Speech on the Use of Physical Force

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Speech on the Use of Physical Force

28 July 1846

Thomas Francis Meagher

Within the Repeal Association the Young Ireland group, among whom Protestants were numerous, became increasingly dissatisfied with Daniel O'Connell's leadership between 1844 and 1846. His worst sins in their eyes were his opposition to the "Godless colleges" in 1845 and his alliance with the Whigs in 1846. O'Connell tried to bring his Young Ireland critics to heel through the "peace resolutions" of July 1846, which involved a total disavowal of physical force under almost any circumstances. In this speech Thomas Francis Meagher ("Meagher of the Sword") refused to repudiate physical force to this degree, and so did numerous other Young Irelanders. The result was a split that became permanent.

SEE ALSO Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation

I will commence as my friend Mr [John] Mitchel concluded, by an allusion to the Whigs (hear, hear). I fully concur with my friend that the "most comprehensive measures" of which the Whig ministers may propose and the English parliament may adopt, will fail to lift this country up to that position which she has the right to occupy and the power to maintain (cheers). A Whig minister, I admit, may improve the province, he will not restore the nation. Franchises, "equal laws," tenant compensation bills, "liberal appointments," in a word "full justice" as they say, may ameliorate, they will not exalt (cheers). They may meet the necessities, they will not call forth the abilities of the country. The errors of the past may be repaired. The hopes of the future will not be fulfilled. . . . From the stateliest mansion down to the poorest cottage in the land, the inactivity, the meanness, the debasement, which provincialism engenders will be perceptible. These are not the crude sentiments of youth, though the mere commercial politician who has deduced his ideas of self-government from the table of imports and exports may satirise them as such. . . .

Voter's books and reports, these are the only weapons we can employ (hear). Therefore, my lord, I do advocate the peaceful policy of this association (cheers). It is the only policy we can and should adopt (cheers). If that policy be pursued with truth, with courage, with stern determination of purpose, I do firmly believe that it will succeed (loud and enthusiastic cheers). But, my lord, I dissented from the resolutions in question for other reasons (hear, hear). . . . I dissented from these resolutions, 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 in every circumstance. This I could not do, for, my lord, I do not abhor the use of arms in the vindication of national rights (cheers).

There are times when arms will alone suffice, and when political ameliorations call for a drop of blood—(cheers)—and many thousand drops of blood (enthusiastic cheering and cries of "Oh, Oh"). Opinion, I admit, will operate against opinion. But as the hon[ourable] member for Kilkenny observed, force must be used against force (cheers and some confusion). 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 avail against battalioned despotism (loud cheers). Then, my lord, I do not disclaim the use of force as immoral, nor do I believe that it is the truth to say that the God of heaven withholds His sanction from the use of arms. From the day 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 the hour in which He blessed the insurgent chivalry of the Belgium priests, His Almighty hand has ever been stretched forth from His throne of light to consecrate the flag of freedom, to bless the patriot's sword (loud and enthusiastic cheering). Be it for the defence or be it for the assertion of a nation's liberty, I look upon the sword as a sacred weapon ("No, No" from the Rev. Mr Hopkins). And if, my lord, it has sometimes reddened the shroud of the oppressor, like the anointed rod of the high priest, it has at other times blossomed into flowers to deck the freeman's brow (vehement applause).

Abhor the sword and stigmatise the sword? No, my lord, for in the cragged passes of the Tyrol it cut in pieces the banner of the Bavarian and won an immortality for the peasant of Innsbruck (hear). Abhor the sword and stigmatise the sword? No, my lord, for at its blow a giant nation sprung up from the waters of the far Atlantic, and by its redeeming magic the fettered colony became a daring free republic. Abhor the sword and stigmatise the sword? No, my lord, for it scourged the Dutch marauders out of the fine old towns of Belgium, back into their own phlegmatic swamps—(cheers)—and knocked their flag, and laws, and sceptre, and bayonets into the sluggish waters of the Scheldt (enthusiastic cheers).

Nation, 1 August 1846.

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Speech on the Use of Physical Force