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The World’s Famous Orations.
Ireland (1775–1902). 1906.

Thomas Francis Meagher

On Abhorring the Sword

A GOOD government may, indeed, redress the grievances of an injured people; but a strong people can alone build up a great nation. To be strong, a people must be self-reliant, self-ruled, self-sustained. The dependence of one people upon another, even for the benefits of legislation, is the deepest source of national weakness.

By an unnatural law it exempts a people from their just duties,—their just responsibilities. When you exempt a people from these duties, from these responsibilities, you generate in them a distrust in their own powers. Thus you enervate, if you do not utterly destroy, that spirit which a sense of these responsibilities is sure to inspire, and which the fulfilment of these duties never fails to invigorate. Where this spirit does not actuate, the country may be tranquil—it will not be prosperous. It may exist—it will not thrive. It may hold together—it will not advance. Peace it may enjoy—for peace and serfdom are compatible. But, my lord, it will neither accumulate wealth, nor win a character. It will neither benefit mankind by the enterprise of its merchants, nor instruct mankind by the examples of its statesmen. I make these observations, for it is the custom of some moderate politicians to say, that when the Whigs have accomplished the “pacification” of the country, there will be little or no necessity for Repeal.

But the Whigs will enrich as well as pacify? Grant it, my lord. Then do I conceive that the necessity for Repeal will augment. Great interests demand great safeguards. The prosperity of a nation requires the protection of a senate. Hereafter a national senate may require the protection of a national army.

So much for the extraordinary affluence with which we are threatened; and which, it is said by gentlemen on the opposite shore of the Irish Sea, will crush this association and clamor for Irish nationality, in a sepulcher of gold. This prediction, however, is feebly sustained by the ministerial program that has lately appeared. After that most consolatory announcement, my lord, let those who have the patience of Job and the poverty of Lazarus, continue in good faith “to wait on Providence and the Whigs”—continue to entertain “some kind of hope” that if not “a complete and immediate remedy,” at least “some remedy,” “some improvement” will place this country in “a far better state” than it is at present, “some ten or twelve years hence.” After that, let those who prefer the periodical boons of a Whig government to that which would be the abiding blessing of an Irish Parliament—let those who deny to Ireland what they assert for Poland—let those who would inflict, as Henry Grattan said, an eternal disability upon this country, to which Providence has assigned the largest facilities for power—let those who would ratify the “base swap,” as Mr. Sheil once stigmatized the Act of Union, and would stamp perfection upon that deed of perfidy—let such men

  • ——“Plod on in sluggish misery,
  • Rotting from sire to sire, from age to age,
  • Proud of their trampled nature.”
  • But we, my lord, who are assembled in this hall, and in whose hearts the Union has not bred the slave’s disease—we who have not been imperialized—we are here, with the hope to undo that work, which, forty-six years ago, dishonored the ancient peerage, and subjugated the people of our country.

    My lord, to assist the people of Ireland to undo that work, I came to this hall. I came to repeal the Act of Union; I came here for nothing else. Upon every other question, I feel myself at perfect liberty to differ from each and every one of you. Upon questions of finance, questions of religious character, questions of an educational character, questions of municipal policy, questions that may arise from the proceedings of the legislature; upon all these questions, I feel myself at perfect liberty to differ from each and every one of you.

    Yet more, my lord, I maintain that it is my right to express my opinion upon each of these questions, if necessary. The right of free discussion I have here upheld. In the exercise of that right I have differed, sometimes, from the leader of this association, and would do so again. That right I will not abandon—I shall maintain it to the last. In doing so, let me not be told that I seek to undermine the influence of the leader of this association and am insensible to his services. My lord, I am grateful for his services, and will uphold his just influence. This is the first time I have spoken in these terms of that illustrious man, in this hall. I did not do so before—I felt it was unnecessary. I hate unnecessary praise—I scorn to receive it, I scorn to bestow it.

    No, my lord, I am not ungrateful to the man who struck the fetters off my arms while I was yet a child, and by whose influence, my father—the first Catholic who did so for two hundred years—sat, for the last two years, in the civic chair of an ancient city. But, my lord, the same God who gave to that great man the power to strike down an odious ascendency in this country, and enable him to institute in this land the glorious law of religious equality; the same God gave to me a mind that is my own—a mind that has not been mortgaged to the opinions of any man or any set of men; a mind that I was to use, and not surrender. My lord, in the exercise of that right, which I have here endeavored to uphold—a right which this association should preserve inviolate, if it desires not to become a despotism—in the exercise of that right, I have differed from Mr. O’Connell on previous occasions, and differ from him now.

    In the existing circumstances of the country an excitement to arms would be senseless and wicked because irrational. To talk nowadays of repealing the Act of Union by force of arms would be to rhapsodize. If the attempt were made it would be a decided failure. There might be a riot in the street—there would be no revolution in the country. The secretary, Mr. Crean, will far more effectually promote the cause of repeal, by registering votes in Green Street than registering firearms in the head police office. Conciliation Hall on Burg Quay is more impregnable than a rebel camp on Vinegar Hill. The hustings at Dundalk will be more successfully stormed than the magazine in the park. The registry club, the reading-room, the polling booths,—these are the only positions in the country we can occupy. Voters’ certificates, books, pamphlets, newspapers,—these are the only weapons we can employ. Therefore, my lord, I cast my vote in favor of the peaceful policy of this association. It is the only policy we can adopt. If that policy be pursued with truth, with courage, with fixed determination of purpose, I firmly believe it will succeed.

    But, my lord, I dissented from the resolutions before us for other reasons. I stated the first; I now come to the second. I dissented from them, for I felt that, by assenting to them, I should have pledged myself to the unqualified repudiation of physical force in all countries, at all times, and under every circumstance. This I could not do. For, my lord, I do not abhor the use of arms in the vindication of national rights. There are times when arms will alone suffice, and when political ameliorations call for a drop of blood, and many thousand drops of blood. Opinion, I admit, will operate against opinion. But, as the honorable member for Kilkenny has observed, force must be used against force. The soldier is proof against an argument, but he is not proof against a bullet. The man that will listen to reason, let him be reasoned with; but it is the weaponed arm of the patriot that can alone prevail against battalioned despotism.

    Then, my lord, I do not condemn the use of arms as immoral, nor do I conceive it profane to say that the King of Heaven—the Lord of Hosts! the God of Battles! bestows His benediction upon those who unsheathe the sword in the hour of a nation’s peril.

    From that evening on which, in the valley of Bethulia, He nerved the arm of the Jewish girl to smite the drunken tyrant in his tent, down to this day, in which He has blessed the insurgent chivalry of the Belgian priest, His Almighty hand hath ever been stretched forth from His throne of light, to consecrate the flag of freedom, to bless the patriot’s sword! Be it in the defense, or be it in the assertion of a people’s liberty, I hail the sword as a sacred weapon; and if, my lord, it has sometimes taken the shape of the serpent and reddened the shroud of the oppressor with too deep a dye, like the anointed rod of the high priest, it has at other times, and as often, blossomed into celestial flowers to deck the freeman’s brow.

    Abhor the sword—stigmatize the sword? No, my lord, for, in the passes of the Tyrol, it cut to pieces the banner of the Bavarian, and, through those cragged passes, struck a path to fame for the peasant insurrectionist of Insprück! Abhor the sword—stigmatize the sword? No, my lord, for at its blow, a giant nation started from the waters of the Atlantic, and by its redeeming magic, and in the quivering of its crimson light, the crippled colony sprang into the attitude of a proud Republic—prosperous, limitless, and invincible! Abhor the sword—stigmatize the sword? No, my lord, for it swept the Dutch marauders out of the fine old towns of Belgium, scourged them back to their own phlegmatic swamps, and knocked their flag and scepter, their laws and bayonets, into the sluggish waters of the Scheldt.

    My lord, I learned that it was the right of a nation to govern herself, not in this hall, but upon the ramparts of Antwerp. This, the first article of a nation’s creed, I learned upon those ramparts, where freedom was justly estimated, and the possession of the precious gift was purchased by the effusion of generous blood. My lord, I honor the Belgians, I admire the Belgians, I love the Belgians, for their enthusiasm, their courage, their success, and I, for one, will not stigmatize, for I do not abhor, the means by which they obtained a citizen king, a chamber of deputies.