Ireland: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

The Nineteenth Century

During the first fifteen years after the Union Ireland made some strides in prosperity, trade began to increase, Belfast in particular becoming a town of importance. Dislike of the Union had died down, even Grattan, its great opponent, consenting to sit in the Parliament at Westminster. But with the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo, this prosperity fell, too.

The war with France had made Irish corn much wanted, the Irish farmers converting a considerable portion of their pasture into cornfields to meet the demand. The peasant population found ample work, and increased enormously in consequence, so that when prices suddenly fell, starvation faced the labourers who were thrown out of work. In spite of private and public charity the poor suffered terribly from famine, and were turned in thousands from their homes.

In 1820, Henry Grattan, whose memory is cherished in Ireland on account of his devotion to her cause, died in London, whither he had gone to speak in favour of Catholic Emancipation. The following year Ireland welcomed with enthusiasm George IV., who made a state visit to Dublin. It was undoubtedly a memorable occasion, being the first time that her King had visited the country unaccompanied by an army. Unfortunately, George IV. was quite unworthy of a Cordial welcome, being, apart from his personal character, one of the main causes of hindrance to complete Catholic Emancipation. It was not until the "Liberator," Daniel O'Connell, appeared as their champion, that the Catholics obtained their undoubted rights. Himself a Catholic, O'Connell gave up a great career at the Bar to rouse the Irish people for the causes of Emancipation and the Repeal of the Union. He was a man of great physique, with a strong melodious voice, which carried all over the vast audiences that he used to address. During his education in France he had seen something of the horrors of the French Revolution, a sight which had so impressed him that all through the agitation which he conducted he persistently refused to use force of arms. "Shed not a drop of blood, it will only help the enemy," he used to say. In 1823 he formed the Catholic Association, into which the priests flocked, whose aim was to carry Emancipation. By means of penny subscriptions from the Catholic peasants a large sum of money, known as the "Catholic Rent," was collected, to be used for the purposes of the agitation.

Five years after the formation of the Association O'Connell stood as candidate at an election in Clare. The priests used their influence on the tenantry, who returned O'Connell with an immense majority. When the new member for Clare appeared at the table of the House of Commons, he refused to take the oath by which he would have disowned the Catholic faith, and was consequently ordered to withdraw. A fresh election took place, and O'Connell was again chosen as representative.

Daniel O'Connell


At last the English Government gave way, and under Wellington and Peel removed the last remaining Catholic disabilities, allowing them to sit in Parliament (the oath being altered) and to occupy every office except that of Lord Lieutenant and Lord Chancellor. O'Connell, having gone through a third election, was finally permitted to take his seat for Clare. One of his great objects being now attained, he turned his attention to the second, the Repeal of the Union, for which he formed another association, gaining a following of Irish members in the House of Commons. When the question was defeated in 1834, O'Connell for some years remained passive on the subject, giving support to the Whig Government under Melbourne. Some more Irish grievances were removed by Melbourne's Government, the most pressing being the tithes, which were in 1838 altered to a rent charge, the landlord being responsible. The Catholic peasant was no longer forced to support a Church which he hated. The same year a Poor Law was given to Ireland, based upon the one existing in England.

When Peel came into office in 1841, O'Connell, who disliked the Prime Minister, and had once fought a duel with him, went into furious opposition, creating a fever of excitement in Ireland by his fiery eloquence. Gigantic open-air meetings were held, alarming to any Government, which at last forbade the one which was to assemble at Clontarf. O'Connell, true to his hatred of bloodshed, abandoned the meeting, and with it lost his hold upon the people. He was found guilty on a charge of conspiracy, but was acquitted by the House of Lords. Broken down in health and spirits, O'Connell died in 1847 on his way to Rome.

In the two years before he died O'Connell had witnessed a time of awful misery in his much-loved land. A large proportion of the population subsisted on the potatoes which they grew upon their one-acre plots of ground, maintaining a bare livelihood. It was obvious to anyone that should the potato crop fail, starvation must ensue. A terrible blight attacked the potatoes in the late summer of 1845, in which the potatoes perished. Much distress followed, but owing to good crops of wheat, barley, and oats, the results were not so appalling as during the succeeding winter. Potatoes were again planted in 1846, and seemed to promise well, but early in August the disease fell upon the blooming plants, turning them into "one wide waste of putrifying vegetation." Despair seized the unfortunate people, who were deprived by this blow of any hope of food. The new workhouses were quite unable to house the destitute peasants, who after selling all their scanty belongings, merely lay down in their cabins or on the wayside, and died in thousands. Private people in England and abroad were moved by the tale of ghastly suffering, and poured money into Ireland to buy food, and the Government did its best to cope with the disaster. Unfortunately, they were hampered by ideas of interfering with trade, and so projected relief works which were of no value—roads being made to lead to the heart of bogs—and, moreover, insisted that before relief could be given, the farmer must part with all but a minute portion of land. Many of the people were too feeble to work, and the death list grew appallingly. During March and April of 1847, over 2,500 died every week in the workhouses alone. Thousands crowded on the emigrant ships, many hundreds dying on board, all leaving the home of their birth, filled with a spirit of bitter hatred of England, who had allowed them to suffer and die. Gaunt, hunger-stricken men were not likely to forget the scene repeated all over the south and west of Ireland, of cabins filled with the dead and living, the latter too weak to bury their dead.

Fired by the horrors of the famine another abortive rising took place in 1848, led by some enthusiastic young men who had no great following in the country. The Catholic peasantry did not support them, and the petty rebellion was soon crushed, the leaders being sentenced to transportation for life.

About the same time an Act had been passed dealing with Irish land, called the Encumbered Estates Act, whereby the sale of heavily mortgaged estates could be enforced. Many old families were ruined in this way, having to part with ancestral estates. Sir Robert Peel, the author of the Act, hoped to get the land into the hands of capable English owners who would make it profitable, but like the good intentions of so many English statesmen, his hopes were not fulfilled. Very few Englishmen bought the estates which soon flooded the market, the chief purchasers being small Irish speculators who were anxious to make a good bargain, and who therefore raised rents and evicted those tenants who would not pay.

The evicted tenants flocked in thousands to the United States, the population dropping steadily. Before the famine there had been more than eight millions of people in Ireland, but in 1865 there were only just over five millions. Relieved of so many dependent upon its soil, the country seemed to improve, wages became higher, and rents lower; indeed, the general opinion in England was that Ireland would succeed as steadily as her population decreased. But those Irish who had found new homes in America had not forgotten Ireland. After the conclusion of the war between the Northern and Southern States concerning the question of slavery in 1861, many of the Irish who had taken part in the struggle wished to carry on their warlike energies to assist Ireland. They formed a society, known as the Fenians, which collected money, despatched agents to Ireland to rouse the people, and prepared for a formal descent upon the country. The Irish peasants, however, were not ready to rise, their priests refused assistance, and when the Irish-American contingent arrived in 1867, they found the nation unresponsive. The Irish Constabulary, formed by Peel when Chief Secretary, was sufficient to put down the rising without any bloodshed. However, some Fenian outbreaks in England, particularly the attack upon a police van in Manchester containing some Fenian prisoners, resulting in the death of a policeman, and ultimately in the execution of three of the assailants, roused English interest in Irish affairs, and prompted the feeling that Ireland deserved better treatment.

In 1868 Mr. William Ewart Gladstone became Prime Minister, and being much influenced by the Fenian insurrection, prepared to attend to the needs of Ireland—to disestablish the Irish Church, to reform the Irish land system, and to provide higher education for the Catholics. The following year, in spite of being denounced as a traitor to his Queen, his country, and his God, Mr. Gladstone succeeded in disestablishing the Irish Church, which has much benefited from its freedom from the State. Ample provision was made for the Church, which retained all the sacred buildings, and compensation was awarded to all who had any claims. Though not pressing heavily upon the people since the abolition of the tithes, yet the position of the State Church being held by one not acknowledged by four-fifths of the nation was both absurd and annoying. The Anglican Church being placed upon an equality with the Catholic and Presbyterian was an undoubted good.

Mr. Gladstone next attacked the Irish land question. Irish tenants suffered from many disabilities, the most pressing being the difficulty of obtaining a long lease, and the lack of compensation for improvements. After reclaiming a farm from almost the condition of bog-land, the tenant was liable to be turned out of his farm without any return for his labour. Peel had tried to pass a law giving compensation for improvements, but the landowners, being generally of Lord Palmerston's opinion, that "tenant's right is landlord's wrong," had prevented its passing. Mr. Gladstone's Bill of 1870 gave compensation to tenants for all improvements, prevented eviction of any tenant who paid a Government valuation rent, and helped tenants to purchase their farms by Government loans. This was a great step towards the fair administration of the Irish land system.

The agitation for the Repeal of the Union had dropped with O'Connell's death, but in 1873 a modified form of repeal was asked for by the Home Rule party led by Mr. Isaac Butt. Mr. Butt, a clever Protestant lawyer, demanded an Irish Parliament to conduct its own local affairs, with representatives in the Imperial Parliament at Westminster to vote on Imperial matters. Many Irish Members were returned as Home Rulers after the election of 1874, and for some years insisted upon having a night every Session devoted to the question of Home Rule; but nothing more happened till shortly before the death of Mr. Butt, the leadership of the party was transferred to Mr. Charles Stewart Parnell.

Charles Parnell


Parnell was the great-grandson of Sir John Parnell, who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer during the last years of the Irish Parliament. From the first he led his party with great skill, keeping it well under his control. He gave up Mr. Butt's methods, and resorted to every form of Parliamentary obstruction, in order to force one of the great political parties to grant Home Rule to Ireland. An Irish National Land League was started with the idea of rousing every Irishman by the demand for a peasant proprietorship. Parnell did not preach active violence against landlords, but those who did not carry out the orders of the Land League were to be "boycotted," a name obtained from Captain Boycott, who was the first to suffer from the treatment. Captain Boycott found that no one would work for him in any form whatever, either on the farm or in the house.

Mr. Gladstone was in power in 1880, when boycotting and general agrarian disorder was rampant in Ireland. Though really desirous of bringing peace and happiness to Ireland, the Liberal Government was led into passing very severe acts of coercion to preserve life and property in Ireland. These measures were resisted furiously by Parnell and his followers; but they themselves were sent to Kilmainham Prison, after the measure had been passed which allowed anyone of whom there was "reasonable suspicion" of raising an agitation to be arrested. At one time Mr. Forster, the Chief Secretary, was able to declare that every dangerous person in Ireland was under lock and key. But this method did not agree with Liberal principles, and Mr. Gladstone at last came to terms with Parnell, and the prisoners were released. Mr. Forster at once resigned, and Lord Frederick Cavendish was appointed in his place.

The very evening of Lord Frederick Cavendish's arrival he was walking in Phnix Park with Mr. Burke, a permanent official, when they were suddenly attacked by some ruffians, who murdered them both and then escaped. It afterwards became evident that Mr. Burke was the object of the attack, as he was supposed to have just learned the secret plans of a band of miscreants. All the Nationalists denounced the cowardly assassination, but its effect in England produced the Crimes Act, which placed Ireland under a severe rule.

At the General Election of 1886, Mr. Gladstone, after a short period in opposition, returned to power, but with only a small majority, not with the large one for which he had hoped, so that he might attack the Irish Question apart from the votes of the Nationalists. He was still determined, however, to do something for Ireland, and, in spite of the resignation of John Bright and Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, and the opposition of many of his old followers, on April 8, 1886, he brought in a bill to give Home Rule to Ireland. This bill practically restored the former Irish Parliament, allowing no Irish members at Westminster. Parnell and the Nationalists eagerly welcomed and supported the bill, which, however, was defeated on its second reading, owing to the split in the Liberal party.

Lord Salisbury then became Prime Minister, and during his term of office the notorious articles appeared in the Times under the heading "Parnellism and Crime." The facsimile of a letter, said to be written by Parnell, was printed, in which he declared that he had been forced, for diplomatic reasons, to express a public abhorrence of the Phnix Park murders. A special commission of judges was appointed by Parliament to inquire into the methods used by the Nationalist party. The letters proved to be forgeries, the work of a man named Pigott, who fled to Madrid, where he committed suicide. Parnell and his colleagues came triumphantly through their ordeal, the Commission acquitting them of the most serious accusations. But shortly after this success Parnell fell from power, owing to his connection with a divorce case. Refusing to give up his leadership, even for a short time, Parnell caused a split in the Nationalist party, the majority choosing Mr. Justin McCarthy as their leader. Parnell over-exerted himself to regain his power, and died suddenly in 1891.

The second Home Rule Bill was submitted by Mr. Gladstone in 1893, on the fall of Lord Salisbury's government. It differed radically from the first bill, in that it left eighty Irish Members in the Imperial Parliament at Westminster, while giving a Parliament in Dublin to manage purely Irish affairs. The bill passed the House of Commons, but was thrown out by the Lords. Since then the policy of the Unionist Party has been "to kill Home Rule by kindness," granting many privileges to the Irish tenants, especially the bill of 1903, which created a fund with which to purchase estates from landlords who were willing to sell. The tenants, aided by Government loans, were in this way enabled to own their farms, and by this Act a very large proportion of Ireland is already possessed by those whose labour improves the value of the land.

It is quite true, as Lord Rosebery reminds us, that "the Irish question has never passed into history because it has never passed out of politics." This is particularly true of the present time, for just when this book is going to press, the third Home Rule Bill is waiting to become law under the Parliament Act.

In spite of the many attempts which have been made to deal justly and considerately with Ireland, the general feeling is summed up by Mr. Lecky, who wrote in 1892, that "after ninety years of direct British government, the condition of Ireland is universally recognized as the chief scandal and chief weakness of the Empire."

One of the most devoted believers of the benefits which will accrue to Ireland from a native parliament asks the question—"Is it not better to have, across that strip of stormy water, a nation of free men who are friends, fellow-workers for the Empire's welfare, firm allies in danger, than to be the most unhappy masters of an island of unconquered and insurgent bondsmen?"