Catholic Emancipation and the Land

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

IT sometimes happens that when English critics dwell on the present state of the relations between landlord and tenant in Ireland, they give way to regrets for the happier condition of things in what they call the good old times. Then, they tell us, there was complete identity of interests and community of pleasures: the tenants cherished a dogged fidelity to their lord, who, in spite of his extravagances, was genial and popular, and under all circumstances dear to the heart of the peasant as the old master. This they attribute to the feelings of devotion to the chief, engendered by the system of clanship. But such a theory is based on a defective knowledge of the power of the people under the ancient Celtic system.

If the state of affairs described by these writers ever existed, it could only have had its origin and growth under the alien system of feudal landlordism, the introduction of which ousted the Celtic land-tenure from its foothold in the island. And, if we investigate the matter a little, we shall discover that the sources whence the theory is drawn are comparatively recent, and never referable to the times of native rule. The information it rests on comes from books like Barrington's Memoirs, from novels, the scene of which is laid in the stirring days immediately preceding the Union, or from direct communication with members of the landlord class. The mass of the Irish people do not participate in this yearning for the good old times, the air of which is laden for them with memories of cruel proscriptions, and of exactions which kept them always on the verge of famine.

The upper classes lived riotously and squandered their resources, so as to be seldom out of debt. Their sons followed their example. The offspring of the smallest and most straitened squire must needs have his "bit of blood" in his stable, and money to spend in his drunken orgies. Trade of all kinds was despised, but to cheat a tradesman was not considered disgraceful. If he sought repayment for his goods at his debtor's country-house, he would quickly learn that the king's writ did not run on the estate. The embarrassed gentry hugged the Castle, and recruited their finances in corruption and jobbery. Every powerful family had its faction in the court and legislature; and every office was fought for and filled by their venal and incompetent nominees. One of the Chief Justices of that time was indiscreet enough to keep a private diary, and extracts from it have recently been published. Whilst laying the best plans for getting advancement for himself, he puts on record his deliberate judgment on what he saw. "The Irish Government," he says, "resembles extremely the state of the Hottentots in Africa. The common Irish, divided, oppressed, pillaged, abused as they are, are the Hottentots; the English administration are the Dutch planters; the followers of the Lord Lieutenant are the bushmen or spies and swindlers; and their wild beasts, lions, tigers, etc., are the Irish satraps." English visitors have confirmed this account in the fullest manner.

Arthur Young, writing in 1776, states that the abominable distinction of religion, united with the oppressive conduct of the little country gentlemen, "or rather vermin of the kingdom, who were never out of it, bear very heavy on the poor people, and subject them to situations more mortifying than we ever behold in England." The poor, he adds, are in many cases slaves in the bosom of written liberty. In 1809 Wakefield said that a poor man would be thought a rebel if he did not abandon his own crop to gather in that of his master; and if to this were added the duty fowl, the duty turf, and in short the duty in general, which was only another term for personal service, it would be seen to what a great extent this kind of servitude was carried in Ireland. It was, in fact, a condition of things similar in many respects to that which caused the first French revolution.

By means of secret societies, arising for every occasion, and under various names, the peasantry kept up a sort of desultory, defensive warfare. Arthur Young's "vermin," however, had a powerful party to support them in Great Britain, where liberalism met them indeed with a protest, but with an ineffectual one. They were allowed to provoke a general insurrection; and Lord Cornwallis, who was sent over to carry the Union, had an opportunity of becoming well acquainted both with their meanness and their cruelty. He longed to kick out of his presence, he says, those who came to him for the wages of corruption; and he was horrified and disgusted by their delight in torture, and their insatiable thirst for the blood of the people. That their slaves should dream of emancipation was held by these men to be ample reason for teaching them a sanguinary lesson, and for giving free scope under the licence of martial law to that tigerish characteristic which Chief Justice Clonmel had remarked in them. But it was to be only a lesson. They did not want to destroy the tenantry altogether, for they were useful in making money for them and in supporting their nominees at the poll.

The wars of Napoleon brought a great demand for grain, and the removal of duties on the importation of Irish corn into England helped to render tillage a source of wealth, and consequently to make the retention of a hard-working and frugal tenantry a thing to be desired. But the termination of the war came, and the Catholic Relief Act followed some years after. In consequence of the former event the demand for corn fell; tillage became less profitable; and, as the landlords had the making of the laws altogether in their own hands, they took the matter into consideration, and provided a remedy. Having encouraged tillage before, they now fancied that pasture would probably pay better; and their next step was to take means to rid themselves of those of the tenant-tillers who might cumber soil fit for pasturage. No time was lost. The following year saw the first Act passed for making evictions more easy by the agency of the Quarter Sessions. The tenants, however, had one thing still in their favour. They were voters; and, in a period of patronage and jobbing, it was important for the landlord to have as many voters at the poll as possible. His political interests served as a check upon his material interests —if we may call those interests political which, on analysis, resolve themselves into very solid and material benefits also. However, there was a certain antagonism such as we indicate, which hindered the ejectments from becoming general.

The Catholic Relief Act brought in another era. The serfs who had borne their bondage uneasily revolted, constitutionally; and, against the will and desire of their lords, they returned to represent them in Parliament one of their own race and of their own creed, but not of their own class. O'Connell was one of those Irish Catholics who had little by little obtained the right to hold land as landlords, and who did not represent the by-gone chieftain at any time, but a feudal lord shorn of some privileges and powers. This class of men had interests distinct from those of the cultivators of the soil. They had to fight their way through penal restrictions and other obstacles to obtain some of the offices of emolument which had before been monopolized by the professors of another creed. They could not bear to see the golden current flow by them untasted; and, even when they sprang from the lower ranks, they made their own people serve as the ladder for their personal advancement, speaking them fair and making them many solemn promises which some broke incontinently when the prize was in their grasp. Something not altogether unlike this occurred with regard to the Relief Act. It was proposed first with two conditions or "wings," one reserving to the Crown the right of veto on the appointment of Catholic Bishops, the other enacting the disfranchisement of the forty-shilling freeholders.

The stern protest of Dr. Doyle saved the clergy, but no redeeming hand was stretched forth to shield the peasant electors. They had fought the fight, borne the brunt of the battle, and won the victory. Then they were cast aside like useless swords. It is questionable, indeed, how far the right of voting would have protected them, even if they had retained it. The religious passion had been evoked, and would continue to be evoked, to make them brave those who had the power of feudal lords over them. The representatives whom they could return might prove unfaithful, or at least powerless to protect them from the retaliation of their taskmasters, who were allied with men of the same class, though of different antecedents, in England. As it was, the Act which gave relief to the upper-class Catholics brought disfranchisement on the lower multitude. This was one way of qualifying any benefits it might accord.

The landlords had now no political interest to serve by retaining a tenantry on their estates who could not vote them or their friends into any posts of profit, and who were not perhaps more than equally profitable when compared with cattle. Fanatics roused their fears also, and taught them that this Act was only the beginning of a great upheaval, when those who were down would be raised up, and the great bulwark of Protestant ascendancy would be overthrown. They had preserved their character of aliens: and now they felt a strange terror resulting from this very antagonism they had fostered; and a vague fear of what the future might bring forth hung for ever like a cloud between their hearts and contentment. They thought they could not do better than disarm their possible enemies in time. Hence came schemes of new colonizations from Britain, of local plantations of Protestants only, on the estates of some fanatically foolish landlords. Hence, too, came projects of wholesale evictions, that the work which had not been done by Elizabeth, or James, or Cromwell, might now at last be completed, and the men who cultivated the soil might be clean swept out, and their places given over to the beasts of the field. Catholic Emancipation was followed in two years' time by another Act to cheapen and facilitate the process of ejectment; and this was still further amended and improved upon, until eviction became quite a cheap and easy thing for the landlord. It is remarkable enough that ejectment for arrears of rent should be a creation of the Statute law.

The earliest enactment of the kind is stated to be the 6 Ed. I., c. iv., which, however, only allowed the remedy in case of the arrears having been due for two years. Those Statutes which have successively abridged the term of grace, appear to have been made with a special view to accommodate Irish landlords, so that their organs are forgetful when they raise a cry of no exceptional measures for Ireland. Ireland has been ruled exceptionally in the interest of their class. There is another fact which bears upon this subject, and which is pregnant with significance: the Brehon law did not contemplate eviction for non-payment of rent, and the common law of England did not recognise it either. At common law, a landlord could not eject his tenant, whilst it was declared that "the exile or destruction of villeins or tenants at will, or making them poor when they were rich when the tenant came in, whereby they depart from their tenures, is waste." (Co. Litt. 536.) The "Middle Nation," as a matter of fact, never promoted the extension of English laws to the Irish people, unless when they had themselves the power of manipulating them and moulding them so as to suit their own especial ends. They cherished only so much of the feudal system as gave them power and privilege. When Drummond declared that property had its duties as well as its rights, he was harshly denounced.

With the passing of the Relief Act, and the disfranchisement of the forty-shilling freeholders, a separation was made between the landlord and his tenantry, so that, having little further need of them, he availed himself of the power left in his hands to rid himself of them. An era of eviction had been ushered in. It must be avowed that the grievous mismanagement of affairs during the famine years by the Government of the day put a heavy premium on the depopulation of the country by eviction. For instance money was advanced by the Treasury, to be expended on public works, and to be repaid by local assessments; but the public works were of a strictly unproductive character; and the consequence was that the work done helped in no wise to pay off the money advanced. Terribly heavy rates became necessary in consequence.

The industrious and provident were struck down by them to the ground. Many of the landlords were ruined, and others warned to devise means for delivering themselves from such a peril by clearing off their tenantry. The system of divisions adopted for poor-law rating in Ireland, differing from that in England, facilitated the work; for under it the large proprietor could drive all possible paupers out of his district, and by so doing would never afterwards be liable to help in supporting them. They could not be sent back upon him, but remained a burden to some neighbour, or trebled the rates upon the struggling artizan in the next town. Owing to causes of this kind the rates are most unequal. Those of a country town may be five or six times heavier than those of a rural district close by, merely because its workhouse has been filled from that district by eviction. Here is the simple reason of that strange fact in Fenianism which has puzzled all beholders—the exceeding disaffection of the artizan classes of the towns; and this shows how fallacious is the common argument against attributing Fenianism to the land-law grievances.

Although during this period events have followed each other in the manner which has been described, allowance must be made for some modifications due to local circumstances. The Ulster custom, for instance, must be taken into consideration, and the kind feeling of many individual landlords. In many places, too, the tenantry who possess votes have voted with the landlord, and never started a Liberal candidate; so that in the northern counties, where this state of things exists, politics do not come in as an incentive to eviction. But the tenantry are as much as ever the slaves of the landlord's will in the matter; and this is an intolerable thing in a country where an estate may change hands several times in the course of a few years. The new owners are many of them worse than the old, inasmuch as they are wholly strangers, who, having made money in other pursuits, invest it in an estate, on the expectation of a good per-centage. They are not conversant with the drawbacks of farming, and know little how to make allowances for injuries resulting from bad weather. This makes the present condition of affairs, with regard to land-tenure in Ireland, especially anomalous and chaotic. But whilst the condition of the cultivator is bad because it is insecure, he has recovered an advantage which had disappeared with the old Celtic system. He has got a representative of his Brehon in the person of the stipendiary magistrate, and thus is not in all things in the power of his landlord.