CHAPTER VIII. THE BIRTH OF A MOVEMENT AND WHAT IT CAME TO
This wide-open door and this broad-based programme the United Irish League offered. Mr Dillon attended the inaugural meeting, but from what Mr O'Brien tells us he did not seem to grasp the full potentialities of the occasion, "and he made his own speech without any indication that any unusual results were expected to follow." Mr Timothy Harrington, one of the leading and most levelheaded of the Parnellite members, also attended, in defiance of bitter attack from his own side, showing a moral courage sadly lacking in our public men, either then or later. By what I cannot help thinking was a most fortuitous circumstance for the League, at a moment when its existence was not known outside three or four parishes, Mr Gerald Balfour determined to swoop down upon it and to crush it with the whole might of the Crown forces. Two Resident Magistrates and the Assistant Inspector-General of Constabulary, with a small army corps of special police, were sent to Westport. Result - the inevitable conflict between the police and people took place, prosecutions followed, extra police taxes were put on and a store of popular resentment was aroused, the League getting an advertisement which was worth scores of organisers and monster meetings. I am myself satisfied that it was the ferocity of the Crown attack upon the League which gave it its surest passport to popular favour. Whilst the United Irish League was struggling into life in the west I was engaged in the south in an attempt to lead the labourers out of the bondage and misery that encompassed them - their own sad legacy of generations of servitude and subjection - but I am nevertheless pleased to recall now that, as the editor of a not unimportant provincial newspaper in Cork, I followed the early struggles of the new League with sympathy and gave it cordial welcome when it travelled our way.
As a mere statement of indisputable fact, it is but just to say that the entire burden of organising the League fell upon the shoulders of Mr O'Brien. When it was yet an infant, so to speak, in swaddling-clothes, and indeed for long after, when it grew to lustier life, he had to bear the whole brunt of the battle for its existence, without any political party to support him, without any great newspaper to espouse his cause and without any public funds to supply campaign expenses. Nay, far worse, he had to face the bitter hostility of the Redmondites and Healyites "and the scarcely less depressing neutrality" of the Dillonites, whilst under an incessant fire of shot and shell from a Coercion Government. After Mr Dillon's one appearance at Westport he was not seen on the League platform for many a day. At Westport he had exhorted the crowd to "be ready at the call of their captain by day or night," but having delivered this incitement he left to others the duty of facing the consequences, candidly declaring that he had made up his mind never to go to jail again. Mr Harrington, however, remained the steadfast friend of the League, and Mr Davitt also gave it his personal benediction, all the more generous and praiseworthy in that his views of national policy seldom agreed with those of Mr O'Brien. Confounding all predictions of its early eclipse, and notwithstanding a thousand difficulties and discouragements, the League continued to make headway, and after eighteen months' Herculean labours Mr O'Brien and his friends were in a position to summon a Provincial Convention at Claremorris, in the autumn of 1899, to settle the constitution of the organisation for Connaught. Two nights before the Convention Mr Dillon and Mr Davitt visited Mr O'Brien at Mallow Cottage to discuss his draft Constitution. It is instructive, having in mind what has happened since, that Mr Dillon took exception to the very first clause, defining the national claim to be "the largest measure of national self-government which circumstances may put it in our power to obtain." This was the logical continuance of Parnell's position that no man had a right to set bounds to the march of a nation, but Mr Dillon seemed to have descried in it some sinister purpose on the part of Mr O'Brien and Mr Davitt to abandon the constitutional Home Rule demand in the interest of the physical force movement. Eventually a compromise was agreed on, but in regard to other points of the Constitution - particularly that which made the constituencies autonomous and self-governing - Mr Dillon was obstinately opposed to democratic innovation. It would appear to me that in these days was sown the seeds of those differences of opinion between those close friends of many years' standing which were later to develop into a feeling of personal hostility which, on the part of one of them (Mr Dillon) at least, was black and bitter in its unforgivingness. The Claremorris Convention was such a success its "dimensions and character almost took my own breath away with wonder; all other feelings vanished from the minds of us all except one of thankfulness and rapture in presence of this incredible spectacle of the foes of ten years' bitter wars now marching all one way 'in mutual and beseeming ranks,' radiant with the life and hope of a national resurgence" (Mr O'Brien).