THE LATE SIR ALEXANDER MACDONNELL.
SIR ALEXANDER MACDONNELL, the Resident Commis- sioner of the Irish Board of Education, who lately died in Dublin, has not received from the Press anything like his due weed of recognition. This was natural enough. His career was essentially an administrative one. Individually, he was character- ised by a noble diffidence of nature and an utter superiority to the vulgar passions. Thus he had the happiness during his long ife of eluding notoriety. Yet the real creator of England's one successful institution in Ireland, the National System of Education, he who found it an imperilled experiment, and left it after his government of thirty-two years a solid, far-reaching, and im- pregnable organisation, must have been a born statesman. That work is his crown and testimony. Apart from it, taken as he was in his daily life and amongst his friends, he was an example of how high a creature the Celt may become under the fairest influences of culture. For he was a Celt of the Celts, if an ancestry of a thou- sand years could make him so. Among that pedigree are to be reckoned the Somerled of the twelfth century, whom Scott's "Lord of the isles " has made known to us ; the Coll, brother of the Somerled of the sixteenth century, named by the English Sorley Boy (Somhairle Buidhe), whom Mr. Froude so vividly paints, standing on the northern headland of Antrim, and wring- ing his bands in powerless despair as he beheld the massacre of his kindred by Sussex in the Island of Rathlin ; and in the suc- ceeding century the Colkittos, father and son. It is close on five hundred years since the MacDonnells of the Isles made good their footing in Antrim by peaceful marriage with Margery Bissett, the heiress of the Glynnes :— 4, In Antrim's Glynnes, by fair Glenarm,
Beyond the pebbly-paven Bann."
What the sword did not bestow it was forced to defend. For two centuries and more they rarely saw the face of peace, fighting now against the Ulster Chiefs O'Neill and O'Donnell, now in alliance with them against the English Lord Deputy. Their history, which is in truth a history of Ulster, has been lately given to the world by the Rev. Mr. Hill, of the Belfast Queen's College, in a work of great ability and original research. Since the braining of the seventeenth century, the most conspicu- ous and illustrious of the clan have been the Marquises and Earls of Antrim, descendants of Sorley Boy. Sir Alexander traced his line from a brother of Sorley. When Milton in his Tetrachor- don sonnet speaks of " Macdonald, or Colkitto, or Galasp," he really designated one and the same person, called the left-handed (Coll Keilagh) MacGillaspie MacDonnell. His son Master (young Colkitto) was Montrose's famous lieutenant, whose memory in the Highlands survived that of Montrose him- self. He it was who, under direction of the Earl of Antrim, levied and brought over to Scotland that band of Ulster Irish who formed the real backbone of Montrose's little army, who won Tippermuir and Kilsyth, and the remnant of whom, after the fatal field of Philiphaugh, were slain in cold- blood, preached to their death by the Covenanting clergy. Alaster himself had returned to Ireland after Kilsyth, to take a command in the army of the Confederate Catholics, and met his death at the fight of Cnocnanos, "being as stout and strong a man as ever carried a broad-sword and targett of late dayes, and so vigorous in fight that had his conduct been equivrilent to his valour, he had been one of the best Generals in Europe." Sir Alexander's father, Dr. James MacDonnell, was the sixth in descent from Master. He was a physician in Belfast, the most successful and popular of his time, well read, and endowed with great breadth and strength of intellect. Down to him the family had steadfastly adhered to the old religion (as was the case with the Earls of Antrim also till the middle of the last century), but Dr. MacDonnell's father had married a Protestant lady who contrived to have her own way in the bringing up of her son. Still, though adhering to his mother's faith, his sympathies of justice and pity were, like his son's, always ranked on the side of the Celtic people. Of what stuff his ambition was made, appears from his resolution to give his son as good an education as the Empire could afford. He sent him to Westminster School and Oxford. In both, his reputation as a scholar was of the very highest. At Oxford he was a student of Christ Church ; he won the Latin and English University prizes, and after his degree, the Latin and English Essay prize, a double distinction which a writer in the Times
refuses to clean a rookery. The reprobation will not go far, but states to have been achieved but by one other Oxford man, the the idea at least will be health, and health and hurry in Mr. late Dean Milman. In those halcyon days he grew intimate with and was loved by all that was then brightest and most promising among the youthful minds of England, and on to old age or death their regard for him never ceased. Lord Taunton, Lord Harrowby, the late Speaker Denison, and others who have since won their way in public life, were among his coevals and friends. Lord Carlisle, who held him in the tenderest affection, was his junior, so was Macaulay. Mackintosh and the poet Thomas Campbellwere among his friends of an elder generation. Years afterwards, when he was in middle-age, he and Campbell met by accident on their way to the Rhine, and the meeting is joyously recorded in the journal of the latter. The year was 1841.
" On the eve of setting out from Aix, I saw a white-headed man with dark, dazzling eyes, eyeing me anxiously. What the devil !' thinks I. Sure I don't owe the man any money. He was in the coach that was to take us both to Cologne.' Campbell,' said the white pate, 'have you quite forgot MacDonell?' Ah! it was my gifted, my learned, my right good friend MacDonnell Twenty years ago, when the worthy Wishaw, whose great favourite he was, brought him to my house, he was in the flower of youth—perhaps about thirty. He was handsome beyond expression ; a model of young manliness, with looks of noble intellect and winning benevolence. Though Irish-born, he is one of the first classical scholars in the kingdom, and he has still a commanding appearance, though time has bleached his Hyperion curls. Bat from Aix to Cologne, and even to Coblentz, I was too weak to con- verse with my welcome friend During that day I had more of MacDonnell's conversation to myself ; and it awoke in me delicious re- membrances of classical poetry which were sinking—sinking, I may almost say, into a swoon of death ! He made me promise to publish my letters on Greek literature, and especially to fight over again a good fight for the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. We could not, he, said, prevent the partition of Poland, but we might slaughter the would-be partitioners of Homer. I have always been an advocate for educating the great mass of mankind in practically useful instruction rather than in classical literature, because the latter, particularly its poetry. is a luxury untasteable to nineteen minds out of twenty. The aroma is too fine for their nostrils. It is like cultivating acres of violets and roses for men who have not the sense of smell. But MacDonnell is one of the classical scholars who enjoys Greek poetry with all his heart, and I felt the contagion of his enthusiasm MacDonnell is one of the few who has felt all that he has read in the classics. He taxed my powers of recollection to the utmost to keep up with him in quoting favourite passages. Some of the bystanders listened to ns with apparent curiosity, but seemed to go away in the full belief that we were a couple of maniacs."
Why had such gifts and accomplishments no greater outcome? He was destined for the English Bar, and was called to it at the age of thirty. He had every qualification for success but one— be lacked toughness—that indomitable belief in self, before which in the race of life all other endowments recede. Shortly after his call he held a brief with the then Attorney-General before a Com- mittee of the House of Lords, and through the temporary illness of his leader was called on to conduct the case. What would have been to a more obtuse organisation a golden opportunity was to him a despair, and his finely-strung nerves gave way. Mortified beyond expression, he renounced the Bar, and returning, after a while, to Ireland, accepted the position of Chief Clerk in the Chief Secre- tary's office under the lamented Drummond. It was the time when the first attempt was made to render Catholic Emancipation a reality and not a dead letter, so far, at least, as administration was concerned. In this Drummond was at one with Lord Mulgrave and Lord Morpeth, and MacDonnell was with them heart and soul. To his efforts at that time the present-.Baron Deasy bore testimony in the House of Commons. "No man in Ireland had rendered greater services to the public, and especially to the Roman Catholic portion of the public, than Mr. MacDonnell. In times of difficulty and danger, when the contest was whether Roman Catholics should have any share in the administration of the country, .Mr. MacDonnell was one of the small band who stood up in their defence."
In 1839 he was transferred to the office of Resident Commis- sioner of the Board of Education, of which he became the presiding and animating genius. He ultimately had his way—the way of simple fair-play—in the face of enormous difficulties. For, unhappily, the spirit of foul-play, conscious or unconscious, was strong and not easily laid. Mr. Stanley's letter, the Charter of the Board, had banned " even the suspicion of proselytism," but this was a hard saying to men brought up in the old way of treating the Roman Catholic religion in Ireland. They looked to the Education system as the means of diluting the waters which the previous policy had failed to divert. Archbishop Whately, staunch liberal as he was, avowed, as appears from his life, published by his daughtef since his death, that he regarded the Board as titt means of "undermining the vast fabric -of Popery in Ireland." All ideas of this kind were abhorrent to the honest nature of Alexander MacDonnelL Sincerely Protestant himself, he desired that the faith of his poorer fellow-countrymen should, in the
spirit as in the letter of the Board's working, be pro- tected. From this essential difference of view arose ever- recurring conflicts at the Board, which culminated in the discussion whether Dr. Whately's "Truths of Christianity" should be retained among the sanctioned school - books. The Archbishop was beaten, and retired from the Board, together with Chief Justice Blackburne and Mr. Baron Greene. Certainly, in point of justice to the mass of the population, the Board is a very different institution now from what it was five- - and-thirty years ago. Two or three Catholic Commissioners, two or three stray Catholics in the office among a mass of Protes- tants, were all that the grudging and exclusive spirit of the time would allow in a system intended to educate a Catholic people. Now, one-half of the Commissioners, one-half of the Inspectors, are and by law must be Catholics, and a majority of the clerks are so in fact. The present distinguished Resident Commissioner, who was trained under the eye of his predecessor, is a Catholic. In the effecting of all this Sir Alexander MacDonnell took a zealous and energetic part.
In the details of administration, next to his impartiality, the- _most conspicuous feature was his unwearied endeavour to search out, watch over, and advance desert. For talent and virtue he bad an innate sympathy, which acted with the force of material attraction. To say that be had no enemies would be a stigma upon a long official career. But there never was enmity against him that did not spring either from the vindictiveness of disap- pointment or from the natural antipathy of low to high. With all that was best among his staff, with all that was best in the country, he was held in an esteem and reverence which grew and strengthened to the very end. He had been made a Privy Coun- cillor in 1846. His baronetcy was conferred upon him after he
• ceased to be Commissioner.
He resigned in 1871, at the age of 77, but he hardly looked within ten years of that age. He had a physique worthy a Mac- Donnell of the Isles ; could in his youth walk forty Irish miles at a stretch, and in his last visit to London, a couple of years ago, to be examined before a Committee of the House of Commons, he brought a friend off to show him with great glee the place where in old Westminster days he had " leathered the butcher." On attaining his leisure, he turned anew with the avidity of one- and-twenty to history and the classics. Of late years his vaca- tions were mainly spent in the home of his people, and though he had travelled much, he loved beyond all views on earth the sight of the green cliffs, the bays, and headlands of the Antrim glens. Those who have enjoyed his conversation must despair of expressing its charm. Frank, enthusiastic with the enthusiasm of a boy, full of recollection of the men he had known and of the statesmanship of fifty years, yet happiest and most winning in the -region of pure literature, and above all, of poetry. He loved Ireland dearly, but all his hopes for her had as their rooted basis the desire to see her won over to England by persistent -fairness of treatment. With his physical constitution, his ab- stemiousness of habit, and his love of air and exercise, he seemed to bid fair for fourscore and ten, but a bronchitis caught in a season more than usually deadly carried him off, at the age of .eighty, leaving few like and few approaching to him.