CHAPTER VIII. THE BIRTH OF A MOVEMENT AND WHAT IT CAME TO
The first test of the strength and power of the League was shortly to come. Mr Davitt resigned his seat for South Mayo and proceeded to South Africa to give what aid he could to the Boers in their desperate struggle for freedom. A peculiar situation arose over the Parliamentary vacancy that was thus created. The enemies of the United Irish League hit upon the astute political device of nominating Major M'Bride, himself a Mayo man, who was at the moment fighting in the ranks of the Irish Brigade in the Boer service. Mr O'Brien was naturally confronted with a cruel dilemma. To allow the seat to go uncontested was to confess a failure and to give joy to another brigade - the Crowbar Brigade - who wished for nothing better than the early overthrow of the League, which was the only serious menace to their power in the country. To contest the seat was to have the accusation hurled at his head that he was lacking in enthusiasm for the Boer cause, which Nationalist Ireland to a man devotedly espoused. The question Mr O'Brien had to ask himself was what was his duty to Ireland and to the oppressed peasantry of the West. It could not affect the Boer cause by a hair's-breadth who was to be future member for South Mayo, but it meant everything to Irish interests whether the United Irish League was to make headway and to gain a grip on the imagination and sympathies of the people. And, influenced by the only consideration which could be decisive in a situation of such difficulty, Mr O'Brien offered to the electors of South Mayo Mr John O'Donnell, the first secretary and organiser of the League, who was then lying in Castlebar Jail as the result of a Coercion prosecution. After a contest, in which all the odds seemed to lie on the side of the South African candidate, Mr O'Donnell was returned by an overwhelming majority.
The South Mayo election meant the end of one chapter of Irish history and the opening of another in which the political imbecility and madness which had distorted and disgraced the years since the Parnell Split could no longer continue their vicious courses. The return of Mr O'Donnell had focussed the attention of all Ireland on the programme and policy of the League. Branches multiplied amazingly, until it would be no exaggeration to say that they spread through the country like wildfire. The heather was ablaze with the joy of a resurgent people who had already almost forgotten the weary wars that had sundered them and who blissfully joined hands in one more grand united endeavour for the old land.
Having in several pitched battles defeated the forces of the Rent-offices and the politicians and disposed of some of the vilest conspiracies which the police emissaries of the Castle could hatch against it, the League had to engage in more desperate encounters before it could claim its cause won. I have already remarked that when the Local Government Bill was receiving the benediction of all parties in Parliament, except Mr Dillon, Mr Redmond promised that his influence would be extended to an effort to return the landlord and ascendancy class to the new Councils. The United Irish League determined to take issue with him on this. When the elections under the new Act were announced, Mr Redmond, honestly enough, proceeded to give effect to his promise. Mr O'Brien decided, and very rightly and properly in my judgment, that it would be a fatal policy, and a weak one, to surrender to the enemy, whilst he was still unconquered and unrepentant, any of those new Councils which could be made citadels of national strength and a new fighting arm of the constitutional movement. It meant that having driven the landlords forth from the fortresses from which they had so long oppressed the people, they should be immediately readmitted to them, having made no submissions and given no guarantees as to their future good behaviour. Mr Redmond and his followers made brave appeal from the landlord platforms to their supporters "not to be bitten by the Unity dog." Mr Healy's newspaper and influence took a similar bent. Mr Dillon's majority, as usual helpless and indecisive, promulgated no particular policy. For Mr O'Brien and the United Irish League there could be no such balancings or doubts. It is good also to be able to say of Mr Davitt that he assisted in fighting the insidious attempt to denationalize the County and District Councils. The League and its supporters won all along the line. The few reverses they sustained were negligible when compared with the mighty victories they obtained all over Ireland, and when the elections were over the League was established in an impregnable position as the organisation of disinterested and genuine nationality.
The Parliamentarians, seeing how matters stood, and no doubt with a wise thought of their own future, now proceeded to compose their quarrels. They saw themselves forgotten of the people, but they were resolved apparently that the people should not forget them. They took their cue from a country no longer divided over sombre futilities, and unable to make up their minds for themselves they accepted the judgment of the country once they were aware that it was irrevocably come to. Mr Dillon after his re-election to the chair of his section in 1900 immediately announced his resignation of the office, and being, as we are assured on the authority of Mr O'Brien, always sincerely solicitous for peace with the Parnellites, he caused a resolution to be passed binding the majority party in case of reunion to elect as their chairman a member of the Parnellite Party, which numbered merely nine.