Social War in Ireland

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

By 'An Ulsterman'

THREE years ago there was said to be peace in Ireland. The Viceroy never wearied of proclaiming that the country was on the high road to prosperity, and that the people were happy and contented. From all other official sources of information the empire received similar intelligence. If the facts were rightly stated, how does it happen that there has been so complete a change in so short a time? No new law since then has been laid on the inhabitants of Ireland calculated to stir them up to wrath, nor has any great affliction since then fallen upon them which they could charge the Government with not having taken due measures to prevent or alleviate If the facts were otherwise, if there was not peace in Ireland, if the country was not prosperous nor the people contented, then the State was badly served by its officials in Ireland. Knowingly or unconsciously, they misled public opinion at a time when ameliorating measures would have been most influential, and by so doing they took upon themselves the responsibility of endangering the peace of the empire. Now that is a responsibility which should rest solely with the Legislature ; for the servants of the State to assume it is a grave usurpation. It is possible, indeed, that they did not understand the people, or appreciate the circumstances of the time ; in either of which cases they were as unsuited for their position as men could be who chose to consult their own prejudices instead of studying to perform their duties.

Ireland, in the opinion of the majority of its people, was not prosperous, nor in the enjoyment of a real peace, three or four years ago. The declarations to the contrary on the part of officials greatly exasperated the multitude, and were regarded as the manifestation of a deliberate and hostile policy on the part of the Government. And it was not the lower class alone, nor the lower and middle classes alone, who were impelled to give way to such thoughts. A Relief Committee, presided over by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, held its sittings in the Irish capital; and whilst it was receiving thousands of pounds from all classes in Ireland, from friends in England, and from the Irish race abroad—whilst New York alone sent a contribution of some 10,000—it had to suffer the marked neglect of the Viceroy and the open attacks of the organs of the Chief Secretary. Yet this Relief Committee was composed of clergymen and gentlemen the most opposed in politics and in religion. The inference drawn was natural. If Irishmen of all classes, creeds, and politics could lay aside their private views in order to combine in one charitable effort, and if none in Ireland but the officials of the Government opposed it, it was inevitable that the opposition of the Government should be attributed to some ulterior and unfriendly motive. Now, the distress, which had been chiefly caused by wet harvests, put the tenantry in many places altogether at the mercy of their landlords; and the latter too frequently made no allowance for the calamitous seasons, but plied the sufferers with notices to quit. Here, then, it was said, is the reason and motive of the conduct of the representatives of England. They would fain prevent the distribution of relief amongst the people, lest the mere Irish should escape eviction, lest the old inhabitants of the country should not be swiftly exterminated.

What gave additional colour to their reasoning was the frequent asseveration of the Lord Lieutenant, as he made his viceregal progress from one cattle-show to another, that Ireland was destined to be simply the "fruitful mother of flocks and herds," and that, in order to qualify her for such a destiny, the population should be thinned out. No people with any spark of manhood in their breasts would bow to such a theory. It had naturally an evil effect in Ireland. "If it were not known that the bee had a sting the beehive would be robbed," was the expression of a peasant orator at a monster meeting of the people held upon the historic hill of Sliav-na-man, in Tipperary. He went soon after to learn the use of arms in the American war, obtained promotion rapidly, and is now one of the most active organizers of the Fenian Brotherhood in that country. But the policy of extermination, so openly avowed by Lord Carlisle, aroused the indignation of the upper classes as well. We have seen how opposed the Catholic Clergy generally have shown themselves towards what is called "Fenianism" in Ireland. It must not be imagined, however, that such opposition means acceptance of a policy of expatriation for the Irish. "The men who have the destinies of the nation in their hands," wrote the Catholic Primate of Ireland, "forgetful of their duty, appear to look on with indifference at the sufferings of the poor, and the laws established for the relief of indigence are generally administered in such a spirit as to afford scarcely any assistance where it is most wanted.

While some of the high functionaries of the state are lecturing on the prosperity of a starving population, whilst foreign poor-law officials are calculating on how small an allowance of food a poor man may be starved without any one being made responsible to the law, not of God but of man, for his death, the only resource left to the most afflicted classes of society is in the charity of the faithful." Whilst such a condemnation was extorted from the Primate, the Archbishop of Cashel, in thanking the vicar of the American Bishop of Buffalo for certain donations, said that he had read that Bishop's letter to his clergy and people with no small emotion, and proceeded thus to quote and comment upon it : "That Ireland, naturally so fertile, and united with 'rich and powerful England' (his Lordship's words), should be subject to periodical visitations of want, sometimes little short of, sometimes amounting to, starvation, is an anomaly surprising, indeed, yet easy to be accounted for. Your good Bishop does account in part for this anomaly. The apathy of the Government of 'rich and powerful England' which will not see or will not heed the distress of the Irish people, but leaves them to their fate, either to perish of want or to live upon the charity of foreign lands—the hostility of the Government of 'rich and powerful England' which maintains a code of land laws ruinous to the best interests of Ireland—these things the Bishop of Buffalo signalizes in his admirable address, and they are undoubtedly among the causes of the anomalous, the unhappy condition of Ireland.

The direct operation of the land laws is to root out the Celts. The Government of ' rich and powerful England' sees this, and will not raise its little finger to change the system of land laws which are thus depopulating Ireland. What are we to conclude from all this? What can we conclude, unless we are artfully blind, but that the Government of ' rich and powerful England ' has no objection to the depopulation of Ireland, and therefore leaves those laws to work her ruin ?" The Archbishop of Tuam, addressing a letter to Mr. Gladstone on the state of the country, adopted similar phraseology, and earnestly remonstrated against the Viceroy's policy of driving out the people to make room for cattle. He foreshadowed the effect which we now see it has had upon the Irish population at home and in the United States. In fact, every Catholic prelate or priest who referred to the condition of Ireland spoke in the same spirit which prompted the Bishop of Limerick's words in a conference of his clergy. "We are not contented with the English Government in Ireland," he said : "we have neither love nor liking for its dealings with the Irish race."

But it must not be imagined that these were the only men who regarded this policy as hostile to their country, or protested against it. As, in spite, first of official denials of the existence of distress in Ireland, and next of official neglect and discountenance of the exertions of the Relief Committee, persons of all persuasions came forward to constitute it, to contribute to its funds or to claim its aid, so the Irish journals were all but unanimous in deprecating and denouncing the Lord Lieutenant's depopulation scheme. It must be borne in mind that the people, hopeless of any favorable change in the land-laws from a parliament of landlords, as they expressed it, had been flying from their country at the rate of a hundred thousand annually. Protestant, Presbyterian, and Catholic journals from one extremity of Ireland to the other (with perhaps a few interested exceptions) declared that the chief cause of an exodus which they regarded as ruinous was the absence of any guarantee that the tenant would enjoy the fruit of his labour, and the presumption that he would be despoiled of it. The spread of education, they pointed out, had taught the peasantry that in no civilized nation in the world was such a state of things permitted.

It could not be that the emigration was caused by over-population, because Ulster, the most densely populated province, was avowedly the most prosperous of all. Ulster, however, had a "custom" which gave the tenant some security in his holding, and some recompense for his outlay on improvements. It could not be the poverty of the soil, nor the wetness of the seasons, which prompted the flower of the rural population to emigrate; for Scotland had a greater rainfall, and Ulster was, by nature, one of the poorest of the provinces. Thus they reasoned. But whilst the vast majority of the Irish people protested, the Viceroy alone was listened to by certain influential English organs which in Ireland are supposed to represent the ideas and intentions of the governing classes. His theory was borne back to Ireland from the capital of the empire in harsher echoes; and the people were plainly told that they were too many by half a million or more. They had nothing to hope from the Legislature, nothing from the laws. The masses of the peasantry felt as if the country were laid under an interdict—as if a Notice to Quit hung over the nation, like a thunder-cloud. Forebodings came upon them that they were on the eve of another colonization from Britain, like that by which Cromwell crushed out the native population before. All the old wounds were re-opened, and all the old evil memories cankered inwardly.

It was under the pressure of this policy that two associations sprang into existence, and a third, from being of little strength, rapidly became a power. One of the new organizations was the National League, which under the presidency of a Protestant, took up O'Connell's policy, and claimed a repeal of the Union and a native Parliament; the second was the National Association, which under the patronage of the Catholic prelates, thought it better to leave those questions in abeyance, and to give one other trial to the Imperial Legislature. They hoped, by allying themselves with the English Liberals, to obtain a rectification of the land laws, and equal rights and privileges in Church and school questions, through the abolition of existing and invidious monopolies. No one who has studied the position of Hungarian parties with regard to Austria will be at any Loss to find parallels for these Irish associations.

But these two societies were not formed of the classes immediately affected by the national Notice to Quit. The League numbered but few members outside Dublin, except in Australia; the Association included a large body of the clergy and some representatives of the respectable laity. The non-emancipated multitude were not in either. They have not much confidence, it would seem, in being able to employ the laws for their own defence, which is not perhaps an altogether unreasonable shyness, seeing that for two centuries they have seen all the law arrayed on the side of the landlord, many statutes passed to enforce his claims, and not one for the protection of the tenant. They know nothing of the British Constitution; its embodied principles are represented to them only by the landlord, the agent, and the minister of the Established Church, who are always magistrates, and sometimes depopulators. To stay the progress of local extermination, they had occasionally found the erection of secret tribunals, with laws more favourable to the non-emancipated, of some use and service. They argued from this to larger things. When the Chief Secretary for Ireland declared that the nation required to be more than decimated—when the Viceroy pronounced a decree of national ejectment against the country—they fancied they saw in both but the representatives of evicting landlords, against whom to appeal to the laws would be to appeal in vain. The Irish Republican Brotherhood, then in its infancy, offered the framework of a secret society, with aims and laws which were professedly made to root the people in the land of their birth. If they felt well disposed to it, we should recollect that they have never had the security of our laws identified with their interests; if in large numbers they became members of that secret society, and imparted to it the formidable character it has since acquired, we must not forget that the challenge was thrown down to them by some of our own officials, and that, in unmistakeable terms, they were bidden to fly or fight.