Dillon, John Blake (1814–66), nationalist and journalist, was born 5 May 1814 in Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, fourth of seven children of Luke Dillon, farmer and shopkeeper, and Anne Dillon (née Blake), of Dunmacrina, Co. Mayo. Dillon was educated at St Patrick's College, Maynooth (1830–32), and TCD (1834–41). A prizewinner in political economy, he gained a BA degree in logic and ethics, and was called to the Irish bar. At Trinity he made the most important friendship of his political career, with Thomas Davis (qv), whom he succeeded as president of the Historical Society. When Davis emerged as a teacher of Irish nationality, Dillon was his earliest confederate. The two friends served their apprenticeship in journalism together and joined O'Connell's Repeal Association in April 1841. They gained an ally in Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), who wished to found a national weekly after selling his Belfast newspaper.
Davis, Dillon, and Duffy met in the Four Courts, Dublin, and planned The Nation during their famous walk to the Phoenix Park. There, Davis recalled, ‘they discussed it over again on a bench under a big elm, facing to Kilmainham . . . The pushing of the tenure question was due entirely to Mr Dillon and of nationality to me.’ From the outset of his political career, Dillon recognised the importance of land tenure reform. The first issue of The Nation – what T. W. Moody (qv) called ‘the most notable journalistic venture in Irish history’ – appeared on 15 October 1842 (Thomas Davis (1945), 27). It succeeded, Davis asserted, because it ‘was written by men smarting under the sight of the people's misery and mad at their country's degradation’ (Nation, 1 Oct. 1844). Initially, the talented Nation contributors supported Daniel O'Connell's (qv) repeal agitation, but as its hopes were not realised, they turned increasingly towards the romantic nationalism then sweeping through Europe. The Young Irelanders, as the group came to be called, also took up the United Irish ideal of reconciling Orange and Green. But they were not much more successful than O'Connell in wooing Irish protestants to the nationalist cause.
Dillon's own health deteriorated after the sudden death of Thomas Davis (16 September 1845). While he recovered in Madeira, his poor countrymen struggled to survive during the first year of the great famine. He then concentrated on his legal career, having already ceased to write regularly for The Nation, and was not present when Young Ireland seceded from the Repeal Association in July 1846. Although no one seriously contemplated using physical force at this time, O'Connell's peace resolutions – rejecting force in all circumstances – were unacceptable to his young critics.
Dillon played a leading part in the Irish Confederation (founded in January 1847), which made little headway during ‘Black ‘47’. Early the following year, however, a series of revolutions on the Continent gave new hope to the divided and dispirited repeal movement. The sudden collapse of established regimes led Irish nationalists to believe that self-government could be won with similar ease. Dillon's wife, Adelaide, would recall that the Paris revolution of February 1848 created a storm of excitement in Ireland ‘and carried all before it – even the wise and calm resolves of moderate men’ (TCD, Dillon papers, MS 6457e).
When the British government suspended habeas corpus in Ireland (25 July 1848), Young Ireland honour demanded a principled stand. Dillon and Thomas Francis Meagher (qv) persuaded William Smith O'Brien (qv), MP, to lead a rising in the south-east. The leaders drifted halfheartedly into a premature revolt. Crowds gathered but melted away before clerical admonition and O'Brien's failure to feed his ragged army. Dillon proposed that they fall back on Kilkenny, fortify a house, and issue a proclamation of independence. On this plan being rejected he left Co. Tipperary for the west, thereby missing the inglorious encounter with Irish constabulary at the Widow McCormack's house, near Ballingarry, which ended the attempted rising on 29 July.
In itself an insignificant affray, as a protest against the famine cataclysm the uprising contributed to the growth of national consciousness. The Young Irelanders were thinkers and dreamers rather than men of action. O'Brien, in particular, proved incapable of striking the first blow. John Mitchel (qv) noted in his Jail journal (1913 edn, p. 7): ‘Dillon – [Richard] O'Gorman – good and brave men, but not sufficiently desperate . . .’. In Killenaule Dillon acted with reckless courage in confronting a troop of cavalry and asking their captain if he had a warrant for the arrest of O'Brien. On being told that he had not, Dillon was reluctant to begin hostilities. None the less, a crowd cheered as the proclaimed traitor, with a reward of £300 on his head, escorted the dragoons out of the village.
On the other hand, a display of force by Britain – by August there were 35,000 troops in the country – showed a determination to keep Ireland in the United Kingdom (if not the will to feed her). After the collapse of the rising fear turned to derision in official circles.
Although none had shown a ‘more perfect contempt’ for his life than Dillon, his enthusiasm ended in flight and withdrawal from public life. As Meagher observed, he was ‘too much inclined to despond when things go wrong’ (TCD MS 6455/96). The arrest of O'Brien on 5 August signalled the end of Dillon's insurrectionary hopes and he now concentrated on escaping to the United States. In a letter to his wife, written while a fugitive in Co. Galway, he confided that the fate of his friends O'Brien and Meagher (also among those detained) was a source of deep regret. ‘If I had these two with about a dozen others in the same ship with me, I would depart with a light heart with a prospect of never setting foot on Irish soil again’ (TCD MS 6455/68). In September 1848 he boarded an emigrant brig in Galway Bay, disguised as a priest.
Exile meant freedom for Dillon, who soon joined an Irish-American élite: the two per cent of professional people among the Irish in New York. In that city, Dillon and his brother-in-law, Charles Hart (1824–98), avoided the factions which grew up around the ‘discomfited revolutionists’. They thought events in Ireland merited a dignified silence. Dillon wrote one public letter in defence of the leadership of O'Brien, who was then languishing in Van Diemen's Land(Tasmania). His encomium would be dismissed by John O'Leary (qv), with some justification, as nonsense. Nevertheless, Lord Clarendon (qv) (viceroy in 1848), commented: ‘It is perfectly true that the insurrection was forced on before the preparations were complete and that accounts for its being of the paltry character described by Dillon, but that was no fault of the leaders. They meant to wait till the harvest was got in and the club organisation was completed throughout the country.’ (4 Feb. 1849, quoted in K. B. Nowlan, The politics of repeal (1964), 215–16n).
Dillon prospered as a lawyer (in partnership with O'Gorman) but was persuaded by his wife to avail himself of a British government amnesty and return to Ireland in 1856. They settled in her old home, Druid Lodge, Killiney, Co. Dublin. The former Young Irelander, John O'Hagan (qv), had already encouraged him: ‘ . . . you must keep your eye on Ireland. To serve her is your true mission’ (NLI, MS 5758/105).
Dillon was a liberal catholic (among his papers in TCD is his translation of part of Words of a believer, by Félicité Lamennais). In the era of reaction that succeeded the year of revolutions, he went through a period of disillusionment with the church and Irish politics. During the recession of the early 1860s in Ireland, however, he formed the National Association, as a constitutional alternative to Fenianism, with the ultramontane archbishop of Dublin, Paul Cullen (qv). Duffy remarked that Dillon's generous nature made him more a philanthropist than a politician (Young Ireland, i, 38). He was elected MP for Tipperary in July 1865. While 1848 represents the dramatic climax of his career, in one year at Westminster he made a decisive contribution to the Irish–liberal understanding which heralded the great era of Gladstonian reform. Dillon's 1866 land bill helped to reverse the presumption in law that the tenant's improvements were his landlord's property.
Dillon retained the friendship of those with whom he differed politically. Mitchel said that among the Young Ireland group he ‘was perhaps the most beloved, had most friends and fewest enemies’; when he opposed the suspension of habeas corpus in 1866, his speech showed ‘that the fire of ‘48 is not yet quite extinguished under the snows that now whiten his head’ (Irish Citizen, 7 Mar. 1868). Richard Robert Madden (qv), who heard Dillon speak at a church meeting in Glasthule, Co. Dublin, on the Sunday before his death, concluded: ‘He loved his country well, but he loved his religion better’ (Leon Ó Broin, An Maidíneach (1971), 318).
On that occasion Dillon averred that the condition of Irish catholics had improved ‘thanks to the patriotic efforts of their forefathers – thanks to the great O'Connell, and the people who sustained him through his long and arduous struggle. Thanks also to the liberality and justice of a large section of the English people. But much remained to be done’ (Nation, 22 Sept. 1866).
Dillon married (October 1847) Adelaide Hart (1828–72), daughter of a Dublin solicitor. She shared her husband's love of country and deep religious faith, as their memorial in Glasnevin cemetery records, and urged Irish women to become fosterers of disinterested patriotism. The founders of a political dynasty, the couple had eight children: three girls and five boys, the most distinguished being John Dillon (qv) MP. John Blake Dillon died suddenly of cholera, aged 52, in Killiney on 15 September 1866. A portrait by Henry MacManus (qv) is in the NGI .