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.

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).

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.

Naturally Mr Redmond and his friends did not hesitate to close with this piece of good fortune, which opened an honourable passage from a position of comparative isolation to one of triumph and power. The Healyites, whose quarrel appeared to be wholly with Mr Dillon, to whom Mr Healy in sardonic mood had attached the sobriquet of "a melancholy humbug," made no difficulty about falling in with the new arrangement, and the three parties forthwith met and signed and sealed a pact for reunification without the country in the least expecting it or, indeed, caring about it. Probably the near approach of a General Election had more to do with this hastily-made pact than any of the nobler promptings of patriotism. I believe myself the country would have done much better had the United Irish League gone on with its own blessed work of appeasement and national healing unhampered by what, as after knowledge conclusively proved to me, was nothing but a hypocritical unity for selfish salvation's sake. Mr O'Brien puts the whole position in a nutshell when he says: "The Party was reunified rather than reformed." The treaty of peace they entered into was a treaty to preserve their own vested interests in their Parliamentary seats.

But a generous and forgiving nation was only too delighted to have an end of the bickerings and divisions which had wrought such harm to the cause of the people, and accordingly it hailed with gratification the spectacle of a reunited Irish Party.

It is probable, nevertheless, that had the process of educating the people into a knowledge of their own power gone on a little further the United Irish League would have been able at the General Election to secure a national representation which would more truly reflect national dignity, duty and purpose.

The first result of the Parliamentary treaty was the election of Mr John E. Redmond to the chair. In the circumstances, the majority party having pledged themselves to elect a Parnellite, no other choice was possible. Mr Redmond possessed many of the most eminent qualifications for leadership. He had an unsurpassed knowledge of Parliamentary procedure and seemed intended by nature for a great Parliamentary career. He was uniformly dignified in bearing, had a distinguished presence, a voice of splendid quality, resonant and impressive in tone, and an eloquence that always charmed his hearers. Had he possessed will power and strength of character in any degree corresponding to his other great gifts, there were no heights of leadership to which he might not have reached. As it was, he lacked just that leavening of inflexibility of purpose and principle which was required for positive greatness as distinct from moderately-successful leadership. At any rate, he was the only possible selection, yet once again Mr Dillon exhibited a disposition to show the cloven hoof. For some inscrutable reason he made up his mind to oppose Mr Redmond's election to the chair, but when Mr O'Brien and Mr Davitt (who had returned from the Transvaal) got word of the plot they wired urgent messages to their friends in Parliament that Mr Redmond's selection was the only one that could give the leadership anything better than a farcical character. Result - Mr Redmond was elected by a very considerable majority, and Mr Dillon had further reason for having his knife in his former friend and comrade, Mr O'Brien.

The three sectional organisations - the National Federation, the National League and the People's Rights Association thereafter died a natural death. There were no ceremonial obsequies and none to sing their requiem.

The first National Convention of the reunited country was then summoned by a joint committee consisting of representatives of the United Irish League and the Party in equal numbers, and it gave the League a constitution which made it possible for the constituencies to control the organisation, to select their own Parliamentary representatives and generally to direct national affairs within their borders. The conception of the Constitution was sound and democratic. But in any organisation it is not the constitution that counts, but the men who control the movement. And the time came all too soon when this was sadly true of the United Irish League.


[Footnote 1: To Dr Robert Ambrose belongs the credit for having first introduced, as a private member, in 1897, a Bill to confer upon the Congested Districts compulsory powers for land purchase. This was subsequently adopted as an Irish Party measure. Dr Ambrose was also the author of a measure empowering the County Councils to acquire waste lands for reclamation. He was one of the pioneers of the Industrial Development Movement and wrote and lectured largely on the subject. He was, with the late Bishop Clancy, prominent in promoting "the All-Red Route," which would have given Ireland a great terminal port on its western coast at Blacksod Bay. He, at considerable professional sacrifice, entered the Party, at the request of Mr Dillon and Mr O'Brien, as Member for West Mayo. The reward he received for all his patriotic services was to find himself opposed in 1910 by the Dillonite caucus because of his independent action on Irish questions. Mr Dillon had no toleration for the person of independent mind, and thus a man who had given distinguished service to public causes was ruthlessly driven out of public life.]