The first issue that Parliament took up in which John had a great interest was the endlessly contentious subject of Irish tithes. Centuries before, the British government had chosen one religion to be the official religion of Ireland, whose needs would be met by acts of the government. Not surprisingly, Parliament chose the official church of England to become the officially established church in Ireland, though members in the Church of Ireland represented a small portion of the Irish population. Out of a population of 8 million, less than a quarter of them attended this Established Church.
This situation created a distinct problem for clergymen of the Church of Ireland. There were simply too few of them to support the clergymen of the Church of Ireland in the style and comfort of their English counterparts. To remedy this problem, Parliament passed a law requiring members of the other churches in Ireland to pay a tithe of every fall harvest to the clergyman of the local Church of Ireland. This requirement fell on both Catholics and Presbyterians. Since John was a member of the local Presbyterian Church, he was a follower of a lesser religion, and forced to pay his share of tithes. He was lucky though. The loss of a tenth of the value of his crops didn't lead to starvation for him as it did for many poor farmers.
The injustice of having to support a church to which they didn't belong greatly angered both Catholics and Presbyterians. The justification for such unfairness was stated during one of the many Parliamentary debates on the subject by one member of the House of Lords. He explained that an official church had been chosen for the benefit of the people of Ireland, and should be regarded as a blessing, not a curse. John and the other farmers of Ireland had but to forsake their lesser religions and join the one true religion to avoid this impost.
Most Irish farmers had no intention of converting, and couldn't possibly afford this tithe obligation. So they simply didn't pay it, leaving the clergyman who was to benefit the distasteful job of calling on the local police to seize the tithes. Though Parliament had given them the right to take that action, the hostilities that followed placed them in physical danger. Clergymen begged Parliament to take action. One letter from a clergyman in Roscrea was typical of what members of Parliament and the government were hearing. "Our situation is pitiable in the extreme. We cannot sit down and starve; we cannot proceed but at the hazard of our own lives, or the lives of the people we employ."
So, in the session of Parliament which sat during the summer of 1836, Parliament attempted to fix the tithe problem once and for all. Their solution was quite simple on the face of it, but more complicated in the doing. Instead of having clergymen or their employees collecting the tithes, the landlords would from then on be the collecting agents. After all, since tenants were used to paying rent to landlords, this would just be one simple additional fee that would be due with the harvest rents. Then landlords, like John Martin, would have to deliver the payment to the local clergyman, tucking his own tithes into the payment. To make the payment less painful, the tithe payments would receive a discount.
Sharman Crawford, an Irish landlord and member of the Church of Ireland himself, had a better idea. On July 1, 1836, he made a motion in the House of Commons to abolish tithes altogether. "The principle he advocated was not whether the Catholics of Ireland should be relieved from a fractional portion of the tithe assessment but whether they should still continue to pay the odious impost which stamped them with the name of slaves in the land of their birth. But there was still a higher question - it was the religious (and consequently the civil) liberty of all Protestant as well as Catholic non-conformists in the British empire. It was the right of conscience against the tyranny of establishments - It was whether men should be accountable for his religious faith to his God or to his fellow-men. It was, whether the state was entitled to set up an idol of its own, and say you shall worship this idol and pay the priests who minister it."
Then he warned Parliament that "Presbyterians of the North were as determined against tithes as the Catholics of the South." This was certainly true in John's case. He generously supported his church, the Donaghmore Presbyterian Church and the poor of this neighborhood. Through the tithes he had to pay, he also supported St. Bartholomew's Church, the local Established Church and its poor parishioners. Not surprisingly, Mr. Crawford's motion lost by a vote of 61 to 18.
With that minor diversion attended to, the House of Commons debated their legislation through a hot London summer. The basic concept was widely approved, that landlords from that time on would be required to collect the tithes and to pay the local clergyman what was due him. But in order to mitigate the basic unfairness of tithe payments, Parliament had to concoct some way to assure Irish farmers that their tithes would in some way benefit them, thus making the payment more collectible. They came up with the idea of removing from the clergymen the personal use of all tithe receipts. Instead they would essentially put clergymen on salary, thus guaranteeing a surplus would exist that would be used to benefit all the people who paid it. The amount of money that clergymen would get would depend on the size of their congregations and the importance of the parish. How to translate that concept into pound amounts proved very contentious. After many hours of debate, the new tithe law passed the Commons on July 25, 1836 and moved on to the House of Lords. The Lords made changes that did not please a significant number of members of the Commons. On August 2nd, members voted to reject the Lords amendments and the bill died for the year.
The new tithe law may have died, but the anger and violence did not. Shortly after the failure of Parliament to produce a solution, more violence broke out during the harvest of 1836. This time, some of the violence occurred in Ulster. A tithe collector was attacked in the town of Foughill, southwest of Newry. James Morris, a Catholic by conversion, had been hired by the rector of the Established Church in the nearby town of Jonesborough to serve notices that tithe payments were due. He had already served 7 of them when a mob appeared outside his home on November 28, 1836. The farmers stormed into the house and dragged James outside. There they began beating him with shovels and stones while his wife tried frantically to save him.
As James struggled for his life, he cried out to his attackers, "Oh, God! Have mercy on me! Boys, dear, don't take my life!" But the beating continued, and his screams faded to silence. James Morris lay a lifeless heap in the dark. Sadly, he was just one of the many victims of the failure of Parliament to free the Irish from the control of the church they had placed in a position of power over them.
There was no time to make much progress on a new bill in 1837. In June of that year, King William died and was succeeded by his niece Victoria. The death of a monarch required dissolution of Parliament and a new election. This new Parliament didn't get to a new tithe law until the spring of 1838.
As the new battle began, the Prime Minister, Sir John Russell, explained that having a union of church and state was a benefit to both. The church benefited from having the government pay their ministers, from enjoying a major role in creating legislation that would benefit their interests, and from having the state enforce these benefits. The state benefited as well. They had a governmental arm "that gives a sanction to morality and enforces the precepts of religion and thus induces the great mass of the people to subdue those passions which it is the business of the civil magistrate to punish."
Sir John warned of the dangerous effects of separating church and state. The majority of the learned citizens and people of importance were members of the Established Church of Ireland. Without the active support of the state, they would be put in a position of inferiority and the country would be in actual breach of important provisions of the Act of Union. The British Empire would be at risk.
Lord Russell then pointed out the English dilemma, the necessity of reconciling the English wants with those of the Irish. An Irish leader, Mr. Fox, had made clear what the Irish wanted in previous debates. "The Roman Catholics must have wealth - they must have importance - they must gain professional honour - they must acquire from day to day, as Ireland makes progress in trade and agriculture, more and more importance, - they are 6 millions and a half - they are in influence and in intelligence daily increasing; and I tell you it is not safe to use these people with contumely and contempt, to foster in them feelings of alienation, and to think that you can maintain the empire of this country in the same state in which it has been in former days upheld ... You cannot longer keep the people of Ireland subject to your sway as if they were a low, a vile and an alien race ... You cannot say at once that they are ignorant, priest ridden, superstitious, and governed by a desire to subvert the Protestant constitutions and that you nevertheless have confidence in them. You must do one thing or the other."
When debate resumed on May 15, Daniel O'Connell, the widely accepted leader of the Irish Catholics, rose to address the bind into which playing religious favorites had gotten Parliament. Daniel was a large man who always wore a curly red wig. He was a great speaker, and though most people were opposed to anything he said, they flooded in from the cloakrooms to hear him. Daniel didn't like the new version of the law, as he saw it as a way to get more money for the Protestants to use to convert Catholics. He warmed up with a dose of sarcasm. "Oh! how I enjoyed that the struggle in which my country is engaged and in which you are combined against her, that you stand before the world the parties to such a contemptible and such an unjust resistance to her rights - that you, despite the scorns and defiance, of the sneers of mankind, should thus stand before civilised Europe."
One of the issues that England interspersed with the tithe debates was the freeing of the slaves in English controlled territory. The difference in concern for slaves and the impoverished Irish that O'Connell witnessed was the reason for his cynical comments. But Daniel O'Connell didn't stop there. "There is a herd of morbid humanity abroad; it is to be found amongst men who affect philanthropy - who are tenderly alive to all the evils which may be endured by those who are not of an agreeable colour and who are found in distant regions, they are men who overflow with the milk of human kindness for black men and women, but who can with patience, with equanimity and even with approbation, look on, and see all the injuries you inflict upon Irish men, and all the injustice you do in Ireland. I wish the Irish were negroes, and then we should have an advocate."
He then pointed out that the Church of England was the church of the majority of the English people. Naturally it was the chosen church to establish there. In Scotland, the Presbyterian church was the church of the majority, so it was the established church. "In Ireland, you have trampled on the religion of the people and you perpetrated your tyranny in the worst form, and in the most odious shape, until at length the people of Ireland spoke to you in a voice too loud not to be heard, and too unanimous to be misunderstood, and you found yourselves unable to continue them in their former state of degradation. .. The Church of the People should be the church of the State."
O'Connell continued his opposition at the next session on July 11. "So long as the fact existed that nine-tenths of the Irish population consisted of Roman Catholics and Presbyterians, it was idle to think of forming any scheme for reconciling them to pay for maintaining the religion of the other tenth."
Not surprisingly, nothing that O'Connell could say would change the majority opinion of the members of Parliament. On July 26, 1838, the new tithe law passed the House of Commons. It went quickly on to the House of Lords where this time, the law passed swiftly and in a way, the Commons could support.
With Queen Victoria's approval, the new tithe law became law for Ireland. Now John was required to collect tithes from his tenants. This was a law it was impossible for him to ignore. John would follow the law, no matter how much he didn't like it. He collected the discounted tithes, and along with his own, passed them on to the clergyman of St. Bartholomew's church. As England had hoped, this put an end to the tithe wars and danger to the local clergy. Catholics and Presbyterians would be obliged to support the Established Church for another 30 years.
|A Receipt for Rent and Tithes From John Martin|
Sources: Newry Commercial Telegraph, Nov. 30, 1836; Hansard Parliamentary Transcripts, April 25, June 1, July 1, July 25, Aug.2, 1836; Hansard May 14, May 15, July 10, July 26, Aug. 9, 1838. Image of receipt courtesy of Adrian Murdock