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

Michael Davitt

On the Irish Land League

I AM only too sensible of the fact that I have trespassed upon the patience and forbearance of the court to an extent which, possibly, would not be permitted to a lawyer. I am thankful, therefore, for such latitude, as well as for the unfailing fairness and courtesy of your lordships toward me personally from the very commencement of this inquiry.

I know too well I have spoken hot words and resorted to hard phrases in arguments, which may have been out of place in the calm region of a court like this. But that was because I felt that the character of the charges I have tried to meet and to answer was such as merited the strongest possible language of condemnation. I came here to address this court contrary to the advice of Mr. Parnell, who was the central figure and chief object of the Times’s malignant allegations.

I have, therefore, spoken only for myself. I felt that it was my duty to come here, no matter who should advise me to the contrary. I may be wrong in my opinion, but I thought and believed that if one with my record of suffering, physical and otherwise, at the hands of Irish landlordism and Castle rule; of the conflict of a lifetime with the law as it has been administered in Ireland, and of the punishment which that conflict has entailed: I felt and believed if I came before this tribunal and pleaded, in my own way, the cause of the Celtic peasantry of Ireland, that perhaps the story which I have told and the case which I have submitted might possibly, in part or in whole, arrest the attention of the people of Great Britain when they come to study your lordships’ labors and report.

And I thought and hoped that in the defense which I have made there might possibly be found some help in the task of finally solving this Anglo-Irish struggle. Should my hope be realized, should I have contributed but in the least possible degree to point to a just and feasible solution of a problem which would bring peace and some chance of prosperity to Ireland, I shall be happy in the recollection of the task which I am now bringing to a close.

I can only say that I represent the working classes of my country here as I did in the Land League movement, and I know they feel, as I do, that, no matter how bitter past memories have rankled in our hearts, no matter how much we have suffered in the past in person or in our country’s cause, no matter how fiercely some of us have fought against and denounced the injustice of alien misgovernment: I know that, before a feeling of kindness and of good will on the part of the people of England, Scotland, and Wales, and in a belief in their awakening sense of justice toward our country, all distrust and opposition and bitter recollections will die out of the Irish heart, and the Anglo-Irish strife will terminate forever when landlordism and Castle rule are dethroned by Great Britain’s verdict for reason and for right.

My lords, I now bring my observations to a close. Whatever legal points are to occupy your lordships’ study and care in this long and arduous investigation, it will appear to the public, who will study the report or the decision of this tribunal, that two institutions stood indicted before it.

One has had a life of centuries, the other an existence of but a few brief years. They are charged, respectively, by the accused and the accusers, with the responsibility for the agrarian crimes of the period covered by this inquiry.

One is Irish landlordism, the other is the Irish Land League. The Times alleges that the younger institution is the culprit. The Land League, through me, its founder, repels the accusation, and countercharges landlordism with being the instigation and the cause, not alone of the agrarian violence and crimes from 1879 to 1887, but of all which are on record, from the times spoken of by Spenser and Davis in the days of Elizabeth down to the date of this Commission.

To prove this real and hoary-headed culprit guilty I have not employed or purchased the venal talent of a forger, or offered the tempting price of liberty for incriminatory evidence to unhappy convicts in penal cells. Neither have I brought convicted assassins or professional perjurers, like the Delaneys and Le Carons, before your lordships. I have not sought assistance such as this with which to sustain my case. Nor have I been aided by the Colemans, Buckleys, and Igos as confederates, or had to scour the purlieus of American cities for men who would sell evidence that might repair the case which Richard Pigott’s confession destroyed, and which his self-inflicted death has sealed with tragic emphasis.

But there is another and a higher interest involved in the drama of this Commission now rapidly drawing to a close; an interest far surpassing in importance, and the possible consequences of your lordships’ judgment, anything else comprised in this investigation. It stands between the Times and landlordism on the one hand; the persons here charged and the Land League on the other. In bygone ages historians, with some prophetic instinct, called it “The Isle of Destiny.”

And Destiny seems to have reserved it for a career of trial, of suffering, and of sorrow. That same Destiny has linked this country close to England. Politically it has remained there for seven hundred years or more. During that period few people ever placed upon this earth have experienced more injustice or more criminal neglect at the hands of their rulers than we have.

This even English history will not and dare not deny. This land so tried and treated has nevertheless struggled, generation after generation, now with one means, now with another, to widen the sphere of its contracted religious, social, and political liberties—liberties so contracted by the deliberate policy of its English governing power; and ever and always were these struggles made against the prejudice and might, and often the cruelties, of this same power, backed by the support or the indifference of the British nation.

But despite all this the cause so fought and upheld has ever and always succeeded, sooner or later, in vindicating its underlying principles of truth and justice, and in winning from the power which failed to crush them an after-justification of their righteous demands.

A people so persevering in its fight for the most priceless and most cherished of human and civil rights, so opposed, but so invariably vindicated, might surely in these days of progress and of enlightenment excite in the breasts of Englishmen other feelings than those of jealousy, hate, revenge, and fear. To many, thank God, it has appealed successfully at last to what is good and what is best in English nature. It has spoken to the spirit of Liberty, and has turned the love of justice in the popular mind toward Ireland, and has asked the British people, in the interests of peace, to put force and mistrust away with every other abandoned weapon of Ireland’s past misrule, and to place in their stead the soothing and healing remedies of confidence and friendship, based upon reason and equality.

But one thing, at least, the history of this commission will have to tell to future generations. It will narrate how this progress of conciliation between ruled and rulers was sought to be arrested; how a people asking for justice were answered by ferocious animosity; how men who had suffered imprisonment, degradation, and calumny in their country’s service were foully attacked by the weapons of moral assassination, and how every dastard means known in the records of political warfare was purchased and employed to cripple or destroy the elected representative of the Irish nation.

This story will picture this once-powerful organ of English public opinion earning again the title of “literary assassin” which Richard Cobden gave it near thirty years ago. It will stand again in this light when its writers are seen plotting with Houston, planning with Pigott, and bargaining with Delaney how best to reawaken in the English mind the old hate and jealousy and fear of a people who were to be depicted in its columns in the most odious and repulsive character that forgers’ or libelers’ mercenary talent could delineate in “Parnellism and Crime.”

This story will exhibit these men sitting in the editorial rooms of Printing House Square, with professions of loyalty on their lips and poison in their pens; with “honesty” loudly proclaimed in articles which salaried falsehood had written; with simulated regard for truth, making “Shame ashamed” of their concocted fabrications.

And these men, with the salaries of the rich in their pockets and the smiles of London society as their reward, now carry on a deliberately planned system of infamous allegation against political opponents who were but striving to redeem the sad fortunes of their country in efforts to bring to an end a strife of centuries’ duration between neighboring nations and peoples.

Between the Times on the one hand, and the accused on the other, your lordships are, however, first to judge. It is, if I may say so without presumption, as serious and momentous a duty as judges of England were ever called upon to perform. The traditions of your lordships’ exalted position, elevated as that position is above the play of political passion, of the influence of fear or favor, will call, and will not, I am sure, call in vain, for the exercise of all those great qualities of trained ability, of calmness, of discernment, of judgment, and of courage which are the proud boast of the judicial bench of this land.

Whether or not the test of a cold, indiscriminating law will alone decide an issue in which political passion has played so great a part, and where party feeling has been a moving principle in acts and words; whether the heated language of platform oratory, or the sometimes crude attempts of political reform, are to be weighed in the balance of legal scales—scales never fashioned, at least in England, to measure the bounds of political action; or whether the test is to lie with a discriminating judicial amalgam of law in its highest attributes and of calm reason applied to the men and motives and means of the Land League, as the accused, and to the Times, its charges and allegations, as the accuser, I am, as a layman, unable to forecast.

But, be the test what it may, if it be only based upon truth and guided by the simple monitor of common sense, I say on my own behalf and on that of the Land League and of the peasantry of Ireland, hopefully, confidently, fearlessly, “Let justice be done tho the heavens fall.”