CHAPTER XVII. A NEW POWER ARISES IN IRELAND
The Party manipulators had now got their stranglehold on the country. The people, where they were not chloroformed into insensibility, were doped into a state of corrupt acquiescence. All power was in the hands of the Party. The orthodox daily Press was wholly on their side. The British public and the English newspaper writers were impressed only, as always, by the big battalions. The Irish Party had numbers, and numbers count in Parliament as nothing else does. Whatever information went through to the American Press passed through tainted sources. An influential Irish-American priest, Father Eamon Duffy, writing some time since in the great American Catholic magazine, The Monitor, said:
"We really never understood the situation in America. Ireland was in the grip of the Party machine and of one great daily paper, and these were our sources of information. It was only the great upheaval that awakened us from our dream and showed us that something had been wrong, and that the Party no longer represented the country."
This is a remarkable admission from an independent and unprejudiced authority. He candidly declares they never understood the situation in America. Neither was it understood in England, and the House of Commons is the last place which tries to understand anything except party or personal interests. There is just about as much freedom of opinion and individual independence in Parliament as there could be in a slave state. In Ireland, as I have said, outside Munster the truth was never allowed to reach the people. Even the great national movement which Mr William O'Brien re-created in the United Irish League had almost ceased to function. It was gradually superseded by a secret sectarian organisation which was the absolute antithesis of all free development of democratic opinion and the complete negation of liberty and fair play.
Up in the north of Ireland there existed an organisation of a secret and sworn character which was an evil inheritance of an evil generation. From the fact that the Ribbonmen used to meet in a shebeen owned by one Molly Maguire, with the Irish adaptability for attaching nicknames to anything short of what is sacred, they became known as "Molly Maguires," or, for short, "the Mollies." In some ill-omened day branches of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which had seceded from the American order of that name, began to interest themselves in Ulster in political affairs. They called themselves the Board of Erin, but they were, as I have said, more generally known as "the Mollies." They were a narrowly sectarian institution and they had the almost blasphemous rule that nobody but a Catholic frequenting the Sacraments could remain a member. They had their own ritual and initiation ceremony, founded on the Orange and Masonic precedents, and had their secret signs and passwords. It is possible that they were at first intended to be a Catholic protection society in Ulster at the end of the eighteenth century to combat the aggressiveness and the fanatical intolerance of the Orange Order, who sought nothing less than the complete extermination of the Catholic tenantry. A Catholic Defence organisation was a necessity in those circumstances, but when the occasion that gave it justification and sanction had passed it would have been better if it were likewise allowed to pass. Any organisation which fans the flames of sectarianism and feeds the fires of religious bigotry should have no place in a community which claims the sacred right of freedom. It was the endeavour of Mr O'Brien and his friends finally to close this bitter chapter of Irish history by reconciling the ancient differences of the sects and inducing all Irishmen of good intent to meet upon a common platform in which there should be no rivalries except the noble emulations of men seeking the weal of the whole by the combined effort of all.
Whatever unfortunate circumstance or combination of circumstances gave impulse to "the Board of Erin," I know not-whether it arose out of a vainglorious purpose to meet the Orangemen with a weapon of import similar to their own, or whether it was merely the love of young people to have association with the occult, I can merely conjecture - but it was only when Mr Joseph Devlin assumed the leadership of it that it began to acquire an influence in politics which could have no other ending than a disastrous one.
Never before was the cause of Irish liberty associated with sectarianism. Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet and Thomas Davis are regarded as the most inspired apostles and confessors of Irish nationality. It was a profanation of their memory and an insult to their creed that in the first decade of the twentieth century any man or band of men should have been audacious enough to superimpose upon the structure of the national movement an organisation which in addition to being secret and sectarian was grossly sordid and selfish in its aims.
Stealthily and insidiously "the Board of Erin" got its grip in the United Irish League. It "bossed," by establishing a superiority of numbers, the Standing Committee. Then by "getting hold" of the officers of Divisional Executives and branches it acquired control over the entire machinery of the movement, and thus, in an amazingly short space of time, it secured an ascendancy of a most deadly and menacing character. Its first overt act of authority was to strangle freedom of speech and to kill land purchase. What Mr John Dillon had been unable to do through his control of the Party and his collusion with The Freeman's Journal the Board of Erin most effectively accomplished by an energetic use of boxwood batons and, at a later time, weapons of a more lethal character.