THE MOST DISTRESSFUL NATION: IRELAND BEFORE THE FAMINE
John William Tuohy
Through out its long history, Ireland had used several types of legal systems including the tribal system, the oral tradition, and the written law. But no matter what the system, the laws had remained almost constant for several centuries.
Traditional Irish law was, originally, not compiled in a single work, it was passed orally from generation to generation and taught by the Druidic class and was, occasionally, written in various literature and judgments.
During the time of St. Patrick, the law was written as a single document, a codification that became known as the Brehon Laws. Only four copies, in various degrees of completeness, exist today. The Brehon laws remained, basically, unchanged from the original for eight centuries. They were Irish laws, written by the Irish in the Irish language. They were not conceived or enforced by foreign hands. Irish law was conceived and written by those who the Irish and because the laws were written and enforced by Irish men, the laws were, in an Irish sort of way, respected and followed.
The largest portion of the Brehon law was a section called the Senchus Mó¢r (pronounced Shankus mor), better thought of as a collection of customs rather than one of statutes already widely known and observed by the Celts since the dawn of their time.
Unlike the British law that would later rule over their lives, the Senchus M¢r didn’tuse an imperious tone. The laws were written to be understood and were based in wisdom.
It’s been argued that Ireland had no uniform means to enforce the law and undoubtedly, in Ireland vast history, there were Kings or others of vast power, who broke the law. But overall, the law was followed because the law based in logical, fair tribal custom.
Through a series of invaders who would rule over Ireland, the Viking, the Normans, the English, the old Irish legal system was eventually beaten down and never able to reemerge. When the English arrived in full force, they brought their own laws with them. Written in Norman-French, not in the Irish or Latin as were the Irish laws in place before them, the English laws were combined with a series of repressive acts written in 1367 during a parliament session held in Kilkenny. These news acts recognized the Irish, in their own land, as rebels and enemies of the state and were intended, over a period of time, to crush and kill off Irish society. These new laws later termed the Irish Penal Codes, punished Irish dress, manners language, and laws.
Essentially, the laws, enacted in 1695, were designed and written to deny almost all rights to the Irish Catholics in Ireland and to eventually eradicate the catholic religion in Ireland. Protestant England had no intention of sharing its power with in Ireland with the Pope in Rome. But that would be on the higher end of the Penal Codes. Without question, the basic role of the Penal Laws was to legally take the land from the people under the questionably noble guise of saving the Irish on behalf of the Protestant King of England.
Civil liberties were crushed. Catholics were denied education, land ownership, and medical practice and treatment. The Catholics were not allowed to enter the legal profession, nor could they hold government offices. The laws were enforced simply enough; to hold any position or wealth in Ireland, the Irish were forced to repeat and sign an oath which no catholic would take.
A typical oath was;
I do solemnly and sincerely, in the presence of God, profess . . . that I do believe, that in the sacrament of the lord's supper there is not any transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ . . . and that the invocation or adoration of the virgin Mary, or any other saint, and the sacrifice of the mass, as they are now used in the church of Rome, are superstitious and idolatrous . . .
The French Jurist Montesquieu described the Penal Laws as having been "conceived by demons, written in blood, and registered in Hell"
Not content with stripping the Irish of their basic legal rights, in about 1697, the English followed up with "The Bishop's Banishment Act." which forbade the Church from practicing any ecclesiastical jurisdiction in Ireland and called for all Catholic
Clergy to leave Ireland by May 1st, 1698 under the penalty of “transportation for life”
If the Priests returned to Ireland, the law allowed them to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.
A lock is better than suspicion. Irish proverb
Ireland became a plantation of sorts. A handful of wealthy families, largely Protestant Loyalists, ruled over 80% of the people. Conditions in general and the treatment of the Irish degraded to the point where a Protestant could, in theory and sometimes in practice, beat or kill any Catholic without fear of any legal recrimination. Every village had its stories to tell, ridiculous incidents which showed the depth of the prejudice. Virtually every village held a tale of a local man being shot by a member of the ruling class for refusing to sell his horse for five pounds as the law dictated of Lord Charlemont being thrown out of the House of Lords for suggesting that the Irish be allowed to lease a cabin with a potato patch.
Gradually, the laws were lifted. In 1778, the Catholic relief act allowed Catholics to enter leases for up to 999 years as opposed to the previous 31 years. By 1782, Catholics were "allowed to become schoolmasters and private tutors, to own horses exceeding the value of 5 schillings and to acquire land in socage tenure" With the passage of the so-called relief laws of 1792 and 1793, Catholics were allowed to enter into low levels of legal practice, earn degrees from universities, and become commissioned in the military.
But the English closed, flatly and without debate, Irish Catholic entrance into Parliament.
Te effects of the laws crushed the spirit of the Irish people who were now subject to a foreign power within their own land. It devastated a people who took such pride in being Irish and in their ancient culture. By 1800, to be Irish was to be ashamed of what the once proud Celt had become.
Further, the Penal Code succeeded in alienating the population, especially the large poor rural population against law and government. They became, slowly a nation who scoffed the laws since there was no pride or sense in obeying laws that were designed and enforced to take away their lives, liberties, and property and left them with out a single benefit that wasn’t stripped to its marrow or impaired enough to be useless.
By 1800, the British had had accomplished in Ireland what they had set out to do with the introduction of the Penal Laws in 1695; they had, essentially, stripped the Irish people of all things Irish and, essentially, replaced them with all things British.
Any united opposition to the laws, or even the threat of opposition brought around a cry in London for even more repressive laws.
While the Crown was willing to repeal an enormous portions of the Penal Laws, largely those that were either unenforceable or unproductive, under pressure from the State Clergy, they were far less willing to repeal the Tithe Laws.
Under the Penal Laws, anyone working the Irish land was required to pay an annual tithe (or religious tax) of 10% of the agricultural produce for the upkeep of official state church, the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church of Ireland despite the fact that the vast majority of the population were Roman Catholic.
Often, a cow does not take after its breed. Irish proverb
The need for repeal of the Tithe Law brought around the rise of Daniel O’Connell, a member of the Irish Catholic aristocracy who was elected to the House of Commons in 1828. Despite Daniel O’Connell’s achievement of having most Penal Laws repealed in 1829 in the Great Catholic Emancipation, stupidly, the Irish obligation to pay tithes remained and was enforced, collected in the form of goods, especially livestock.
There had been a largely peaceful resistance campaign against the collections since 1829, and it was, for the most part, successful, with the credit for the non violence going to O’Connell, a vocal critic of violent insurrection in Ireland, always repeating his call
that the freedom of Ireland was not worth the spilling of one drop of blood.
But the Anglican Clergy, sorely missing their money, pushed the Crown into action, first by gathering lists of defaulters, “Tithe Defaulters” some 30,000 in all, largely concentrated in the rural counties of Kilkenny, Tipperary and Wexford. The clergy pressed the Irish Constabulary, established only a few years before in 1822 as a sort of Militia paid for largely by the Tithe collections, to track down the defaulters.
Between 1831 and 1834 a bitter and bloody war between the unarmed peasantry and the well-armed state forces broke out over the payment fees. Starting as strikes, the resistance spread from county to county and eventually grew from small riots to armed insurrection.
The three year uprising was one of several successive revolts of the rural poor across
Ireland since the 1760s. The uprising were led by a variety of underground movements with varying names, generally known now after the first movement, the Whiteboys,
the rural poor, wage laborers, male and young, often mere teenagers.
The organizations were secretive and underground, and also fairly libertarian, with independent groups in each town networked with others to form an entire movement across several counties. Each had an extensive ritual initiation oaths, elaborate pseudonyms, and occasionally uniforms or secret insignias.
Largely unarmed, these groups fought the military who were eventually sent to collect tithes, with sticks and stones. The military more often then not answered the assaults with rifle fire killing score of resisters. The killings did little more then to further organize the movement across the country. Finally it wasn’t save for landlords, their agents and tithe Collectors, called proctors, to leave their homes without being shot at or killed in ambush. In turn, these attacks brought even more harsh reprisals by government troops.
The first clash of the Tithe war took place on March 3, 1831, when a force of 120 heavily armed police took cattle belonging to a Catholic priest, in lieu of Tithes. It was a test case. The priest, with the approval of his bishop, had organized a local resistance to the tithe. The incident was widely publicized, and the fact that priest had resisted the collection was a tacit approval for the general population to resist.
Several weeks later, in the town of Newtonbarry in Wexford, the police once again rounded up a hard of cattle as a seizure. This time snipes fire on the police who fired back. Twelve people were killed and twenty fatally wounded. The Wexford massacre as it was called, further organized resistance. In the rural town, the accepted signal for approaching police became the ringing of the town bells . This forewarning led to the ambush of 40 man police detachment in the town of Carrickshock in Kilkenny on December 14, 1831. Locals killed 14 militia including the Chief Constable.
In 1832, the English government credited 242 homicides, 1,179 robberies, 401 burglaries, 568 burnings, 280 cases of cattle-maiming, 161 assaults, 203 riots and 723 attacks on property directly to tithe-enforcement in 1831. That year, in the general election, all 82 Irish members returned to parliament pledged to campaign for the abolition of tithes forced the British government to concede. Although tithes were still collected the amount demanded was nominal.
In 1835, in the town of Rathcormack, in Cork, military-police killed 17 and wounded 30 others in an attempt to collect a tithe of less then 40 shillings from a widow. An investigation of the massacre, the troops fired point blank into the crowds, proved that the order to fire was given by a Clergyman. But what troubles the Crown was the fact that the villagers had withstood several volleys and at least one charge by the troops without breaking and running.
Collections were suspended and a Tithes Commutation Act was introduced which reduced the amount payable by about a quarter and made the remainder payable to landlords who would, in turn, pass payment onto the Clergy. At that, the uprising more or less ended, but the people were still forced, in a manner of ways, to pay for the upkeep of the Protestant Church in Ireland until it was finally outlawed in 1869.
It’s important to note that this was not, completely, a nationalist uprising against Anglo-Irish rule. Although the Tithes were a factor, most rural violence was class-based, dirt poor Catholic Irish versus the wealthy Catholic Irish. Rich farmers made up about 3% of the population, followed by a larger group, about 12% of the population, of wealthy but not rich farmers and extended families. At the bottom of the pile, were the cottiers and labor class, about 76% of the population. About 10,000 landlords owned virtually all of the land. But this was by design of the crown, which, lacking sufficient armies to dominate every corner of its empire, ruled by a divided and conquer mentality.
In 1841, Daniel O’Connell organized the Repeal Association, a movement dedicated to removing the repeal of the Union. This is sometimes misinterpreted as an act of national independence. However O’Connell was never an advocate of complete national independence. Instead, he campaigned for Repeal of the 1801 Act of Union which merged the Parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland. O’Connell advocated a recreation of the Kingdom of Ireland with Queen Victoria, then reigning Monarch, as the Queen of Ireland as well.
The Irish forgive their great men when they are safely buried. Irish proverb
To achieve Repeal of the Act of Union, O’Connell had launched a series of so-called Monster Meetings, wherein tens of thousands of Irish met in mass meeting to protest in favor of Repeal. O’Connell had planned the biggest demonstration in the history of Ireland to support his version of a free Ireland. The meeting was scheduled to be held at in Clontarf, the crowd was expected to number at least a million strong. But the Crown outlawed the gathering and poured thousands of troops into the surrounding area forcing O’Connell to back down. It was the worst thing he could have done. But calling off the mass meeting at Clontarf, he deprived himself of his most potent weapon, an organized Irish populace appearing in vast numbers. It was, effectively, the end of O’Connell. He failed to make any further progress in the campaign for Repeal. His followers deserted him under the cry "He should have called us out"
Among those leading the cry were the Young Irelanders, a pocket of young idealists, named after similar group on the continent who advocated radical overthrow of the crown. The group worked quietly within the otherwise loyalist Repeal movement, biding their time for the right moment.
The core of the Young Ireland group was Thomas Davis, Charles Duffy and Thomas Dillon, who founded a newspaper, The Nation, which promoted the O’Connell aims of Repeal but the political line of the paper, was liberal nationalist and more often then not; it was used to stir up its readership with a national awareness. Gradually, this group went one small step beyond O’Connell, calling for “repeal or else separation” which worried not only the British government but, O’Connell who was concerned with the growing influence and political outlook of the Young Irelanders and their effect on his progress for Ireland.
With the vast disappointment in O’Connell limp resistance to the English, his supporters turned to the Nation and its more militant means of winning Irish independence. O’Connell did everything in his power to shit the Nation down and throw off the growing popularity of the Young Irelands but the Young Irelands refused to back down. Thomas Davis, the Young Irelanders leader and O’Connell’s most vocal critic, died suddenly and unexpectedly, giving O’Connell a short lived respite, giving O’Connell and his son John the opportunity to drive the Young Irelanders out of the Repeal Association and having the Nation closed down. But soon O’Connell died, at age 71 while on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1847 and the Irish resistance movement seemed to drift.
But while Ireland’s revolt seemed to flicker and die, in large part beaten under by the enormity of the great Irish famine of 1845, the rest of the European continent of 1848 was thrown into revolt. There were a popular rising in Sicily, Paris and Vienna, and even though Ireland herself showed no signs of revolt, the Young Irelanders reconsidered their non-violent position and they rejoined the radical John Mitchell, the son of a Unitarian Minister, openly advocated that the people arm themselves. Mitchel gambled on a mass rising in the autumn, but the Crown, terrified at the events throughout the rest of Europe and based on the recent violence in the Tithe Wars, acted swiftly. Mitchel was arrested, tried and convicted under the new Treason Felony Act and exiled to Australia.
The rest of the Young Irelanders leadership scattered in shame as a nation watched them allow their leader to be taken away in chains without a struggle. Regardless of the easy win by the Crown, enrollment in the Young Ireland organization tripled after Mitchel’s arrest, with most of the new members being barely out of their teens.
The group was now taken over by the Protestant William Smith O'Brien, a descendent of Brian Born. O'Brien, Educated at Cambridge, he had been elected to the British Parliament in 1828 and was otherwise a strong supporter of British rule over Ireland. That view changed in 1843 and O’Brien changed his allegiance to the Irish freedom movement. With natural leadership qualities, he rose quickly rose to a leading role in the rebellion forces. O’Brien tried to raise the county in insurrection, but few joined.
Undaunted, he formed a Council, made up of himself, John Blake Dillon and Thomas Francis Meagher. The rebellious Kilkenny would be their headquarters and it was there that they set up their Provisional Government and issue their first manifesto. They toured the rural countryside trying to rouse the starving people into revolt, but the famine and its after effects had beaten them down.
The local Catholic clergy, fearing a slaughter by the English, begged the Young Irelands to give up their fight and return home. The Priests pointed out that they were unarmed; ill prepared and were completely ignorant of military strategy. But at Boulagh Commons, O’Brien found coal miners who were eager volunteers, some of them already armed, others prepared to fight with their mining tools.
With less then 50 followers and a few handguns the group attacked a police outpost in the rural countryside but were beaten off and eventually arrested. All of its members were rounded up and sentenced to death but later had their sentences commuted to life in Prison in concentration camps in New Zealand. As was the case in nearly ever Irish revolt, the uprising was poorly planned, hopelessly equipped and lacked native support to succeed. William Smith O’Brien and his lieutenant, James Stephens, and a small force of men attempted to capture some local policemen at the small town of Farrenrory. At best it was an impromptu battle. They succeeded in holding the British forces down for a short while until, as usual, British re-enforcements arrived and the Irish scattered and ran.
As was always the case, the leadership was quickly rounded up and arrested. O’Brien was arrested on a train platform in a nearby town and Thomas Meagher was captured walking causally along a road near Cashel.
O’Brien’s revolt, the so-called rising of 48, ended in a crushing and humiliating defeat for the Irishmen. The rebels, even if they had won a few initial skirmishes, who were ill prepared to stand against the thousands of troops the Crown poured into Ireland in advance of the uprising.
The British had moved to swiftly. Tried for treason, and of course found guilty.
Before passing sentence, the judge asked if there was anything that anyone wished to say. Meagher, speaking for all, said: "My lord, this is our first offense, but not our last. If you will be easy with us this once, we promise, on our word as gentlemen, to try to do better next time. And next time ---sure we won't be fools to get caught."
The judge, indignant at Meagher’s speech, sentenced them all to death "To be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution on the 13th and there hanged until he be dead, his head then to be cut off and his body to be cut into 4 quarters, then disposed of as her majesty shall think fit."
What the English hadn’t banked on was outrage over the sentence from the American government, pressured in part by an already massive and continually growing Irish American voting block. Queen Victoria commuted the sentence life in prison.
Twenty six years later, Queen Victoria learned that Sir Charles Duffy, the newly elected Premier of the colony of Victoria, Australia was the same Charles Duffy who had been transported in chains, by her order, the penal colony there in 1848.
In 1873 Duffy accepted a knighthood from Queen Victoria, much to the anger of his Irish cohorts. He retired to Southern France and died in 1903 - his remains were sent to Ireland where they received full national honors. The Queen's demand to know what had happened to the others from the rising of 48.
A report showed that Thomas Francis Meagher became a Brigadier General in the Union Army and was appointed Governor of Montana. Terrance McManus became a General as well. After escaped to New York, Richard O’Gorman set up a law practice which flourished. He became a member of the elite and in 1869 became a counsel to New York Corporation and was appointed to the Superior Court of New York in 1880. Morris Lyene was Attorney General of Australia and would be succeeded in that office by Michael Ireland. Thomas D’Arcy Mcgee was a member of the Canadian Parliament, as well as its Minister of Agriculture and President of the Dominion of Canada Council. John Mitchell was a power house in New York politics.
His son, John Purroy Mitchell would serve as Mayor in 1914. John Blake Dillon escaped to New York disguised as a priest. He distanced himself from other Rebel living in the US and was eventually admitted to New York bar at Albany in 1849, and was delighted by the lack of formality (no wigs, gowns etc) He set up a law practice which flourished and became rich. He returned to Ireland due to ill health in the family, stayed and was elected to Westminster Parliament. He died suddenly 12 moths later