CHAPTER VIII. THE BIRTH OF A MOVEMENT AND WHAT IT CAME TO

Whilst Ireland was thus finding her soul and Mr Gerald Balfour pursuing his beneficent schemes for "killing Home Rule with kindness," the country had sickened unto death of the "parties" and their disgusting vagaries. Mr William O'Brien, although giving loyal support and, what is more, very material assistance to Mr Dillon and his friends, was not himself a Member of Parliament, but was doing far better work as a citizen, studying, from his quiet retreat on the shores of Clew Bay, the shocking conditions of the Western peasantry, who were compelled to eke out an existence of starvation and misery amid the crags and moors and fastnesses of the west, whilst almost from their very doorsteps there stretched away mile upon mile of the rich green pastures from which their fathers were evicted during the clearances that followed the Great Famine of 1847, and which M. Paul Dubois describes as "the greatest legalised crime that humanity has ever accomplished against humanity."

"To look over the fence of the famine-stricken village and see the rich green solitudes, which might yield full and plenty, spread out at the very doorsteps of the ragged and hungry peasants, was to fill a stranger with a sacred rage and make it an unshirkable duty to strive towards undoing the unnatural divorce between the people and the land" (William O'Brien in an Olive Branch in Ireland).

Mr Arthur Balfour had established the Congested Districts Board in 1891 to deal with the Western problem, where "the beasts have eaten up the men," and when Mr O'Brien settled down at Mallow Cottage he devoted himself energetically to assisting the Board in various projects of local development. But his experiences proved that these minor reforms were at the best only palliatives, "sending men ruffles who wanted shirts," and that there could be only one really satisfactory solution - to restore to the people the land that had been theirs in bygone time, to root out the bullocks and the sheep and to root in the people into their ancient inheritance. It was only after years of patient effort that he at last succeeded in persuading the Congested Districts Board to make its first experiment in land purchase for the purpose of enlarging the people's holdings and making them the owners of their own fields.[1] The scene was Clare Island, "the romantic dominion of Granya Uaile, the 'Queen of Men,'" who for many years brought Elizabeth's best captains to grief among her wild islands. The lordship of this island of 3949 acres, with its ninety-five families, had passed into the hands of a land-jobber, "with bowels of iron," who sought to extract his cent. per cent. from the unfortunate islanders by a series of police expeditions in a gunboat, with a crop of resulting evictions, bayonet charges and imprisonments.

The result of the experiment was, beyond expectation, happy. After many delays the Congested Districts Board handed over the island to its new peasant proprietors, now secure for ever more in their own homesteads, but this transfer was not completed until the Archbishop of Tuam and Mr O'Brien had guaranteed the payment of the purchase instalments for the first seven years - a guarantee which to the islanders' immortal credit never cost the guarantors a farthing.

Fired to enthusiasm by the success of this experiment Mr O'Brien conceived the idea of a virile agitation for the replantation of the whole of Connaught, so that the people should be transplanted from their starvation plots to the abundant green patrimony around them. He avows that no political objects entered into his first conceptions of this movement in the West. But the approach of the centenary of the insurrection of 1798, with its inspiring memories of the United Irishmen, furnished him with the idea, and the happy title for a new organisation which, in his own words, "drawing an irresistible strength and reality from the conditions in the West, would also throw open to the free air of a new national spirit those caverns and tabernacles of faction in which good men of all political persuasions had been suffocating for the previous eight years." Accordingly the United Irish League was born into the world at Westport on the 16th January 1898, to achieve results which, if they be not greater - though great, indeed, they are - the fault assuredly rests not with the founder of the League, but with those others who malevolently thwarted his purposes. The occasion was opportune. The three several movements of the Dillonites, Redmondites and Healyites were in ruins, and Ireland went its way unheeding of them. The young men were busy with their '98 and Wolfe Tone Clubs. They drank deep of the doctrines of a heroic age. Centenary celebrations were held throughout the country, at which men were exhorted to study the history of an era when men were proud to die for the land they loved. For a space we listened to the martial music of other days, and our hearts throbbed to its stirring notes. The soul of the nation was uplifted above the squalid rivalries of the "'ites" and the "'isms." It awaited a unifying influence and a programme which would disregard the factions and leave a wide-open door for all Nationalists to come in, no matter what sides they had previously taken or whether they had taken any at all.