The Felon’s Track by Michael Doheny
Reviewed By: Martin Griffin
THE FELON’S TRACK or “THE HISTORY OF THE ATTEMPTED OUTBREAK IN IRELAND” By Michael Doheny, October 1849. 317 pages. ‘Embracing the Leading Events in the Irish Struggle from the year 1843 to the close of 1848’. Descriptive quote courtesy of the Title page.
Michael Doheny was an Irish patriot, barrister, writer and one of the older members of the Young Ireland Movement of the 1840s; only William Smith O’Brien was older. Doheny was among the group of Young Irelanders who contributed to the newly founded nationalist newspaper “The Nation” which became the organ of the Young Irelanders. The paper quickly became the talk of the town the favorite of a great many people, selling out as quickly as new agents received their allotments.
The “Nation” was more than just an every day or weekly newssheet. It was a nationalist political journal, which provided political opinions whose expressions were clarion calls to an increased and active resistance to the tyranny of the British Government and their agents in Ireland. It also published powerfully rousing verse and patriotic prose of ancient heroes, much from staff writers but contributions from the nation at large were also readily accepted.
Opinions usually reserved for voicing among friends or compatriots in private converse or secret societies glared in bold type. The sangfroid with which it was written despite the charge of Treason attaching to some of its harsher articles was the cause of the discomfit not only of the ruling aristocracy and system that were the targets of its verbal darts but also of segments of the population that would benefit from the institution of the policies advocated therein.
Members of Mr. Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association at the beginning of the endeavor sought to co-opt the paper as another of its organs by having one of the Liberators son’s, John O’Connell, join the staff, something John hesitated to do until his acceptance was withdrawn. Thomas Davis who by that time was wary of the politics and manipulations of the great man, O’Connell, was willing to be practical in allowing Repealers to contribute as well as having the Association offer subscriptions to its vast membership, when the success of the paper was immediately evident the decision was made to stick with the original plans and go it alone.
The core members who made up the Young Ireland group were members of the Trinity College Historical Society, which was something of a debating club and a society to repair the want of an actual Irish dimension to the history taught at the college. Some of its more famous members were Thomas Davis who was the Auditor or President of the group, Thomas MacNevin, John Dillon, and others whose names will enter and leave the narration at various points.
Thomas Davis especially was hostile to certain aspects of Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association. Many histories have handed down an image of a enlightened movement led by a dedicated and somewhat pious leader. Members of Young Ireland saw O’Connell and many of his followers as typical (Parliamentarian) though well meaning politicians.
The movement’s members became increasingly opposed to the philosophy and methods of Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Movement. They also felt that the great man had been surrounded by sycophants, yes men, who had led him astray in their selfish search for position.
In the ‘establishment’ histories O’Connell is presented as something of an Irish Lincoln, a man of probity and gravitas, while Lincoln was considered something of a secular saint, O’Connell was in every way sectarian though not without reason. His concern was purely for the Catholic population. O’Connell was not a nationalist, though there are mitigating circumstances in his defense at the time of O’Connell’s political height there were no other politicians fighting the battles he fought.
Enslaving people or starving them is among the most heinous things that human beings and nations have historically done to each other. The only thing that can be said about the British relating to both matters is that no matter how parsimoniously the British fed their actual personal slaves – the human beings they ‘owned’, they did in fact provide their sustenance, while allowing their ‘subject’ slaves the “Irish” to slowly starve to death for five years or more years, 1845 to 1850-51.
Doheny opens his book recognizing the undoubted though heralded and perhaps in his view overstated contribution to the betterment of the lot of the average Irish Catholic that Mr. O’Connell brought about through his Parliamentary efforts. The problem was that Young Ireland, especially thinkers like Thomas Davis saw Ireland’s salvation not in Parliamentary political efforts but in efforts of Irish resistance.
The early part of the book is devoted to the permutations and alignments that various segments of the Repeal Association underwent. The most contentious phase being times of political alignment with the Whigs when principle was put aside for position and patronage.
The book is prefaced by Arthur Griffith, a fact that by itself makes the read worthwhile as Griffith displays an eminent skill in analyzing and expounding on Doheny’s effort and the era under examination. The book details the failure of politics to effect relief of the scourge of the famine; and the increasing outrage of those who believed themselves capable of instigating and maintaining a military or revolutionary response to the disaster. British legislative actions used to subdue the increasing famine caused anger; as did the lack of legislation related to effective relief of that same catastrophe.
When they tried to raise the standard of revolt they met with mixed results. In some of Ireland’s counties they found the people ready to rise though they found their leaders were not, and when finally both objects came together it was their own leadership that was lacking. Arthur Griffith calls William Smith O’Brien as brave a man as Ireland ever produced but a failure as a leader due to his extreme conservatism.
Doheny is not the smoothest of Young Irelands writers; “The Felon’s Track” is not a page-turner. He is at his best when he describes the country’s natural beauty while on the run seeking a way out of the country and away from the hangman. He describes the generosity with which the Irish peasant responded to his continuing need for shelter while a fugitive; and the fear and disgrace of supposed friends and allies when he knocked at their doors for similar aid and met with cold refusal.
The contents page listing the chapters offers one the easy way out by detailing in sequence the contents of each chapter. If you have trouble with the opaque language of the nineteenth century, (you are not alone) but have an interest in a particular phase of Young Ireland’s history or the era of its occurrence, or even specific items like the “Monster Meetings of the Repeal Associations, or the epic speeches from the dock after the risings failure by stalwart men like Thomas Francis Meagher, the contents will guide you to what it is you seek without the need of reading seven other chapters.
Even if reading on-line presents certain difficulties, it can be hard on the eyes, this book has something for every Fenian at heart, after the Transportation for life of the prime characters many of them return to play a role in the founding of Irish-American organization that advance the struggle both technically and to the into next generation.
At the end of this 317 page book is an index of the Dramatis Personae as it were, called: “The Contemporaries Mentioned In The Felon’s Track” offering biographical blurbs on just about everyone mentioned in the text from: Anglesey, Lord, to O’Connell, Daniel, Napoleon, Louis, down to, Wyse, Sir Thomas.
The link to the book at PROJECT GUTENBERG IS: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14468/14468-h/14468-h.htm