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Harry E. Connors Jr. wrote the following essay on Young Ireland several years ago.
"For God's sake, give me a young man who has brains enough to make a fool of himself."
The mid-19th century was a time of widespread social and political unrest. Revolts flared in France, in central Europe and the Balkans, in Latin America, in the United States and, as always, in Ireland.
Ireland--land of tenacious faith, of centuries of suffering under the British heel, and, in the 1840s, of famine. It's little wonder that 1848 saw another attempt at revolution--the abortive "Young Ireland" rising. The wonder was that it was lead so badly by men who had brains, education, and youthful energy. But most remarkable was the fact that these same men could survive and go on to positions of responsibility around the English-speaking world.
Thomas Francis Meagher was one. In later years, as a brigadier general in the American Union army, he would lead his brigade in stopping a Confederate advance in a manner described by contemporaries as "heroic." He would die while serving as the Governor of Montana territory.
Another of the 1848 rebels was Thomas D'Arcy McGee. In 1867, he would be a respected member of the Canadian parliament, hailed as one of the Fathers of Confederation. He was also noted as a brilliant lecturer and defender of Canadian independence.
Charles Gavin Duffy would become a member of the British parliament, and later, the knighted Governor of Victoria Colony, Australia. Richard O'Gorman would serve with distinction as a judge of the Superior Court of New York state. John Mitchell would escape from Australian exile to found a New York newspaper and become a leader in the continuing Irish Independence movement, the Fenians.
These men represented a real "brain drain" to Ireland and the British Isles. Yet, their common link, the Young Ireland movement, was a dismal, embarrassing failure. Why didn't their talent, as authenticated by later achievement, lead to a successful revolution in 1848, or, at least to a prideful failure?
The answer lies in the roots of Young Ireland. It was the work of a small group of Irish intellectuals, men in their 20s and 30s. They had no organizational or leadership training, but had become impatient with the attitude of compromise and complacency exhibited by Daniel O'Connell in his declining years. They were incensed by the British insensitivity to the famine sufferers of 1845-48 and, simultaneously, inspired by the revolutionary movements underway in Europe.
The heart, as well as the voice, of the movement was the editorial staff of a weekly newspaper, the Dublin Nation. Founded by three young men, including Charles Duffy, they rallied others among the educated and vocal Irish youth to their cause--a cause of open revolution.
The British were finally goaded into moving against the paper with the arrest of Duffy. This action galvanized Thomas Meagher and D'Arcy McGee (along with P.J. Smythe and William Smith O'Brien) to embark on a "Rising."
It would appear that the leaders, at least Meagher and O'Brien, realized that they had little chance of success. It almost seems that the shame they would feel for not following through on their incendiary rhetoric made them embark on a venture that was not properly prepared or planned. Pride and naivete drove them on when wiser heads would have waited for a better time.
The movement lacked organization. Much of their grass-roots support evaporated when the Catholic clergy publically opposed their all too public plans. The priests saw that their flocks would die in vain.
Communications were abysmal. Smith O'Brien, leading the major field effort in Kilkenny, did not learn of the failure of the other leaders to rally support from the Political Clubs on which success depended.
To make matters worse, the timing for the Rising was set for July, before the harvest. After the famine years just experienced, the 1848 harvest promised to be a good one. If a farmer were to leave his land in order to fight, his harvest might be lost. But the Young Ireland leadership was afraid to wait, as the British moved against them.
The armed effort collapsed almost before it started. A few hundred rebels turned out and two were killed by a single volley from the Constabulary. The leaders fled the country or were captured within days.
D'Arcy McGee and Pat Smythe managed to escape the British dragnet and fled to the United States. Meagher, O'Gorman, O'Brien, and Mitchell were among those arrested.
Some of the leaders received death sentences, but the British were not anxious to create new martyrs. The sentences were commuted to imprisonment and exile to Australia. They would be the last of thousands of Irish rebels transported to that distant shore.
The Australian exiles were given considerable freedom upon their arrival. Thus, it was not surprising that escapes were made, beginning in 1851. Meagher reached the United States by way of South America in 1852, but the most dramatic incident was the escape of Mitchell, whose friend, Pat Smythe, sailed a chartered vessel all the way from America to pick him up. (1853)
Some of the exiles refused to violate their Australian paroles, most notably Smith O'Brien. He and several others used legal channels to win pardons, and the right to return to Ireland in 1854.
Bad luck dogged the footsteps of two of the Young Ireland group, two who achieved fame in North America. Francis Meagher died under mysterious circumstances after taking a stand for arming settlers in Montana territory. D'Arcy McGee was assassinated by a Fenian sympathizer who resented his opposition to Irish revolutionary activities in Canada.
Meagher's stand may appear to have been mistaken to many 20th century Americans, but Canadians have nothing but respect for McGee who could see what was best for his adopted country, and died for his conviction.
John Mitchell and Pat Smythe were among those who fought on for Irish independence in the American Fenian movement. Although they were half a century too early to be rewarded with success, the Fenians were part of the foundation of Irish liberty.
Those who rejoined the homeland establishment, like Smith O'Brien, and those who achieved status and respect overseas, like Duffy, Meagher, and McGee, displayed an ability to mature and to learn from their mistakes. Most important, inept though their Young Ireland efforts had been those efforts were also part of the foundation of independence for their homeland.
1. The Ardent Exile by Josephine Phelan. McMillan Co., Canada, 1951
2. Thomas Francis Meagher, An Irish Revolutionary in America by R.G. Ahearn. Univ. Of Colorado Press, 1940
3. Young Ireland and 1848 by Dennis Gwynn. Cork University Press, 1949
4. William Smith O'Brien by Blanche Touhill. Univ. Of Missouri Press, 1981
Young Ireland--The Fertile Failure
This site created by Harry E. Connors III
Music is Boulavogue sequenced by Lesley Nelson
This page last modified on Saturday, November 17, 2007