Reign of Queen Victoria - M. B. Synge

Irish Affairs

While these great deeds were being wrought by Englishmen abroad, the condition of Ireland was occupying attention at home.

The years that succeeded the Irish famine were some of the saddest in the whole history of Ireland. Year by year the great emigrant ships bore Ireland's sons and daughters away to the United States, to start new homes in a land of plenty, where British rule was not.

Time had not softened the feelings of the Irish for the Mother Country: she was still their enemy, the source of all their evils, the cause of all their hopeless despair. Across the great Atlantic they still nursed these revengeful feelings, and planned together how they might best worry Britain into giving them back their rights. They had fought gallantly, shoulder to shoulder, with the Americans in their Civil War of 1865, and when the war was over thousands of Irishmen were thrown out of occupation with a good military training, which they were ready to turn against Britain.

A secret society, under the name of the Fenian Brotherhood, grew up on both sides of the Atlantic. The Fenians first made a raid on Canada; it was instantly crushed, while their efforts after a general rising in Ireland were as easily foiled. Nature herself seemed to be against them, for although it was March, and Ireland, as a rule, was singularly free from snow, it now fell ceaselessly day and night, blocking the mountain gorges where the Irish lay hidden. A few shots were fired, and a few captures made, but the Fenian rebellion of 1867 was "buried in that unlooked-for snow".

An attempt to carry the rebellion into England failed also, though the Fenians succeeded in rescuing two of their party from a prison van on the way to the Manchester jail by means of a cowardly murder, and in blowing open the wall of Clerkenwell Prison, and injuring innocent people to set others of their brotherhood free. This show of rebellion created some excitement throughout the country, and citizens were sworn as special constables to keep the peace.

But if the rebellion itself fizzled out, the reasons for general discontent remained. Celt and Saxon could not understand one another, neither at this time did they make much effort in this direction.

"Come, let us to-night make a new treaty," said Mr. Bright, of anti-Corn Law fame, who was visiting Ireland. "On England's part let it stand for justice; on the part of Ireland let there be forgiveness."

"Justice to Ireland!" The cry was taken up by England, and well-intentioned men tried to remedy past injustices, which had made Fenians of the Irish.

None saw more clearly the need of reform than Mr. Gladstone, who became Prime Minister in 1868, and from this time forward became champion of the Irish. His first act was to disestablish the Irish Church. At this time the State Church was Protestant; but as Ireland was a Roman Catholic country, only a fifth of the population belonged to the State Church.

"The Irish Church," cried Mr. Lowe, a member of the Government, "is like an exotic brought from a far country—it is kept alive with the greatest difficulty and at vast expense, in an uncongenial climate and an ungrateful soil. It has no leaves, puts forth no blossom, and yields no fruit. Cut it down. Why cumbereth it the ground?"

His words expressed the feelings of the majority. The Bill became law in 1869.

This accomplished, Mr. Gladstone at once took up the Irish land question. The Irish peasant at this time was absolutely dependent on his landlord. Troubles arose between them; many of the tenants could not pay their rents, and were turned out of their holdings. The new Irish Land Act gave the tenant the "right of compensation" if he was turned out, and other advantages. Men in England cried out that Gladstone was "steering straight upon the rocks". The Act was passed in 1870, but far from settling the Irish question, it was but a signal for fresh disturbance and discontent.

Further misunderstanding arose between landlord and tenant, and Ireland was more unsettled than she had been for many years. Neither the Disestablishment of the Church nor the Land Act "put out at once the hot ashes of Fenianism", but it must be remembered that the bitterness of centuries is not cured by the passing of one or two laws.