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Old 03-17-2022, 03:44 PM   #141 (permalink)
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Chapter XI: Under the English Heel II:
Rising and Falling: Emancipation, Starvation and Emigration

Just a quick note, in case anyone wonders why the subtitle for this, and subsequent chapters? Well, up to now it’s certainly been a case of Ireland having been under the English heel for over seven hundred years, but for all that, nominally we remained a free country, or at least a separate country. The first king to proclaim himself King of Ireland as well as England was Henry VIII, this claim ratified by the Crown of Ireland Act passed by the Irish Parliament in 1541, but prior to that the monarch had always been in control of the Lordship of Ireland. Even when incorporated as the Kingdom of Ireland, we had our own laws, our own Parliament, our own identity. From the start of the nineteenth century till well into the twentieth, we were part of the United Kingdom, subservient to the King or Queen of England, and so it must have felt like that boot was pressing down even harder on our necks. This, therefore, would be seen as the second, and closer phase of that oppression, thus the title.

Anyway, on we go. One of the things known now around the world which only came into being after the 1801 Act of Union was the recognised symbol of the British empire, the Union Jack (or to be more precise, Union Flag: it’s technically only known as the Union Jack when flown at sea, though this seems to have been ignored or forgotten, or done away with altogether) as the crosses of England (St. George), Scotland (St. Andrew) and now Ireland (St. Patrick) were intermingled in the flag of the new United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland, usually known as just the United Kingdom. I would personally question why a red X was chosen as being representative of the Irish, as we have always been associated with the colour green, but then, the English were hardly going to have what would be seen as a Catholic nationalist symbol on their precious flag, now were they?

Under the provisions of the Act of Union, several major changes were instigated, the most far-reaching of course being the dissolution of the Irish Parliament. Whereas members previously reported to Dublin Castle, now they were summoned to Westminster to sit in the joint UK Parliament. As well as this, the Irish Army was absorbed into the British Army and the Church of Ireland was merged with the Church of England (though perhaps oddly, the Church of Scotland was allowed to remain as it was, perhaps because it was already a strongly Protestant nation).

The Prime Minister at the time, William Pitt the Younger, had managed to get the Act passed on the basis of, among other inducements, the promise of Catholic emancipation, where Catholics would be again allowed to sit in Parliament, but the king, George III, was against this, believing such a concession would violate the oath he had taken at his coronation, and so in protest at being blocked by the Crown Pitt had to resign. Therefore only months after he had pushed the Act through, Pitt was gone and a new Prime Minister led the government. The chances of Catholics being looked on fairly was lost.

And yet, even with this loss, Catholics in Ireland were broadly in favour of union. Seems odd today, but I guess when you remember that they had no say in the politics of their own country, that it was their “own” (Protestant) Parliament in Dublin which had levelled the cruel Penal Laws at them, that the whole institution of Dublin Castle was seen as corrupt and self-serving, and that joining with England might afford them some measure of royal protection, maybe not so odd. In the end, it mattered little, as it often does, to the ordinary man, who got oppressed just as much by the new government as he had by the old, and still had to struggle to make his living. There was no improvement in his working or living conditions, he still had basically no rights, and to quote Roger Daltrey, it really was a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

I personally find it odd to discover that many Protestants were against Union. I would have thought the idea of being joined to the land of their forefathers would have appealed, but no. It seems Protestants believed that London would go easier on Catholics than had Dublin, and they were right. Of course, their real fears were rooted in the need to give up their power; decisions that had been up to now made by the Protestant Parliament in Dublin would henceforth be made in London, leaving them with little actual say in the running of the country. One Protestant who was very much in favour of, and doggedly determined to realise the passing of the Act of Union was the Earl of Clare.

John Fitzgibbon, 1st Earl of Clare (1748 - 1802)

His father had been born a Catholic but like some Irishmen had taken the oath to the king and converted to Anglicanism, principally to be able to pursue a career as a lawyer (and presumably to assure his son of a decent life in society) and like many lawyers he scraped a living and barely got by. Like hell. He made a pile, as would his son, who was appointed Attorney General in 1783 and then Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1789, moving through the ranks of the peerage until he attained the earldom of Clare in 1795. A fierce rival of Henry Grattan, he utterly opposed any rights for Catholics and only supported the 1793 Irish Catholic Relief Act because as a member of the government he was expected to, and did not fancy going against the party line. However he strongly supported the Act of Union, essentially breaking with the hardline Protestants with whom he had been in line up to then, and made an impassioned speech almost a year before the Act was passed into law:

"I hope and feel as becomes a true Irishman, for the dignity and independence of my country, and therefore I would elevate her to her proper station, in the rank of civilised nations. I wish to advance her from the degraded post of mercenary province, to the proud station of an integral and governing member of the greatest empire in the world."

Fitzgibbons’s contention was that without the Act of Union, Irish Catholics would rise up and overthrow their masters. Why this was believed I don’t know, as he was speaking only a few short years after it had been quite clearly proven the Irish, while they might mostly have the stomach and heart for such a rebellion, had no real means of achieving it. Perhaps the Protestants, remembering the victories the United Irishmen had won, and the atrocities committed by them, or even thinking back to the time of Cromwell, looked at each other in fear and doubt and asked, what if? So a combination really of scaremongering (not hard to achieve with the dread spectre of 1798 hovering over them) and bullying, along with the old standard, enlightened self-interest, convinced the Protestants that union was the way to go.

It seems to have been Fitzgibbon who put the idea in the king’s head that granting any sort of relief or concessions to Catholics would violate his oath. King George III was not known to be an astute or clever man - he did, after all, suffer mental illness later in his life - but once an idea was planted in his head he stuck to it, without questioning its merit. So it was with the purported breaking of his oath. He would not be convinced otherwise by Pitt, which led to the resignation of the Prime Minister and the passing of the Act without any concessions to Catholics.

In this respect it could probably argued that, were his name better known and recognised in history, the Earl of Clare might indeed have gone down in Irish history as a man deserving of almost as much hatred as Oliver Cromwell, being the one who almost single-handedly prevented the relaxation of laws against Catholics and allowed them to be pulled into union with Britain under circumstances they had not expected. In other words, he was the broker of the reneging on the promise of Catholic emancipation, even if it was the word of His Majesty that stopped it in its tracks. As we would say here, a real fucking cunt.

The Rising Redux - Ireland Tries Again

A mere two years after Ireland had been forcibly joined to England to form the United Kingdom, Irish nationalists were again trying to secure its freedom. No doubt seeing the failure of the 1798 rising as something to build on and improve rather than something to discourage them from further attempts, the Irish would again seek the aid of the French in their bid to overthrow their oppressors, and again this aid would fail to come through. Realising the fears of Protestants, and allowing eerie truth to ring in the stentorian warnings of John Fitzgibbon prior to unification, Catholic Irish freedom fighters would show the Ascendancy that they were not in any way giving up the struggle, and this would continue to be the case through the next two centuries. Ironically, freedom for Ireland would eventually be won not through force of arms but by negotiation and a sense of inevitability, with the backdrop of the horror of the war to end all wars giving new perspective, but it would still take over another hundred years.

Robert Emmet (1778 - 1803)

The architect of the first rising of the nineteenth century would be Robert Emmet, brother to Thomas, who had fought in the 1798 rebellion, and a contemporary of Theobald Wolfe Tone, one of the martyrs of the rising. Robert and Thomas’s family were Protestants, members of the Ascendancy, and very financially comfortable, their father the physician to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He though became interested in the cause of American independence, and from there that of Irish freedom, and his sons carried his beliefs into - eventually tragic but historical - action, both fighting for their country and against their religion and king. The founder of the United Irishmen, William Drennan, also visited the Emmet house, so it must have been seen as a hotbed of Catholic revolt.

With the defeat of the 1798 rising, and the exile of his elder brother, Robert and William Putnam McCabe set about re-establishing the United Irishmen, this time under a strictly military footing, whereas before it had been a secret political society. Mere months after the end of the rising McCabe set out for France, to try to convince Napoleon to come to the aid of the Irish against the English, and Emmet joined him there in 1802. However they chose their time badly. France had already given aid to Ireland in the abortive 1798 rising, to its cost, and Napoleon was busy with other matters, like the wars which came to bear his name. So he said “Non, merci” and sent the Irish on their way.

One thing Emmet and McCabe did here, which I haven’t seen any reference to being attempted in the previous rising, was to reach out to English Jacobins, left-wing radicals who followed and espoused the principles of the French Revolution, and in particular the United Britons. It seems odd to me that the United Irishmen did not, as surely gaining support in the lair of the enemy would have helped their cause. And we know they travelled, to France anyway, in the hopes of securing allies there, so why not call in to see if they could rally the support of the United Britons? Were they around at that time?

Hmm. Quite strange. Seems they were formed around 1796 so should have been in some sort of shape for the rising, but maybe the rebels didn’t want to appeal to Englishmen for help? Or maybe they didn’t know of them. Whatever the reason, Robert Emmet and William McCabe did, and they tried to enlist their help. Unfortunately, as I’ve said before and will be chagrined but right to say again and again and again, Irish risings were always doomed. Robert Emmet’s is a particular case of poor planning, cowardice, misunderstandings, bad timing and bad luck, and really, in another world it would have been quite funny. Almost.

The first problem Emmet and McCabe ran into was with their intended allies in the United Britons (sometimes also called United Englishmen). As usual, there was a traitor in the camp, this time a man called Thomas Wright, but what his role, if indeed any, in the thwarting of the rebellion was I have no idea, nor whether he communicated information to London about the United Britons. Either way though, the Englishmen were arrested and Edward Despard, who had travelled to make the alliance, executed. This afforded Emmet a much frostier reception when he arrived in 1803 to lay plans and talk strategy. It seemed his enemies were either dispersed or no longer interested in fighting for Ireland.

Before we go any further, let’s look into this Despard character.

Edward Despard (1751 - 1803)

As I research the history of Irish opposition to the English occupation of our shores, it’s been surprising to me how many of the most rebellious and hardline fighters have come from the Protestant class. Far from being just disgruntled Catholics trying to gain their rights and those of their countrymen, important figures in the first rising came from, as we saw, the aristocracy and the Ascendancy, Lord Edward Fitzgerald being the most prominent, but here too we find Robert and Thomas Emmet’s father, as well as both his sons, coming from a Protestant (and wealthy) background, yet taking up the cause for Irish independence. Another such was Edward Despard, born into wealth and privilege in County Laois and who in fact served in the American War of Independence, fighting alongside the legendary Admiral Nelson (not yet an admiral of course at that time), and was a member of the British Army for over twenty years. Not only was he a Protestant but also descended from Huguenots, and so you would think would have had reason to hate Catholics, at least historically, given their persecution and exile by Louis XIV.

The very opposite of a racist, he ensured land he oversaw in the Bay of Honduras in 1789 was equally available to black or white, rich or poor, man or woman. His even-handedness upset the local Baymen - loggers who kept slaves - whose protests were instrumental in having Despard recalled to London in 1790, dire warnings of a revolt among the slaves and recently-freed men convincing the British government that Despard was better back home than making waves abroad. Despard brought with him his black wife, to the scandal of London, though his position ensured it was not discussed openly or condemned. Perhaps strangely, perhaps not, it was in fact his own family who later denied the marriage, refusing to accept that Catherine had been married to their son. This may have had something to do with his fall from grace, in allying himself to the Irish cause, or it might have been an attempt to clean up, as they saw it, and as far as could be done, the family name.

Despard’s troubles followed him home, not only in the shape of the general - if restrained - disapproval of his marriage, but in lawsuits lodged by the Baymen against him for “unfair practices”. These landed him in a debtor’s prison for two years, where he passed the time reading. For those who have never read Dickens, a debtors’ prison, though certainly a prison, was not as harsh in terms of punishment as the likes of Newgate; though nothing was provided, unlike regular prisons, all could be purchased and if you had enough money you could be quite comfortable there. There was no treadmill, no rule prohibiting conversation among prisoners, no chains etc. What caught Despard’s interest most was Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, and it set him thinking about the injustices across the water, in Ireland.

On his release he had to take refuge in revolutionary France, where his ideas about freedom hardened, and when he got back to Britain he joined the London Corresponding Society, a debating club, of all things, which was dedicated to reforming the British Parliament. The Seditious Meetings Act and the Treasons Act (1795) both made gatherings discussing or contemplating “seditious behaviour” a crime, one of treason, and Despard was arrested after a riot in Charing Cross, though later released. His luck ran out when he met Fr. James Coigly, arrived from Manchester. Coigly was a prominent figure in the United Irishmen, and had come to try to rally support for the uprising the next year. With Coigly he was arrested on the way back from France; Coigly was hanged and Despard was imprisoned for three years.

On his release, Despard again teamed up with agitators and United Irishmen in preparation for another rising, and an alleged plot to kill the king. He was arrested and tried for high treason in 1802. It was little more than a show trial, with hardly any evidence produced but the inevitable guilty verdict reached. Despite pleas for mercy from his wife and even from such a heroic figure as Nelson, and due to the fear that Britain was on the verge of its own rebellion, Despard and his compatriots were executed on February 21 1803.
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Old 03-17-2022, 07:49 PM   #142 (permalink)
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Back we go to Robert Emmet then. Unlike some of his contemporaries a few years earlier, he is said not to have relied upon French assistance for the rising, but it all went to hell in a handbasket anyway. Honestly, if it wasn’t so serious it would be hilarious, and one thing it certainly was, was typically Irish.

The rising - which hardly deserves the name, lasting less than a day - was beset by problems from the very start. To be fair to Emmet, he and his people do seem to have learned from 1798, and in addition to the standard pikes (some of which could fold up to be concealed under cloaks) he had grenades, rockets and exploding wooden beams. He had no artillery, of course, but at least, weapons-wise, he was a little better prepared than his brother’s crew five years previous. Unfortunately, everything that could go wrong, did.

An accidental explosion at one of his concealed arms depots led to the date of the rising being brought forward before the caches could be discovered, and so on July 23 1803 the rising was to begin. Quite cleverly, or at least astutely, Emmet had proclaimed that the coming rising was not a sectarian one: "We are not against property – we war against no religious sect – we war not against past opinions or prejudices – we war against English dominion."

In this he hoped to show this was not a case of Catholics rising against and fighting Protestants, but Irishmen resisting the occupying English overlords. He gave assurances that there would be no revenge reprisals against loyalists, no outrages or attacks. It was a canny thing to say, and should have helped secure if not support at least no resistance from sides which up to now had always been opposed and which lived in mutual distrust and fear of each other. In effect, what he was saying was "look lads, all that burning down houses, killing Protestants, atrocities - it's all so eighteenth century. This is a new age, and we don't hold with that kind of stuff. If you're not with us, that's cool, that's cool. Just don't be against us, and there'll be no trouble. You want to join us, magic, very welcome. Just don't get in our way. Leave us alone and we'll leave you alone, deal?"

Fine words, and fine sentiments. Probably might have even worked. But again, the twin spectres of bad planning and the demon drink scuppered any chance Emmet’s rising had of being successful.

A large contingent of men, led by a former leader of the 1798 rising, Michael Quigly, arrived at Emmet’s weapons depots with what has variously been reported as hundreds or even thousands of men, eager to take up arms and fight for their country. The problem was that Emmet had not counted on such a large number turning up, and he hadn’t nearly enough weapons to supply them all. Shrugging, disgruntled and probably disparaging his lack of quartermaster skills, the Kildare men turned and headed home. Later that evening they would put into effect a half-hearted attempt at supporting the rising on their own, but this would flounder on the news that Dublin had failed to come through, and they quickly surrendered.

The plan, reasonably clever, had been to take Dublin Castle, the seat of power of the British government in Ireland. Being in the heart of the capital, this was only lightly defended, and Emmet planned to take it by stealth, using fine carriages to present the illusion of gentlemen on their way to a meeting to gain entry. The carriages though never arrived, due to a dispute between the commander and the local garrison, in which a soldier was shot. With no way into the Castle now, and a mere eighty men when he should have had about two thousand, Emmet now learned that his rockets and grenades were useless - some mix-up with the fuses, technical bods, you know how it is - and thought it best to try to call things off.

Unfortunately by now the thing had a life of its own, given impetus by the sight of his men completely pissed and reeling through the streets, firing at anything that moved, or indeed didn’t. Lamp posts were shot at, and we all know what a threat to Irish independence they were! Trying to make the best of what was rapidly becoming the least impressive rising in the less than impressive history of Ireland’s attempts to break her chains, Emmet drew his sword, turned to his - by now almost completely drunk - men and shouted “Now is your time for liberty!” He might as well have shouted “Time, gentlemen, please!” for all the notice they took of him.

To darken the comedy a little, and bring things back to reality, let’s not forget that people did die in this truly ineffectual attempt at rebellion, which you have to imagine might only have succeeded due to the British being too helpless with laughter at the incompetence of the drunken Catholics to do anything. The Lord Chief Justice, Arthur Wolfe, Viscount Kilwarden, had the bad luck to ride down the street as the intoxicated Irishmen rampaged through Dublin, looking for a target. He was dragged from his carriage and hacked to death, while a single soldier was also pulled off his horse and met a similar end. Drunken soldiers then tried to force passers-by at Ballsbridge to fight for their country, but everyone ignored them.

By midnight, the military had finally got their shit together and hauled themselves out onto the street, where the rebels were easily dispersed, probably heading for any late-night drinking establishment that would let them in. Dejected, Emmet returned home to a brow-beating from his housekeeper for his failure and for abandoning his men (not that you could blame him really. It had all gone spectacularly tits-up).

In Antrim, hotbed of resistance in 1797/1798 and scene of the “Dragooning of Ulster”, nobody gave a shit. It was, in the end, way way too soon. The lessons of 1798 had been learned and were still raw wounds; nobody expected a rising to succeed, and nobody cared. One of the organisers of the attempted northern resistance, Thomas Russel, saw the grand total of three people turn out to hear him speak, and one opined that being subservient to the French would be as bad as being under the English boot. Nowhere in the country, with the small exception of some lacklustre action, as already mentioned, in Kildare, did the nationalist fervour catch. People were, in general, probably tired or risings that went nowhere, and also fearful of the dreadful reprisals for which the British had become infamous. You’re all right, they said: we’re grand thanks. In that fatalistic attitude typical of the Irish, they probably said "English occupation? Ah, sure, it will do."

Perhaps strangely (certainly strange to me), given that the rising had failed so utterly and so comically, Emmet still seemed to think that the French would be interested, and sent one of his commanders off to see if Napoleon fancied popping over and saving them from the English? It’s recorded that the emperor’s laughter could be heard as far as… well, no, it isn’t, but suffice to say Napoleon had enough trouble on his hands without taking on Ireland too. Had the Irish managed to take Ireland for him, defeat the English and give him a base he could use, well, there could be merit in that. But send an invasion force into a country still completely controlled by his enemies? Step into the lion’s den naked and weaponless? Sacre bleu! Formidable! Or something.

Emmet was, of course, quickly captured, though he did himself no favours by switching his hiding place in order to get his leg over, visiting his girlfriend, Sarah Curran. Our old friend Leonard McNally, (remember him? Renowned traitor who helped do for the 1798 rising?) got involved in the trial and sealed the young leader’s fate. Sentenced to hang, Emmet made his last speech from the dock, one that, despite the almost bumbling ineptitude of his attempted rising, has gone down in Irish republican history.

"Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man who knows my motives dare now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance, asperse them. Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain un-inscribed, and my memory in oblivion, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done."

And so ended the second major attempt at an uprising in Ireland. Well, not quite. I mean, you couldn’t call this a rising could you? It achieved nothing - other than the, no doubt unintended and certainly impossible to capitalise upon, death of the Lord Chief Justice (who had, paradoxically, been instrumental in saving the life of Wolfe Tone after the 1798 rebellion) - and was if anything further evidence, if any were needed, of the lack of organisation, commitment and discipline of the Irish Catholics, and even later champion of Catholic emancipation, Daniel O’Connell, denounced Emmet as “an instigator of bloodshed, undeserving of any compassion.” Padraig Pearse, calling Ireland to arms over a hundred years later in the final Rising, would have a different take. He would describe Emmet’s paltry rising as being “not a failure, but a triumph for that deathless thing we call Irish nationality.” Right.

Really oddly, the news of the rising penetrated as far away as New South Wales, where the exiled Irish heard about it a year after it had failed (though were probably unaware of the result) and tried to sail home to join up and fight for the country of their birth. Needless to say, they never made it out of Australia.

Dublin Castle was quick to hush the whole incident up. After all, they had had no idea at all of the plot being hatched in their back garden, so to speak, and had the carriages actually turned up as planned, the centre of British power in Ireland could, theoretically, have been taken. Eighty men (some possible sober) could easily hold such a fortified building (it is a castle, after all) so maybe they realised, red-faced, not only how close they had come to being actually overrun but also how easy it had been for the scheme to unfold without their knowledge or any intelligence of it whatever making it back to them. You kind of have to wonder, though, what happened to the network of traitors and spies spoken of in the chapter on the 1798 rebellion? This was only five years later, and as we’ve seen, McNally at least was still alive and squealing. How is it that this so-called network was unable to infiltrate Emmet’s United Irishmen and get word back to the Brits? Maybe Emmet, aware of or at least suspicious of the spies, made sure none of them got near him. I suppose we have to remember that many of these spies’ identities were only uncovered after the rising.

Even so, it was a catastrophic failure of intelligence on behalf of the English. I mean, imagine for instance a bunch of ISIS terrorists discussing taking the White House or the Capitol Building while based in an apartment block just off Pennsylvania Avenue. Not likely, right? And it should not have been likely here either, which led impetus to the British government to cover up the whole thing and hope it went away. It also gave them licence, however, to turn the spotlight back on the “unruly Catholics”, ignoring the fact of course that Emmet was a Protestant, as was Russell, and Jemmy Hope, another organiser in the north, was a Presbyterian.

I suppose you can at least say that Emmet’s heart was in the right place, and luckily for him, remained so. Although said to have been sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering, any account I can turn up speaks of his being hanged and then beheaded, which means then that he avoided that most humiliating, terrifying and agonising of deaths traditionally reserved by the Crown for traitors, the ultimate deterrent, and also the ultimate ugly spectator draw. Who wants to watch a man hang when you can see him go through so much more? Perhaps by now the meaning of hanging, drawing and quartering had taken on a different meaning, perhaps the accounts I read were wrong, or perhaps the method of his death was commuted at the last, maybe in fear of unnecessarily stoking new hatreds among the Catholics. Anyway, it seems Robert Emmet was buried in an unmarked grave, until some years later when his remains were spirited to the family plot.

Personal Thoughts on Robert Emmet

Look, I’m not going to denigrate a patriot and an Irish hero - I even spoke to one of his descendants on another forum - but let’s be brutally honest: we’re dealing with a well-intentioned gobshite here, aren’t we? Someone whose heart may have been in the fight but whose brain certainly could not have been. Firstly, why did he have to organise the so-called rising for when he did? I get he was pushed by the explosion at the armoury but even so, why did it have to be 1803, a mere five years after the Irish had been thrashed into submission with very little effort on behalf of the British? How could he have believed the country was again spoiling for a fight (without copious amounts of alcohol)? How could be not have understood that those who died in 1798 did so more or less in vain; that they achieved nothing at the time and failed utterly to rouse the country into rebellion, the only real bastion of the rising being Wexford? Why did he think the time was now? Why did he go looking for help from the French, and then, finding his requests turned down, go ahead anyway?

Even allowing for the fact that, against all the signs, he decided to proceed, how did he so badly miscalculate the ratio of guns to men? Could he really have interested that many more people than he had expected, and so had no weapons for them? And if he did, how could he not see that going ahead with the plan, left with less than a hundred of the two thousand men he had expected, was suicide and pointless? Even allowing all that, why couldn’t he keep his men - the few he had - out of the fucking pub? Everyone knows the worst place you can bring an Irishman is the local, and don’t expect to get any work out of him if he finds his way in there. Even given all of that, finding his men virtually drunk off their asses, why did he not call the whole damn thing off? But no. He had to go ahead didn’t he, making his crazy, all but suicidal and certainly symbolic gesture, and he paid for it with his life.

What has remained of Robert Emmet is a legend, built upon by successive attempts by Irish leaders to throw off the chains of oppression, and pointed to as a perfect example of the ultimate sacrifice, when in my opinion what it should be pointed to as a perfect example of is ho0w not to start an uprising! But Ireland loves her tragic heroes, and our history, and even our legend, is hardly replete with victories against our enemies, so we take refuge in the “nobility of sacrifice” and the “struggle for independence”, and so Emmet has become a folk hero, perhaps undeservedly. It’s sort of odd that he sounds like someone who was being used as a pawn, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. Napoleon could not have given le merde single, the other leaders of the United Irishmen desperately advised him to call off the rising that morning but he would have none of it. So nobody seems to have been pulling his strings, leading him into a hopeless act of pointless rebellion. He walked into the fire himself, and burned in it.

His ineptitude and naivete has not stopped him becoming a hero though of course. Shelley was one of his biggest supporters, and one of the ones who helped create the myth that today surrounds him, and there are statues of him in Dublin, Washington and San Francisco. He has been depicted in story, song, on stage and screen, and has towns, counties, schools and parks named after him. He’s of course gone down in Irish history as one of the men whose sacrifice and refusal to bow down (or lay proper plans) led eventually to the freedom of Ireland, and I wouldn’t dream of trying to take that from him. At least he gave it a go, which in his place I can’t say I would have done.

There’s an Irish saying: God loves a trier, and Emmet certainly was one of those. Unfortunately, trying by itself isn’t enough. You also need to have a strategy, and in fairness he had, but he didn’t seem then to have any sort of contingency plan for what to do if one part of his - at the time - relatively well-thought-out plan fell apart. Essentially, it was like an engine which, no matter how well-made it may be, fails as soon as one part stops working. Section by section and module by module his plan began to fall apart, but rather than take note of that and try to readjust and adapt his strategy, he continued on with a bastardised version of the original plan, and so he was doomed to fail.

Ironically, though it would take another century and more before Ireland finally was free, the long-awaited and prayed for emancipation of Catholics was less than a quarter of a century down the road, and would be achieved, in the main, without the need to resort to risings, rebellions or violent struggle of any kind.
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Old 04-12-2022, 07:23 PM   #143 (permalink)
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The Rights of (Catholic Irish) Man: Moves Towards Acceptance and Recognition

We’ve heard how much of an underclass Irish Catholics had become from the time Henry VIII established the Church of England and became an implacable enemy of the Pope, and more specifically from James II’s plantation of Ulster with Protestants, and the rise of the Ascendancy. For almost three hundred years now, Catholics had struggled to gain recognition and representation, rights and standing in their own country, and had been more or less laughed at and reviled. Taking up arms had not forced the British government to capitulate, and in fact they had little to no intention of doing so, as their own population looked to them to keep the “papist menace” at bay, none more so than the ruling classes of Ulster, who, though in power, felt like a man on a rickety raft in the ocean as the sharks swarm around him, closing in. Ulster Protestants were more than aware that they still made up the minority in Ireland, and beyond the border to the south was teeming with Catholics, all just itching to do them in while they slept. They must be kept down, brutalised, deprived of their rights, and given no chance to assert any sort of authority or raise their voices in government circles. It was their paramount mission.

To the northeast, though, too, another arch-enemy of the papacy watched developments with disbelieving and angry eyes, as the first Catholic Relief Act, called the Papists Act, was passed in 1778. Scotland had occasionally been an ally with Ireland against England, and, too, had sided with France against the auld enemy, but Scotland was very much a Protestant country. It was here that John Calvin had begun preaching his version of Protestantism, very much opposed to the idea of Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic, deposing Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant monarch. Presbyterianism was big here too, and there were few Catholics. But for all that, even more than Northern Ireland today, Scotland rang with the cry of “No Popery!”

So when the Papists Act allowed, under certain conditions, Catholics to join the army and own land, Scottish jaws slavered with rage, Scottish eyes bulged with hatred, and Scottish people rose in unison against this betrayal of their religious tenets. The fear was that although the Act applied at the time only to England, it was expected to be visited on Scotland too, and they weren’t having that! In response, a minor riot broke out on October 18 1778 in Glasgow, where the house of a family of Catholics who were celebrating mass was attacked, the windows smashed, the occupants chased out and the house taken over. Hey, sounds like those “Old Firm” matches between Celtic and Rangers to me! It wasn’t exactly a Scottish kristallnacht, but it was telling that no law enforcement intervened, and the riot was only broken up when the rioters got bored and staggered off home. It was the first such riot, and really more a small display of the prevailing public feeling than an actual riot.

But a real one was on the horizon.

The Protestant Association

Created to combat the spread of the Catholic menace, the Protestant Association was basically a group of religious figures and politicians who fanned the flames of resentment against the papists, and scare-mongered for all they were worth. The Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SPCK) lobbied for the repeal of the Act, and tried to pressure the influential synod of Lothian and Tweedale, but Principal Robertson of Edinburgh University, where the synod was held, refused to be pushed, declaring that the SPOCK, sorry, SPCK was not going to force them to “deprive any person of his inheritance or subject them to civil penalties for conscience’s sake”. Frustrated, and afraid they would miss their chance to lobby parliament, which was soon to reconvene, the SPCK pulled in the support of the Committee for the Protestant Interest, also known as the Society of Friends of the Protestant Interest, to increase pressure on the synods, and later these two organisations merged to become the new Protestant Association.

With much distribution of inflammatory (and mostly inaccurate where not plain untrue) pamphlets, meetings and plenty of screaming and warnings, the Protestant Association quickly succeeded in its aim of turning the people of Scotland against the native Catholics, painting them as heretics and traitors who did not deserve any sort of tolerance, much less that shown in the Papist Acts. It was all but a call to holy war, and it spread like wildfire across Scotland. Town and borough councils quickly fell into line, petitions were organised and garnered thousands of signatures, and very soon a deep, entrenched resistance to any relief for Catholics rose right across the country. Some of the newspaper columns and pamphlets read disturbingly like something you might expect to see in a German newspaper around 1936.

“Have no dealings with them [Catholics]; neither buy from them nor sell them anything; neither borrow nor lend with them; give them no visits, nor receive any from them.”

“Let them [those against Popery] make lists of those within their bounds, containing their names, callings and places of abode, and publish it, that all men may know them.”

“Let each parish make a solemn resolution to drop all intercourse with papists, particularly bearing in mind that they will not in the future employ papists in any business whatsoever.”

“And that whosoever within their bounds acts contrary to this resolution shall be reputed a papist, and dealt with accordingly.”

Well, that’s nice and clear isn’t it? Sieg Heil, Jimmy, pass the jackboots! If you think senators and congressmen being intimidated by Qanon and Trump supporters is new, then listen to this extract from the account by Principal Robertson, denouncing the Protestant Association in the General Church of Scotland: “I have been held out to an enraged mob, as the victim who next deserves to be sacrificed. My family has been disquieted; my house has been attacked; I have been threatened with pistols and daggers. I have been warned that I was watched in my going out and my coming home; the time has been set beyond which I was not to live, and for several weeks not a day passed on which I did not receive incendiary letters.”

One assumes that’s a metaphor, not that he was receiving actual bombs, but hey, put nothing past these guys. They were pissed, pissed as only those who hate and despise any dissenting voice can be pissed. They believed Robertson a Catholic-lover, and were more than likely ready to surround his house chanting “Hang Robertson! Hang Robertson!”

Yet for all the unrest and hateful rhetoric coming out of Glasgow, it was Scotland’s capital city that provided the first real spark for a full scale riot. Accusations of a house newly built being used as a Catholic chapel in defiance of the law in 1777 led to a fever of anti-papist sentiment which started as vague and random intimidation of Catholics on the streets of Edinburgh and which exploded into a full out attack on the home at the heart of their (imaginary) grievance, that of Father Hay, on January 30. Windows were broken and assistance refused from the Lord Provost, who even turned back offers of help from other quarters, giving tacit approval to the attacks.

And that was all the crowd, who swiftly became a mob of rioters, wanted to see.

February 2 saw the wholesale destruction of Catholic properties, their owners forced to flee, the authorities nowhere to be seen. The rioters returned the next day, declaring their intention to “compleat (sic) the destruction of every Catholic in the place, and of all others who had in any respect appeared favourable to their Bill.” Finally realising they could delay no longer, the city magistrates called in the army, and the enraged mob, trying to burn the home of their hated enemy Robertson, were turned back by an armed presence. With soldiers on the streets, the rioters drifted away, but they had achieved their objective. On February 6 it was announced that “the fears that had prompted such devastation had been justified” and the Relief Act was now “totally laid aside.” There would be no tolerance for Catholics, and the Protestants had won the day.

That was it for Edinburgh, as it was fun to terrorise unarmed Catholics (remember, the original Penal Laws forbade them owning or carrying weapons), scaring women and children, but the rioters were not about to go up against their own military, and while some, or many, of these men’s sympathies may have lain with the agitators, unlike today, they had sworn an oath to the King and would do their duty, regardless of personal opinion or affiliation. If not, they would likely have been court-martialled. But down the road in Glasgow…

Robert Bagnall was the most prosperous Catholic in the city, so naturally became the target for the anger of the mob that stormed through Glasgow on February 9. His crime, apparently, had been that he had “not been very moderate in his language or behaviour”, and his shop and house were burned while he and his family fled, sheltered by sympathetic Protestant friends. Once again, the authorities turned a very blind eye and nobody was prosecuted or arrested for the attacks. The government was humiliated to have been forced by the pressure of rowdy mobs and special interest groups to have to repeal the Papists Act, and voices within Parliament warned that what had happened in Scotland, and with no retribution whatever, in fact total success, could and most probably would be replicated over the border in England.

They were right.
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Old 05-14-2022, 12:18 PM   #144 (permalink)
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Lord George Gordon (1751 - 1793)

Even now, over two hundred years later, the jury remains out as to whether he was actually insane, though many believe he was. What is not in doubt, however, is that he was the face of Scottish anti-Papism that met the equally ugly face of English bigotry, and, carrying the riots of Edinburgh and Glasgow to their natural conclusion, was almost single-handedly responsible for the worst anti-Catholic protests and violence in England since the Great Fire of London.

A vehement and vocal opponent of the American War of Independence, he resigned his commission in the navy before he had to serve in that conflict, his views not helping his parliamentary career when he took his seat as MP for Ludgershall in Wiltshire. In 1779 he became president of the Protestant Association and began lobbying hard against the Catholic Relief Act, and in addition to the by now usual threats and predictions as to how the Catholics would drag all of England into a state of “popery”, invite the French to invade and presumably roast and eat Protestant children, he warned that England was in danger of returning from a constitutional monarchy back to the days of absolute rulers, one of whom, Louis XVII, would a decade later be deposed and executed as the French Revolution roared into almost unstoppable life.

Gordon had had great success stirring up people’s fears and prejudices in Scotland, as described above, and now believed he could replicate that success here in England. The king, though, was not interested. He entertained him till he got bored, then refused to grant him any further audiences. On May 27 1780, Gordon decided to forget trying to gain royal assent for his policies, even taking the rather dangerous step of denouncing the King as an agent of popery, and on June 2 instead convened a large contingent of his followers, who descended on the House of Commons, in an effort to force them to reject and repeal the Papist Act.

Unlike in Scotland, where pure hatred and distrust of Catholics was the driving force for the riots, here multiple other issues contributed, including the increasingly unsuccessful efforts by the empire to subdue the American colonies, the cost of living, lack of faith or trust in the government and unemployment and low wages. In essence, not only Catholics were attacked when the riots broke out, but anyone seen as profiting from the current situation, anyone rich (or deemed to be), anyone prosperous, anyone who disagreed with the rioters or, frequently, anyone who got in their way or looked funny at them.

With a crowd - quickly becoming a mob - of an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 behind him, and more joining as they marched, Gordon tried to force entry into the House but was stopped, only he himself allowed in as a member of Parliament. Outside, as the impatient mob waited for a result, violence erupted. Ministers leaving were attacked, their coaches overturned, the small contingent of guards present at the House unequal to the task of controlling such a huge gathering. Eventually the army was sent in and restored order, driving the protesters away, while inside the House Gordon’s petition was all but unanimously voted down.

Things got worse that night.

Huge crowds organised and gathered to attack Catholic churches and dwellings, and the large Irish settlement of Moorfields came in for particular attention. Again, no appreciable police or military presence was seen on the streets, and Newgate and other prisons were attacked, burned and prisoners freed. The house of the Lord Chief Justice also became a target. Violence continued into the night and the next morning the Bank of England was assaulted, but the army were able to throw the rioters back, although sustaining heavy casualties. Nevertheless, it still took four more days before the army would begin to respond in any real numbers to the violence, making it hard to believe that the rioting was not at best supported, at worst tolerated by the government.

June 7 saw reprisals, finally, as the army took back the streets, killing over 280 rioters and arresting over 400, including their ringleader, Lord George Gordon. An excellent depiction of the events can be read in Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, which centres around the Gordon Riots. Of the 450 or so arrested, only twenty to thirty of the rioters faced execution, and Gordon, though tried for high treason, was acquitted. For some reason he converted to Judaism, and, as vehement and radical as he had been as a Protestant, he became one of the most hardline Jews, sticking rigidly to scripture and abhorring and avoiding those who did not.

He later found himself in the very prison his supporters had destroyed - rebuilt now - as libel suits gained him five years behind Newgate’s bars. Nine months after completing his sentence he died of typhoid fever, an epidemic of which had been raging through the completely unsanitary prison.

Light at the End of the Tunnel: Catholic Emancipation

But despite the best efforts of militant Protestants, rights for Catholics could not be denied or held back forever, and the day was fast approaching when the “papists” would enjoy the same privileges, mostly, as their Anglican and Calvinist brothers and sisters. It had been pretty conclusively proven that this could not be achieved by force of arms (while the opposition had proven beyond doubt that this was the very means by which it could be denied) and, like many great and important questions, this would finally take thinkers, philosophers, men willing to compromise and sit down and talk the whole thing out, for the good of both countries.

The man who would bring this about would be known in Ireland as the Great Liberator.

Daniel O’Connell (1775 - 1847)

A native of County Kerry, Daniel O’Connell was born into a Catholic family which had somehow managed to retain their land, mostly through Protestant trustees and their connections. When he was just sixteen Daniel and his brother were sent to France to continue their education. This was a bad move, as the year 1791 saw some of the worst excesses of the French Revolution, and the brothers had to flee the country’s anti-religion sentiment. The experience soured Daniel on using violence as a means to an end, and he swore later that “liberty is not worth the shedding of a single drop of blood.” He and his brother escaped to London, and returned to Ireland in 1795.

Four days before the 1798 rising, Daniel was called to the bar, and having no faith in, and giving no support to the rebellion, remained at home in Kerry while the British forces of Viscount Lake crushed the rebels. As we’ve seen above, he was equally critical of the pseudo-rising attempted by young Robert Emmet, deploring the Irishman’s use of violence. In contrast to his time in France, he found many like-minded people in London, such as Thomas Paine, Jeremy Bentham and William Godwin, and helped pass the Slavery Abolition Act as well as the Act of Reform. He believed passionately that Church and State should be kept separate. He also fought hard against the idea that Catholic bishops should allow their appointment to be subject to the favour of the Crown, arguing that if this were to happen, the bishops would be nothing more than mouthpieces for the Anglican church.

Not only that, but the Crown and Westminster recognised worriedly the part the Catholic priests had played in 1798, and knew that if there was one institution that the papists would and could rally around, it was that of their clergy. Draw them in under the control of the Crown, and that threat could be effectively nullified. If bishops could be appointed they could be dismissed too, if His Majesty felt or was advised they were overstepping their bounds. O’Connell knew this too, and made sure there was no English veto on the appointment of bishops.

The Catholic Association

Perhaps as a response to, perhaps despite Lord Gordon’s Protestant Association, Daniel O’Connell set up the Catholic Association, in, um, association with the Irish Catholic church, to lobby for the cause of emancipation for Catholics. Unlike its Protestant equivalent though, this one was not open only to academics, politicians, industrialists and the like. For a tiny fee (the “Catholic rent”) of one penny a month anyone could join, which meant the Catholic Association became the first mass-member organisation in the entire world. Not only did this allow its membership to swell to unheard-of numbers, it also effectively removed the class barriers that had characterised such organisations in the past, both Protestant and Catholic. The whole idea, of course, apart from a certain type of “silent terrorism by numbers”, was to involve as many ordinary Catholics in the struggle as possible, and show them they had a voice, a way to make their opinions heard, a way to fight back (though being O’Connell’s creation violence was not used as a coercive method).

The Catholic rent was clever, as it served three purposes. One, as outlined above, the most obvious, was to get people to join, the more the better. Another was to swell the coffers of the Association: a penny a month is not much, but a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand or more pennies a month adds up to a sizeable sum to go into a war chest. Thirdly, the incredibly low and affordable price all but forced every single Catholic to join: after all, if they did not, others would ask why not? Don’t you want repeal? You can’t say you can’t afford a penny every month. Not that I imagine any Catholic would not want to join, but this would remove an excuse, were any looking for one, and lend suspicion to their reticence to join.

The money could be used to lobby parliament, help Catholic tenants evicted by Protestant landlords or any other good, Catholic causes the Association wished to show support to. Almost at one stroke, it pulled all the disparate elements of Catholic dissatisfaction and grievance together, and allowed them to shout their protest with one, very loud and powerful voice, a voice nobody could ignore.

The Home Secretary (later Prime Minister) Robert Peel was so worried about its power that he equated it with his own government, and the Duke of Wellington foresaw Irish civil war if the Catholic Association was allowed to continue unchecked. The fact that the Association remained loyal to the Crown, though, was a mitigating factor, and made them seem that little bit less radical and less of a threat, giving them more bargaining power. Of course, it already had the considerable backing of the Catholic Church, and priests would regularly collect the contributions for the Catholic Association after Sunday mass, perhaps again another reason why no God-fearing and loyal Catholic would want to be singled out as not being a member.

With a General Election and a new Prime Minister in 1826, the Association began to support those MPs in the House who looked favourably upon the idea of Catholic emancipation, while in 1828 the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which had previously banned “dissenters” from holding public office left Catholics as the only ones now being penalised (literally, thanks to the remaining Penal Laws) and they believed surely the way was opening up towards their political and religious freedoms being recognised and enshrined in law too.

Catholic power, as it were, was shown to great effect at the contentious Waterford elections, when the sitting candidate, Lord Thomas Beresford, smugly confident that his poor tenants would not dare vote against him, had a nasty shock and perhaps too late realised the true impact of O’Connell’s Catholic Association when he was defeated as his tenants defied him, and tradition, and voted for a liberal landlord.

This was only the first in a series of upsets for the comfortable and complacent Tory landlords. The tide was beginning to turn. In May, O’Connell himself sat for the seat for County Clare vacated by the retirement of William Huskinson and his replacement as the President of the Board of Trade by William Vesey-Fitzgerald. O’Connell knew the Penal Laws prevented him from taking a seat in Westminster as a Catholic, but somewhat in the same way as a hundred years later, Gerry Adams of the republican Sinn Fein party would stand for and win a seat, but be unable to take it, O’Connell knew that if he won the seat the clamour over his being barred from sitting at Westminster would rile up the Irish Catholics.

The Catholic clergy mobilised as only they could do, whipping up the people into a fervour of support for the Liberator, one of them declaring “Let every renegade to his God and his country follow Vesey-Fitzgerald, and every true Catholic Irishman follow me!” O’Connell garnered twice as many votes as his opponent, winning the seat easily. Now the British government had a problem. The cause of Catholic repression had never been so publicly front and centre in favour of the position of the oppressed. Fearing a total revolution in Ireland, and unprepared for such an event, Peel and Wellington pushed through the long-fought-for Catholic Relief Act of 1829. Daniel O’Connell had done what Robert Emmet and the men of 1798 had spectacularly failed to do, and had finally won emancipation for his people.

His people. Yes. Let’s look at that. Daniel O’Connell surely deserves the title of the Great Liberator that he has earned, however it’s also important not to be blinkered about his success. As Richard Killeen points out in A Brief History of Ireland, O’Connell marshalled and mobilised the poor, the ordinary people via the penny-a-month membership fee to the Catholic Association, but he was not above throwing them to the wolves if and when it suited his purposes. This is borne out in his surprise support for a bill authored by Sir Francis Burdett, which had within its text two important provisos, one being the state payment of Catholic clergy, and the other, more important one being the intention to restrict reforms to the rich classes. In other words, the bill provided for the disenfranchisement of those Catholic landowners who paid less than forty shillings for their land, i.e. all the poorer ones.

In the end, it made no difference as once again the House of Lords, final arbiters in any law or Act being passed, voted the Burdett bill down. But here it does seem that O’Connell had played his hand and shown that if he could achieve his aims by throwing the “little people” under the carriage, he was more than ready to do so. And to be fair, the “little people”, as Killeen so archly notes, did “much of the heavy lifting for him.”

Although Ireland had been traditionally and originally a Catholic nation, Ulster still simmered and seethed with Protestant fervour, fury at the granting of equal rights (except to the poor) to their ancient enemies, and surely trembled a little now too, that they suddenly faced being a complete minority and no longer in control. A minority when taken as a percentage of the whole of the island, certainly, but still very much a majority power in Ulster, where O’Connell rather overconfidently directed his next efforts.
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Old 05-21-2022, 07:44 PM   #145 (permalink)
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Ulster Says No (again): The Repealer Repulsed

Surely O’Connell should have expected nothing less than a hostile reception once he crossed the border, but maybe he was too flushed with success to think about that, or maybe he just wanted to “free his Catholic brethren from the bondage of the Ascendancy”? Either way, he decided to tour there, to try to gain support from and speak to the Catholics of Ulster. Unsurprisingly, the Orangemen were having none of that, and turned out in great numbers in the town of Ballybray, Co, Monaghan, where they turned him back. The event was celebrated by Protestants across the province as the day the repealer was repulsed. It was quite clear that, despite or even in defiance of their new legal status, Catholics would never get an easy ride in Ulster, and the battle lines - for now, only political but later to spill out into over thirty years of bloodshed, violence and terror - were being drawn, with Ulster unionists determined to hold and defend that line, as Ian Paisley would later growl, and give “not one inch.”

The poor tenants would as always get a raw deal, as one of the provisions in the Catholic Relief Act was for landlords to raise the minimal rent payable on land from forty shillings to ten pounds, an increase of I think five hundred percent. Who could afford that? Not the poor farmers, who, despite now being part of the Catholic Relief Act, surely did not feel either relieved or indeed liberated by the Great Liberator. As for him, he was a celebrity all over Europe, having seemed to have accomplished the impossible, and he had many ardent admirers. He took his seat, finally, with the restrictions removed for Catholics to sit in Parliament, in February 1830, but for a while it was more a symbolic victory, as he had few allies and in the early days of repeal there was a dearth of Catholics in Westminster. Later, when the government changed, he was able to make some alliances, the most significant of which was the eventual removal of the hated tithes in 1830.

But first, there would be a war.

The Tithe War (1830 - 1836)

Technically speaking, this wasn’t a war, not in the way 1798 or even Emmet’s abortive rebellion could be - generously - described as such, and certainly nothing like the later 1916 Rising. Mostly, it was a time of protests, the majority of them non-violent, but like any protests there were those which went beyond harsh words and heated language. But what were the tithes, and why did Ireland feel so strongly about them? Well, first of all let’s get the pronunciation right: tithe is pronounced with a soft “th”, the same way scythe and blythe are. Tithe literally means ten percent, and was a levy pushed on Catholic Irish ostensibly for not attending “proper” mass, i.e. Anglican, but in reality as a stealth tax enabling the Church of Ireland to finance itself. People were expected to contribute a tenth of their earnings, land, cattle, produce, to the Anglican Church in Ireland, and this tax fell heaviest, as they always do, on the poor.

Pasture land was exempted from the tithes, and as this was generally only owned by the richer Protestants, land ownership being, until the final passage of the Catholic Relief Act, restricted to them alone, it was the poor Catholics, desperately trying to scratch a living on poor land who had to pay the most. The reality of this was that the Church of Ireland, which no Catholic wanted anything to do with, received about two-thirds of its annual income from people who were not allowed through its doors unless they converted, and which stood as a permanent symbol of their continuing oppression; whose priests would loudly declaim on Sundays the heresies of the “papists”, and swear they were all bound for Hell, while still taking their money. Rather ironically, the percentage of Protestants to Catholics in Ireland was about ten percent too.

Tithes were a slap in the face for Catholic Ireland. They were a way of the Protestants saying “we know you hate us but you’re going to pay for us to continue to be here”. Although sporadic protests and some violence had broken about against the practice, from about 1760 onwards, there was really nothing anyone could do until 1829, when the rights they had been robbed of for hundreds of years were finally restored to Catholics, and they could muster as an effective force, both political and spiritual, to face the injustice forced upon them.

The first to really grasp the nettle was a farmer called Patrick “Patt” Lalor, who, though he refused to resist any attempt to take his goods in payment for tithes, declared that he knew his friends and neighbours would support him and the Catholic cause by refusing to buy any of the cattle taken from him, which were put up for auction. He was right; though he stood peacefully by when the Irish Police took his cattle for non-payment, the auction to sell them was tumbleweed city. And this was only the beginning.

As ever, the Catholic clergy were deeply enmeshed and involved in what would become known as “the tithe war”, which began March 3 1831 when the cattle of Fr. Martin Doyle were taken in lieu of money for the tithes at Graiguenamanagh in Co. Kilkenny. A few months later more serious clashes took place at Bunclody in Co. Wexford, where this time the resistance was met with gunfire, and twelve people were killed by the Irish Police, while in retaliation near the end of the year twelve constables were killed at the aptly-named town of Carrickshock, Co. Kilkenny, when a crowd ambushed forty of them as they arrived to destrain (take in place of) cattle, and when the men responsible for this were put on trial, an estimated 200,000 Irishmen turned out in protest. Speaking on behalf of the accused was one Daniel O’Connell, and his presence there ensured the demise of the tithe system.

But there were further confrontations, the largest and indeed last being at Rathcormac, Co. Cork (long known, and still known as “the rebel county”) where in a small village called Bartlemy in the parish of Gortroe, about 100 armed British fired upon stone-throwing Irish who supported the widow Johanna Ryan who refused - or could not afford - to pay her tithes. As the party had approached with the Archdeacon to collect the - wait for it - forty shillings due, they were pelted by rocks and stones, then the defenders withdrew behind barricades set up on Widow Ryan’s property and continued the assault on the unwelcome soldiers. Their commander ordered them to fire, and up to twenty Irish were killed, estimates ranging from twelve upwards.

At the outbreak of gunfire the defenders scattered, and the widow was left with no choice but to pay her tithe. Nevertheless, condemnation of the “massacre” from O’Connell as well as Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor and Henry Grattan led to charges against the army, which were later dropped. The incident did however serve as the final battle in the tithe war. In 1838 the tithes were camouflaged; cut by a quarter, they were now charged to the landlords and passed on as rent, under the Tithe Rentcharge (Ireland) Act, and finally abolished entirely thirty years later with the Irish Church Act, which completely disestablished the Church of Ireland.

Teach Your Children: The Establishment of the Irish Educational System

One thing that dooms any people is ignorance. Charles Dickens noted this when he had his Ghost of Christmas Present warn Ebenezer Scrooge, in A Christmas Carol, to beware two emaciated waifs he showed him. “The boy is ignorance,” he told the terrified miser, “the girl is want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware the boy, for on his brow I see written that which is doom unless the writing be erased.”

The legendary writer was using Scrooge’s indifference to, almost ignorance of the poor and the needy to illustrate a very valid point. The British government took this warning and twisted its intent, using it to attempt to erase the Irish Catholic by forbidding his education. As Hitler or Stalin would no doubt have told us, the most dangerous enemy is an educated man or woman. For people to be kept down and enslaved to your will they need to be kept ignorant, and if Catholics could not be educated they would grow up unaware that there was anything beyond the lives they lived of drudgery and compliance.

With Catholics banned from sending their children abroad to be educated, schools began to spring up all over Ireland, usually under the aegis of the Catholic Church and run by nuns or priests, starting a nightmare scenario that would terrify and cause resentment among Irish schoolchildren for centuries. You would think the male-dominated and run Christian Brothers would have been the most feared, but that only shows that you never had to endure the teachings of a nun! The Christian Brothers was set up by a former missionary, Edmund Ignatius Rice (1762 - 1844), who had been about to go abroad to preach when he was convinced to stay in Ireland and devote himself to the well-being and education of Irish youth. Not all that many of us would thank him for changing his mind!
Spoiler for WARNING! Nuns!:

Rice set up a school in a converted stable (echoes of Bethlehem, eh?) in Waterford, and though a trying time, he managed to recruit other priests who took on teaching duties, his school soon expanding to a second one, whereafter he formed the order of Presentation Brothers and later the Christian Brothers, tasked with the education of young male children, particularly those from poor families. Eventually his schools spread even further, crossing over the channel where he set establishments up in England.

For girls, there was the horror of the nuns. What a great idea: to put women who were avowedly celibate (and mostly older and more bitter) in a position of power and authority over younger, pretty and impressionable girls! I mean, boys mostly laughed at the “Brothers”, and took little to no notice of them, at least in my time, but even when I were a lad a nun could freeze you with a single disapproving look, and somehow you just never fought back. Beneath it all was probably the twin realisations that this was, technically anyway, a woman, and more to the point was a Bride of Christ, who, at ages eight to ten maybe, you did not want to be pissing off! And nuns knew it too, and used their power to its utmost. I remember my sister being sent home in tears because a horrible nun had told her my parents were going to Hell because they had separated. Fucking religion. My mother soon set her straight.

But though nuns could teach boys, they were usually assigned to girls’ schools, and there were three orders set up in the nineteenth century that concerned themselves with educating young female minds. The first was the Presentation Sisters (which Rice copied obviously), founded as far back as 1776, then the Sisters of Charity in 1815 and finally the Sisters of Mercy (NOT the goth band!) who were formed in 1831. It always amuses me that they chose these names, when mostly they had neither any concept of charity nor certainly mercy, if my sisters’ and my own experiences are anything to go by.

Of course, having the Catholic school system, as it was then, controlled and run by the Church made it able to tighten its grip on the emerging new generation of Irish children, and one subject that was compulsory even when I went to school was religious education, sometimes called catechism or religious knowledge. It amounted to the same thing though: spiritual brainwashing as you were told all about God, Jesus and the Church and given no option but to profess your belief in it all. R.E. teachers prepared their young charges for such momentous events in their spiritual development as First Holy Communion and First Confirmation, with dreary dress rehearsals for both the norm, at least in my time.

In 1831 the government (British of course) created a national school act which provided millions of schoolchildren with an education, and though these schools, unlike those of the Christian Brothers or the nuns, were of mixed denomination and did not place so much emphasis on religious instruction, this would change towards the end of the century, as churches segregated their children along lines of faith and creed, with Catholic, Presbyterian and Protestant schools admitting only children from families of that belief. The largest university at the time, Trinity College, was steadfastly Protestant, established in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I, but in 1854 Catholics wanted their own institution, even given that the long ban on their children entering Trinity had expired under the Catholic Relief Act. Catholic University was built, later taking the name University College Dublin, now Ireland’s largest institution for third-level education.
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Train a-comin’ - The Iron Horse Arrives in Ireland

As Catholics began to get educated in a way they had been prohibited and prevented from doing before the passing of the Act, the transport system was also beginning to catch up, as trains arrived in Ireland from 1834. Prior to this, transport had consisted of coaches - mostly those carrying mail - and canal boats, a slow progress to be had either way. A remarkably short time behind England, Ireland’s first railway was opened in 1834 as the Dublin & Kingstown Railways (D&KR) which connected Dublin to the suburb of Dun Laoghaire, called at the time Kingstown, in honour of the visit of King George IV. Point of note: the only reason His Majesty was there was that he was too drunk to get off the ship he arrived in, historically the first time an English monarch had visited Ireland for peaceful purposes, and had to be taken ashore at Howth instead.

The D&KR was the first railway not only in Europe, but the world, to be exclusively dedicated to commuter travel. Early railways in America and other parts of Europe had been used primarily to convey freight or cattle, or were for specific uses but not open to the public. Ireland was also the first nation to construct her own locomotives. Of course, initially railways were confined to the larger cities such as Dublin and Limerick, where investors could be attracted and where profits could be made. The man who oversaw the building and laying of most of these early railways, and who is credited with the title of “father of the Irish railways” is this guy.

William Dargan (1799 - 1867)

“Since I was ten years old, I have been hearing that we are unable to do anything …. for our own prosperity ... that we must have English capital, English judgment, English enterprise. English everything. Why I bring this forward is with the knowledge that there is one great interest in which that doctrine is disproved.”

Literally a local boy done good, Dargan was the son of a poor tenant farmer who worked on the Earl of Portarlington’s estate. Being a Catholic, opportunities were few for him but he managed, through dint of hard work and a head for numbers, to secure a place in a surveyor’s office in his home town. Impressed by his progress there, a local MP and other prominent businessmen helped him to meet Thomas Telford, one of Scotland’s primary engineers, who put him to work on the Holyhead-London Road. He also worked on English canals and the Howth Road in Dublin. When the Irish Parliament gave the go-ahead for the first Irish railway he worked tirelessly to promote it, lobbying and giving his own time for free until the thing was finally built in 1834. He later worked on the Ulster Canal, and then other railways, such as the Dublin and Drogheda, the Great Southern and Western and the Midland Great Western.

Unlike unscrupulous railroad barons in America, who earned reputations for being double-handed, unfair and corrupt, and who paid a pittance to their workers, Dargan was known to be more than a fair man; in fact, he paid the highest wages in the sector and was one of the few employers who paid not only in hard cash rather than “in kind”, as many workers were, but also paid better wages for those who worked harder and whose work was of a sufficient quality to merit higher pay. The unions, of course, had a problem with this initially but eventually such conditions were accepted; in a time when the worker was being royally ripped off, they really couldn’t afford to block such an enterprise, and besides, the incentive to work harder and better for more wages would become a model for future employers, and continues today. It was good for Ireland, good for the Irish worker, and good for Dargan. It also helped that he was so well-liked and trusted, some of this possibly due to his fervent nationalism.

Offered a knighthood he declined, and again when Queen Victoria herself visited him and offered him this time a baronetcy. This visit was on the occasion of Her Majesty attending the Dublin Exhibition, which had come about again thanks to the railway man. Impressed by the British Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, Dargan proposed a similar event be staged in Ireland, to showcase her relatively rapid advances in technology and show the world that the country was more than just backwards farmers working in fields. He ended up having to fund the whole thing, to the tune of £80,000 (about seven million today) and, though he lost over a quarter of that sum on the project was able, thanks to contributions and subscriptions to what was set up as the Dargan Fund in his honour, to open the National Art Gallery.

Dargan was known to be a dedicated man, living in a mobile office and following the tracks as they were laid. He was not one to sit back in a comfortable city residence and be brought details of the progress of his railways; he was out inspecting them and making comments and suggestions as they went down. With no real access to any sort of industrial machinery at the time - Ireland being well behind Britain and the rest of Europe as the Industrial Revolution unfolded, being mostly a country based on farming and agriculture, and moreover, held very much down by the British occupier - most of the work was done manually, with hard sweat and graft.

Dargan was also one of the few Catholics who worked on a project in Ulster, taking over the laying of the Belfast to Lisburn line, and extending it into Portadown and later Armagh, and even excavating an island at Belfast harbour for his later shipping concerns to allow it to become a major port for the first time, where today the great shipyards of Harland and Wolff stand. During the Great Famine, when it seemed all of Ireland was dying of starvation, Dargan performed many humanitarian works, including paying men a week’s wages and then sending them home to regain their strength, everyone too weak to work. It’s estimated he saved thousands of lives this way, people who would otherwise have died of hunger, and gained himself even more of a place in the hearts of Irish Catholics.

He was responsible for developing the outlying town of Bray, Co. Wicklow into a popular holiday and amusement resort - I remember when a child our big day out being to go to the amusements at Bray, and the best part of it was the train journey there, as we really had no need to go on the train otherwise, though where we lived there was a railway bridge right at the top of the road, and you could hear and see the trains thunder past on their way out of the city or back into it, day and night. But looking at the trains was one thing; for kids in Ireland in the 1970s, getting to actually travel on one was a treat. My mother used also to take us on what the train company called “the Mystery Train” at the weekend, which was exactly what it sounds like: you were not told where the train was going, so it was a surprise when you ended up in Enniskillen or Navan or Portmarnock or Leixlip, or wherever it was going.

Dargan’s efforts almost single-handedly helped to revitalise the falling Irish economy, the much more so when you consider how much of his own money he put into projects (of the £18 million invested in Irish railways the British government only contributed a paltry £3 million) and it might not be too much of a stretch to call him Ireland’s saviour. Certainly, when he died of complications following a fall from his horse in 1863 his funeral was attended by a 700-strong honour guard of railway workers, and comprised 250 cortege carriages, his remains laid to rest beside the other Great Emancipator, Daniel O’Connell, in Glasnevin. A statue of him now stands outside the National Gallery.

Perhaps ironically, given the state of Ireland and the distrust of Catholics at the time, one of his greatest tributes comes from Prince Albert, who stated “Mr Dargan is the man of the people. He is a simple, unobtrusive, retiring man, a thorough Irishman, not always quite sober of an evening, industrious, kind to his workmen, but the only man who has by his own determination & courage put a stop to every strike or combination of workmen, of which the Irish are so fond. All he has done has been done on the field of Industry & not of politics or Religion, without the Priest or factious conspiracy, without the promise of distant extraordinary advantages but with immediate apparent benefit. The Exhibition, which must be pronounced to be very successful, has done wonders in this respect. A private undertaking, unaided by Govt, or any Commission with Royal Authority, made and erected at the sole expense of a single Individual, & this an Irish Road contractor, not long ago a common labourer himself, who had raised himself solely by his own industry & energy, - it deserves the greatest credit & is looked upon by the Irish with infinite self-satisfaction as an emblem of national hope"

By the end of his life Dargan is said to have laid thousands of miles of railway tracks, and contributed hugely to linking the largely disparate country up. As every railway built in the world did, the Irish rail system helped bring people closer together, not only by making commerce and travel to once-distant towns and cities possible, but by allowing the rapid distribution of newspapers, thus disseminating news across the country in a far more timely manner than it had ever been before. It also encouraged people to travel, to take holidays, to visit other places, something that had not been envisaged prior to the advent of the railway, journeys by canal or carriage slow and often very uncomfortable, and usually available only to the more well-to-do. A railway network turned Ireland from a scattering of independent and isolated counties and towns into a well-connected, interdependent and linked single country.
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Speak for Yourself: The Decline of the Irish Language

Countries tend to pride themselves on their national heritage, and this is inextricably linked to their language. German people prized their language, and this is still the dominant one there, reinforced, you might say, by the Nazi Party’s rejection of all other languages and cultures as “impure”, and held onto as a matter of historical pride. Spain still speaks Spanish, French is the language you have to have at least a grasp of if you expect to communicate with the locals, and you won’t get far either in Italy without knowing Italian. Most countries, then, retain their national tongue, even if, of necessity, for tourist and business purposes, English must also be learned. But come to Ireland and the only people you’ll find speaking Irish (or Gaelic, as it’s sometimes known), other than young (or old) men who have had too much to drink, will be in the less-developed and more rural areas of the west. Everyone else speaks English; it’s our common tongue. Why?

Some of the reason for the decline of our national language can of course be traced to our biggest humanitarian disaster ever, the Great Famine, of which more shortly. With so many Irish people emigrating, thousands of native Irish speakers were taken out of the population. In order to survive and hopefully thrive abroad, these people would have had to learn English, most if not all of them bound for America. Their descendants (assuming their parents or grandparents survived the trip, which many did not), should they at some point return to Ireland, would then speak English as their first, possibly only language, and if they settled here again their children would be brought up speaking English too.

Another reason was the gradual change in Ireland, from an isolated agrarian society to a more cosmopolitan industrialised one. When the backers for your factories or mills or engines are invariably English, you need to be able to talk to them in their own language, and workers coming from abroad would not understand Irish either. Then we’re back to Daniel O’Connell again. Although one of Ireland’s greatest heroes and saviours, he was able to put the once-sacred Irish language to one side; where it had been a matter of fierce nationalist pride to speak in your native tongue, and not adopt the “heathen” language of the English, O’Connell was pragmatic enough to realise that English was where it was at, if Ireland wanted to drag itself out of the seventeenth century and take its place among the respected countries of Europe. Irish was a look backwards to the past, a thing that marked its people as poor, uneducated, and engendered varying degrees of scorn, pity and misunderstanding. O’Connell remarked in 1833 that “the superior utility of the English tongue, as the medium of all modern communication, is so great that I can witness without a sigh the gradual disuse of Irish.”

In other words, he recognised that, nice as it was to be able to speak and understand Gaelic, it was of little to no use in the real world. While many a cultured man or woman might speak French, or even Spanish or Italian - these skills seen as evidence of their higher education, as well as, to a lesser and also less practical degree, Greek and Latin - nobody outside of Ireland spoke Irish. The Welsh spoke an entirely different language, though fellow Celts, and the Scots, though their language shares some similarities with ours, would be as unlikely to be able to understand Irish as we would Scottish. And beyond the “Celtic countries” there was no room for Irish. It just simply was becoming a dead language, and more, as Catholic relief was finally granted, no longer the language of resistance to the English. There just was no point in it.

Although Irish continued to be taught in Irish schools during my time - and may still be - and there is a special sort of “summer school” in Galway called The Gaeltacht, where only Irish is allowed to be spoken, and though some areas, mostly, again, in the West and mostly close to the area wherein stands The Gaeltacht, keep it alive, even in its native land Irish is effectively dead now. I can speak a little Irish, learned in school, but could not understand a fluent Irish speaker nor write much of a coherent sentence in Irish without referring to Google. Certain words and phrases stick with you - all Irish people my age know the phrase “An bhfuil cead agam dul amach go dti an leithreas?” (May I go out to the toilet?), which you had to ask during Irish lessons - and a few other phrases, mostly from mass and so on, but few can speak the language with any sort of confidence. Few want to, except maybe to impress a foreign girl or disguise some remark to an Irish mate. I recall an instance when two of my bosses, incensed that their Japanese business contacts began jabbering away in their own language, began talking to each other in Irish, drawing very surprised and blank looks from the Asian gentlemen!

Ireland makes valiant attempts to keep Irish alive, if only for the sake of national identity and history. We have (though few people listen to or watch them) an Irish radio station and an Irish TV station, and our news bulletins in the evening are always followed by one in Irish. Various events are organised to encourage people to keep their language alive, and you’ll still see Gaelic translations of streets and buildings on name plates all over the country. There are even Irish cartoons and Irish rap! But for the majority of us, the language that once defined us as a nation is gone, and good riddance. It might seem a harsh thing to say, but then, I’ll guarantee none of you lived through the excruciating Irish classes where the teacher would constantly answer your questions in English with a snappish “As Gaeilge! As Gaeilge!” (In Irish! In Irish!) I mean, if you don’t understand the fucking language, how can you ask your question in that language? But that’s Irish schools for you.

RIP Irish language: nobody misses you, sorry.

The Poor Law: The Legacy of Abuse Begins

Just as it had decreed in its own country, England moved to enact a version of the Poor Law in Ireland, setting up what were known as Union Houses to take care of the elderly, children under age fifteen and the poor. After the Royal Commission on the Poorer Classes of Ireland made its report in 1833, four years after the Catholic Relief Act, the Irish Poor Law Act of 1838 recommended that Ireland be divided into Unions, loosely based around towns, and administered by three poor law commissioners, whose staff would run the poorhouses to be built, and distribute aid to the poor. Like those in England, the poorhouses were houses of horror, where living conditions were set at a bare minimum and many abuses took place, the residents having little or no rights.

In fact, poorhouses had been in existence in Ireland since the beginning of the eighteenth century, with the oldest, St. James’, established in 1703. This was later changed to the Foundling Hospital and Workhouse of Dublin City in 1727. Immediately the pejorative term “pauper” was applied to all residents, as per the Articles, of which there were over fifty. Among them, and first indeed among them, the conditions under which one might be admitted. Makes you wonder why they thought it was a privilege to get a bed here, though I suppose it really could be a case of something was better than nothing, and horrible and miserable a place as these poorhouses (or houses of industry, as they were rather grandiosely called in the eighteenth century) might be, they did at least provide food (of a sort) and a bed, which might not be available otherwise.

Note: These were copied from an actual scanned reproduction of the rules for Union Houses in Ireland, and whoever scanned it folded over the pages, so that some words were lost or blurred, particularly at the edges, so if corrections are seen to be needed, I've made them. Otherwise they're verbatim, a copy-and-paste job, with my comments below. Warning: there are over forty articles.

Article 1.Every pauper who shall be admitted into the workhouse, either upon his first or any subsequent admission, shall be admitted in one of the following modes only, that is to say ; — V 1. By a written or printed order of the Board of Guardians, signed by their clerk or presiding chairman. 2. By the master of the workhouse (or, during his absence or inability to act, by the matron), without any such order, in case of any sadden (sudden, surely?) and urgent necessity, or in of his receiving a written recommendation from a warden to admit, provisionally, any person or persons mentioned by name therein, whom the master shall, on due examination of the circumstances oi the case, believe to be destitute, and deem to he a proper object for admission to the workhouse.

I expect this meant that a large percentage of people turned up outside the poorhouse, desperate for somewhere to stay and for food, and were turned away for various reasons. Such incidents were common in England, as portrayed by Jack London in his People of the Abyss, in which the famed writer goes undercover as a pauper, to explore and report back on how the system of workhouses is broken and not fit for purpose, corrupt, unfair and damaging to the prospects of the poor.

Article 2 then states that —-No pauper shall be admitted under any written or printed order as mentioned in Article 1 , if the same bear date more than three days before the pauper duly presents it at the workhouse.

I take this to mean that if a pauper is given a written order to present at a particular poorhouse and does not arrive there within three days, that order is considered to be rescinded. Depending on where the order was issued, how soon the pauper was furnished with it and how immediately he or she could set out, that could be very little time, especially given the lack of public transport and, oh yeah, these people were poor as church mice and could not afford to travel in carriages and omnibuses, if such were available. And as if that wasn’t enough:

Article 3.—If a pauper be admitted in any other than the first of the two modes mentioned in Article 1 , the admission of such pauper shall be brought before the Board of Guardians at their next meeting, who shall decide on the propriety of the pauper's continuing in the workhouse or otherwise, and make an order accordingly.

So your place could not be guaranteed, even if you had secured it, until or unless a governor or board member confirmed it. Article 9 went on to classify the various types of paupers, at least as the poor commission saw them:

Article 9. The paupers, so far as the workhouse admits thereof, shall be classed as follows : — 1. Males above the age of 16 years.
2. Boys above the age of 2 years, and under that of 16 years.
3. Females above the age of 16 years.
4. Girls above the age of 2 years, and under that of 15 years.
5. Children under 2 years of age.

Article 11 provides for the segregation of said paupers:

Article 11.—Each class, or subdivision of a class, shall respectively remain in the apartment assigned to them, without communication with any other class or subdivision of a class; subject, nevertheless, to such arrangements as exist with reference to the probationary wards and infirmary, and also to the following five exceptions ; —

Exception 1. —Any paupers of the third class, and any paupere of a proper age in the fourth class, may be employed, constantly or occasionally, as assistants to the nurses in any of the sick wards, or in the care of infants, or as assistants in the household work ; provided that ^ the said paupers, when employed in the household work, be so employed without communication with the paupers of the first and second classes.

Exception 2.—Any aged pauper of the third class, whom the master may deem fit to perform any of the duties of a nurse or assistant to the matron, may be so employed in the sick wards, or those of the second, third, fourth , or fifth classes; and any pauper of the first class, who may he deemed fit, may be placed in the ward of the second class, to aid in in management, and superintend the behaviour, of the paupers of such class.

Exception 3. —The boys and girls under 15 years of age may be permitted to meet in the same school, for the purposes of instruction, subject to the consent and approval of the Poor Law Commissioners, having been obtained.

Exception 4.—All paupers of class 5, whose mothers are inmates of the workhouse, shall be allowed to remain with their mothers, if they so desire ; and all paupers of classes 3 and 4, who are between two and seven years, shall, when not attending school, be placed in some apartment specially provided for them; and the mothers children shall be permitted to have access to them at all reasonable times.

Exception 5.—The master of the workhouse (subject to be made by the Board of Guardians and approved by the Poor Law Commissioners) shall allow the father or mother of any child in the workhouse, who may be desirous of seeing such child, to have an interview with such child at some time in each day, in some room in the workhouse appointed for that purpose.

So essentially, wading through all that legalise guff, it seems the children would be separated from those believed adults (over sixteen), separated by sex, and the two only allowed to (possibly) intermix during schooling (presumably to save the workhouse and the Poor Law Commission the expense of having two schools, one for boys and one for girls). Children of “class 5”, in other words, less than two years of age, would be allowed to stay with their mothers (though nothing is said of fathers) and children over this age were to be put in apartments when not at school, the mothers allowed to visit these. A father (this time they’re mentioned) or mother who wished to see his or her child would be allowed to at the behest of the Board.

I’m a little unclear on this. Does this refer to children who may not have been in the poorhouse, but whose parents were? Or the other way around, though unlikely I would have thought. Or does it simply mean that parents living in one area of the poorhouse could visit their children in the other? But if so, is that not already specified in Exception 4?

At any rate, what these articles do make clear is that the paupers become all but the property of the poorhouse, the staff of which could put them to work (surely unpaid?), throw them out if they didn’t follow the rules and could also visit different types of punishment upon them. The next articles go into some detail about this, and between them are a handy guide to what daily life must have been like in these places.

Article 13All the paupers in the workhouse, except those disabled by sickness or infirmity, persons of unsound mind, and children, shall rise, be set to work, leave off work, and go to bed at such times, and shall be allowed such intervals for their meals as the Board of Guardians shall, by any regulation approved by the Poor Law Commissioners, direct ; and these several times shall be notified by the ringing of a bell.

Article 14.Half an hour after the bell shall have been rung for rising, the names of the paupers shall be called over by the master, schoolmaster, matron, and schoolmistress respectively, in the several wards, when every pauper belonging to each ward must be present to answer to his name and to be inspected.

Article 15.The meals shall be taken by all the paupers (except those disabled by sickness or infirmity, persons of unsound mind, and children) in the dining hall, and in no other place whatever; and during the time of meals order and decorum shall be maintained ; and no pauper (except those disabled by sickness or infirmity, persons of unsound mind, and children) shall go to or remain in his sleeping room, either in the time appointed for work or in the intervals allowed for meals, except by permission of the master or matron.

Article 16.The master and matron of the workhouse shall (subject to the directions of the Board of Guardians) fix the hours of rising and going to bed for the sick, the infirm, and the young children, and determine the occupation and employment of which such inmates may be capable ; and the meals for such inmates shall be provided at such times and in such manner as the Board of Guardians may direct.

Article 17.—The paupers of the respective sexes shall be dieted as set forth in the dietary-table which may be prescribed for the use of the workhouse, and in no other manner.

Article 18. ---Provided that the medical officer may direct in writing such diet for any individual pauper in the sick or lunatic wards as he shall deem necessary.
2dly.—That if the. medical officer shall at any time certify that he deems a temporary change in the diet essential to the health of the paupers in the workhouse, or of any class or classes thereof, the guardians shall cause a copy of such certificate to be entered on the minutes of their proceedings, and shall be empowered forthwith to order, by a resolution, the said diet to be temporarily changed according to the recommendation of the medical officer, and shall forthwith transmit a copy of such certificate and resolution to the Poor Law Commissioners.
3dly —That the medical officer shall be specially consulted by the matron as to the nature of the food of the infants, and the time at which such infants should be weaned.

Article 19.No pauper shall have or consume any tobacco, or any spirituous or fermented liquor, or food nor provision other than is allowed in the said dietary table, unless by the direction in writing of the medical officer, as provided for in Article 17.

Article 20.The clothing to be worn by the paupers in the workhouse shall be made of such materials as the Board of Guardians may determine.
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Article 21.The paupers of the several classes shall be kept employed according to their capacity and ability ; but no pauper shall work on his own account, or on account of any party other than the Board of Guardians ; and no pauper shall receive any compensation for his labour.

Article 22.The boys and girls who are inmates of the workhouse shall, for fee of the working hours at least every day, be instructed in reading, writing, arithmetic, and the principles of the Christian religion; and such other instruction shall he imparted to them as shall fit them for service, and train them to habits of usefulness, industry, and virtue.

So we can see above that the paupers would certainly not be paid for their work, moreover they were not allowed to “sub in” for each other, i.e., no one pauper could undertake the work of another for any reason; initiative would certainly not be rewarded, might even be punished. Everything from the clothes they wore to what they ate, how they ate it and when they got up and went to bed was determined by the Poor Law Commissioners, and you can bet that those boys didn’t stump up for proper grub. Let them eat gruel, huh?

You could leave the poorhouse but you had to make an appointment. This, again, is shown in London’s People of the Abyss, where he notices that departure, despite what Article 23 tells us, was often delayed while inmates were forced to sit through a length Bible-bashing mass service, whether they wanted it or not. Such delays - often lasting hours - impacted upon the paupers making any possible interviews for work they might have had, and then getting back to the poorhouse, or another, in time before the gates shut.

Article 23.Any pauper may quit the workhouse upon giving the master three hours’ previous notice of his wish to do so ; but no such pauper shall carry with him any clothes or other articles belonging to the Board of Guardians, without the express permission of the master or matron.

Article 24.No pauper having a family dependent on him shall so quit the workhouse without taking the whole of such family with him ; nor shall anv pauper, after so quitting the workhouse, be again received therein, except in one of the modes prescribed in Article 1 for the admission of paupers.

I guess Article 24 then makes it impossible for a father or mother to desert their family and leave them behind, or for children to abandon their parents. A real case of one out, all out. Or, you know, in. Article 26 seems to have allowed the “master” and higher-level staff of the poorhouse to use the inmates to run errands, perhaps?

Article 26.The master of the workhouse may allow the paupers of each sex under the age of 16, subject to such restrictions as the Board of Guardians may impose, to quit the workhouse under the care and guidance of himself, or the matron, schoolmaster, schoolmistress, porter, or some one of the assistants and servants of the workhouse, for the purpose of exercise.

But no visitors, no reading (in other words, no attempt to educate themselves or be educated) and absolutely, under no circumstances, any fun, as Articles 27 - 29 make clear:

Article 27 .-No person shall visit any pauper in the workhouse, except by permission of the master, or (in his absence) of the matron, and subject to such conditions and restrictions as the Board of Guardians may prescribe ; such interview shall take place, except where a sick pauper is visited, in a room separate from the other inmates of the workhouse, in the presence of the master, matron, or porter.

Article 28.
No written or printed paper of an improper tendency shall be allowed to circulate, nor be read aloud among the inmates of the workhouse.

(I wonder if by “improper tendency” they mean Catholic, or Irish nationalist papers?)

Article 29.No pauper shall play at cards, nor at any game of chance, in the workhouse ; and it shall be lawful for the master to take from any pauper, and to keep -until his departure from the workhouse, any cards, dice, or other articles relating to games of chance, which may be in his possession.

The iron-tight grip of Protestant religion makes itself clear in Articles 31 - 33

Article 31.Any regular minister of the religious persuasion of any inmate of the workhouse who shall, at any time in the day, on the request of any inmate, enter the workhouse for the purpose of affording religious assistance to him, or for the purpose of instructing his child or children in the principles or his religion, : shall give such assistance or instruction so as not to interfere with the good order and discipline of the other inmates of the workhouse; and such Religious Assistance or instruction shall be strictly confined to inmates who are of the religious persuasion of such minister, and to the children of such inmates.

Article 32.If any inmate of the age of 15 years and upwards, of sound mind, shall desire to be registered as of a different religious denomination different from that which is entered in the register as his religious denomination, or if the parents or surviving parent of any child under the age of 15 shall desire, in like manner, to have the register amended in respect of the religious denomination such child; in either of such cases, if the guardians shall, after due inquiry and personal examination, of the party expressing such desire that the present religious persuasion of any inmate is wrongly described in the register, they shall cause the register to be amended accordingly.


Article 33.If any inmate, being of sound mind, shall desire to be visited by a minister of any religious denomination different from that which is in the register as the religious denomination of such inmate, the request shall be made to the master of the workhouse, who shall report such to the Board of Guardians at their next meeting; and the guardians shall give directions thereon as may appear to them fitting and. expedient; provided that in any case of urgency affecting the life of an inmate, the master shall, of his own discretion, permit such inmate to be visited at once, and communicate such request to such minister accordingly.

Meaning that if you wanted to see a priest not of your own faith (or the faith “entered in the register”, which could I suppose easily be “mistakenly” entered as Protestant) you would have to have your request submitted to the master, who would submit it to the Board, who would consider it at their next board meeting - whenever that was - then get back to the master who would in his own good time no doubt get back to you. One can only assume that if the minister in question was a Catholic, the request would get bogged down in delays, or be refused outright.

Hey, at least Article 34 gave them Christmas Day off!

Article 34.No work, except the necessary household work and cooking shall be performed by the paupers on Sunday, Good Friday, and Christmas Day,

Plenty of room for God though…

Article 35.Prayers shall be read before breakfast and after supper every day, and divine service shall be performed every Sunday in the workhouse (unless the guardians, with the consent of the Poor Law Commissioners, shall otherwise direct) ; at which prayers and service all the paupers shall attend, except the sick, persons of unsound mind, the young children, and such. as are too infirm to do so ; provided that those paupers who may object so to attend on account of their religious principles shall also be exempt from such attendance.

Article 37 lays out the rules, breakage of which carry various punishments.

Punishments for Misbehaviour of Paupers.

Article 36.Any pauper who shall neglect to observe such of the regulations herein contained as are applicable to and binding on him ;
Or who shall make any noise when silence is ordered to be kept ;
Or who shall use obscene or profane language ; Or shall by word or deed insult or revile any person j •
Or shall threaten to strike or to assault any person ;
Or shall not duly cleanse his person ;
Or shall refuse or neglect to work, after having been required to do so;
Or shall pretend sickness;
Or shall play at cards or other game of chance ;
Or shall enter, or attempt to enter, without permission, the ward or yard appropriated to any class of paupers, other than that to which he belongs ;
Or shall misbehave at public worship, or at prayers ;
Or shall not return after the appointed time of absence, when allowed to quit the workhouse temporarily ; Or shall wilfully disobey any lawful order of any officer of the workhouse ; ., 1 . shall be deemed Disorderly.

Article 37.Any pauper who shall, within seven days, repeat any one or commit more than one of the offences specified in Article 36, or who shall by word or deed insult or revile the master or matron, or any other officer of the workhouse, or any of the guardians ;
Or shall wilfully disobey any lawful order of the master or matron after such order shall have been repeated ;
Or shall attempt to introduce any fermented or spirituous liquors or tobacco, without lawful authority;
Or shall unlawfully strike or otherwise unlawfully assault any person ;
Or shall wilfully or mischievously damage or soil any property whatsoever belonging to the guardians ;
Or shall wilfully waste or spoil any provisions, stock, tools, or materials for work, belonging to the guardians ;
Or shall be drunk ;
Or shall commit any act of indecency ;
Or shall wilfully disturb the other inmates during prayers or divine worship;
Or shall climb over any wall or fence, or attempt to quit the workhouse premises in any irregular mode;
Or shall attempt to convey out of the workhouse any clothes or other articles belonging to the Board of Guardians ; shall be deemed refractory

Article 38 then laid out the punishments

Article 38.It shall be lawful for the master of the workhouse, with or Without the directions of the Board of Guardians, to punish any disorderly pauper, by requiring such pauper, for a time not exceeding two days, to perform one hour’s extra work in each day, and by withholding all milk or buttermilk which such pauper would otherwise receive with his meals.

Article 39.It shall be lawful for the Board of Guardians, by a special direction to be entered on their minutes, to order any refractory pauper, to be punished by confinement in a separate room, with or without an increase in the time of work and an alteration of diet, similar in kind and duration to that prescribed in Article 38 for disorderly paupers; but no pauper shall be so confined for a longer period than 24 hours ; or, if it be deemed right that such pauper shall be- carried before a Justice of the Peace, and if such period of 24 hours should be insufficient for that purpose, then for such further time as may be necessary for such purpose.

Article 40.—It shall be lawful for the Board of Guardians, by any special or general order, to direct that a dress different from that of the other inmates shall be worn by disorderly or refractory paupers, during a period of not more than 48 .hours, jointly with or in lieu of the alteration of diet to which any such pauper might be subjected by the regulations herein contained; but it shall not be lawful for the Board of Guardians to cause any penal dress, or distinguishing mark of disgrace, to be worn by any adult pauper, or class of adult paupers, unless such pauper or paupers shall be disorderly or refractory within the meaning of Articles 36 or 37 of this Order.

Article 41.If any offence, whereby a pauper becomes refractory under Articles 36 or 37, be accompanied, by any of the following circumstances of aggravation ; that is to say, if such pauper Persist in using violence against any person ;
Or persist in creating a noise or disturbance, so as to annoy a considerable number of the other inmates ;
Or endeavour to excite other paupers to acts of insubordination ;
Or persist in acting indecently or obscenely in the presence of any other inmate;
Or persist in mischievously breaking or damaging any goods or properly of the guardians ; it shall be lawful for the master, without any direction of the Board of Guardians, immediately to place such refractory pauper in confinement for any time not exceeding 13 hours ; which confinement shall, however, be reckoned as part of any punishment afterwards imposed by the Board of Guardians for the same offence. But it shall not be lawful for the master to confine any adult pauper without the direction of the Board of Guardians in that behalf, except in one of the cases specified in this Article.

Article 42.Every refractory pauper shall be deemed to be also disorderly/, and may be punished as such ; but no pauper who may have been punished for any offence as disorderly shall afterwards be punished for the same offence as refractory ; and no pauper who may have been punished for any offence as refractory shall afterwards be punished for the same offence as disorderly.

Article 43.No pauper who may have. been under medical care, or who may have been entered in the weekly medical return as sick or infirm, at any time in the course of the seven days next preceding the day of the commission of the offence, or who may be reasonably supposed to be under 12 or above 60 years of age, or who may be pronounced by the medical officer of the workhouse lo be pregnant, or who may be suckling a child, shall be punished by alteration of diet, or by confinement, unless the medical officer shall have previously certified in writing that no injury to the health of such pauper is reasonably to be apprehended from the proposed punishment ; and any modification diminishing such punishment which the medical officer of the workhouse may suggest, shall be adopted by the master.

Article 44:No pauper shall be confined between eight o’clock in the evening and six o'clock in the morning, without being furnished with a bed and bedding suitable to the season, and with the other proper conveniences.

Article 45.—No child under 12 years of age shall be confined in a dark room, or during the night.

Article 46.No corporal punishment shall be inflicted on any male child .except by the schoolmaster or master of the workhouse.

Article 47.—No corporal punishment shall be inflicted on any female child.

Article 48.No corporal punishment shall be inflicted on any male child, except with a rod or other instrument, such as shall be seen and approved by the Board of Guardians or the visiting committee.

Article 49.No corporal punishment shall be inflicted on any male child until six hours shall have elapsed from the commission of the offence for such punishment is inflicted. .

Article 50.
Whenever any male child is punished by corporal correction, the master and schoolmaster shall (if possible) be both present.

I could go on, but this is getting ridiculous. There are a total of 71 Articles, and it’s clear that few were followed to the letter. After all, who was going to check on them and report them? Most of the masters of these poorhouses, I imagine, would have looked upon these rules as more guidelines or suggestions, and there’s absolutely no doubt that the conditions governing punishment of inmates were routinely broken. Who would take the word of a pauper, even if he or she were to gather the courage to speak up? Most of the men running these institutions would have been highly regarded, men of breeding and status, men whose solemn word would be taken - not even required, in such cases, but assumed to be the truth - were they to be accused of breaking these rules.

What is quite clear from that rather long-winded diversion into the rules and regulations of the Irish poorhouses quite clearly is that they were not fun places to be, nor were they meant to be. They functioned as a source of cheap (slave) labour, as a way of drilling into the poor what their place was, and no doubt allowed many a sadistic “master” to vent his spleen on people about whom nobody cared, to whom nobody listened, and who had no rights. They were, after all, part of one great amorphous, forgotten and neglected mass going under the umbrella term of the poor, or, which is somehow worse, paupers.

A quick count of the poorhouses listed in that document gives me approximately 120 operating in Ireland from south to north and east to west. That was bad enough; the Brits did that to us. But this next was of our own making, to our country’s eternal shame.
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Old 02-22-2023, 09:49 AM   #149 (permalink)
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Six months and more later, it's time to step back a little in history again. Sure, we will of course come to the scandal of the Magdalene Laundries in time, but right now I want to look at an event which changed Irish history, and the perception of Ireland so radically and fundamentally that we would never again be the same. In fact, it almost made sure we became nothing more than a memory, a footnote in history, and might in time pass into legend as a race who may, or may not, have existed.

Bitter Harvest: Blight on the Landscape
The Great Famine (1845 - 1849)

"The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine." - John Mitchell

While famine is always a big issue, and should always be taken seriously, and if we can, we should do all we can to help avert or end it, overall I think it’s fair to say that the days of Live Aid are gone, and in these times of, well, more important things on our mind, we can watch news footage of famines in Africa and Central America and other places and just shrug. It’s not that we don’t care, but without Geldof to poke and prod us and snarl “Give us your fucking money!” while providing us world-class music entertainment in the hope of prising that fiver or tenner (hey, this was 1985, remember! I’d barely left school!) from our pocket, you might say the conscience that drove our revulsion at famine, and the need to do something about it, has gone.

Not that I’m for a moment proposing that nobody cares. You probably give to good causes and hope they will funnel the money to those who need it, those who have nothing to eat, rather than self-styled warlords living in opulence off the backs of the people they purport to be freeing, or to have freed, from oppression. Or even corrupt governments who divert the funds into slush accounts and personal nest eggs. Our faith in our charitable institutions has without doubt taken a serious knock over the last say ten years or so, and I know that I, personally, maybe like a lot of you, only give out of guilt. To some degree, I only half-expect my small contribution to go where it’s supposed to go, but what can you do?

Famines are of course not new to the twentieth century, nor the twenty-first, and back hundreds of years ago they were more common across Europe than they are today in the poorer, developing countries (not socially acceptable to call them third world countries now - always wondered what qualified a country as a second world one?), mostly because of, well, the same reasons really. A huge gulf between the classes, with the super-rich not giving a curse about the super-poor, wars constantly raging across the continent (most, but to be fair, not all, driven by England, who always seemed to be at war with someone, and were that restless when they weren’t that they had to fight among themselves) and rising prices and mass unemployment making it harder to make ends meet. Market forces, as ever, drove supply and demand, and those who could afford to bought all they could at the lowest price they could, and then sold it to those who could not afford it at the highest price they could. Never changes.

But while Europe had its famines, and they were many, none seemed as devastating and none are remembered with such horror by history as the one that gripped Ireland in the tail-end of the nineteenth century. With the Industrial Revolution in full swing across Europe, and especially in Britain, Ireland still lived in a kind of hundred-year reverse, where peasants toiled the land with crude tools, there were few if any factories, crops had to be dug out of the soil by the sweat of your brow, and wealthy landowners kept all the best and most arable land to themselves. An underclass of Irish Catholics worked as tenant farmers on the worst and least cultivable land, where the only thing that would grow in such hardy soil was that old Irish staple, the potato.

But before we get too wrapped up in crops and harvests and blights and the inevitable road to starvation and emigration, we should of course examine the years leading up to what became known in Ireland as Gorta Mór, which literally means “the great hurt”, but which would be remembered by generations of Irish people as The Great Famine.

The Devon Commission

Appointed in 1843 and reporting the year the Great Famine begun, the Devon Commission was a royal commission undertaken by the Crown to enquire into the state of Irish tenant labourers and farmers in Ireland. It was headed by the Earl of Devon (hence the name) and identified many facts which were well-known to the Irish - and, most likely the English, though the latter would prefer they remained unknown - the principle one being that the distribution of land in Ireland was unfairly weighted on the side of wealthy Protestant landowners. Its recommendations were strenuously objected to by Irish (read, English) landowners and landlords, mostly because they had no intention of putting their hands in their pockets, and so watched impassively and with absolutely no sympathy or sense of responsibility for the horrible famine that swept across the country.

Evidence is given here by a land agent as to how all but impossible a task it was to get Irish landowners to even engage with the few improvements that might have saved lives, had the commission reported sooner (though two years is actually quite rapid for a report, even now) and/or its recommendations been implemented with all haste. The emphasis in the following extract has been added by me.

Robert O’Brien, esq., land proprietor, and agent to properties in the counties of Clare and Limerick.

6. A farming society, professing to be for the counties of Limerick, Clare and Tipperary, has been in existence for the last few years, and has certainly produced some good in inducing cattle breeders to take more pains about their stock than they would otherwise do; but every effort to extend its application to the small farmers has been attended with failure from want of co-operation, arising from its sphere of action being too extended. When I was manager, in 1841, I endeavoured to establish branches in every barony, for the benefit of small farmers, making the condition that £10 should be contributed to the parent society out of that barony. Though three baronies were qualified, no application for the premium was made from anyone. In 1842, I endeavoured to get up a ploughing-match, and though I advertised for land could get none. I also, that year, had the prizes placed at our disposal by the Royal Agricultural Society offered for competition in the Limerick district alone; and though I circulated the papers largely, no claim for competition was made. Again, in 1843, I applied to the local society, and obtained a grant of money for premiums, in addition to what was given by the Royal Agricultural Society, to be offered for competition in each poor-law union in the counties of Clare and Limerick. The union of Ennistimon was the first on the list, and though I sent the premium sheets to every resident gentleman and clergyman, yet hardly any notice was given to the small farmers to prepare themselves, and only a few competitors appeared; nor had it the effect which was intended, of inducting residents in the union to attempt to form a local society. One of the reasons that a farming society, whose object is the improvement of tillage, has not succeeded here is that the gentry generally hold rich lands, which are kept for pasture, and do not, as a class, feel so direct a sympathy with those who occupy the waste and poor lands. It is, therefore, only a few landlords who, taking an interest in the improvement of the tenantry, would be willing to support such a society; but they, finding no general interest in the subject, confine their exertions to their own estates, on which several are engaged in extensive improvements.

Extract from notes by David J. Wilson, landowner in County Clare:

The small piece of land attached to it (three and a half statue acres) is the greater part of it very poor land, at the foot of a mountain, and with a very thin surface…

The Great Emancipator himself had little faith in the impartiality of the Commission, nor its intent to help the poor farmers, being made up as it was exclusively of landowners: " You might as well consult butchers about keeping Lent as consult these men about the rights of farmer!” he snarled. Perhaps he would have eaten his words - to use a terribly inappropriate metaphor - had he seen the report of the commission, but it came, as I say, too late, and though its recommendations would later be put into practice, those whom it was supposed to help would by then either be in America, dead at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean or dead in the grey, mucky, empty fields of Ireland.

Laws were of course weighted heavily, almost entirely on the side of the landowner, and a tenant who was unable to pay his rent could have goods to that value - including his crops - seized, meaning that as these were his sole means of income, he had no chance at all of making good on the debt. The landlord was, in effect, robbing him and leaving him with no way to make good on that deficit. Then of course he could just be ejected, or evicted from the land, a process that was made easier for the landlords and which was often chosen by them as their preferred method of dealing with a tenant in arrears. Conacre was another practice in wide use in Ireland. This was the idea of letting a small plot of land for the growth of one or two crops, barely enough for the tenant to feed himself and his family on. The idea of class - closer to ancient serfdom or even slavery really - was never more potent than in Ireland, especially the south, what became known as the Republic, under the English. The feelings of many British MPs were summed up almost in one sentence by the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland: ‘Esquimaux [sic] and New Zealanders are more thrifty and industrious than these people who deserve to be left to their fate instead of the hardworking people of England being taxed for their support.”

Why was this? Why the lack of empathy, pity or even a sense of inclusion into what was now the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland? The reality was that the Union had been more or less forced on Ireland; at no time had she requested it, and though the likes of Daniel O’Connell had supported it, in the hope that it would bring more recognition for Ireland, and even the protection of the king most Irish people hated, this was of course not the case. It was merely a way for the British government and the Crown to tighten their hold over the troublesome country, dismiss its parliament and rule from Westminster. It was, I suppose you would have to say, a way of showing the Irish who was boss. But like marginal members of society suddenly pulled into, and in most cases forced upon that society - think maybe itinerant/gypsy/pikies being given houses in a housing estate, or maybe immigrant refugees - it was made clear that the Irish were still “poor cousins” (emphasis heavily on the poor) and were neither accepted nor wanted. Like children being told they have to play nice with those of neighbours they didn’t like, the British people sulked and muttered but could do nothing about this new addition to their Union. But they didn’t have to make them welcome, and they went out of their way to make sure this was far from the case.

It’s a matter of historical tragic irony that at the height of the Great Famine, Ireland was in fact exporting to Britain enough corn to feed two million people, twice as many as would die of hunger in Ireland during this awful period. Far from being able to grow only potatoes - and those useless once the blight hit - Irish farmers grew crops which were, however, not for local consumption but for export, literally sending out of the country food that could have prevented the Famine. There was no corresponding import of grains, this all due to the infamous Corn Laws, passed in order to keep the importation of corn prohibitively expensive and therefore allow domestic corn prices to remain competitive. In reality, what it did was give the Irish landowners a monopoly and the opportunity to raise their own prices, as corn could not be got from anywhere else unless you wished to break the bank. This all began in laws enacted back in 1815 by the British Government.

The Corn Laws

It should be understood that “corn” was, in the legal sense of the Act, a catch-all word which covered all grains - wheat, barley, oats and of course corn - as the Tory Government sought to keep Britain competitive in the agricultural market. In the time of George III, prices for the importation of foreign corn had been set at a ceiling of 48 shillings per quarter. A quarter was equal to eight bushels, and though it’s very complicated, basically it seems a bushel was in or around maybe 14 Kgs or about 30 pounds. With victory over Napoleon corn prices began to fall, and in order to remain competitive Britain passed the Corn Laws (An Act to amend the Laws now in force to regulate the importation of corn), raising the ceiling to 80 shillings. What this meant, in effect, was that as long as Britain (and Ireland) produced corn that cost no more than 80 shillings per quarter (around £1200 per tonne) no corn would be allowed to be imported to the country. Falling prices as noted above, due to peace finally being attained in Europe, ensured this ceiling would never be reached.

And then came an unexpected event.
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Old 02-22-2023, 10:15 AM   #150 (permalink)
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Winter is coming: the Year Without a Summer

In 1816, one single year after the Corn Laws had been signed into operation, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted. The volcano threw huge clouds of ash and smoke into the air, cutting off sunlight and plunging the world into deep cold. In fact, over the last eight years there had been no less than five massive volcanic eruptions around the world, a comparable one to Mount Tambora being the eruption two years previous of Mount Mayon in the Philippines, causing the world to undergo a catastrophic change in climate. The image above shows how cold it got in that year, compared to normal average temperatures. The whole planet was affected as crops failed everywhere. China found itself in the grip of a massive famine, torrential floods and snow in Taiwan, while India was battered by rain which exacerbated an outbreak of cholera across the country.

The newly-struggling independent colonies did not fare much better. Though there was no famine, and they were used to colder temperatures as the norm, seasons seemed reversed in areas of America such as Massachusetts, New York and Vermont, and crops again failed. William G. Atkins, in The History of Hawley, West Massachusetts wrote “Severe frosts occurred every month; June 7th and 8th snow fell, and it was so cold that crops were cut down, even freezing the roots ... In the early Autumn when corn was in the milk it was so thoroughly frozen that it never ripened and was scarcely worth harvesting. Breadstuffs were scarce and prices high and the poorer class of people were often in straits for want of food. It must be remembered that the granaries of the great west had not then been opened to us by railroad communication, and people were obliged to rely upon their own resources or upon others in their immediate locality.”

And in Europe, as rain pelted down and freezing frost killed the crops, starvation and disease spread all over the continent. Typhus claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, people roamed the streets begging for food, other people took the law into their own hands and rioted, demanding “bread or blood”, while strange phenomena were recorded in Hungary, where brown snow (a result of the volcanic ash in the air) fell, and Italy, where it seemed to rain blood, though again this was snow tinged red by the eruption’s ejecta. As in the time of the Black Death, people must have thought the end of days had come. For some, of course, this would prove to be true, and as always, the awful weather and failure of crops would disproportionately affect the poor.

I suppose at this point you couldn’t really blame the British for not having lowered the ceiling to import corn - where were they going to import it from, after all? - but the real damage the Corn Laws would wreak would of course be seen in its legacy with regard to the Great Famine. There were some amendments made to the laws, but they were impractical, restricting the price of corn to be imported to the extent that it never had any chance of reaching that level, and things stayed as they were. Many British politicians and industrialists, though, had had enough.

The Anti-Corn Laws League

In 1838 a confederation of these men got together and formed the Anti-Corn Laws League (well, it had been formed two years earlier, but only gained nationwide appeal in this year) in an attempt to force the repeal of the unpopular laws, which, they said, strangled Britain’s trade and were unfair and biased. It’s probably likely that not one of these people considered the Irish in their speeches and the pamphlets they wrote, or mentioned them at the many meetings held; these men were all about protecting British interests, though eventually repeal of the Corn Laws would have a positive effect on Ireland.

Richard Cobden (1804 - 1865)

(All right, is there not something ironically funny about a guy whose name contains the word “cob” opposing the Corn Laws? No, you’re right: this is no place for jokes. Over there, that’s the place…)

One of the leaders of the League, Cobden was a Liberal, a Radical and would later be instrumental in securing free trade with France, in the 1860 Cobden-Chevalier Treaty. The son of a poor farmer, his sympathies of course then came to lie with the tenant farmers, but he was determined to better himself and not live as his father had done. A man to whom nothing was handed on a plate, he worked in his uncle’s business until that failed, while at the same time trying to improve on the meagre education his family had been able to afford for him, and eventually set up his own printing business, and soon got into politics, standing for the seat of Stockport in 1837, though he did not win it till four years later. He quickly established himself as an expert and authority on the Corn Laws, and in 1843 took Prime Minister Robert Peel so to task on the subject that he was accused of inciting to violence.

Peel. however, was changing his stance and, swayed partially at least by Cobden’s passionate rhetoric, became a supporter of repeal and in 1846 accomplished this, finally removing the hated laws. Though he had wished to rest after his exertions, which had taken considerable reserves not only of his time and money but also his health, and travelled extensively in Europe, he soon found that his fame had preceded him, and he was something of a celebrity. Bowing to the inevitable, he declared “Well, I will, with God's assistance during the next twelve months, visit all the large states of Europe, see their potentates or statesmen, and endeavour to enforce those truths which have been irresistible at home. Why should I rust in inactivity? If the public spirit of my countrymen affords me the means of travelling as their missionary, I will be the first ambassador from the people of this country to the nations of the continent. I am impelled to this by an instinctive emotion such as has never deceived me. I feel that I could succeed in making out a stronger case for the prohibitive nations of Europe to compel them to adopt a freer system than I had here to overturn our protection policy.”

A great ambassador for peace, Cobden argued that as "in the slave trade we [the British] had surpassed in guilt the world, so in foreign wars we have the most aggressive, quarelsome, warlike and bloody nation under the sun." He also thundered "you will find that we have been incomparably the most sanguinary nation on earth... in China, in Burma, in India, New Zealand, the Cape, Syria, Spain, Portugal, Greece, etc, there is hardly a country, however remote, in which we have not been waging war or dictating our terms at the point of a bayonet." Cobden believed the British, "the greatest blood-shedders of all"

This could not have made him popular back home. Nobody likes to be reminded of their mistakes, or what might be seen as the excesses of youth, in terms of empire, and the late Queen Victoria would most certainly not have been amused. He was proven correct however in his assessment of the seemingly insatiable British thirst for war, conquest and the need to “show other nations who was boss” when they declared war on Burma (now Myanmar) for the specious reason that they took exception to how the government there had treated two of their captains. Cobden wrote in disbelief:

"I blush for my country, and the very blood in my veins tingled with indignation at the wanton disregard of all justice and decency without our proceedings towards that country exhibited. The violence and wrongs perpetrated by Pizarro or Cortez were scarcely veiled in a more transparent pretence of right than our own." The Burmese, Cobden continued, had "no more chance against our 64 pound red-hot shot and other infernal improvement in the art of war than they would in running a race on their roads against our railways... the day on which we commenced the war with a bombardment of shot, shell and rockets...that the natives must have thought it an onslaught of devils, was Easter Sunday!"

John Bright (1811 - 1889)

The other leading light in the Anti-Corn Law League was a Lancashire man, the son of a miller and a Quaker by religion, and acknowledged as one of the great orators of his generation. He learned this through giving speeches for the local temperance association, and later, after meeting Richard Cobden, formed the League with him. When his wife died in 1841 it gave him a greater incentive to have the Corn Laws repealed, so that no other person need die of hunger or neglect or poverty, and feel the pain he did at the passing of his wife from tuberculosis. In 1843 Bright was elected to the seat at Durham, and so sat in the House of Commons with his friend, who had been there two years before him.

Bright was responsible for two famous phrases, the first being “flogging a dead horse”, which he used as a way to illustrate how unwilling parliament was to pass the Reform Act of 1867, the other when he called England “The Mother of Parliaments”. He went on to become MP for Birmingham, a position he held for thirty years. Originally a supporter of the Irish Tenant Right League and Irish land reform, Bright changed his stance when the sectarian divide began to grow, and refused to support Home Rule for Ireland, calling the Irish “disloyal”. An odd phrase, I think, to use, considering we were never really willing subjects of the Crown, but there you go. This what what he had to say about an hour-long meeting he had with then-Prime Minister William Gladstone:

"He gave me a long memorandum, historical in character, on the past Irish story, which seemed to be somewhat one-sided, leaving out of view the important minority and the views and feelings of the Protestant and loyal portion of the people. He explained much of his policy as to a Dublin Parliament, and as to Land purchase. I objected to the Land policy as unnecessary—the Act of 1881 had done all that was reasonable for the tenants—why adopt the policy of the rebel party, and get rid of landholders, and thus evict the English garrison as the rebels call them? I denied the value of the security for repayment. Mr G. argued that his finance arrangements would be better than present system of purchase, and that we were bound in honour to succour the landlords, which I contested. Why not go to the help of other interests in Belfast and Dublin? As to Dublin Parliament, I argued that he was making a surrender all along the line—a Dublin Parliament would work with constant friction, and would press against any barrier he might create to keep up the unity of the three Kingdoms. What of a volunteer force, and what of import duties and protection as against British goods? ... I thought he placed far too much confidence in the leaders of the rebel party. I could place none in them, and the general feeling was and is that any terms made with them would not be kept, and that through them I could not hope for reconciliation with discontented and disloyal Ireland."

He was less than impressed when Gladstone signed the Home Rule Bill into law only two weeks later. Returning from the funeral of his brother in law, and in response to a request to visit the PM, he wrote: “I cannot consent to a measure which is so offensive to the whole Protestant population of Ireland, and to the whole sentiment of the province of Ulster so far as its loyal and Protestant people are concerned. I cannot agree to exclude them from the protection of the Imperial Parliament. I would do much to clear the rebel party from Westminster, and do not sympathise with those who wish to retain them—but admit there is much force in the arguments on this point which are opposed to my views upon it. ... As to the Land Bill, if it comes to a second reading, I fear I must vote against it. It may be that my hostility to the rebel party, looking at their conduct since your Government was formed six years ago, disables me from taking an impartial view of this great question. If I could believe them honorable and truthful men, I could yield much—but I suspect that your policy of surrender to them will only place more power in their hands to war with greater effect against the unity of the 3 Kingdoms with no increase of good to the Irish people. ... Parliament is not ready for it, and the intelligence of the country is not ready for it. If it be possible, I should wish that no Division should be taken upon the Bill.”

It’s therefore clear to see that, though these two men fought for the working poor, it was the English working poor they championed, and that neither had the slightest interest in the plight of the Irish tenant farmer. In fact, as we can see above, Bright positively loathed the Irish south of the border. But what about the man at the top? No, not the king: any real power the monarchy had held disappeared with about six inches of King Charles I. England - Britain - was and is a constitutional monarchy, and the head of state is more a figurehead than anything else. He or she possesses no influence over the government, and exists mainly as a sort of rubber-stamp for parliament’s policies. What the king thought of the Irish situation - if indeed he thought of it at all - I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. English kings had been sympathetic - either covertly or brazenly - to the Irish cause (or at least the Catholic cause, which was not always by any means the same thing, but the two did sometimes dovetail) and it had been the ruin of them. Remember James II? No, I’m talking about the real power, the man who led the country, the man who had the mandate to get things done.

This guy.

Sir Robert Peel, 2nd baronet (1788 - 1850)

Although his tenure as Prime Minister (the second time he held the post) would in fact end one year before the Great Famine began - and although he himself would die during the famine years, though obviously not of hunger) Peel was the man in whose hands the fate of Ireland lay, as he was the only one capable of repealing the hated Corn Laws. As we’ve read above, this would in fact happen far too late to save the millions that died or were forced to emigrate in the Great Famine, but throughout his term as Prime Minister he wrestled with the question, trying to keep his own people onside, and eventually more or less fudged the issue. More about that in due course, but for now, what about the man behind the title? Well, everyone will surely know he was responsible for setting up London’s first proper police force, the Metropolitan Police, the precursor of today’s modern police force, and which were known colloquially at the time as “Peelers”, for obvious reasons. Also “bobbies”, again due to his name.

Like John Bright, Peel was born in Lancashire, but there the similarities end. Peel came from a rich family, one of the richest in the country. His father was a textile magnate, and Robert was sent to Harrow Public School (always amazes me how the English system of exclusive, expensive education is called public rather than private - I think the “common” schools were - and may still be - called grammar schools?) where he hung out with the poet and writer Lord Byron. At the age of 21 he entered politics, sponsored for a “rotten borough” (read, controlled by the landowner, so who they wanted to get the seat got the seat) in Cashel, Co. Tipperary by the Duke of Wellington, who would become a great friend and ally of his.

Though he served as Chief Secretary of Ireland (a post previously held by the Duke) and laid the basis for the Royal Ulster Constabulary by bringing in some of his “peelers”, he was no friend to Ireland, opposing Catholic emancipation and defeating Henry Grattan’s bill in parliament. For a time, his anti-Catholic stance told against him, as, given the post of Home Secretary in 1822, he had to resign when the PM did, his successor an advocate of Catholic emancipation. He didn’t last long in the post though, and when the Duke of Wellington became Prime Minister, Peel was made Home Secretary again in 1827, believed to be the Duke’s right-hand man and second, as it were, in line to the throne.

As we’ve already seen, Peel’s change of heart on the issue of Catholic emancipation was not due to any softening in his position, but to the unexpected and quite unwelcome election of Daniel O’Connell to the Clare seat, and the potential for civil war in Ireland should he not, as per the Penal Laws then in force, be allowed to take his seat. As a matter of pragmatism, then, and in order to avoid civil unrest or even outright war in Ireland, he pushed through the Roman Catholic Relief Bill, helped in the House of Lords by his mate the Duke of Wellington, who threatened to resign if the king did not sign it into law, despite furious opposition by his own party. Thus were the Penal Laws removed and Catholics a step closer to equality with their Protestant neighbours.

Peel of course also set up the Metropolitan Police Force, as I mentioned in his introduction. Originally a force of 1,000 constables, they were based out of Scotland Yard, and took over from the unpaid parish constables who had, until then, overseen law and order (and, it has to be said, with varying degrees of success and indeed interest - after all, if you’re not being paid for your work, why throw yourself into the line of fire?) and supplementing the Bow Street Runners, the city’s first detective force, created in 1753. The deployment of the Metropolitan Police (later, and even now, known as the Met) saw greater prosecution of crime, a more zealous sense of service to the community, and a more organised approach to fighting lawlessness in the streets.

His first term as Prime Minister in 1834/5 ended badly, all his policies frustrated by the opposition Whigs in collusion with Daniel O’Connell and his Radical Irish Party, and after 100 days Peel resigned. He returned to power in 1841, giving him the opportunity, which he took - and which brought down his government - to repeal the Corn Laws. Having previously noted that the scale of the problem was likely much less severe than reported: "There is such a tendency to exaggeration and inaccuracy in Irish reports that delay in acting on them is always desirable” - he perhaps in hindsight worried that history might judge him as partially, or even fully responsible for the Great Famine (which he kind of was, as the Prime Minister who did nothing to help the starving Irish, though he was by no means alone) and so got the repeal through, with the help of his friend and ally in the House of Lords. It came, of course, too little too late, but he was probably more concerned with his place in the history books than how he could actually save lives.

His Irish Coercion Bill - a request for greater powers to suppress revolutionary elements (and this was taken mostly to mean in Ireland) - presented to the House on the same night, shows he was no friend to the Irish. The bill, however, was defeated and he resigned a few days later.
Trollheart: Signature-free since April 2018
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