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- Peg O' My Heart - 4/72 -
The years stripped back. It seemed as yesterday. And here HE stood grown to manhood. He needed just that reminder to stir his blood and nerve him for the ordeal of St. Kernan's Hill.
The old order was dying out in Ireland.
The days of spiritless bending to the yoke were over. It was a "Young Ireland" he belonged to and meant to lead. A "Young Ireland" with an inheritance of oppression and slavery to wipe out. A "Young Ireland" that demanded to be heard: that meant to act: that would fight step by step in the march to Westminster to compel recognition of their just claims. And he was to be one of their leaders. He squared his shoulders as he looked for the last time on the little spot of earth that once meant "Home" to him.
He took in a deep breath and muttered through his clenched teeth:
"Let the march begin to-day. Forward!" and he turned toward St. Kernan's Hill.
ST. KERNAN'S HILL
To the summit of the hill climbed up men, women and children. The men grimy and toil-worn; a look of hopelessness in their eyes: the sob of misery in their voices. Dragging themselves up after them came the women--some pressing babies to their breasts, others leading little children by the hand. The men had begged them to stay at home. There might be bad work that day, but the women had answered:
"If WE go they won't hurt YOU!" and they pressed on after the leaders.
At three o'clock O'Connell ascended the hill and stood alone on the great mount.
A cry of greeting went up.
He raised his hand in acknowledgment.
It was strange indeed for him to stand there looking down at the people he had known since childhood. A thousand conflicting emotions swept through him as he looked at the men and women whom, only a little while ago, it seemed, he had known as children. THEN he bent to their will. The son of a peasant, he was amongst the poorest of the poor. Now he came amongst them to try and lift them from the depths he had risen from himself.
"It is Frankie O'Connell himself," cried a voice.
"Him we knew as a baby," said another.
"Fightin' O'Connell! Hooray for him!" shouted a third.
"Mary's own child standin' up there tall and straight to get us freedom and comfort," crooned an old white-haired woman.
"And broken heads," said another old woman.
"And lyin' in the county-jail himself, mebbe, this night," said a third.
"The Lord be with him," cried a fourth.
"Amen to that," and they reverently crossed themselves.
Again O'Connell raised his hand, this time to command silence.
All the murmurs died away.
O'Connell began--his rich, melodious voice ringing far beyond the farthest limits of the crowd--the music of his Irish brogue making cadences of entreaty and again lashing the people into fury at the memory of Ireland's wrongs.
"Irish men and women, we are met here to-day in the sight of God and in defiance of the English government," (groans and hisses), "to clasp hands, to unite our thoughts and to nerve our bodies to the supreme effort of bringing hope to despair, freedom to slavery, prosperity to the land and happiness to our homes." (Loud applause.) "Too long have our forefathers lived under the yoke of the oppressor. Too long have our old been buried in paupers' graves afther lives of misery no other counthry in the wurrld can equal. Why should it be the lot of our people--men and women born to a birthright of freedom? Why? Are ye men of Ireland so craven that aliens can rule ye as they once ruled the negro?" ("No, no!") "The African slave has been emancipated and his emancipation was through the blood and tears of the people who wronged him. Let OUR emancipation, then, be through the blood and tears of our oppressors. In other nations it is the Irishman who rules. It is only in his own counthry that he is ruled. And the debt of hathred and misery and blasted lives and dead hopes is at our door today. Shall that debt be unpaid?" ("No, no!") "Look around you. Look at the faces of yer brothers and sisthers, worn and starved. Look at yer women-kind, old before they've been young. Look at the babies at their mothers' breasts, first looking out on a wurrld in which they will never know a happy thought, never feel a joyous impulse, never laugh with the honest laughther of a free and contented and God-and- government-protected people. Are yez satisfied with this?" (Angry cries of "No, no!")
"Think of yer hovels--scorched with the heat, blisthered with the wind and drenched with the rain, to live in which you toil that their owners may enjoy the fruits of yer slavery--IN OTHER COUNTHRIES. Think of yer sons and daughthers lavin' this once fair land in hundhreds of thousands to become wage-earners across the seas, with their hearts aching for their homes and their loved ones. The fault is at our own door. The solution is in our own hands. Isn't it betther to die, pike in hand, fightin' as our forefathers did, than to rot in filth, and die, lavin' a legacy of disease and pestilence and weak brains and famished bodies?" His voice cracked and broke into a high-pitched hysterical cry as he finished the peroration.
A flame leaped through the mob. The men muttered imprecations as a new light flashed from their eyes. All their misery fell from them as a shroud. They only thought of vengeance. They were men again. Their hearts beat as their progenitors' hearts must have beaten at the Boyne.
The great upheaval that flashed star-like through Ireland from epoch to epoch, burned like vitriol in their veins.
The women forgot their crying babies as they pressed forward, screaming their paean of vengeance against their oppressors.
The crowd seemed to throb as some great engine of humanity. It seemed to think with one brain, beat with one heart and call with one voice.
The cry grew into an angry roar.
Suddenly Father Cahill appeared amongst them. "Go back to your homes," he commanded, breathlessly.
"Stay where you are," shouted O'Connell.
"In the name of the Catholic Church, go!" said the priest.
"In the name of our down-trodden and suffering people, stay!" thundered O'Connell.
"Don't listen to him. Listen to the voice of God!"
"God's help comes to those who help themselves," answered the agitator.
Father Cahill made his last and strongest appeal:
"My poor children, the constabulary are coming to break up the meetin' and to arrest HIM."
"Let them come," cried O'Connell. "Show them that the spirit of Irish manhood is not dead. Show them that we still have the power and the courage to defy them. Tell them we'll meet when and where we think fit. That we'll not silence our voices while there's breath in our bodies. That we'll resist their tyranny while we've strength to shouldher a gun or handle a pike. I appeal to you, O Irishmen, in the name of yer broken homes; in the name of all that makes life glorious and death divine! In the name of yer maimed and yer dead! Of yer brothers in prison and in exile! By the listenin' earth and the watching sky I appeal to ye to make yer stand to-day. I implore ye to join yer hearts and yer lives with mine. Lift yer voices with me: stretch forth yer hands with mine and by yer hopes of happiness here and peace hereafter give an oath to heaven never to cease fightin' until freedom and light come to this unhappy land!"
"Swear by all ye hold most dear: by the God who gave ye life: by the memory of all ye hold most sacred: by the sorrow for yer women and children who have died of hunger and heart-break: stretch forth yer hands and swear to give yer lives so that the generations to come may know happiness and peace and freedom. Swear!"
He stopped at the end of the adjuration, his right hand held high above his head, his left--palm upward, stretched forward in an attitude of entreaty.
It seemed as though the SOUL of the man was pleading with them to take the oath that would bind THEIR souls to the "Cause."
Crowding around him, eyes blazing, breasts heaving, as if impelled by one common thought, the men and women clamoured with outstretched hands:
In that moment of exaltation it seemed as if the old Saint-Martyrs' halo glowed over each, as they took the oath that pledged them to the "CAUSE,"--the Cause that meant the lifting of oppression and tyranny: immunity from "buckshot" and the prison-cell: from famine and murder and coercion--all the component parts of Ireland's torture in her struggle for her right to self-government.
A moment later the crowd was hushed. A tremour ran through it. The
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