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The Irish Government


The Marquis of Wellesley - Condition ot the Peasantry - Causes of Irish Poverty - Exaggeration - The Orange Society - King William - The "Bottle Riot " - Prosecution of the Orangemen - The Catholic Question - Sir Robert Peel - The Catholic Association - Its Suppression - The new Catholic Association - The Catholic Relief Bill of 1825 - Declaration of the Duke of York.
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Lord Redesdale in a letter to lord Eldon, written in 1821, soon after the king's visit, gave expression to some important truths about the government of Ireland. " Ministers," he said, " have fancied that Ireland would do better without a lord lieutenant, and some of them have called his office a useless pageant, but under the present circumstances they would govern the colonies as well without governors as they can govern Ireland without that pageant. If the pageant is useless, it is because they make it useless, because they give him a secretary to thwart him, or to be a viceroy over him. The office of lord lieutenant requires, in my opinion, a considerable portion of ability, sound judgment, discretion, firmness, good temper, and conciliating manners. Such a lord lieutenant ought to be supreme. If ministers think fit to appoint to such an office a man wholly unqualified for it, they must put him in leading- strings, and give him a secretary with all the qualities the lord lieutenant ought to have; and, moreover, with a disposition to conceal rather than display his power over his superior - to lead, and not to command, the lord lieutenant. In England the machine goes on almost of itself, and therefore a bad driver may manage it tolerably well. It is not so in Ireland. The country requires great exertion to' bring it into a state of order and submission to law. The whole population - high and low, rich and poor, catholic and protestant - must all be brought to obedience to law; all must be taught to look up to the law for protection. The gentry are ready enough to attend grand juries, to obtain presentments for their own benefit, but they desert the quarter- sessions of the peace. The first act of a constable in arrest must not be to knock down the prisoner; and many, many reforms must be made, which only can be effected by a judicious and able government on the spot. Ireland, in its present state, cannot be governed in England. If insubordination compels you to give, how are you to retain by law what you propose to maintain while insubordination remains? It can only be by establishing completely the empire of the law."

The marquis of Wellesley was sent over to Ireland by lord Liverpool, in order to govern Ireland upon this principle; and he might have succeeded better if he had not been checked by Mr. Goulburn, the chief secretary, distinguished by his hostility to catholic emancipation, who was appointed "viceroy over him." In a letter which the marquis wrote to the duke of Buckingham (June 14th, 1824), he refers to some of the difficulties with which he had to contend in carrying out an impartial policy between the extreme parties, which were then very violent. His labours, however, in enforcing respect for the law and effecting improvements, were not altogether in vain. " The situation of Ireland," he writes, " although very unsatisfactory, is certainly much improved, and foundations of greater improvement have been firmly laid. The committees of parliament have done much good; and, if vigorously and fairly pursued, may effect a permanent settlement of this distracted country. The present violent collision of the two ultra parties, or rather factions, orange and papist, is a crisis of the disorder which was necessary to their mutual dissolution, an event which I think is fast approaching, and which must be the preliminary of any settlement of peace." In a postscript, he distinguishes "orange and papist" from "protestant and catholic," an important distinction, which ought still to be observed, the word ultramontane being used in the present day as a substitute for papist, to designate the extreme anti - English and anti - protestant party in Ireland.

The evils of the social state of Ireland were bad enough, without being aggravated by the virulence of faction. The result of numerous parliamentary inquiries, and the observations of travellers from foreign countries, was to present a state of society the most deplorable that can well be imagined in any civilised country under a Christian government. Many of the lower orders, especially in Munster and Connaught, as well as in mountainous districts of the other provinces, maintained a state of existence the most wretched that can be conceived. They lived in cabins built of mud, imperfectly covered with sods and straw, consisting generally of one room, without any window, with a chimney which admitted the rain, but did not carry off the smoke. They had little or nothing that deserves the name of furniture; their food consisted of potatoes and salt, with milk or a herring sometimes, as a luxury; their wages, when they got work, were only sixpence or fourpence a-day. They subsisted on small patches of land, which were continually sub-divided, as the children got married, the population at the same time multiplying with astonishing rapidity. When the potatoes and the turf failed, towards summer, the men went off to seek harvest work in the low lands and richer districts of the country, and in England and Scotland. The women, locking up the doors, set forth with the children to beg, the youngest of the lot being wrapped up in blankets, and carried on their backs. They passed on from parish to parish, getting a night's lodging, as they proceeded, in a chimney corner or in a barn, from the better part of the peasantry and farmers, who shared with them their potatoes, and gave them " a lock of straw " to sleep on. Thus they migrated from county to county, eastward and northward, towards the sea, lazily reposing in the sunshine by the wayside, their children enjoying a wild kind of gipsy freedom, but growing up in utter ignorance, uncared for by anybody, unrecognised by the clergy of any church. The great proprietors were for the most part absentees, who had let their lands, generally in large tracts, to "middlemen," a sort of small gentry, or " squireens," as they were called, who sub-let at a rack-rent to the peasantry. Upon these rack-rented, ignorant cultivators of the soil fell a great portion of the burden of supporting the established clergy, as well as their own priesthood. The tithes were levied exclusively off tillage, the rector or vicar claiming by law a tenth of the crop, which was valued by his " tithe proctors," and unless compounded for in money, which was generally done by the "strong farmers," before the crop left the field, the tenth sheaf must have been set aside to be borne away on the carts of the protestant clergyman, who was regarded by the people that thus supported him as the teacher of heresy.

From the conquest down to the present time, it must be confessed that Ireland has been a difficulty with the English government - a difficulty which still subsists, though in a very mitigated form. If Sir Archibald Alison, and the authorities whom he has followed, be right as to the causes of it, there seems no probability that the difficulty will ever cease. According to them, though brave, ardent, generous, and highly gifted in genius, with many estimable and amiable qualities in private life, the Celtic population have none of the dispositions which qualify them for attaining temporal superiority in life, or for constructing without external direction the fabric of social happiness. Gay, volatile, and inconsiderate, the Irish enjoy the present without a thought of the future; they are incapable of foresight, or self-control, or self-direction, or self-government. The greater the privileges they enjoy, the more degraded they become. This is one element of the difficulty. In the next place, the conquest of Ireland by the English is represented as a main source of Irish misery, because of " the atrocious system of confiscation, which, in conformity with the feudal usages, the victors introduced on every occasion of rebellion against their authority. Without doubt," says Sir Archibald, "this conquest is to be traced to the instability of the Irish character; for why did they not keep out the English invaders, as the Scotch, with half their number, and not a quarter of their material resources, effectually did? But admitting this, as every candid mind must do, there can be no doubt that the conquest of the country, and consequent confiscation of the estates, has been an evil of the very first magnitude to Ireland. Thence have flowed the bestowing of the forfeited estates on English nobles and companies, the middlemen, who were to collect their rents and remit them to this country, and the fatal imposition of a host of persons, all of whom lived on their labour, and wrung the last shilling out of their earnings." The third cause assigned for the miseries of Ireland is the existence of the Roman catholic religion, which encourages the increase of population, for the sake of marriage fees, embitters the relations between landlords and tenants, and exposes the cultivators of the soil to the double exactions of two sets of clergy. These three causes it seems impossible to remove. The nature of the Celtic population cannot be changed; the confiscated estates cannot be restored to the day labourers, who claim to be the descendants of the original proprietors; England cannot forego the fruits of her conquest; and the Roman catholic religion cannot be rooted out. Consequently, if these great causes of Irish discontent possess all the force assigned to them by this conservative historian, there is very little hope for the country. But their influence for evil has been greatly exaggerated. France is a Celtic nation, yet she has a well organised society, and has been long one of the leading states in Europe. Roman catholic countries have proved themselves capable of civilisation and progress, and Ireland, notwithstanding her disadvantages, has improved during the years 1849-71 perhaps more rapidly than any country in Europe. It is very questionable whether the state of the country would have been as good, had the English conquest never occurred. In no part of the island are the tenantry more contented, better ordered, or more prosperous than on the forfeited estates, which are now held by English proprietors and London companies. The exaggerations of Sir Archibald Alison are really astounding. He states that the sums levied annually on the poor, for the support of the poor, before the establishment of the poor law system, were 1,500,000, whereas their contributions consisted merely in giving some remnants of their meals to the beggars that came to their doors, whose numbers are represented as amounting to two millions, equal to the whole population of Scotland. He represents nearly the whole of the landlords as having emigrated to London, Paris, and Italy, where they spent their incomes, being known to their tenantry only by the "unwelcome visits of bailiffs to collect the rents." He describes the whole remaining population, including all classes, from the highest to the lowest, as leagued in secret societies. "Thus," he observes, "in addition to all other causes of discord, the landholders and peasantry of Ireland became arrayed in opposite and nearly equally dangerous secret associations; for the chief proprietors were office-bearers in the orange lodges, and the great body of the catholics were members of the ribbon lodges, or belonged to the Catholic Association, which came to play so important a part in the annals of that unhappy country." In the same strain of wholesale misrepresentation, he describes the best acts of the higher orders as being never set down by the lower orders to any motive but the worst, and states that the country was cursed, rather than blessed, by British institutions, including trial by jury.

Perhaps there is no cause from which Ireland has suffered more than from misrepresentations like these. Nowhere has the want of discrimination, and due allowance for the extravagant exaggerations of vehement partisans, been more pernicious. There were in the reign of George IV. no evils in Ireland which would not have yielded to the action of just and impartial government, removing real grievances, and extending to the people, in a confiding spirit, the blessings of the British constitution, in the spirit of lord Wellesley's administration. He had to contend, indeed, with peculiar difficulties. Ireland shared largely in the general distress of the United Kingdom, occasioned by the contraction of the currency, and the consequent low prices of agricultural produce. He found a great portion of the south in a state of licentiousness, surpassing the worst excesses of former unhappy times; he had to deal with dangerous and secret conspiracies in other parts of the country. He applied the energies of his powerful mind to master these complicated difficulties, in the spirit of conciliation, which had been enjoined in the king's instructions. He explored every dangerous and untried path, and he laboured diligently, by the equal administration of the laws, to promote peace and happiness among all classes of the people. He succeeded to a great extent in accomplishing the object of his administration. Mr. Plunket, the Irish attorney-general, in his speech on unlawful societies, in the house of commons, in February, 1825, described the country as in a state of peace and prosperity. She had been enabled, by the noble lord at the head of the government, and by the measures which he had matured, to enjoy the blessings which were the offspring of internal tranquillity. Those measures had been properly administered, and public confidence had been in consequence restored. " It was a great blessing," he said, "it was a most gratifying object, to behold that country now floating on the tide of public confidence and public prosperity. She was lying on the breakers, almost a wreck, when the noble marquis arrived; and if he had not taken the measures which have been so successfully adopted, she never could have floated on that tide of public prosperity."

The attorney-general defied the enemies of the administration to point out a single instance in which the viceroy had deviated from the line of strict impartiality, yet he was the object of most virulent attacks by the fanatical members of the orange societies in Dublin, and by the orange press. Their animosity was excited to the utmost by a proceeding which he adopted with reference to the statue of king William in College Green. For some years a set of low persons, connected with the orange lodges, had been in the habit of bedaubing the statue with ridiculous painting and tawdry orange colours, with a fantastic drapery of orange scarfs. The Roman catholics believed that this was done with the avowed purpose of insulting them, and they thought that they had as much right to undress as others had to dress a public statue. On one occasion^ therefore, they painted king William with lampblack. Consequently, on the 12th of July, 1822, a serious riot occurred, in the course of which lives were endangered, the tranquillity of the metropolis disturbed, and evil passions of the most furious kind engendered in the minds of the parties. As the peace must be preserved, the only course was to put an end to those senseless brawls by ordering that no unauthorised parties should presume to put their hands on a public monument, either for the purpose of decorating or defiling it. But this judicious order the orangemen felt to be a wrong, which should be resented and avenged by driving lord Wellesley out of the country. Accordingly, certain members of the orange society, amounting to nearly one hundred, entered into a conspiracy to mob him in the theatre. They were supplied with pit- tickets, and assembling early at the door, they rushed in, and took possession of the seat immediately under the viceregal box. Other parties of them went to the galleries. They agreed upon the watchword, " Look out." They had previously printed handbills, which were freely distributed in and about the theatre, containing insulting expressions, such as, "Down with the popish government!" Before the viceroy arrived, they had been crying for groans for the "popish lord lieutenant," for the house of Wellesley, for the duke of Wellington. When the marquis arrived he was received with general cheering, that overbore the orange hisses; but during the playing of the national anthem the offensive noise became so alarming that some of the audience left the theatre. At this moment a bottle was flung from one of the galleries, which was supposed to be aimed at the head of the lord lieutenant, and which fell near his box.

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Irish hovel in the far west
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