In the summer of this year, 1847, Lord Clarendon was sent over, as Lord Lieutenant, to finish the Conquest of Ireland, – just as Lord Mountjoy had been sent to bring to an end the wars of Queen Elizabeth’s reign; and by the same means substantially, – that is, by corruption of the rich and starvation of the poor. The form of procedure, indeed, was somewhat different; for English statesmen of the sixteenth century had not learned to use the weapons of “amelioration” and “political economy;” neither had they then established the policy of keeping Ireland as a store-farm to raise wealth for England. Lord Mountjoy’s system, then, had somewhat of a rude character; and he could think of nothing better than sending large bodies of troops to cut down the green corn and bum the houses.
In one expedition into Leinster, his biographer, Moryson, estimates that he destroyed “ten thousand pounds’ worth of corn,” that is, wheat; an amount which might now be stated at £200,000 worth. In O’Cahan’s country, in Ulster, as the same Moryson tells us, after a razzia of Mountjoy, – “We have none left to give us opposition, nor of late have seen any but dead carcases, merely starved for want of meat.” So that Mountjoy could boast he had given Ireland to Elizabeth, “nothing but carcases and ashes.”
Lord Clarendon’s method was more in the spirit of the Nineteenth Century, though his slaughters were more terrible in the end than Mountjoy’s. Again there was growing upon Irish soil a noble harvest; but it had been found more economical to carry it over to England by help of Free Trade, than to burn it on the ground. The problem then was, as it had been the last year and the year before, how to ensure its speedy and peaceful’ transmission. Accordingly, Lord Clarendon came over with conciliatory speeches, and large professions of the desire of “government,” now at last” to stay the famine.
Sullen murmurs had been heard, and even open threats and urgent recommendations, that the Irish harvest must not be suffered to go another year: and there were rumours of risings to break up the roads, to pull down the bridges, in every way to stop the tracks of this fatal “commerce;” rumours, in short, of an insurrection. Some new method, then, had to be adopted to turn the thoughts and hopes of that too-credulous people once more towards the “Government.” Lord Clarendon recommended a tour of agricultural “lecturers,” the expense to be provided for by the Royal Agricultural Society, aided by public money. The lecturers were to go upon every estate, call the people together, talk to them of the benevolent intentions of his Excellency, and give them good advice. Their report was published in the following April: and irksome as are these details of one uniform and chronic misery, the due understanding of Lord Clarendon’s policy will require some attention to this Report.
One lecturer, one Thomas Martin, travelled in Western Mayo. He writes: – “It was almost impossible to produce any impression in this wasted and neglected district.” For why? The lecturer tells us – “For, from Bangor to Crossmolina, all was desolate and waste.” Driving along “with the Rev. Mr. Stock, in his gig, he pointed out to me,” says Martin, “a number of farmhouses in the Mullet, all deserted, and the land, too: nothing possibly could be done there, for the tenants were gone.”
The grand object of all the lecturers was to get the people, those of them who remained, to till the land, instead of leaving it waste, to run to public works and out-door relief; for in truth it began to be feared in England, that the process was going too far, and that the sister country might even be defrauded of her usual tribute, if the Irish people all became able-bodied paupers. But, when Mr. Fitzgerald, another of those lecturers, urged this upon a meeting of tenants in Connemara, he tells us – “They all agreed that what I said was just; but they always had some excuse, [the good-for-nothing Celts!]: that they could not get seed, or had nothing to live on in the meantime.”
These extracts are only samples of what the lecturers did, heard, and said, in all their districts. “I saw,” says Mr. Fitzgerald, “whole villages of roofless houses, and all I met told me they intended to give up their land, for they had neither food nor strength to till it.” A certain Mr. Goode, lecturing in Connaught, informs us that: –
“The poor people here appeared to be in a most desponding state: they always met me with the argument that there was no use in their working there, for they were going to be turned out in Spring, and would have their houses pulled down over them. I used to tell them that I had nothing to do with that; that I was sent among them by some kind, intelligent gentlemen, barely to tell them what course to pursue.”
That was all. Lord Clarendon had not sent Mr. Goode down to lecture on Tenant-Right; what business had they to obtrude their Jacobin principles on a Government lecturer? What had he to do with all that? They might as well have prated to him about the Repeal of the Union!
Another measure of my Lord Clarendon was to buy support at the Press with secret-service money. To the honour of the Dublin Press, this was a somewhat difficult matter. The government had at that time only one leading journal in the metropolis on which it could surely rely, – the Evening Post. Lord Clarendon wanted another organ, and of a lower species; for he had work to do which the comparatively respectable Post might shrink from. He sought out a creature named Birch, editor of the World, a paper which was never named nor alluded to by any reputable journal in the city.
This Birch lived by hush-money, or black-mail of the most infamous kind; – that is, extorting money from private persons, men and women, by threats of inventing and publishing scandalous stories of their domestic circles. He had been tried more than once and convicted of this species of swindling. “I then offered him £100, if I remember rightly,” says my Lord Clarendon1, “for it did not make any great impression on me at the time. He said that would not be sufficient for his purpose, and I think it was then extended to about £350.” On further examination, his Lordship confessed that he had paid Birch “further sums” – in short, kept him regularly in pay; and finally, on Birch bringing suit against him for the balance due for “work and labour,” had paid him in one sum £2,000, at the same time taking up all the papers and letters, (as he thought,) which might bring the transaction to light.
One can guess the nature of Birch’s work and labour, and quantum meruit. His duty was to make weekly attacks, of a private and revolting nature, upon Smith O’Brien, upon Mr. Meagher, upon myself, and every one else who was prominent in resisting and exposing the Government measures. Further, the public money was employed in the gratuitous distribution of the World, for otherwise decent persons would never have seen it. At the time, I was myself unaware of the man’s attacks upon me, and did not even know him at all. It was during my exile in Van Diemen’s Land that I learned, through the newspapers, how all this subterranean agency had come to light on the trial of one of the suits which Birch was forced to institute for recovery of his wages.
Concerning this Birch, I will only add, that he was subsequently employed and paid by Lord Palmerston also, for the same sort of services.
A third measure of the Viceroy was, – extreme liberality towards Catholic lawyers and gentlemen in the distribution of patronage; that so they might be the more effectually bought off from all common interest and sympathy with the “lower orders,” and might stand patiently by and see their countrymen slain, or banished. Amongst others, Mr. Monahan, an industrious and successful Catholic barrister, was made Attorney-General for Ireland, – from which the next step was to the Bench. Mr. Monahan became a grateful and useful servant.
Next came the Galway Election. It was essential that Mr. Monahan, being Attorney-General, should be also a Member of Parliament; and there was a vacancy in Galway city. The Repealers resolved to contest it; and Mr. Anthony O’Flaherty, a gentleman of Galway county, addressed the electors. It was resolved not only to contest this election with the Whig Attorney-General, but to fight it with the utmost vehemence and bitterness, in order to show the world how the “amelioration” Whig Government was appreciated in Ireland. But though nine-tenths of the people of Galway were Repealers, we knew that the enemy had great advantages in the struggle: because, in the first place, any amount of money would be at their command for bribery; and next, the landlords of the city and of the rural districts around were principally of the sort called “Catholic gentry,” – the very worst class, perhaps, of the Irish aristocracy.
The “Irish Confederation” sent down a number of its members to give gratuitous aid to Mr. O’Flaherty’s law-agents and Committee. These were Dillon, Meagher, O’Gorman, Doheny, Barry, O’Donoghue, Martin O’Flaherty, and John Mitchel. In the depth of winter we travelled to Galway, through the very centre of that fertile island, and saw sights that will never wholly leave the eyes that beheld them: cowering wretches, almost naked in the savage weather, prowling in turnip-fields, and endeavouring to grub up roots which had been left, but running to hide as the mail-coach rolled by: very large fields, where small farms had been “consolidated,” showing dark bars of fresh mould running through them, where the ditches had been levelled: – groups and families, sitting or wandering on the high-road, with failing steps and dim, patient eyes, gazing hopelessly into infinite darkness; before them, around them, above them, nothing but darkness and despair: parties of tall, brawny men, once the flower of Meath and Galway, stalking by with a fierce but vacant scowl; as if they knew that all this ought not to be, but knew not whom to blame, saw none whom they could rend in their wrath; for Lord John Russell sat safe in Chesham Place; and Trevelyan, the grand commissioner and factotum of the pauper-system, wove his webs of red tape around them from afar.
So cunningly does civilization work! Around those farm-houses which were still inhabited were to be seen hardly any stacks of grain; it was all gone; the poor-rate collector, the rent agent, the county-cess collector, had carried it off: and sometimes, I could see, in front of the cottages, little children leaning against a fence when the sun shone out, – for they could not stand, – their limbs fleshless, their bodies half-naked, their, faces bloated yet wrinkled, and of a pale greenish hue, – children who would never, it was too plain, grow up to be men and women. I saw Trevelyan’s claw in the vitals of those children: his red tape would draw them to death: in his Government laboratory he had prepared for them the typhus poison.
Galway is a very ancient but decayed city, with many houses yet standing, built in the old Spanish style, with high walls of solid stone, and an interior courtyard, entered by a low-browed arch. Foaming and whirling down from Lough Corrib, a noble river flows through many bridges into the broad bay; and the streets are winding and narrow, like the streets of Havana. When we arrived, the city, besides its usual garrison, was occupied by parties of cavalry and all the rural police from the country around; – they were to suppress rioters of O’Flaherty’s party, and help those of Monahan’s, cover their retreat, or follow up their charge. The landlords and gentry, Catholic and Protestant, were almost unanimous for Monahan, and highly indignant at strangers coming from Dublin to interfere with the election. Accordingly, in the Court-house, on the day of nomination, a young gentleman of spirit insulted O’Gorman, who forthwith went out and sent him a challenge.
This was beginning a Galway election in regular form. The meeting, however, was prevented by some relative of the aggressor, who discovered the challenge; and they were both arrested. There was no further disposition to insult any of us. The tenantry of the rural district of the borough (which happened to be unusually large), were well watched by the agents and bailiffs; who, in fact, had possession of all their certificates of registry; and when the poor creatures came up to give their reluctant vote for the Famine candidate, it was in gangs guarded by bailiffs. A bailiff produced the certificates of the gangs which were under his care, in a sheaf, and stood ready to put forward each in his turn. If the voter dared to say, O’Flaherty, the agent scowled on him, and in that scowl he read his fate; – but he was sure to be greeted with a roaring cheer that shook the Court-house, and was repeated by the multitudes outside.
Magistrates and Police-inspectors, pale with ferocious excitement, stood ready, eagerly watching for some excuse to precipitate the troops upon the people; and when the multitudes swayed and surged, as they bore upon their shoulders some poor farmer who had given the right vote, the ranks of infantry clashed the butts of their muskets on the pavement with a menacing clang, and the dragoons gathered up their bridles, and made hoofs clatter, and spurs and scabbards jingle, as if preparing for a charge.
I took charge of one of the polling-booths as O’Flaherty’s agent. A gang of peasants came up, led or driven by the bailiffs. One man, when the oath was administered to him, that he had not been bribed, showed pitiable agitation. He spoke only Gaelic, and the oath was repeated, sentence by sentence, by an interpreter. He affected to be deaf, to be stupid, and made continual mistakes. Ten times at least the interpreter began the oath, and as often failed to have it correctly repeated after him. The unfortunate creature looked round wildly as if he meditated breaking away; but the thought, perhaps, of famishing little ones at home still restrained him. Large drops broke out on his forehead; and it was not stupidity that was in his eye, but mortal horror.
Mr. Monahan himself happened to be in that booth at the time, and he stood close by his solicitor, still urging him to attempt once more to get the oath out of the voter. Murmurs began to arise, and at last I said to Mr. Monahan: “You cannot, and you dare not, take that man’s vote. You know, or your solicitor knows, that the man was bribed. I warn you to give up this vote and turn the man out.” In reply, he shrugged his shoulders, and went out himself. The vote was rejected; and, with a savage whisper, the bailiff who had marshalled him to the poll turned the poor fellow away. I have no doubt that man is long since dead, he and all his children.
The election lasted four or five days, and was a very close contest. The decent burghers of the town stood by us, and our friends were enabled to rescue some bands of voters out of the custody of the agents and bailiffs, whose practice it was to collect those of the several estates in large houses, set a guard over them, and help them to stifle thought and conscience with drink. Monahan had a mob hired, – the Claddagh fishermen, – so that we were obliged to organize a mob to counteract it. Of course there was much skirmishing in the streets. Monahan was run very close, and in the last two days his party spent much money in bribery; a kind of contest into which Mr. O’Flaherty did not enter with him.
The Attorney-General won his election by four votes, out of a very large constituency; but his escape was narrow. If he had lost, he would have been thrown aside like any broken tool; but, as it chanced, he is now Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. More than this; he had the satisfaction, not many months after, of hunting into exile, or prosecuting (with packed juries) to conviction, every Irish Confederate who went down to hold out Galway against him – with a single exception. Ministers gave him carte blanche in the matter of those prosecutions, and he used it with much energy and legal learning.
The summer of ’47 wore through wearily and hopelessly. All endeavours to rouse the landlord class to exertion entirely failed, through their coward fear of an outraged and plundered people: and, at last, when, out of the vast multitudes of men thrown from public works, houseless and famishing, a few committed murders and robberies, or shot a bailiff or an incoming tenant, the landlords in several counties besought for a new Coercion and Arms Act; so as to make that code more stringent and inevitable. Lord John Russell was but too happy to comply with the demand; but the landlords were to give something in exchange for this security.
Addresses of confidence were voted by grand juries and county meetings of landlords. The Irish gentry almost unanimously volunteered addresses denouncing Repeal and Repealers, and pledged themselves to maintain the Union. At the same time ejectment was more active than ever; and it is not to be denied that, amongst the myriads of desperate men who then wandered houseless, there were some who would not die tamely. Before taking their last look at the sun, they could at least lie in wait for the agent who had pulled down their houses and turned their weeping children adrift: him, at least, they could send to perdition before them.
The crisis was come. The people no longer trusted the ameliorative professions of their enemies; and there were some, who zealously strove to rouse them now at last, to stand up for their own lives; to keep the harvest of ’47. within the four seas of Ireland; and by this one blow to prostrate Irish landlordism and the British empire along with it.
How we felt ourselves justified in urging so desperate a measure, and how practically we meant to carry it out, must be explained in another chapter.
1 See evidence on the trial of Birch against Sir T. Redington.