The appeal was held in September, 1844. At that time the House of Lords was the High Court of Appeal on all legal questions. Now it need hardly be said that the vast majority of the members of the House of Lords were not lawyers and knew nothing about law. But the usage was, that only the law Lords as they were called, that is the Peers who were lawyers by profession, and who had been elevated to the Peerage because of their legal services, should vote in the division on a question of legal appeal if any division should take place. Five law Lords were present when O'Connell's appeal was heard - the Lord Chancellor (Lord Lyndhurst); Lord Brougham, Lord Denman, Lord Cottenham, and Lord Campbell. Lord Lyndhurst and Lord Brougham were of opinion that the sentence of the Criminal Court should be affirmed. Lord Denman, a lawyer of the highest ability and reputation, on the other hand condemned altogether the manner in which the trial had been conducted, and especially condemned the systematic exclusion of all Catholics from the jury box. Some of his words have become proverbial, have passed into the common speech of men, and are quoted every day by people who have not the least idea from what authority they are quoting. Lord Denman said that such practices as that of the Crown Prosecutor at the O'Connell trial would make of law " a mockery, a delusion, and a snare." Lord Cottenham and Lord Campbell agreed with Lord Denman. But then, if the lay Peers as they were called - that is the Peers who were not lawyers - were to vote on the question, as by law they had a perfect right to do, it was absolutely certain that the vast majority of votes would have been given against O'Connell. O'Connell had always bitterly denounced the House of Lords, its constitution, its influence, and even its leading members. The effect upon public opinion in Ireland would have been calamitous if the practice pursued on the O'Connell trial had been sanctioned merely by the ignorant votes of Peers who were well known to be bitter opponents of O'Connell and his agitation. A wise and timely word from a distinguished Peer, Lord Wharncliffe, saved the situation. Lord Wharncliffe appealed to the lay Peers not to create a public scandal by departing from their usual course, and recording their votes on a question which affected a purely legal issue, while it concerned also the leader of a political movement, to which the great majority of the lay Peers were well known to be opposed. This advice had its effect; the lay Peers withdrew and left the question to be settled according to the invariable course on former occasions by the decision of the law Lords. As we have seen, three out of five of the law Lords were in favour of the appeal; and the appeal was therefore successful, and O'Connell and his companions were set at liberty.
Of course, this result was welcomed with impassioned enthusiasm by the Nationalists of Ireland; but the Repeal agitation never recovered its hold upon the country.
O'Connell's health soon gave way, and he was no longer able to exert the influence he once had maintained over the people of Ireland. As he grew weaker the younger men grew stronger, and they carried on their own agitation, which after awhile ceased even to profess to hold itself bound by the limits of the existing constitution. A famine broke out in Ireland, and public attention for a time was drawn away from any manner of agitation, constitutional or otherwise. O'Connell's last speech in the House of Commons was made on the subject of the growing famine, on April 3, 1846. Then his health utterly collapsed and broke down. He had led a life of unceasing work and toil and excitement, and even his colossal frame could not bear the task he had imposed upon it. He was longing to die in Rome, the capital of his Church, and he hurried to Italy with that last hope. The hope failed him, and he could only drag his languishing limbs to Genoa, where he died on May 15, 1847. He lived just long enough to escape the sight of another great continental revolution, and of its sudden effects upon his own country, and upon the great movement which he had called into existence with such unsparing energy and such popular power.
The famine proved most desolating in its effect; the potato crop failed almost altogether during two or three successive seasons; and the Irish peasantry of the South, the West, and the Midlands lived almost entirely on the potato. With the famine began that immense rush of emigration to the United States which, combined with the vast number of deaths caused by starvation and by sickness, soon reduced the population of Ireland to half what its number had been in the days of the struggle for Catholic Emancipation. In 1848 came the Revolution in France, the sudden dethronement of Louis Philippe and the establishment of a new Republic. The flame of revolution once more spread over all Europe, and thrones were shaken from the Bay of Biscay to the Dardenelles. The excitement caught the Young Ireland Party, as the former followers of O'Connell were called who had seceded from his leadership during his later years. The result was the delivery of inflammatory speeches, the writing of inflammatory poems and leading articles, and finally, a sudden, hardly premeditated outbreak of rebellion in the summer of 1848. The rebellion was put down before it had time to catch fire, and would have been a hopeless business in any case, for no provision of arms and ammunition had been made, and the wisest among the young men who led the party saw the futility of any attempt at physical force, and opposed it as long as they could. The leader of the Young Ireland Party, Mr. William Smith O'Brien, his friend Thomas Francis Meagher, and two others were put on trial charged with high treason, convicted and sentenced to execution.
The sentence, however, was not carried out; it would have been impossible at that time to hurry men to the scaffold for an attempt which collapsed almost altogether without bloodshed; and Smith O'Brien and his companions were sent to penal servitude for life. All the Young Ireland leaders were men of high character and high ability. John Blake Dillon, who escaped to France and then to America, had a distinguished career at the American Bar, and was afterwards allowed to return to this country, where he sat in Parliament for some years and was esteemed by everyone. His son, John Dillon, is now a distinguished Irish Nationalist Member of Parliament. D'Arcy McGee, another Young Irelander, rose to hold high office in the Ministry of the Canadian Parliament. Meagher and Richard O'Gorman made honourable careers in the Great American Republic. Of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy we have already spoken. The Young Ireland movement was over; but it left a new national inspiration behind it, which in our time, has taken the constitutional and parliamentary method of an agitation for Home Rule. Great English statesmen and orators like Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Bright were led to take on themselves the task of remedying some of the cruel grievances which law and custom had long inflicted on Ireland. Mr. Gladstone, with the assistance of Mr. Bright, abolished the unjust, anomalous, and altogether peculiar laws which made the Irish farmer and the Irish labourer the mere bondslaves of the landlord class; and disestablished and disendowed the Irish State Church, an institution up to that time maintained by the State, but which did not appeal to the religious sympathies of one-sixth of the Irish people. More lately Mr. Gladstone did his best to obtain for Ireland a domestic Parliament, and only failed in his generous effort in his first attempt because of the secession from the Liberal Party, which, as we have already shown, invariably follows any attempt to establish some great measure of popular reform, and in his second attempt because of the resistance of the House of Lords. We are now anticipating some passages of our story which are to be set out more fully in a future chapter. The demand and the agitation for Home Rule still go on. Without attempting to forecast the future, we may say that the demand is nothing more than for the extension to Ireland of the constitutional system which has pacified and consolidated Canada, which has been the strength of the Australasian colonies, which exists in the Cape of Good Hope, and exists even in the Channel Islands. These, at least, may be taken as illustrations of the system of Home Rule, and, probably, as guiding lights helping us to foresee what are the chances for a contented, a prosperous, and a loyal Ireland in the coming time.