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The History of Ulster
Early Victorian Years


Accession of Queen Victoria—No Change in the Ministry—The Tithe Question settled—The Poor Relief Act passed—Rise of the Young Ireland Party— Foundation of Queen's College, Belfast—The Report of the Devon Commission —Low Rate of Wages in Ulster—The Famine Years—Emigration to America from Ulster—Ulster Tenant-Right—Smith O'Brien's Rebellion—John Mitchel, an Ulster Man, concerned—Shooting Affray—Orangemen and Ribbonmen at Dolly's Brae—The Government and Earl of Roden—The Queen visits Ireland.

The accession of Queen Victoria in June, 1837, strengthened the Ministry. Instead of having the influence of the Crown against him, as in William's reign, the Premier, who was received and retained with marked favour, had now the advantage of the fact that the young Queen, who had just completed her eighteenth year, was dependent on him for guidance and advice in constitutional matters. Parliament was prorogued on the 17th of July by Her Majesty in person, when the only subject on which the Speaker, on his attendance with the Commons to hear the royal address in the Lords, could reply concerning Ireland was the settlement of the tithe question. Parliament was immediately afterwards dissolved. The elections were conducted with unusual violence, even for Ireland, and a large majority of Roman Catholics and Liberals were returned. The registers of the electors were said to have been tampered with, and an association was organized to collect money to contest the elections of many of the Irish members. This was one of the first subjects taken up by the new Parliament, which met in November.

A Bill introduced in 1837, but which was suspended by the dissolution of Parliament which followed the demise of the Crown, "proposed the erection of 100 Workhouses, where relief and employment should be afforded to the poor, infirm, and able-bodied". The Bill passed in July, 1838, after an important amendment had been introduced by the House of Lords, at the instance of the Duke of Wellington, whereby each union was subdivided into electoral districts, each district to be chargeable with its own poor, in order that every parish should bear its own burden. "On the whole", says Sir Rowland Blennerhassett, "the operation of the poor law must be pronounced to have been successful. There was at at once a perceptible diminution of the crowds of beggars which used to be seen on the roads near the villages and towns, and whose numbers and wild and withered appearance have been so often described in the writings of men who travelled in Ireland."

O'Connell now founded the Repeal Association, and, making the Union the object of his attack, insisted that it was the origin and sole cause of the misfortunes of Ireland. In this he was ably aided by the writers in The Nation newspaper (founded in 1842), of whom the most prominent were Thomas Davis and Gavan Duffy. These writers became known as the "Young Ireland" party, and they introduced a new element into political life in Ireland. "There are in Ireland", wrote one of the party, "two nations, interfused yet distinct; with separate traditions, and differing in blood, temperament, and religion." The idea of the Young Irelanders was to get the two nations to work together; to recognize, as in the days of the United Irishmen, that they had become one people, and that they had interests in common, with a common foe in the British Parliament. The two nations were, of course, the inhabitants of Ulster and largely those of Leinster, as opposed to the population of Munster and Connaught. O'Connell's repeal agitation ended in his being arrested, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment. His trial forms no part of the history of Ulster, although O'Connell undoubtedly represented Ireland, and he had a powerful influence in the north.

The parliamentary proceedings of 1845 were marked by the introduction of Bills for the better manangement of Charitable Trusts in Ireland. At the opening of the session Sir Robert Peel carried a Bill, in the face of much opposition, whereby £26,000 per annum was appropriated out of the Consolidated Fund for the better sustenance and payment of the students and professors of the Roman Catholic College of Maynooth. Sir James Graham followed up this measure of conciliation by one of still greater magnitude. He, in the course of the session, carried through Parliament the grant of £100,000 for the establishment of three colleges for secular education, and in order to avoid the possibility of any religious differences he determined to refrain from instituting any faculty for theology in any of them. The colleges were shortly afterwards founded, one of them being established in Belfast. For this purpose the Academical Institution of the Presbyterians, to which four Professors of Divinity were attached, and which was under the direction of the General Assembly of Ulster, with a grant from Parliament of £2100 per annum, was handed over for the general benefit of the new Queen's College.

Ireland was now threatened with tribulation in comparison with which the sufferings she had hitherto experienced faded into insignificance. Famine, that most awful of all enemies, was soon to hold sway over the unhappy land. In 1845 the population was over 8,000,000, of whom it was calculated that at least one-half were dependent on the potato for subsistence. The potato enabled a large family to live on food produced in abundance at a trifling cost, and, as a result, the increase of the population had been enormous. There had, however, been no corresponding improvement in the material and social condition of the people. Their condition was deplorable, and their sufferings, borne with exemplary patience, were, in the opinion of the Census Commissioners of 1841, greater than that which the people of any other country in Europe had to endure.

In the Digest of Evidence given before the Devon Commissioners we read: "In the counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Londonderry, and Tyrone, the most general rate of daily wages appeared to be 10d. a day in winter, and 1s. in summer. In Donegal, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Louth, and Meath, 8d. in winter, and 10d. in summer; and in all the other counties, except Dublin, where 1s. per day was usually paid, the general daily pay seemed to be 8d." Except in Ulster, where the linen industry held its own, great masses of the population of Ireland were in consequence thrown back on the soil for subsistence, and over a large portion of the country had nothing save a few potatoes between themselves and starvation. In the debates of 1843 it was pointed out that the admitted deterioration in the quality of the potato was likely to be followed by serious consequences. The soil, exhausted by the crop, and not invigorated by any restoratives, was every year producing an increasingly weaker plant, inviting, if it did not actually produce, the attack of the blight, which in September, 1845, again began to appear in different parts of the country, and by the end of the year was making terrible ravages.

In January, 1846, Peel introduced a measure for the Repeal of the Corn Laws, which became law in June. The duty on imported corn was reduced at once to 4s. per quarter; and after three years it was to be reduced to the nominal rate of 1s. per quarter. Peel's supporters were for a time known as the Protectionist party, under the leadership of Lord Stanley, afterwards Earl of Derby. On the very day on which the Lords passed the Repeal Act the Ministry was defeated on the question of the Irish Crimes Bill. Peel at once resigned, and in July Lord John Russell became Premier.

In Ireland, suffering and poverty brought with them their usual concomitant of crime and outrage. In the course of 1846 the constabulary was increased to 10,000 men, and large bodies of troops were poured into the distracted country. Large stores of provisions were also poured in. Lord John Russell introduced a Bill for the construction of public works in Ireland, the cost of which was to be defrayed out of the Consolidated Fund. Lord John also obtained the sanction of Parliament to a grant of £50,000 for the most distressed districts, upon urgent representations made of the state of the country by Lord Enniskillen and others possessed of large landed property in the country. In March, 1847, the number of those employed on the public works is given at 734,000. Nevertheless, in remote districts, where the famine was at its worst, men, women, and children died of hunger by scores, owing to the difficulties of communication. " Have we ever known or read of anything surpassing it?" Mr. Horsman exclaimed in the House of Commons; "a rich Empire in a Christian age! One inspector likens it to a country devastated by an enemy: it is more as if the destroying angel had swept over it—the whole population struck down; the air a pestilence; the fields a solitude; the chapel deserted; the priest and the pauper famishing together; no inquest, no rites, no record even of the dead; the highroad a charnel-house, the land a chaos; a ruined proprietary, a panic-struck absconding tenantry; the soil untilled, the workhouse a moral pest; death, desolation, despair, reigning through the land."

By August, 1847, the famine may be said to have terminated, and the public works were wound up, the destitute, amounting to about 3,000,000 were kept alive by the action of Relief Committees, materially aided by the splendid munificence of British charity. But Ireland was now experiencing further changes. The population, which had hitherto been constantly increasing, was now rapidly decreasing. Fever came in the wake of famine, and continued (long after the potato blight had ceased) to decimate the people. Under these combined disasters the great mover ment of emigration from Ireland to the United States of America began which has continued ever since. Four years earlier the emigration had been to the Canadas, John Mitchel stating that one M'Mullin, an Emigration Agent, inserted in a Londonderry paper, in 1843, an announcement to the effect that: "A favourable opportunity presents itself in the course of the present month, for Quebec, to gentlemen residing in the Counties of Londonderry, Donegal, Tyrone, or Fermanagh, who wish to send out to the Canadas the overstock tenantry belonging to their estates, as a moderate rate of passage will be taken, and six months' credit given for a lump sum to any gentleman requiring such accommodation".

In the early years of the famine emigration on a large scale was a novelty, and in too many instances the arrangements were hopelessly inadequate for the comforts of the emigrants. Except where a few wealthy and benevolent landlords (whose efforts in this respect were referred to in Parliament with approbation by Sir Robert Peel) were able to see that the proper conditions were fulfilled the horrors of the journey to America were such that Mr. de Vere, who took a passage in the steerage of an emigrant ship and remained on board two months, describes the "hundreds of poor people", as being "huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth, and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart, the fevered patients lying between the sound, in sleeping-places so narrow as almost to deny them the power of indulging by a change of position the natural restlessness of the disease; by their agonized ravings disturbing those around, and predisposing them through the effects of the imagination to imbibe the contagion; living without food or medicine, except as administered by the hand of casual charity; dying without the voice of spiritual consolation, and buried in the deep without the rites of the Church". Mr. de Vere's letter, describing what he saw, was adopted by the Colonial Office as a public document.

The emigration from Ulster, notwithstanding the statements of Mitchel, was not so numerous as from other parts of Ireland; for while the rest of the country was clamouring for what O'Connell called "fixity of tenure", Ulster enjoyed a kind of unwritten law, or established custom, which gave tenants permanence of tenure in their lands. It is known as the Tenant-Right of Ulster. By virtue of that tenant-right a farmer, though his tenure might be nominally at will, could not be ejected so long as he paid his rent; and if he wished to remove to another part of the country he could sell his goodwill in the farm to an incoming tenant. Of course the greater his improvements were the larger the price his tenant-right would command; in other words, the improvements made by his own or his father's industry were his to dispose of. This custom prevented rents from being arbitrarily raised in proportion to the improved value; so that in many cases lands held at will in Ulster, and subject to an ample rent, were sold by one tenant-at-will to another tenant-at-will at full half the fee-simple value of the land. Conveyances were made of it; it was a valuable property, and any violent invasion of it would, as a witness told the Devon Commission, have "made Down another Tipperary". This custom was almost wholly confined to Ulster. It was by no means created or commenced by the terms of the Plantation of Ulster, but was a relic of the ancient free social polity of the Irish, and had continued in Ulster longer than in the other provinces simply because Ulster was the last portion of Ireland to be brought under British rule and forced to exchange for feudal tenures the ancient system of tribal lands.

The year 1848 was stormy all over Europe. In France there was a third Revolution. There were tumults at Vienna, Berlin, and Rome. There were Chartist riots in England, and a great meeting assembled on the 10th of April on Kennington Common to escort Feargus O'Connor to Parliament with a petition embodying their demands. These disturbances were taken advantage of by William Smith O'Brien and other members of the Repeal Society (O'Connell having died in May, 1847) to excite the people to rebel. A feeble rising took place in Tipperary, but it was suppressed by a few policemen. The leaders were soon taken, four being condemned to death, but the sentence was afterwards changed to exile. They were ultimately released one by one, or allowed to escape. The northern province was represented in this "Cabbage-garden" affair (as it was called from the fact of Smith O'Brien having concealed himself in such a garden) by John Mitchel, the son of a Unitarian minister of Ulster. He remained till his death an uncompromising enemy of England.

At this time circumstances occurred in Ulster which were peculiarly vexatious and embarrassing to the Government. The Party Processions Act of 1829 had for some time expired, when the Orangemen in the north determined on the 12th of July, the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, to pay a compliment to the Earl of Roden, who was considered the head of the Protestant party in Ireland. Accordingly large numbers of Orangemen assembled on the morning of the 12th arrayed in scarves and wearing favours, and variously armed, and proceeded to Tollymore Park, the seat of the Earl. They set out, some on foot and a large number on horseback, carrying the flags and banners usually exhibited in the old days of Orange ascendancy, and reached the Pass of Dolly's Brae, near Castlewellan, the summit of a little height which was in the direct route to the Park. Here they found a large body of Ribbonmen collected, also armed; and a number of police had also assembled to keep the peace; and, chiefly through the efforts of the latter, peace was maintained.

On arriving at the mansion the procession was received by the Earl, to whom an address was presented expressing great admiration for his conduct as a Protestant nobleman. This having been graciously replied to by Earl Roden, the members of the procession were entertained in the Park, and, as was natural, much enthusiasm was displayed, and in high spirits the Orangemen fired guns and made speeches. On their return journey they found the Ribbonmen still occupying their former position. It was agreed that no gun should be fired, and silence was preserved as the Orangemen defiled through the pass. It was then dusk, and all might have been well but that a lighted squib was thrown into the midst of the Orangemen, by whose hand it was never discovered.

The Orangemen, excited by the apprehension of an attack, immediately turned and fired. This the Ribbonmen returned, and, notwithstanding the efforts of the police, a sort of running fire was kept up, by which several on both sides were wounded and six of the Ribbonmen were killed on the spot. Everyone now desired to escape, with the result that the ground was soon cleared of the assailed and the assailants. A commission was appointed to enquire into the facts, and the result of the investigation was a decision on the part of the Government to remove several magistrates from the Commission of the Peace and to displace the Earl of Roden from the Lord-Lieutenancy of the County Armagh.

With the view of restoring confidence, and evoking the sentiment of personal loyalty to the Throne on the side of law and the existing form of government, the Queen, in August, 1849, visited Ireland, and received an enthusiastic welcome from all classes and creeds.


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