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The life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 online

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obligation on the government to ask for an Act to appoint a
judicial commission to examine those charges, if only they
are grave enough.

The best chance of frustrating the device was lost when
the bill was allowed to pass its first reading unopposed.
Three of the leaders of the liberal opposition — two in the
Commons, one in the Lords — were for making a bold stand
against the bill from the first. Mr. Gladstone, on the con-
trary, with his lively instinct for popular feeling out of
doors, disliked any action indicative of reluctance to face
inquiry; and though holding a strong view that no case
had been made out for putting aside the constitutional and
convenient organ of a committee, yet he thought that an

1 Hans. July 16, 1888, p. 1495.



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THE BILL 639

inquiry under thoroughly competent and impartial judges, CHAP,
after the right and true method of proceeding had been v, IIL



refused, was still better than no proceeding at all. This much iET - 79 -
of assent, however, was qualified. ' I think/ he said, ' that
an inquiry under thoroughly competent and impartial judges
is better than none. But that inquiry must, I think, be put
into such a shape as shall correspond with the general law
and principles of justice/ As he believed, the first and most
indispensable conditions of an effective inquiry were want-
ing, and without them he ' certainly would have no responsi-
bility whatever.' x

For the first few days politicians were much adrift. They
had moments of compunction. Whether friends or foes of
the Irish, they were perplexed by the curious double aspect
of the measure. Mr. Parnell himself began to feel mis-
givings, as he came to realise the magnitude of the inquiry,
its vast expense, its interminable length, its unfathomable
uncertainties. On the day appointed for the second reading
of the bill appointing the commission (July 23), some other
subject kept the business back until seven o'clock. Towards
six, Mr. Parnell who was to open the debate on his own side,
came to an English friend, to ask whether there would be
time for him to go away for an hour ; he wished to examine
some new furnace for assaying purposes, the existence of
gold in Wicklow being one of his fixed ideas. So steady
was the composure of this extraordinary man. The English
friend grimly remarked to him that it would perhaps be
rather safer not to lose sight of the furnace in which at any
moment his own assaying might begin. His speech on this
critical occasion was not one of his best. Indifference to his
audience often made him meagre, though he was scarcely
ever other than clear, and in this debate there was only one
effective point which it was necessary for him to press. The
real issue was whether the reference to the judges should be
limited or unlimited; should be a fishing inquiry at large
into the history of an agrarian agitation ten years old, or
an examination into definite and specified charges against
named members of parliament. The minister, in moving

1 Hans. 329, July 23, 1888, p. 263.



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640 THE SPECIAL COMMISSION

the second reading, no longer left it to the Irish members
to accept or reject ; it now rested, he said, with the House
1888. t decide. It became evident that the acuter members' of
the majority, fully awakened to the opportunities for destroy-
ing the Irishmen which an unlimited inquisition might
furnish, had made up their minds that no limit should be
set to the scope of the inquisition. Boldly they tramped
through a thick jungle of fallacy and inconsistency. They
had never ceased to insist, and they insisted now, that Mr.
Parnell ought to have gone into a court of law. Yet they
fought as hard as they could against every proposal for
making the procedure of the commission like the procedure
of a law court. In a court there would have been a specific
indictment. Here a specific indictment was what they
most positively refused, and for it they substituted a roving
inquiry, which is exactly what a court never undertakes.
They first argued that nothing but a commission was avail-
able to test the charges against members of parliament.
Then, when they had bethought themselves of further
objects, they argued round that it was unheard of and
inconceivable to institute a royal commission for members
of parliament alone.

All arguments, however unanswerable, were at this stage
idle, because Mr. Parnell had reverted to his original resolu-
tion to accept the bill, and at his request the radicals sitting
below him abandoned their opposition. The bill passed the
second reading without a division. This circumstance per-
mitted the convenient assertion, made so freely afterwards,
that the bill, irregular, unconstitutional, violent, as it might
be, at any rate received the unanimous assent of the House
of Commons.

Stormy scenes marked the progress of the bill through
committee. Seeing the exasperation produced by their
shifting of the ground, and the delay which it would
naturally entail, ministers resolved on a bold step. It was
now August Government remembered the process by
which they had carried the Coercion bill, and they im-
proved upon it. After three days of committee, they moved
that at one o'clock in the morning on the fourth sitting the



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THE TRIBUNAL OPENED 641

chairman should break off discussion, put forthwith the CHAP,
question already proposed from the chair, then successively v_ I1Is



put forthwith all the remaining clauses, and so report the iEr - 79 -
bill to the House. This process shut out all amendments
not reached* at the fatal hour, and is the most drastic and
sweeping of all forms of closure. In the case of the Coercion
bill, resort to the guillotine was declared to be warranted by
the urgency of social order in Ireland. That plea was at
least plausible. No such plea of urgency could be invoked
for a measure, which only a few days before the government
had considered to be of such secondary importance, that
the simple rejection of it by Mr. Parnell was to be enough
to induce them to withdraw it. The bill that had been
proffered as a generous concession to Irish members, was
now violently forced upon them without debate. Well
might Mr. Gladstone speak of the most extraordinary series
of proceedings that he had ever known. 1

in

The three judges first met on September 17, 1888, to settle
their procedure. They sat for one hundred and twenty-eight
days, and rose for the last time on November 22, 1889.
More than four hundred and fifty witnesses were examined.
One counsel spoke for five days, another for seven, and a
third for nearly twelve. The mammoth record of the pro-
ceedings fills eleven folio volumes, making between seven
and eight thousand pages. The questions put to witnesses
numbered ninety-eight thousand.

It was a strange and fantastic scene. Three judges were
trying a social and political revolution. The leading actors
in it were virtually in the dock. The tribunal had been
specially set up by their political opponents, without giving
them any effective voice either in its composition or upon
the character and scope of its powers. For the first time in
England since the Great Rebellion, men were practically put
upon then: trial on a political charge, without giving them
the protection of a jury. For the first time in that period
judges were to find a verdict upon the facts of crime. The

1 Ham. Aug. 2, 1888, p. 1282.
VOL. II. 2 8



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642 THE SPECIAL COMMISSION

charge placed in the forefront was a charge of conspiracy.
, But to call a combination a conspiracy does not make it a
1888. conspiracy or a guilty combination, unless the verdict of a
jury pronounces it to be one. A jury would have taken all
the large attendant circumstances into account' The three
judges felt themselves bound expressly to shut out those
circumstance^. In words of vital importance, they said, ' We
must leave it for politicians to discuss, and for statesmen to
determine, in what respects the present l&ws affecting land
in Ireland are capable of improvement. We have no com-
mission to consider whether the conduct of which they are
accused can be palliated by the circumstances of the time, or
whether it should be condoned in consideration of benefits
alleged to have resulted from their action. 9 x When the pro-
ceedings were over, Lord Salisbury applauded the report as
' giving a very complete view of a very curious episode of our
internal history/ 2 A very complete view of an agrarian
rising — though it left out all palliating circumstances and
the whole state of agrarian law !

Instead of opening with the letters, as the country ex-
pected, the accusers began by rearing a prodigious accumula-
tion of material, first for the Irish or agrarian branch of their
case, and then for the American branch. The government
helped them to find their witnesses, and so varied a host was
never seen in London before. There was the peasant from
Kerry in his frieze swallow-tail and knee-breeches, and the
woman in her scarlet petticoat who runs barefoot over the
bog in Galway. The convicted member of a murder club
was brought up in custody from Mountjoy prison or Mary-
borough. One of the most popular of the Irish representa-
tives had been fetched from his dungeon, and wa£ to be seen
wandering through the lobbies in search of his warders.
Men who had been shot by moonlighters limped into the
box, and poor women in their blue-hooded cloaks told pitiful
tales of midnight horror. The sharp spy was there, who dis-
closed sinister secrets from cities across the Atlantic, and the
uncouth, informer who betrayed or invented the history of
rude and ferocious plots hatched at the country cross-roads

1 Report, p. 5. a Ha*$. 342, p. 1357.



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PROCEEDINGS IN COURT 643

or over the peat fire in desolate cabins in western Ireland. CHAP.
Divisional commissioners with their ledgers of agrarian v t *
offences, agents with bags full of figures and documents, ^ a - 79 -
landlords, priests, prelates, magistrates, detectives, smart
members of that famous constabulary force which is the
arm, eye, and ear of the Irish government — all the characters
of the Irish melodrama were crowded into the corridors, and
in their turn brought out upon the stage of this surprising
theatre.

The proceedings speedily settled down into the most
wearisome drone that was ever heard in a court of law. The
object of the accusers was to show the complicity of the
accused with crime by tracing crime to the league, and
making every member of the league constructively liable for
every act of which the league was constructively guilty.
Witnesses were produced in a series that seemed intermin-
able, to tell the story of five-and-twenty outrages in Mayo,
of as many in Cork, of forty-two in Galway, of sixty-five •

in Kerry, one after another, and all with immeasurable
detail. Some of the witnesses spoke no English, and the
English of others was hardly more intelligible than Erse.
Long extracts were read out from four hundred and forty
speeches. The counsel on one side produced a passage that
made against the speaker, and then the counsel on the other
side found and read some qualifying passage that made as
strongly for him. The three judges groaned. They had
already, they said plaintively, ploughed through the speeches
in the solitude of their own rooms. Could they not be taken
as read ? No, said the prosecuting counsel ; we are building
up an argument, and it cannot be built up in a silent
manner. In truth it was designed for the public outside
the court, 1 and not a touch could be spared that might
deepen the odium. Week after week the ugly tale went on
— a squalid ogre let loose among a population demoralised
by ages of wicked neglect, misery, and oppression. One side
strove to show that the ogre had been wantonly raised by
the land league for political objects of their own; the
other, that it was the progeny of distress and wrong, that

1 Evidence, iv. p. 219 . > >



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644 THE SPECIAL COMMISSION

the league had rather controlled than kindled its ferocity,
- and that crime and outrage were due to local animosities for

1889. w hich neither league nor parliamentary leaders were
answerable.

On the forty-fourth day (February 5) came a lurid glimpse
from across the Atlantic. The Irish emigration had carried
with it to America the deadly passion for the secret society.
A spy was produced, not an Irishman this time for a
wonder, but an Englishman. He had been for eight-and-
twenty years in the United States, and for more than twenty
of them he had been in the pay of Scotland Yard, a military
spy, as he put it, in the service of his country. There is no
charge against him that he belonged to that foul species
who provoke others to crime and then for a bribe betray
them. He swore an oath of secrecy to his confederates in
the camps of the Clan-na-Gael, and then he broke his oath
by nearly every post that went from New York to London.

• It is not a nice trade, but then the dynamiter's is not a

nice trade either. 1 The man had risen high in the secret
brotherhood. Such an existence demanded nerves of steel;
a moment of forgetfulness, an accident with a letter, the slip
of a phrase in the two parts that he was playing, would have
doomed him in the twinkling of an eye. He now stood a
rigorous cross-examination like iron. There is no reason to
think that he told lies. He was perhaps a good deal less
trusted than he thought, for he does not appear on any
occasion to have forewarned the police at home of any
of the dynamite attempts that four or five years earlier had
startled the English capital The pith of his week's evidence
was his account of an interview between himself and Mr.
Parnell in the corridors of the House of Commons in April
1881. In this interview, Mr. Parnell, he said, expressed his
desire to bring the Fenians in Ireland into line with his own
constitutional movement, and to that end requested the
spy to invite a notorious leader of the physical force party in
America to come over to Ireland, to arrange a harmonious
understanding. Mr. Parnell had no recollection of the inter-

1 The common-sense view of the Henry James (Cassell and Co.), pp.
yment of such a man seems
set out in the speech of Sir



employment of such a man seems 149-51, and 494-5.

to M



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THB LETTERS REACHED 645

view, though he thought it very possible that an interview
might have taken place. It was undoubtedly odd that the <
spy having once got his line over so big a fish, should never " Et - 80 -
afterwards have made any attempt to draw him on. The
judges, however, found upon a review of ' the probabilities
of the case/ that the conversation in the corridor really took
place, that the spy's account was correct, and that it was not
impossible that in conversation with a supposed revolutionist,
Mr. Parnell may have used such language as to leave the
impression that he agreed with his interlocutor. Perhaps a
more exact way of putting it would be that the spy talked
the Fenian doctrine of physical force, and that Mr. Parnell
listened

IV

At last, on the fiftieth day (February 14, 1889), and not
before, the court reached the business that had led to its
own creation. Three batches of letters had been produced
by the newspaper. The manager of the newspaper told his
story, and then the immediate purveyor of the letters told
his. Marvellous stories they were.

The manager was convinced from the beginning, as he
ingenuously said, quite independently of handwriting, that
the letters were genuine. Why ? he was asked. Because he
felt they were the sort of letters that Mr. Parnell would be
likely to write. He counted, not wholly without some
reason, on the public sharing this inspiration of his own in-
dwelling light The day was approaching for the division on
the Coercion bill Every journalist, said the manager, must
choose his moment. He now thought the moment suitable
for making the public acquainted with the character of the
Irishmen. So, with no better evidence of authority than his
firm faith that it was the sort of letter that Mr. Parnell
would be likely to write, on the morning of the second read-
ing of the Coercion bill, he launched the facsimile letter.
In the early part of 1888 he received from the same hand
a second batch of letters, and a third batch a few days later.
His total payments amounted to over two thousand five
hundred pounds. He still asked no questions as to the
source of these expensive documents. On the contrary he



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1889.



646 THE SPECIAL COMMISSION

particularly avoided the subject. So much for the cautious
and experienced man of business.

The natural course would have been now to carry the
inquiry on to the source of the letters. Instead of that, the
prosecutors called an expert in handwriting. The court
expostulated. Why should they not hear at once where the
letters came from ; and then it might be proper enough to
hear what an expert had to say ? After a final struggle the
prolonged tactics of deferring the evil day, and prejudicing
the case up to the eleventh hour, were at last put to shame.
The second of the two marvellous stories was now to be told.

The personage who had handed the three batches of letters
to the newspaper, told the Court how he had in 1885 com-
piled a pamphlet called Parnellism Unmasked, partly from
materials communicated to him by a certain broken-down
Irish journalist To this unfortunate sinner, then in a state
of penury little short of destitution, he betook himself one
winter night in Dublin at the end of 1885. Long after,
when the game was up and the whole sordid tragi-comedy
laid bare, the poor wretch wrote : ' I have been in difficulties
and great distress for want of money for the last twenty
years, and in order to find means of support for myself and
my large family, I have been guilty of many acts which must
for ever disgrace me/ x He had now within reach a guinea
a day, and much besides, if he would endeavour to find any
documents that might be available to sustain the charges
made in the pamphlet After some hesitation the bargain
was struck, a guinea a day, hotel and travelling expenses, and
a round price for documents. Within a few months the needy
man in clover pocketed many hundreds of pounds. Only
the author of the history of Jonathan Wild the Great could
do justice to such a story of the Vagabond in Luck — a jaunt
to Lausanne, a trip across the Atlantic, incessant journeys
backward and forward to Paris, the jingling of guineas, the
rustle of hundred-pound notes, and now and then perhaps
a humorous thought of simple and solemn people in news-
paper offices in London, or a moment's meditation on that
perplexing law of human affairs by which the weak things

i Feb. 24, 1889. Evidence, vi. p. 20.



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THE FORGERIES EXPLODED 647

of the world are chosen to confound the things that are
mighty.

The moment came for delivering the documents in Paris, iEx - 80 *
and delivered they were with details more grotesque than
anything since the foolish baronet in Scott's novel was
taken by Dousterswivel to find the buried treasure in Saint
Ruth's. From first to last not a test or check was applied
by anybody to hinder the fabrication from running its course
without a hitch or a crease. When men have the demon of
a fixed idea in their cerebral convolutions, they easily fall
victims to a devastating credulity, and the victims were now
radiant as, with microscope and calligraphic expert by their
side, they fondly gazed upon their prize. About the time
when the judges were getting to work, clouds arose on
this smiling horizon. It is good, says the old Greek, that
men should carry a threatening shadow in their hearts
even under 'the full sunshine. Before this, the manager
learned for the first time, what was the source of the letters.
The blessed doctrine of intrinsic certainty, however, which
has before now done duty in far graver controversy, pre-
vented him from inquiring as to the purity of the source.

The toils were rapidly enclosing both the impostor and the
dupes. He was put into the box at last (Feb. 21). By the
end of the second day, the torture had become more than
he could endure. Some miscalled the scene dramatic. That
is hardly the right name for the merciless hunt of an abject
fellow-creature through the doublings and windings of a
thousand lies. The breath of the hounds was on him, and
he could bear the chase no longer. After proceedings not
worth narrating, except that he made a confession and then
committed his last perjury, he disappeared. The police
traced him to Madrid. When they entered his room with
their warrant (March 1), he shot himself dead. They found
on his corpse the scapulary worn by devout catholics as a
visible badge and token of allegiance to the heavenly powers.
So in the ghastliest wreck of life, men still hope and seek for
some mysterious cleansing of the soul that shall repair all.

This damning experience was a sharp mortification to
the government, who had been throughout energetic con-



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648 THE SPECIAL COMMISSION

federates in the attack. Though it did not come at once
. formally into debate, it exhilarated the opposition, and Mr.
1890. Gladstone himself was in great spirits, mingled with intense
indignation and genuine sympathy for Mr. Parnell as a man
who had suffered an odious wrong.

VI

The report of the commission was made to the crown on
February 13, 1890. It reached the House of Commons
about ten o'clock the same evening. The scene was curious,
— the various speakers droning away in a House otherwise
profoundly silent, and every member on every bench, in-
cluding high ministers of state, plunged deep and eager into
the blue-book. The general impression was that the find-
ings amounted to acquittal, and everybody went home in
considerable excitement at this final explosion of the
damaged blunderbuss. The next day Mr. Gladstone had
a meeting with the lawyers in the case, and was keen for
action in one form or another; but on the whqle it was
agreed that the government should be left to take the
initiative.

The report was discussed in both Houses, and strong
speeches were made on both sides. The government (Mar. 3)
proposed a motion that the House adopted the report,
thanked the judges for their just and impartial conduct, and
ordered the report to be entered on the journals. Mr. Glad-
stone followed with an amendment, that the House deemed
it to be a duty to record its reprobation of the false charges
of the gravest and most odious description, based on calumny
and on forgery, that had been brought against members of
the House ; and, while declaring its satisfaction at the ex-
posure of these calumnies, the House expressed its regret at
the wrong inflicted and the suffering and loss endured
through a protracted period by reason of these acts of
flagrant iniquity. After a handsome tribute to the honour
and good faith of the judges, he took the point that some of
the opinions in the report were in no sense and no degree
judicial How, for instance, could three judges, sitting ten
years after the fact (1879-80), determine better than any-



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ON THE REPORT 649

body else that distress and extravagant rents had nothing CHAP,
to do with crime ? Why should the House of Commons <
declare its adoption of this finding without question or
correction ? Or of this, that the rejection of the Disturbance
bill by the Lords in 1880 had nothing to do with the increase
of crime? Mr. Forster had denounced the action of the
Lords with indignation, and was not he, the responsible
minister, a better witness than the three judges in no contact
with contemporary fact ? How were the judges authorised to
affirm that the Land bill of 1881 had not been a great cause
in mitigating the condition of Ireland ? Another conclusive
objection was that — on the declaration of the judges them-
selves, rightly made by them — what we know to be essential
portions of the evidence were entirely excluded from their
view.

He next turned to the findings, first of censure, then
of acquittal. The findings of censure were in substance
three. First, seven of the respondents had joined the league
with a view of separating Ireland from England. The idea
was dead, but Mr. Gladstone was compelled to say that in



Online LibraryJohn MorleyThe life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 → online text (page 59 of 91)