Friday, February 17, 2012

The Case For Ireland

John Martin kept busy with his farming duties, no matter how many Monster Meetings were held in Ireland or contentious debates on Irish gun control divided the British Parliament.  By July, hay was ready for harvesting. This was a labor intensive operation, as laborers cut each field with using only a long handled scythe. Since many hands were needed, John combined his workers with those of his neighbors and Uncle Harshaw to produce crews large enough to cut the hay quickly as each field reached the best time for cutting.

Haying (US Picture)
July was also a time for preparing turf for the winter fires. This too was hard, hand work, with a man and his specially designed shovel called a slane working from sunrise to sunset cutting and stacking the turf bricks. 
No matter how busy John was, he would find time to read the Nation. So he was well aware that an Irish landlord named William Smith O’Brien was going to make a motion in Parliament for a committee to study the grievances of the Irish, the full transcript of which would be printed in the Nation. Like many Irishmen who felt keenly the wrongs British law had inflicted on Ireland, he waited anxiously for that edition of the Nation to arrive in Loughorne.

O’Brien presented the case for Ireland on July 4, 1843 before members of Parliament who were decidedly disinterested in being called to account for their failures in Ireland. To Irish members and those who read the speech later, the speech justified their Monster Rally’s and general discontent, and introduced a new leader for Irish nationalists.
First O’Brien informed Parliament that the majority of the Irish people wanted to be a “happy” part of England , if only England would make the simple steps that would make this outcome possible. The Union, the basis of the current connection between the two countries, must be overturned.  The Union “could not have been accomplished without the basest corruption. . . By the united influence of corruption, fraud and force, an union was imposed upon Ireland which has never been recognized by the Irish people as a national compact. Its terms were unjust and offensive, and accordingly, they have produced in the continued discontent of the Irish nation, that retribution which always follows injustice.”
The first grievance on O’Brien’s list was financial.  The Union had brought increased taxes on many items important to the Irish such as tea. This money went to England. Many landlords who had lived in Ireland went to England after the Union, so the rent money paid in Ireland went to England for its benefit. O’Brien suggested that these absent landlords should pay a special tax which should be spent in Ireland to help mitigate the loss.
Religion was another major cause of dissension in Ireland.  Catholics and Presbyterians were still required to support the Established Church at the expense of their own churches. Except under the leadership of Whig Lord Lieutenant Normanby, Catholics held no positions of leadership. The current administration was unwilling to appoint its enemies to office, enemies they created with anti-Catholic policies.
The great Reform Act of 1832 didn’t help Ireland much either.  It increased the number of representatives Ireland and Scotland sent to Parliament. By population, Ireland should have had 200 members of Parliament, not the 100 they were allotted under the Union. Reform gave them 5 new members while much smaller Scotland got 8.  Ireland could not be allowed to influence Parliamentary legislation fairly.
The next major reform Great Britain produced was the Corporation Law which allowed for increased local control.  Reform in Ireland took an extra two years to implement because the Irish were “aliens in blood, in language, and in religion.”
The Poor Law placed a special burden on Irish land holders like John. It was administered by English imports most of whom knew little of Ireland and its needs.  This was true of most high offices in Ireland,  Irish high judges, for example, were mainly English, so the Irish doubted the quality of justice in Ireland.  On the other hand, few Irish held any positions of importance in England though they were members of the same country under the Union.
Access to land was a matter of life and death in Ireland. All Irish farmers must be protected by the rights of the Ulster Custom which allowed John and his neighbors the right to keep possession of the land they leased as long as they paid their rent, that rents would be fair, and that they would be compensated for the improvements they made to the property when they left. Farmers in most of Ireland had no such protection and were frequently ejected from their land without cause or compensation for their improvements to the landlord’s land.  This inequality had been much discussed in Parliament, but attempted solutions seemed designed to make the situation worse.
O’Brien concluded with an impassioned plea to start to redress Irish wrongs by creating a study commission. “Give us, by your decision tonight, something we may present to our fellow countrymen as a pledge of your disposition to repair the many wrongs which have been inflicted upon Ireland – give us arguments which we may address to them when they tell us of the many instances which prove that Ireland has lost much and gained little by the Union. . I invite you to pursue, in resorting to measures which shall soothe animosities, obliterate distinctions founded upon differences of race and religion, and consolidate the Union of the two kingdoms by the bonds of equal laws, common rights and of international justice.”
O’Brien’s request failed, but his exposition of Irish wrongs strengthened the determination of the Irish at home. They remembered one special line from the speech. “So long, however, as they [the Irish people] acquiesce without complaint in their degradation, the Parliament of Great Britain can scarcely be blamed for allowing it to be perpetuated.”
This speech moved John a step closer to joining the cause of Irish independence. He needed only one more push, a push that lay just a few months in the future.
Sources: Diary of James Harshaw, vol. 1; Hansard Parliamentary Debate July 4, 1843

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