Skip to main content

The Fenian Conspiracy

Volume 187: debated on Friday 10 May 1867

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.


rose to ask, Whether the Government has taken Steps to obtain correct Reports of the Evidence given upon the Trials for Treason and Participation in the Fenian Conspiracy, in order that they may be at the proper Time communicated to Parliament, together with such Information as the Government may possess regarding the Objects, Ramifications, and full Extent of the Conspiracy? The question was not a frivolous or unimportant one. It was not merely a report of what took place at the trials of the Fenian prisoners, and it was still less a report of the speeches of counsel that he wanted; but there were three points in which he thought information was needed. It was extremely desirable, in the first place, to know what had been the origin and what the progress of this Fenian conspiracy, and what steps had been taken or left untaken by the Government before the conspiracy broke out into rebellion. In the next place, it was proper that Parliament should be informed how far the conspiracy had been disseminated among Her Majesty's subjects in the United Kingdom, or encouraged by any society either in this country or in Ireland; and what encouragement it had received from subjects of this country being in the United States of America. A third point, not less essential to be known, though it involved matter of great delicacy, was what encouragement or assistance these conspirators received either from foreign Powers or foreign individuals. It was said that the conspirators had been in communication with persons on the Continent of Europe; but, though some of the prominent rebels had been on the Continent, he believed that in Europe very little encouragement had been given to them. On the other hand, it was known that they had met with great sympathy in America, and had obtained there material aid both in money and arms. It must be understood that he did not mean to imply any participation on the part of the Government of the United States in these proceedings, and it would be borne in mind that that Government acted in the most friendly manner at the time of the Fenian invasion of Canada. He believed that the Government of the United States had behaved with good faith; but it was a matter of little doubt that the Fenian conspiracy; had received from individuals in the United States, whether emigrants from Ireland or others, aid and assistance, which made them proceed in the desperate project they attempted to carry into effect in Ireland. As to the origin of the Fenian conspiracy there prevailed most extraordinary ignorance. In the late Parliament the present Chief Justice of Ireland stated that some of the prisoners convicted in 1858, when he was the Irish Attorney General, and released in 1859, were the chief organizers of the Fenian conspiracy. If that were so, the circumstance would show that this conspiracy was got up, not by any spontaneous action on the part of the people, but by professional agitators and traitors, who lived by the trade of treason alone, which put them in receipt of large sums of money. It was, he believed, in 1863, that the drilling which took place in the county of Cork was first heard of, and in 1864 the persons who had engaged in the drilling were convicted and punished. No communication was made to Parliament, and the country did not know what was going on until in the month of September, 1865, the magistrates of the county of Cork applied to Government for additional constabulary to put down illegal assemblies and illegal drilling. Very shortly afterwards the seizure of a newspaper was made in Dublin. In looking back to the records of the rebellion of 1798 he found that the Fenian conspiracy bore a stronger resemblance to that rebellion than he had at first believed. The United Irishmen of that time adopted very much the same course as the Fenians; and it was stated, in a Report of a Committee of the Irish House of Lords, that at the very time a Motion was made in that House for a redress of grievances the United Irishmen met and came to a resolution that no redress of grievances whatever would give them any satisfaction if it did not free their country from all subjection to the British Crown. The Report of a Secret Committee appointed by the Irish House of Lords declared that it was clear from the evidence of three of the most prominent promoters of the rebellion that no measure whatever would give satisfaction to those engaged in the rebellion unless it were subversion of every religious establishment, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, and independence of the authority of the British Crown. He thought it essential that all the information in the possession of the Government should be laid before Parliament. Nothing, in his opinion, could be more unfortunate than that it should be instilled into the minds of the lower orders of people in Ireland that honour and glory and high patriotism were to be associated either with the late or former rebellions in that country. He therefore read with some regret in The Times of the day before an account of the proceedings of a meeting of the Reform League, at which a resolution, proposed by Mr. Guedalla, and seconded by a Mr. Dell, was come to to make application to the Crown that the lives of the unfortunate men now under sentence of death in Ireland should be spared. With that application he had nothing to do. God forbid that he should say a word against it. But he thought it right to call the attention of their Lordships to the terms in which that resolution was worded. It was as follows:—

"That the Council of the Reform League earnestly calls upon all Englishmen desiring to uphold the honour and preserve the fair fame of their country to aid in saving the lives of the patriotic, if misguided and mistaken, men who are now lying in Dublin under sentence of death."
Whether the lives of those men should or should not be spared was a question upon which he did not wish to offer any opinion. It was a question which would be decided at the proper time on the responsibility of the proper authorities. But the terms of the resolution, in which those who had been taken in rebellion against the Sovereign were described as "patriotic," did not savour much, he thought, of the idea of allegiance to the Crown on the part of Mr. Beales and his Colleagues. He maintained that while notions of that kind were put into the minds of the peasantry of Ireland, they could not expect the country to be in other than a disturbed state. He hoped that a full and truthful narrative of the present Fenian trials in Ireland would be secured by the Government, with the view of having materials furnished to Parliament which might serve to guide it in its future legislation for that country.

It is the habit of your Lordships' House to allow considerable latitude to any noble Lord in putting a Question; but I must say I have seldom observed a greater instance of the excessive use of that latitude than is furnished by the speech of the noble Marquess, whose notice that he meant to ask the Government for certain information never led me to imagine that he was about to travel at such length over the history of the conspiracies which have taken place in Ireland, referring back to the rebellion of 1798, dwelling on the objects of that rebellion, the disturbances of 1848, the subsequent Phœnix conspiracy, requiring information on the subject of the relation of the parties in foreign countries and the conspirators in Ireland, and winding up with a reference to a resolution—which I think was hardly worth bringing under the notice of the House—containing the terms in which the Council of the Reform League have thought fit to speak of the Fenian prisoners now under sentence of death for the crime of high treason. I do not propose to follow the noble Marquess into any of the topics with which he dealt; I shall content myself with returning a simple answer to the Questions which he has asked. In reply to the first Question—

"Whether the Government have taken steps to obtain correct reports of the evidence given upon the trials for treason and participation in the Fenian conspiracy,"
I have to state that the Attorney General for Ireland has taken steps to secure a report of the evidence at all those trials from competent shorthand writers. I venture to doubt, however, whether it would be in accordance with the ordinary practice of Parliament that we should be called upon to lay upon the table of the House all the evidence which may happen to be adduced in cases which come for trial before the legal tribunals of the country. It is quite clear that Parliament cannot act as a court of appeal from those tribunals; and it is not only unusual, but I think it would be inexpedient to produce evidence given before them, unless some special ground should arise for calling in question any portion of their proceedings. The noble Marquess further wishes to know whether we have any objection to lay upon the table—
"Such information as the Government may possess regarding the objects, ramifications, and full extent of the conspiracy."
Now, I cannot conceive that it would be of any advantage to Ireland at the present moment—nor do I look forward to any period when it would be likely to be—that the Government should lay before Parliament any information they may have obtained with regard to the formation and objects of this Fenian conspiracy, and still less that they should make public documents showing the countenance and support which such conspiracies may have received in foreign countries. Any course more likely to embroil this country with foreign Powers, and to raise embarrassing discussions, I cannot imagine than that of laying before Parliament all the information which we have collected or may collect on those important topics.

House adjourned at a quarter before Six o'clock, to Monday next, Eleven o'clock.