The Young Irelanders

Many books have been written on the Great Famine of 1845-47, but none could possibly exaggerate the trauma and tragedy that befell Ireland during those three dreadful years. The true dead toll will never really be known as so many deaths went unrecorded. It was estimated that well over a million people died of starvation and fever in the years of the famine, an event that should never have been allowed to occur, since there was so much food in the country at that time.

John Mitchell called it an ‘artificial famine’ because there was sufficient food in the country to prevent anything like starvation if the British Government had only listened to the repeated appeals to close the ports to the export of grain. He wrote: - “During all the famine years, Ireland was actually producing sufficient food and wool and flax to feed and clothe, not nine, but eighteen millions of people. Wheat export figures for 1845 were almost double those of 1844 while the Parliamentary Papers for 1849 show that well over 3000,000 tons of wheat, barley, oats, wheaten-meal or flour and oatmeal were still being exported to England in 1846. Yet Ireland starved.”

Sir Shane Leslie in his book “The Irish Tangle for English Readers” wrote (p.105): - “The Great Irish Famine calls England to the judgement bar of history. It is not enough to find a scapegoat in Adam Smith or to shuffle the blame upon his School of Economics. The facts remain that the potato rotted, but the corn-crop did not, and the corn was exported. Indian corn was imported too late in American ships.”

Besides the million who perished, thousands upon thousands left Ireland on the emigrant ships to be scattered world wide. The population in 1845 was eight and a half million but, following the three years of starvation, that had been reduced to six million and the decline was set to continue at an alarming rate so that by the census of 1861 that 8.5 million of 1845 had been cut almost by half. Shane Leslie, again in his “Irish Tangle”, wrote: - “The great Irish dispersion had begun, and the British Ascendancy breathed again. Amenable cattle took the place of the agitating peasants. Rents and hunting touched high-water mark. And distant corners of British territory received their pioneers and settlers. In North America and under the Southern Cross the Irish began to thrive, first as convicts, then as statesmen.”

The serious reduction in population figures and the massive land clearances were just two of the evil effects of the Great Famine. There were many others, including the fact that the Irish language ceased to be the spoken in vast areas of the country, particularly so in the West as it was the native-speaking areas of the western seaboard which lost most of their inhabitants. These emigrants, who suffered so much, also carried with them a bitter hatred of England to their adopted countries and this would have a major effect on future Irish history. But where Ireland lost, their adopted countries gained, as the emigrants contributed much to the development of both America and Australia. In addition they also carried with them their long cherished Faith, which they successfully spread among the peoples of their adopted nations.

It was only natural to expect that Irish nationalists would be seething over this dreadful situation and the spirit of revolution, which had never really been dead, again raised its head. “The Nation” newspaper had been founded by Charles Gavan Duffy, John Blake Dillon and Thomas Davis in October 1842 and had strongly supported O’Connell in his fight for Repeal of the Union, particularly with his ‘Monster Meetings’ but they they split with the Liberator when he appeared to lose spirit in his old age. Following O’Connell’s death and now known as Young Ireland, the Nation’s editors now preached revolution.

Thomas Davis, a Co Cork Protestant, was born in Mallow on October 14th 1814, and became one of Ireland’s best known poets. At Trinity College he met Duffy and Dillon and their kindred spirits combined to produce “The Nation” with Davis becoming one of its main contributors. One of his best known poems (and song) was “A Nation once again”. Unfortunately, he died at a very early age in 1845. Gavan Duffy was born in Monaghan on April 12th 1816 and studied law at Trinity. Following the cancellation of O’Connell’s Monster Meeting at Clontarf on 8th October 1843, Duffy was one of those arrested. This group was then joined by John Mitchell, a Presbyterian from Newry who had also studied law.

1848 was a year of revolution throughout Europe, most of its cities becoming embroiled in insurrection. The Young Irelanders, particularly Mitchell, were obviously inspired by this, with the Newry man leaning even more towards immediate revolution than the others. As a result he founded his own newspaper “The United Irishman”, also in 1848. Following his call for a rising the British Government poured more troops into the country and Mitchell was arrested. Tried for treason he was found guilty and sentenced to fourteen years ‘transportation’ to Van Dieman’s Land (now called Tasmania) in Australia. He later escaped and wrote his famed “Jail Journel”.

An uprising eventually took place in August 1848, with Dillon and a small band attacking the police barracks in Ballingarry, Co Tipperary. Badly armed and without any apparent plan, they were easily dispersed in what later became known as “the siege of the widow McCormack’s cabbage garden”. One of the leaders who escaped was Thomas Devin Reilly from Monaghan, who then evaded the authorities in a remarkable series of Houdini-type escapes, before eventually making his way to America.

Duffy, who had also once been convicted of treason, then entered politics and became an MP for New Ross in Co. Wexford in 1852. He campaigned for Tenant Rights but, meeting with little success, he eventually emigrated to Australia in 1855, again becoming involved in politics. Here he met with much greater success, eventually being elected Prime Minister of the province of Victoria in 1871. Knighted in 1873 he also became Speaker of the Australia Assembly in 1877 before eventually retiring to Spain.
The failure of the 1848 Rebellion could be attributed to several reasons, but principally because the people were still so weak following the dreadful famine years that they were in no fit condition, and certainly in no mood, to take up arms. For the vast majority, survival had now become paramount and the spirit of insurrection was of only secondary importance. The workhouses were still bursting at the seams and the destitute were still dying. The famine may have been officially over but its tentacles still reached out into every corner of the land. In Ulster sectarian strife was also still rampant with regular clashes between Ribbonmen and Orangemen, one of the worst of them occurring at Dolly’s Brae near Castlewellan in Co Down on the 12th July 1849.

The land clearances were also proceeding at an accelerated rate with landlords anxious to clear their estates of tenants who were unable to provide them with cash for their rents. Evictions were on the increase and it was recorded that 49,000 families were evicted from their humble homes in the five year period 1849 to 1854. Such a figure represented one quarter of a million people being dispossessed of their holdings, all to satisfy the insatiable greed of landlords. This disgusting practice proved so revolting even to one of their own Poor Law Inspectors in Co. Clare, a captain Arthur Kennedy, that he later recorded being so maddened by the sights of hunger and misery, which he had seen in the day’s work, that he felt disposed “to take the gun from behind my door and shoot the first landlord I met.”

Many landlords and their agents were actually murdered, including one named Thomas Bateson, agent for the Templetown estate near Castleblayney in Co Monaghan. Bateson had earlier evicted 34 families, totalling 222 people. This constant land agitation led to the formation of several “tenant rights” movement which will be dealt with in a later chapter.

The story of the Young Irelanders had a most amazing twist in its tail ... nine of the more prominent Young Ireland leaders, all of whom, at one stage or another, had been convicted of treason and sentenced to be hanged but later commuted to ‘transportation’, all became famous in both North America and Australia. They were (1) Gavan Duffy, who became Prime Minister of Victoria; (2) Thomas Francis Meagher from Waterford, better known as ‘Meagher of the Sword’, became Governor of the state of Montana, USA; (3) Terence McManus from Fermanagh, became a Brigadier-General in the America army; (4) Patrick Donohue also became a Brigadier-General in the US army; (5) Richard O’Gorman became Governor of Newfoundland; (6) Maurice Lyne became Attorney General of Australia; (7) Michael Ireland succeeded Lyne as A.G of Australia; (8) Thomas Darcy McGee from Carlingford became President of the Central Dominion of Canada; and (9) John Mitchell became Mayor of New York.