operatively deep, looking backward or forward, that we have purposely brought it forward in a second aspect, viz., as contrasted with the London press. For the one, as we have been showing, there is a strong plea in palliation; for the other there is none.

Let us be frank. This is what we affirm, that it was, it is, it will be hereafter, within the powers of the London press to have extinguished the Repeal or any similar agitation; they could have done this, and this they have _not_ done. But let us also not be misunderstood. Do we say this in a spirit of disrespect? Are we amongst the parties who (when characterizing the American press) infamously say, 'Let us, however, look homewards to our own press, and be silent for very shame'? Are we the people to join the vicious correspondent of an evening paper whom but a week ago we saw denouncing the editor of the _Examiner_ newspaper as a public nuisance, and recommending him as a fit subject of some degrading punishment, for no better reason than that he had exercised his undoubted right of exposing delinquencies or follies in a garrulous lord? Far be such vilenesses from us. We honour the press of this country. We know its constitution, and we know the mere impossibility (were it only from the great capital required) that any but men of honour and sensibilities and conspicuous talent, and men brilliantly accomplished in point of education, should become writers or editors of a _leading_ journal, or indeed of any daily journal. Here and there may float _in gurgite vasto_ some atrocious paper lending itself upon system to the villainies of private slander. But such a paper is sure to be an inconsiderable one in the mere sense of property, and therefore, by a logical consequence in our frame of society, _every_ way inconsiderable--rising without effort, sinking without notice. In fact, the whole staff and establishment of newspapers have risen in social consideration within our own generation; and at this moment not merely proprietors and editors, but reporters and other ministerial agents to these vast engines of civility, have all ascended in their superior orders to the highest levels of authentic responsibility.

We make these acknowledgments in the mere spirit of equity, and because we disdain to be confounded with those rash persons who talk glibly of a 'licentious press' through their own licentious ignorance. Than ignorance nothing is so licentious for rash saying or for obstinate denying. The British press is _not_ licentious; neither in London nor in Edinburgh is it ever licentious; and there is much need that it should be otherwise, having at this time so unlimited a power over the public mind. But the very uprightness of the leading journalists, and all the other elements of their power, do but constitute the evil, do but aggravate the mischief, where they happen to go astray; yes, in every case where these journalists miss the narrow path of thoughtful prudence. They _do_ miss it occasionally; they must miss it; and we contend that they _have_ missed it at present. What they have done that they ought _not_ to have done. Currency, buoyancy, they ought _not_ to have impressed upon sedition, upon conspiracy, upon treason. Currency, buoyancy, they _have_ impressed upon sedition, upon conspiracy, upon treason.

As to Mr. O'Connell himself, it is useless, and it argues some thick darkness of mind, to remonstrate or generally to address any arguments from whatsoever quarter, which either appeal to a sense of truth, which, secondly, manifest inconsistencies, or, thirdly, which argue therein a tendency ruinous to himself. Let us think. Burke asserted of himself, and to our belief truly, that having at different periods set his face in different directions--now to the east, now to the west, now pointing to purposes of relaxation or liberality, now again to purposes of coercive and popular restraint--he had notwithstanding been uniform, if measured upon a higher scale. Transcending objects, coinciding neither instantly with the first, nor except by accident with the last, but indifferently aided by aristocratic forces or by democratic, shifting weights which sometimes called for accessories of gravity, sometimes for subtraction, mighty fluctuating wheels which sometimes needed flywheels to moderate or harmonize, sometimes needed concurrent wheels to urge or aggravate their impetus--these were the powers which he had found himself summoned to calculate, to check, to support, the vast algebraic equation of government; for this he had strengthened substantially by apparent contrarieties of policy; and in a system of watch-work so exquisite as to vary its fine balances eternally, eternally he had consulted by redressing the errors emergent, by varying the poise in order that he might _not_ vary the equipoise, by correcting inequalities, or by forestalling extremes. That was a man of heroic build, and of him it might be said at his death, 'Truly this man was a son of Anak.' Now, of Mr. O'Connell a man might affirm something similar; that as with regard to Edmund Burke it is altogether useless to detect contradictions in form, seeing that he knows of this, that he justifies this, glories in this, vehemently demands praise for this contradiction, as all discord is harmony not understood, planned in the letter and overruled in the spirit; so may O'Connell say, 'Gentlemen, grubs, reptiles, vermin, trouble not yourselves to find out contradictions or discords in my conduct; vex not your slender faculties by arraying hosts of promises that defeat promises, or principles that destroy principles--you shall not need to labour; I will make you a present of three huge canisters laden and running over with the flattest denials in one breath of that which I affirmed in another. But, like Edmund Burke, I register my conduct by another table and by its final result. On the dial which you see, the hands point thus and thus; but upon a higher and transcendent dial these fingers do but precipitate or retard one gigantic hand, pointing always and monotonously to the unity of a perfect selfishness. The everlasting tacking in my course gives me often the air of retrograding and losing; but, in fact, these retrogressions are momentary, these losings of my object are no more than seeming, are still but the same stealthy creeping up under cover of frequent compliances with the breeze that happens to thwart me, towards the one eternal pole of my own self-interest; that is the pole-star which only never sets, and I flatter myself that amidst vast apparent wanderings or multiplied divergences there will be detected by the eye of the philosopher a consistency in family objects which is absolute, a divine unity of selfishness.'

This we do not question. But to will is not to do; and Mr. O'Connell, with a true loyalty to his one object of private aims, has _not_ maintained the consistency of his policy. All men know that he has adventured within the limits of conspiracy; that could not be for his benefit. He has touched even the dark penumbra of treason; that could not but risk the sum of his other strivings. But he who has failed for himself in a strife so absolute, for that only must be distrusted by his countrymen.


[1] 'To horsewhip,' etc. Let it not be said that this is any slander of ours; would that we could pronounce it a slander! But those who (like ourselves) have visited Ireland extensively know that the parish priest uses a horsewhip, in many circumstances, as his professional _insigne_.

[2] Look at Lord Waterford's case, in the very month of November, 1843. Is there a county in all England that would have tamely witnessed his expulsion from amongst them by fire, and by sword and by poison?

NOTE BY THE EDITOR.--This article on O'Connell, written in the end of 1843, is printed, not on account of any political reference it might be presumed to have, but only because of its historical and literary interest. Apart from the light it may throw on De Quincey's leanings, as, in certain respects, distinctly in the direction of patriotic Toryism of the most rampant type, it may be of value as suggesting how essentially, in not a few points, the Irish question to-day remains precisely as it was in the time of O'Connell; and how the Tories of to-day are apt to view it from precisely the same plane as those of 1843. It might also be cited as another proof not only of De Quincey's very keen interest in all the leading questions of the time, but as an illustration of the John Bull warmth and heat which he, the dreamer, the recluse, the lover of abstract problems, could bring into such discussions. Here, at all events, his views were definite enough, and stated with a bold precision of English plainness that would have pleased the most pronouncedly Tory or Unionist newspaper editors of that day.

[The end]
Thomas De Quincey's essay: Daniel O'connell