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Marston, or, The soldier and statesman (Volume 3) online

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volted only on theories of government, metaphysical
reveries, pamphleteering abstractions — food too thin
to nurture the fierce firmness by which conspiracy is
to be carried forward into triumph ; while the south
pondered on real or fancied injuries, which wounded
the pride of every peasant within its borders. — That
the one took up arms for republicanism, the feeblest
of all temptations to national resistance ; while the
other brooded over a sense of wrong, in visions of
revenge for hereditary rights, and the hopes of re-


storing the fallen supremacy of its religion — motives
in every age, the most absorbing among the wild
impulses of man. I repeatedly warned the Irish
cabinet against an outbreak, which, if it succeeded,
must convulse the empire ; and which, even if it
failed, must cost the heaviest sacrifices to the

M}^ advice was answered by professions of perfect
security, and magnanimous declarations of the wisdom
of extinguishing peril by exhibiting the absence of
fear ! My part was now done, and I was thenceforth to
be only a spectator. But the course of things was not
to be controlled by the confidence of cabinets. The
sun went down, notwithstanding the government
conviction that it would shine through the whole
twenty-four hours ; the political night came, as re-
gularly as the night of nature, and with it came the
march of tens of thousands of political lunatics, as
brave as lions, though as incapable of discipline.
My prediction was formidably fulfilled: the fire-
brand and the pike ravaged the land ; blood flowed
in torrents ; and when the country returned to its
senses, and the light of common sense once more
dawned, ministers and people alike had only the
melancholy office of burying the common offences in
that great resting-place where the faults of the past
generation are marked by tombs, and where the
wisdom of the future is to be learned only from in-
scriptions recording the frailty of all that lived

The conspiracy which it had fallen to my lot to
extinguish had been brief and local. The half-


Scottish population among whom it brok^ out, were
among the most sharp-witted and well-informed sub-
jects of the empire ; and they had no sooner made
the discovery, that government was awake, than they
felt the folly of attempting to encounter the gigantic
strength of the monarchy, and postponed their re-
publican dreams to a " fitter season." The time
now approached when the leader of the Northern
insurrection was to be brought to trial ; and hostile
as I was to the effects of his enthusiasm, I took no
trivial interest in the individual. Still, to set him at
liberty was palpably impossible ; and my only re-
source was, to give him such aid in this extremity of
his career as could be given by lightening the seve-
rities of his prison, and providing him with the
means of securing able counsel. I had now an
opportunity of seeing, for the first time, the genius
of this singular people displayed under a new and
brilliant form — the eloquence of the bar.

In England the Bar holds a high rank ; from its
essential value to the maintenance of public right in
a country, where every possession, property, and
principle of man comes continually in the shape of a
question of right, and where the true supremacy is
in the law. But, in Ireland, the spirit of the nation
compensated for the deficiency of power in the law ;
and the bar was, par excellence, the profession of the
gentleman. This gave it the highest tone of per-
sonal manners. It had another incentive, still more
characteristic. The House of Commons was in the
closest connexion with the bar. It was scarcely
more than a higher bar. All the principal men of


that House had either been educated for the pro-
fession, or were actually practising barristers 5 and
as the distinctions of the senate were more dazzling,
as well as more rapidly attainable, than those of the
law, the strength of the profession was thrown into
parliamentai'y life. The result was, a reflected influ-
ence on both ; the learning of the bar invigorating the
logic of the debates, the eloquence of the debates
enriching and elevating the eloquence of the courts
of law. At this period the Courts abounded with
eloquent men, who would have been distinguished at
any tribunal on earth ; but, while some might ex-
hibit keener argument, and others more profound
learning, the palm of forensic eloquence was univei'-
sally conceded to one. — Need I pronounce the name
of Curran ? " Take him for all in all," he was among
the most extraordinary examples of original facul-
ties that I have ever known. All the other leading
orators of that proud day of oratory had owed much
to study, much to circumstances, and much to the
stimulus of great topics, a great cause, and a great
theatre for their display.

When Burke spoke, he had the world for his
hearer ; he stood balancing the fates of empires ;
his voice reached to the bosom of all the cabinets of
civilized nations ; and with the office of a prophet,
he almost inevitably adopted the majestic language,
and seized the awful and magnificent views, of the
prophet. This is no depreciation of the powers of
that immortal mind ; for what can be a higher praise
than that, with the largest sphere of duty before him



perhaps ever opened to man, he was found equal to
the fulness of his glorious mission ?

Sheridan, too, was awakened to a consciousness of
his own powers, by the national voice raised against
Indian delinquencies. He had there a subject teeming
with the loftiest materials of oratory — the sufferings
of princes, the mysteries of Oriental superstition,
the wild horrors of barbaric tyranny, the fall of
thrones, once dazzling the eye and the mind with all
the splendours of Oriental empire; himself the
chosen pleader for India, in the presence of the
assembled rank, dignity, and authority of England.
There can be no question of the genius, which
showed itself competent to so illustrious a labour.
But the materials were boundless ; the occasion was
a summons to all the energies of the human in-
tellect ; never was the draught of human praise, the
spell of that enchantress which holds the spirit of
men in most undisputed sway, presented to the lip
in a more jewelled goblet.

But Curran spoke almost wholly deprived of those
resistless stimulants ; his topics were comparatively
trivial — the guilt of provincial conspiracy, incurred
by men chiefly in the humbler ranks of life, and in
all instances obscure. No great principles of national
right were to live or die upon the success of his
pleading ; no distressed nation hailed him as its de-
fender; no impregnable barrier against oppression in
Europe or Asia was to be inscribed with his name.
He was simply an advocate, in the narrow courts of
a dependent kingdom — humiliated by the hopeless


effort to rescue a succession of unfortunate beings,
whose lives were already in the grasp of justice — com-
pressed on every side by localities of time, habit, and
opinion ; and thwarted alike by the clamours of pre-
judice, and the frowns of authority. Yet his speeches
at the bar are unequalled, to this hour. His creative
powers seemed to rejoice in the very emptiness of
the space, which they were to fill with life, lustre,
and beauty. Of all the great speakers, his images
arose from the simplest conceptions ; while they
rapidly wrought themselves into magnitude and
splendour. They reminded me of the vapours rising
from the morning field — thin, vague, and colourless ;
but suddenly seized by the wind, swelling into
volume, and ascending till they caught the sunbeams,
and shone with the purple and gold of the summer

The trial of the unfortunate rebel leader gave him a
signal opportunity for the exertion of his extraordinary
faculties. It had excited the deepest interest through-
out the country. Thousands had flocked from all
parts of the land, to be present at a crisis which ex-
cited 'the national feelings in the highest degree ;
which involved the personal safety of individuals,
perhaps of a much superior rank to the accused ; and,
above all, which seemed to fix the stamp of public
justice on the guilt or impunity of opinions, long
cherished by the mind of Ireland. As the day of
the trial approached, physiognomies were to be seen
in the streets, which showed, that individuals were
brought together by the event, who had never been
in the metropolis before. The stern and hard, but
H 2


sagacious countenances of the north were thronging
beside the broad, open, and bold features of the south ;
and those again contrasted with the long, dark, and
expressive visages of the west, which still give such
indelible evidence of their Spanish origin. Many of
the men who now filled the busy thoroughfares of
the capital, had come from the remotest corners of
Ireland, as if to stand their own trial. — The prisoner at
the bar was their representative ; his cause was their
cause ; his judgment the decision of the tribunal on
their principles ; his fate only an anticipation of their


" My soul was mantled with dark shadows born
Of lowly fear, disquieted in vain.
Its phantoms himg around the stai' of mom,
A cloud-like, weeping train.

Through the long day they dimm'd the autumn gold
Of all the glistening leaves, and wildly roll'd.
When the last farewell flush of light was glowing."


As I drove towards the noble building where the
trial was to take place — one of the stateliest examples
of architectural grace and dignity in a city distin-
guished for the beauty of its public buildings — it
was impossible to avoid being struck with the general
look of popular restlessness. The precaution of govern-
ment had called in a large military force to protect
the general tranquillity, and the patrols of cavalry
and the frequent passing of troops to their posts,
created a perpetual movement in the streets. The
populace gathered in groups, which, rapidly dissolv-
ing at the approach of the soldiery, as rapidly assem-
bled again, when they had passed by ; street minstrels
of the most humble description were plying their
trade with a remorseless exertion of lungs ; I heard
H 3


the names of the Parliamentary leaders and the go-
vernment frequently transpirmg in those rough
specimens of the popular taste ; and from the alter-
nate roars of fierce laughter and bursts of wild indig-
nation which arose from the groups, it was evident
that " men and measures " were not spared. The
aspect of the multitude in the vicinity of the Law
Courts was still more disturbed.

Rebellion has a physiognomy of its own, and I
had by this time learned to read it with tolerable
fidelity to its nature. It always struck me, as of a
wholly different character from that of the vice or the
violence of the people. — It wears a thoughtful air;
the lips seem to have a secret enclosed, the eye is
lowering, the step unsteady ; the man exhibits a
consciousness of danger from the glance or tread of
every passer-by. His visage is sullen, stern, and
meditative ; I can scarcely allow this conception to
be a work of fancy, for I have never been deceived
in my readings of that most expressive of all be-
trayers of the inner man. On this day, I could
have predicted the preparation for some general and
reckless rising against government, on the first op-
portunity when it should be found slumbering on its
post : and my prediction would have been true.

The court was crowded, and it was with no small
difficulty that I was enabled to reach the seat beside
the judge, which had been provided for me. The
arraignment and preparatory routine of the trial gave
time for the court to subside into order; and the
address of the principal law-officer, for the prose-
cution, though exciting the deepest anxiety, was


listened to in the most respectful silence. The case
was strong, and was ably dealt with by the attorney-
general. The evidence was clear and complete, and
the hope of an acquittal seemed to be gradually
abandoned, in the expressive gloom of the spectators.
The prisoner at the bar, too, seemed to be more de-
jected, than I had presumed from his former intre-
pidity; and the few glances which I could suffer
myself to give to a being in his calamitous condition,
showed me a frequent writhing of the lip, a clenching
of the teeth, and a nervous contraction of the features,
which looked like despair.

At length, the counsel for the defence rose. It was
the first instance of my seeing the memorable Currau
engaged in his profession. I had met him from time
to time in general society, and felt the delight which
all experienced in his unfailing pleasantry. I had
hitherto enjoyed him as the wit; I was now to be
delighted and overwhelmed by him as the orator.

Curran was the last man to be judged of by appear-
ances. Nature had been singularly unkind to his
exterior ; as if the more to astonish us by the powers
of the man within. His figure was undersized, his
visage brown, hard, and peasantlike, his gesture was
a gesticulation, and his voice was alternately feeble
and shrill. — His whole effect was to be derived from
means, with which that little meagre frame and sharp
treble had nothing to do. But he had a singularly
vivid eye. It was of the deepest black, and such was
the intensity of its expression, in his more impassioned
moments, that it was scarcely an exaggeration to say,
that it shot fire. Still, a stranger would have regarded
H 4


him chiefly as an humourist, from the glances of sly
sarcasm, and even of open ridicule, which he cast
round the court during the pleadings of some of his
"learned brethren." But, in that court his true
powers were known ; and the moment of his rising,
careless as was his attitude, and listless the look which
he gave, as he turned from his brief to the jury ; was
the signal for universal silence, and the fixing of eveiy
eye upon the great pleader.

He began, by sweeping away the heap of useless
facts and forensic prolixities, with v.hich his prede-
cessors had encumbered the case ; and nothing could
be more admirable than the dexterity, with which he
seized on the most casual circumstances tending to
clear the character of the accused. But it was when he
arrived at higher topics, that he displayed his genius.

" Nunc in ovilia, mox in reluctantes ch'acones'^ It
was when, from developing the ignorance and contra-
dictions of the informer by whom the charge of con-
spiracy was sustained, he rushed to the attack on the
general system of the Irish government ; that I saw
him in his full vigour. He denounced it, as the source
of all the tumults which had of late years shaken the
" isle from its propriety." " Here was the fount,"
said he, "from which flowed the waters of bitterness ;
not the less bitter, that I can trace its wanderings
through centuries of national desolation, through
fields of blood, and beside the graves of generations."

After giving the most daring outline, of what he
termed "the evils of the local sovereignty of Ireland,"
he surprised me into sudden acquiescence and in-
voluntary admiration, by a panegyric on the principles


of British government in the more favoured island
— "the majestic supremacy of the law, extending
over all things, sustaining all things, administering
life and health and purity to all ; a moral atmosphere,
though, like the physical, invisible, yet, like it,
irresistible in its strength, penetrating the whole
national existence, and carrying on, undisturbed and
perpetual, in the day and night of empire, all the
great processes of national animation and prosperity."
Then, suddenly darting away from this abstracted and
solemn view, he indulged in some wild story of native
humour, which convulsed the whole audience with
laughter. Yet, before the burst had subsided, he
touched another string of that harp which so magically
responded to the master's hand. He described the
long career of calamity, through which an individual,
born with a glowing heart, brilliant faculties, and an
aspiring spirit, must struggle, in a country filled with
the pride of independence, and yet, for ages, lan-
guishing in the condition of a province. Some share
of his pathos in this sketch was perhaps borrowed
from his own early difficulties ; and I heard, poured
out with the touching vehemence of bitter reality,
probably the very meditations, which had preyed
upon the heart of the student in his chamber, or
darkened his melancholy walks in the cloisters of the

But, he suddenly started into a new course of
thought, and reprobated with the loftiest rebuke, that
state of the law which, while it required two witnesses
for the proof of treason in England, was content with
one in Ireland. This he branded with indignant
H 5


vituperation, adopted, according to his habit, from
the most familiar conceptions; yet,by their familiarity,
striking the mind with astonishing force. He called
it " playing at pushpin with the lives of men " — " the
rcading-made-easy of judicial murder" — "the 'rule-
of-three ' of forensic assassination ; given, a villain,
multiplied by a false oath; the product an execution !"

He now revelled in the boldest extravagances of
imagery and language, using expressions, which,
written, might resemble the burlesque of a public
jester, or the wildness of a disturbed mind, but which
were followed by the audience, whom he had heated up
to the point of passion, with all but acclamation. Still
he revelled on : his contrasts and comparisons con-
tinuing to roll out upon each other ; some noble, some
grotesque, but all effective. After one dazzling ex-
cursion into the native history, in which he contrasted
the aboriginal hospitality and rude magnificence of the
old Irish chieftain, the Tir-Owen or O'Nial, with the
chilling halls of the modern absentee ; he suddenly
changed his tone, and wandered away into a round
of fantastic, and almost frolicsome pleasantries, which
shook even the gravity of the bench. Then, sud-
denly checking himself, and drawing his hand across
his brow to wipe away a tear — for even the hard-
headed lawyer was not always on his guard against
the feeling of the moment — he upbraided himself,
and the bystanders, for the weakness of being at-
tracted by any lighter conception ; while the sufferings
of Ireland were demanding all their sympathies.

And even this he did in his characteristic manner.
"Alas!" said he, in a voice which seemed sinking


with a sense of misfortune, "why do /jest? and why
do you smile ? Or, are we for ever to be the victims
of our national propensity ; and led away by triviali-
ties ? We tickle ourselves with straws, when we
should be arming for the great contests of national
minds. We are ready to be amused with the twang
of the Jew's harp, when we should be yearning for
the blast of the trumpet. — You remind me, and I re-
mind myself, of the scene at one of our country-
wakes. It is the true portrait of our fruitless mixture
of levity and sorrow. We come to mourn, and we
yield to merriment at the first jest. We sit under
the roof of death, yet we are as ready to laugh as
ever — the corpse of Ireland is before our eyes : we
fling a few flowers over its shroud, and then, * v/e
eat, drink, and are merry.' Must it for ever be pro-
nounced, that we are a frivolous and a fickle race —
that the Irishman remains a voluntary beggar, with
all the bounties of nature round him; unknown to
fame, with genius flashing from his eyes ; humiliated,
with all the armoury of law and liberty open to his
hands ; and laughing, laughing on, when the only
echo is from the chambers of the grave ?"

The orator dropped his head on his clasped hand.s,
as he spoke the last words; and there was an uni-
versal silence, for a while. It was interrupted by a
groan of agony from the prisoner. All eyes were
instantly turned to the dock, and the spectacle there
was startling. He seemed writhing under intolerable
torture. His hands clung eagerly to the front of the
dock, as if to sustain him ; his lips were colourless,
but his features and forehead were of the most
11 6


feverish suffusion. At first the general impression
was, that he had been overcome by a sense of his peri-
lous condition ; but it was soon evident, that his pangs
W'Cre more physical than moral. Curran flung his brief
upon the table, and hurried over to his unhappy client's
side. A few words passed between them, inaudible
to the court ; but they had the unexpected effect, of
apparently restoring the sufferer to complete tran-
quillity. He again stood erect ; his brow, and it was
a bold one, resumed its marble smoothness ; his fea-
tures grew calm, and his whole aspect returned to
the stern and moveless melancholy of an antique

The advocate now, as if with renewed sympathy,
commenced a singularly powerful attempt to avert
the sentence, by an appeal to the national feelings.
" If," said he, " the prisoner had been charged with
any of those crimes which effect their object by indivi-
dual injury, I should disdain to offer a defence, which
could be accomplished only by confounding the prin-
ciples of right and wrong. But here is an instance,
in which the noblest mind might err, in which the
highest sagacity might be perplexed, in which the
most self-denying virtue might discover nothing but
a voluntary sacrifice." The problem before his client
was "the proudest that had ever occupied the mind,
in ancient or modern times. It was, by what means
a patriot might raise his country to the highest pos-
sible elevation. But, what are the essentials for such
a purpose? Intrepidity, independence of soul, the
steadiest perseverance, the manliest fortitude ; all the
great qualities of head and heart. Those are the tri-


butes, which the patriot must bring to the altar of
his country. But, if the priest, at that altar, must be
prepared to be himself the sacrifice ; is it the hand
of his countrymen that is to strike the knife into the
victim ?"

A sense of this hazardous line of observation,
however, soon struck the pleader; and he admitted
in all its fulness the necessity of " respecting public
tranquillity, of relinquishing doubtful projects of
good, and of studying the prosperity of a nation,"
rather through the " microscope of experience," than
by " vague, though splendid, telescopic glances" at
times and things beyond our power. " The man,"
said he, " who discovers the cause of blight in an ear
of corn, is a greater benefactor to the world than
the man who discovers a fixed star." From the
glow on his countenance, and the sudden brightness
of his eye, I could see, that he was about to throw
himself loose on some new current of rich and rapid
illustration ; when he was suddenly stopped by a
shriek from the dock. The prisoner had fallen, with
his head over its front, and seemed gasping in the
last pangs. The drops of torture stood thick on his
brow, his eye was glazed, and his lips continued to
quiver, without the power of utterance. The advo-
cate approached him; the dying man caught him by
the hand ; and, as if the touch had restored his facul-
ties at the instant, said, with a faint smile, and in a
low tone, yet so clear as to be audible to the whole
assembly, in the words of Pierre — " We have deceived
the senate !" In the utterance, he fell back and died.
To escape the ignominy of the scaffold, the unhappy


man, before he came into court, had swallowed
poison !

I speak of Curran, as I see him through the lapse
of years. Yet, time has had no other effect on my
recollection, than to raise my estimate of his genius.
I fully admit, that in judging of an extraordinary
man, time may unduly exalt the image, as well as
confuse the likeness ; the haze of years may mag-
nify all the nobler outlines, while it conceals all that
would enfeeble their dignity.

There is to me no question, that his style might
form a hazardous model for inferior ability, and that
he urged it to that dangerous verge, beyond which
all must be descent. Still, after seeing many a bold,
and even brilliant, attempt to share the honours of
Curran as a forensic speaker ; I have seen none en-
titled to eclipse his original fame. To read his
speeches at the bar, is to lose their chief effect ; the

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Online LibraryGeorge CrolyMarston, or, The soldier and statesman (Volume 3) → online text (page 10 of 19)