The Irish Potato Famine
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
The long-deferred measure of Catholic Emancipation, while it remedied a very serious grievance, failed to bring peace to Ireland or adequately to solve the religious problem in that country. The preservation of the established Anglican Church had been an express part of the Treaty of Union, but the maintenance of the Church depended upon tithes which were paid by the occupants of the soil of whom the vast majority were Roman Catholics. To them, therefore, at least, it appeared a monstrous injustice that they should be compelled to contribute to the support of a Church to which they did not belong, while the Church to which they did belong was unsupported. Daniel O'Connell, the "Liberator," had as a very young man begun his public career as an opponent of the Union; and when Catholic Emancipation had been won, mainly it might be said by the skill with which he had conducted the agitation in its favour, it was not long before he placed the Repeal of the Union in the forefront of his demands for Ireland. But Repeal was forced into the background again by the much more acute agitation which developed into what was called the tithe war, the resistance of the peasantry to the payment of the obnoxious burden. That resistance, which in itself was obviously and manifestly justified in the eyes of one political school, had in the eyes of another "no semblance of justification in law or reason," and it was accompanied by all the familiar forms of outrage and violence, the. persistent refusal of witnesses to give evidence, and the persistent refusal of juries to convict upon any evidence.
Lord Grey's Government, fronted by the usual dilemma, introduced one of those vigorous repressive measures which came to be known as Coercion Bills, which was successful enough in its immediate effect; but it was followed by the remedial proposals for the commutation of tithe into a charge not upon the occupants of the soil but upon the landowners, a redistribution of the funds appropriated to the Irish Church, and the appropriation of the surplus to educational purposes irrespective of creed. This proposal, in conjunction with that for the renewal of the Coercion Act broke up the Grey Cabinet, and led to the formation of the first Melbourne ministry, which was in its turn displaced after a brief interval by that of Peel and Wellington, Peel introduced a bill for the commutation of tithes, but the bill was defeated because it rejected the principle of appropriation. The Melbourne ministry returned to power, but its appropriation clause was rejected by the House of Lords; so in 1838 the Liberals accepted the situation and passed the bill for simple commutation. When the tax was no longer exacted from the tenants themselves but from the landlords it ceased to be felt as a pressing grievance.
Landlords v Tenants
The return of Melbourne was accompanied by that compact or understanding with O'Connell which was fiercely denounced by the Opposition, but had at least for the time being an undeniably pacificatory effect. The Liberator suspended his demand for repeal. Nevertheless the third or agrarian grievance, the antagonism between landlords and tenants, again rose into painful prominence. On the one side many landlords, often with excellent excuse from the economic point of view, evicted large numbers of tenants in order to put in their places more efficient and more satisfactory cultivators; on the other hand, the tenants resisted the payment of rent and subjected both the landlords and the new tenants to all manner of outrages.
The indignation of the landlords was increased by the Under-Secretary, Thomas Drummond. Drummond, a vigorous administrator, was convinced of the necessity for a strong central control, and reorganised the magistracy and the police on lines which greatly strengthened the Castle government and did much for the preservation of law and order; but he was antagonistic to the landlords as a class, and his pronouncement that property had "rights as well as duties" at a moment when the popular turbulence had reached a very high pitch was regarded by them at least as an incentive to violence and disorder.
The Melbourne ministry sought to apply in Ireland principles analogous to those of the amended Poor Law in England and the English Municipal Government Act. But with its fall and the return to power of Sir Robert Peel at the end of 1841 the truce between the Irish leader and the imperial government came to an end. The demand for Repeal was immediately revived; and from this time forward it never ceased in one form or another to be pressed by popular leaders in Ireland as a necessary condition without which it was vain to hope that any policy of alternate or combined coercion and conciliation could produce peace in that island, Unlike the demands arising directly from the religious and the agrarian questions, it found no sympathy either in England or Scotland; and the fact that all other Irish demands were associated with it unfortunately tended to counteract much of the sympathy which they might otherwise have attracted.
At the outset the Repeal movement seemed languid; but O'Connell brought into play all his influence and all his great powers of organisation The Irish priesthood rallied to him, a fervid group of younger men who became known as "Young Ireland" joined him, and the agitation was developed on lines which appeared to be exceedingly threatening, though O'Connell himself was, as always, persistent in the repudiation of any appeal to violence. Threats of coercive measures were met by the repeated assembly of huge meetings, and the agitation was accompanied by an increase of crimes and outrages. At last O'Connell and others were arrested, tried, and condemned to long terms of imprisonment on a charge of conspiracy. But the verdict was quashed by the House of Peers on the ground that Catholics had been improperly excluded from the jury panel.
The Devon Commission
O'Connell was set at liberty, but for whatever reason assumed a less aggressive attitude and lost that control which he had so long exercised in Ireland, and which now passed to the members of the Young Ireland group, who were very much more inclined to extreme and unconstitutional methods than their former leader. Peel, on the other hand, always ready to be impressed by demonstrations of popular feeling, evidently began to doubt the soundness of the position to which he had hitherto clung - to believe that there was more justification than he had supposed for the demand for remedial measures. The Devon Commission was appointed to investigate the land question. Just before the first potato famine in 1845 its report was issued, and revealed the extraordinarily unsatisfactory relations between landlords and tenants involved by the existing system. The peasant clung to the soil partly from sentimental reasons and partly be cause if he left his holding he had nowhere else to go. In order to stay he would agree to any terms, though he was by no means equally willing to keep to them.
Consequently an immense proportion of the land was rack-rented far above its proper value. A vast quantity of the land was owned by absentee landlords whose agents were concerned simply to get the best return they could for the landlord. In other and worse cases the effective proprietor was a mortgagee, more determined even than the landlord's agent to extort the uttermost farthing from the tenant. If the tenant improved his holding at his own expense he got no compensation, but was called upon to pay a higher rent, because a higher rent would be obtainable from another tenant on account of the improvements which he had made. Tenants were fast in the toils of money-lenders, and many of the landlords were hopelessly sunk in debt. There were many landlords who dealt justly enough with their tenants, many more who would have been willing to do so but for their own debts; but the law gave no protection to the tenants. Consequently the tenants took the law into their own hands and enrolled themselves in the secret societies, which enforced their own code with a severity more relentless than that of the law itself.
The Godless Colleges
The report of the Devon Commission bore no fruit; for although a tentative measure was introduced in the House of Lords to deal with the problems which it had exposed, the bill was shelved. Legislative interference with the relations between landlord and tenant was objectionable in England to the landed interest, and was opposed to the laissez-faire doctrines of commerce which were on the verge of achieving their triumph. Nothing therefore was done. At the same time Peel introduced measures which were intended to pacify religious hostilities, but actually had the opposite effect. A large grant was made to the College of the Maynooth, where candidates for the Catholic priesthood were trained; Protestants, in England and Ireland denounced the endowment of Roman Catholicism. A number of colleges were set up on non-sectarian principles; Catholics joined Protestants in denouncing the "Godless colleges."
The Irish Potato Famine
Then came the potato famine, with the misery, destitution, and starvation which followed in its train. Starving men do not stop to reason, and crime as well as famine stalked through the country. Peel strove to relieve the destitution, even while the extreme advocates of laissez-faire proclaimed the vanity and the folly of interfering with the law of demand and supply; but at the same time he proceeded to introduce another Coercion Bill for the preservation of order, to the indignation of the advanced Liberals. With them the Protectionists united, bent on vengeance for the Corn Bill, and on the day when the Lords passed the Repeal of the Corn Law the Commons threw out the Government Coercion Bill. Peel resigned and Russell took office.
Consequences of the Famine
But for the second time the potato plague smote the land even more cruelly than before. The Government made immense efforts to meet the calamity. It started relief works, in themselves for the most part of no permanent utility. Private sympathy and charity came to its aid, and much was undeniably done to reduce the appalling effects of the catastrophe. But the rigid free-traders of those days recognised no difference between a working policy and an emergency policy; there was no relaxation of the principle that the supply of food must be left to the ordinary operations of trade, and the ordinary operations of trade did not reach the remotest and poorest districts. Relief, too, was granted only under extremely stringent conditions, and numbers of tenants were practically obliged to surrender their holdings in order to qualify for obtaining it. Crowds of emigrants flocked out of the country, and the census of 1851 showed that the population of Ireland had been reduced by not less than two millions. And if many of the Irish landlords behaved, as undoubtedly they did, with a splendid generosity, there were others who used the law mercilessly to effect on their estates clearances which they hoped would enable them to plant the soil with a more efficient tenantry and to turn their land to a more profitable account.
Encumbered Estates Act
The actual effect was that both agrarian antagonisms between tenants and landlords and national antagonisms between Irish and English were embittered and intensified. Outrages multiplied again, and in 1848 desperation produced a futile insurrection, headed by Smith O'Brien. It was suppressed without difficulty, but increased the general soreness, which also inevitably resulted from the inevitable Coercion Bill. Nor did the Government attempt to meet the problem by treating the system of land tenure as the root of the evil; it contented itself instead with passing the Encumbered Estates Act, which removed indeed a large number of the poverty-stricken landlords whose existence as landlords made improvement impossible, but at the same time left their places to be taken by a new class of landlords generally disposed to treat their estates on strict commercial principles, with no inclination to sympathise with the tenantry or to recognise any rights not secured to them by the law.