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The Fenian Trials

The Illustrated London News, vol. 47, no. 1345, p. 549-550.

December 9, 1865


The conviction of Thomas Clarke Luby of the offence of conspiring to overthrow the sovereignty of the Queen in Ireland by force of arms and of replacing it by a Republican Government, and the heavy sentence passed upon him by the Court, will probably give a mournful satisfaction to a large majority of even his own countrymen. It is sad, inexpressibly sad, to witness a doom of civil degradation carried into effect upon a man who has been so reared as to make it worse than death to him, and to know that one of gentle blood, of conspicuous gifts, of high intellectual culture, and of all the social sensibilities and ties which such advantages imply, will henceforth be ranked with felons, and day by day endure the ignominy of sharing their lot. The utter desolation and wretchedness of such a fate in such a case can only be contemplated with bleeding hearts by those whose springs of pity are not dried up. Nevertheless, it is a satisfaction to find that the law is strong enough to protect society from the much more abundant misery which must inevitably have resulted from the practical development of the designs to which Luby and his fellow-conspirators had deliberately committed themselves. Without holding them guilty of the sanguinary intentions suggested in O'Keefe's letter, it is hardly too much to take for granted that the desperate counsels it brought under their notice must have opened their eyes to the possible extremities to which insurrection, once excited, might be carried by the lowermost of its forces, and the hearty laugh with which it was received by Luby and his wife only shows how singularly unreflective must have been their habit of mind in laying the train which they meant to have exploded in civil war.

In truth, the entire conspiracy, as disclosed by the evidence, brings before us a somewhat novel phase of human nature, and one the philosophy of which has yet to be explained. What has been the impelling motive of Fenianism? What was the glitter in its promises which could have dazzled

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such a mind as Luby's? We see in it an association of what appears on the surface to be self-sacrificing patriotism, of generous instincts, of capacities far from contemptible, and of indomitable energy, with a project as worthless in itself as to every rational mind it must have seemed wild and impracticable. How are we to explain the combination consistently with the known laws by which human conduct is ordinarily regulated? It is said that there are three hundred thousand Fenians in America and Ireland: to what is their peculiar susceptibility to the virus of rebellion to be ascribed? Not to race; for Fenianism disclaims all differences arising from blood. Not to nationality; for the Irish people, as a whole, repudiate the "brotherhood." Not to misgovernment and oppression; for, whatever may have been the case in days gone by, Ireland has, for many years past, enjoyed all the Constitutional rights which belong to England, and she can point to no wrong inflicted on her by law which she might not, if she pleased, get redressed by legal methods. Not even to religion; for Fenianism is no outbreak of religious animosity. What, then, is the explanation of this phenomenon? It is difficult to give any satisfactory account of it. May it not be a vague echo of the past, deriving its own meaning and emphasis from the past alone? An outbreak of traditional irritation? The reappearance of dim recollections in the form of revenge? The revival, by the American Civil War, of hopes and aspirations, of enmities and passions, of restless impulses and shadowy dreams, which had all but passed away, and which, as invisible ink by the agency of heat, have been brought out once more by the tremendous excitement which has recently convulsed the United States? If so, as we suspect, it will soon disappear; but not less incumbent was it on the Government of Ireland to grapple firmly with the nascent mischief as soon as it became fairly tangible.

We rejoice that the danger--so far as there was an element of danger in the conspiracy--was faced with calmness as well as determination. The Irish Government, we think, is to be congratulated on the manner in which it has dealt with the incipient revolution. When it first began to act, it was laughed at for attaching too much importance to a ridiculous plot. It is now blamed for having allowed it time to develop its features. Its best justification is that it has saved Ireland from confusion, and has convicted the ringleaders of rebellion, without having had recourse to any exceptional means. Without exciting more than a momentary alarm, without using any of its powers to excess, without resort to military force, without betraying for an instant the slightest tendency to vindictiveness, it has crushed in the bud what might have grown to be a troublesome insurrection. No blood has been shed, but crime has been brought home to the guilty, and justice has been administered in a considerate and merciful spirit. From the first apprehension of the culprits to their conviction the law officers of the Crown have given every facility to the accused for conducting their defence; and in presiding over their trials the Judges have borne themselves dispassionately. Seldom, indeed, have State prosecutions been so entirely free from even a shadow of indecorum. Possibly, the severity of the sentence passed upon Luby may have excited surprise in some quarters; but even in this respect, we think, the bounds of moderation have not been overstepped.

That we may be fully impressed with this conviction we must turn our thoughts for a moment from the punishment to be endured to the crime which it was intended to repress. It has been said that history contains no record of a successful rebellion, for rebellion, when successful, is changed into patriotism. There is a grain of solid truth underneath this surface of glittering wit. The lesson that it teaches, however, is a weighty one; and, if duly pondered, will be found to condemn armed insurrection, except as a last effort to relieve one's country from an intolerable pressure of tyranny and degradation. Circumstances may be conceived in which it would be a man's duty to bear a flaming brand through the chambers of a powder-magazine, but to do so in bravado, or for the attainment of any object short of paramount necessity, would be an offence calling for the severest penalty. An attempt to overturn the settled order of Government by recourse to violence involves issues which none can control, but which are sure of being attended by fearful calamities. Take the case of Fenianism. If the plans of the conspirators had ripened into action, Ireland would have become, for however short a time, the theatre of civil war. What does that imply, or rather, what in the form of human suffering does it not imply? It needs but a short memory to revert to what has recently passed on the other side of the Atlantic. What imagination can calculate the sum total of agony, bodily and mental, occasioned by that tremendous conflict? Now, it was to the possibility of such a catastrophe that the Fenian conspirators deliberately took steps to expose their country. And for what? To substitute for the free institutions of this realm a republic on the model of America and to separate Ireland from her connection with England. Could it have been accomplished--what then? Would the success have repaid the terrible cost at which it must have been purchased? But, comparing the means within reach of the conspirators with the means at the command of Great Britain, was there even a remote chance of success? Why, their very country repudiated them and their designs. An insurrection without adequate motive, without the narrowest ground of hope, denied even the good wishes of the people it was professedly planned to serve, sure to be prolific of evil both to the innocent and the guilty, and without promise of even a semblance of good, ought not to be confounded with patriotism. It is a measureless crime, and calls aloud for signal punishment.

We would fain hope that the dignified bearing of the Irish Government in the face of this provocation will somewhat abate the pretensions of the Fenians across the water, if it do not put a stop to their designs. At any rate, it may teach Irishmen in Ireland to contrast the conduct of those who, from a safe distance, would thrust them into the flames of civil discord with that of the authorities who seek to protect them from so dire an evil. And when this puerile but malignant conspiracy is forgotten, as we trust it soon will be, and its ringleaders are expiating their crime in penal servitude, we are confident that England will be forward to show her sister nation, who refused to be wiled away into disloyalty, or to enter into even a momentary communion with treason, that she has no reason to regret her steadfastness. Her affairs will be taken in hand with a resolute determination to sift out from them everything which assumes even an appearance of injustice or neglect. Her sensitive spirit will be as far as possible soothed; and Fenianism, though it meant it not, will have the effect of weaving new ties between the two islands, and in uniting their respective populations in a real and permanent "brotherhood."

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