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The History of Ulster
"The Ulster Custom"

The Encumbered Estates Act—The Navigation Acts repealed—Sharman Crawford's Tenant-Right Bill—Foundation of Tenant-protection Societies— The General Tenant-Right Association holds a Conference in Dublin — Dr. M'Knight, an Ulsterman and Presbyterian, Editor of the Banner of Ulster, chosen as President—Establishment of the Irish Tenant-Right League—A True Union of North and South—Napier, the Irish Attorney-General, introduces Four Land Bills—They pass the House of Commons, but are abandoned by the Lords—Lord-Chancellor Brady on Orangemen—Agrarian Discontent—The Glenveagh Evictions—Disestablishment of the Irish Church.

The history of Ulster now chiefly consists of a chronicle of the various measures taken in Parliament to benefit the country at large. One of the most important was entitled the Encumbered Estates Act, finally passed on the 28th of July, 1849, the first result of which was the establishment of the Encumbered Estates Court Commission to carry out the sale of the estates of embarrassed owners. The first idea of this mode of relief had been started by Sir Robert Peel in 1846 in a casual remark made in the course of a debate upon the Irish Poor Law, when he drew his illustration of the benefit likely to accrue from the suggestion by the advantage enjoyed in the prosperous condition of Ulster, which arose out of the resettlement of the province by Cromwell in the seventeenth century. As we have seen, it had its origin, not in Cromwell's resettlement, but in the fact that Ulster was the last to abandon the old tribal system of land-tenure. This measure was followed by the Land Improvements Act, by which a Commission was established with funds at its disposal to be advanced to the landlords for the improvement of land, to be repaid within limited periods. The Poor Rate was gradually reduced, and a grant of £620,000 was voted in aid of the construction of railways. The Navigation Acts were finally repealed this year (1849) and thus the last obstacle to the cheap importation of food supplies was removed from the Statute-book. In 1850 several feeble attempts to settle the question of tenants' improvements came to nothing. Sharman Crawford's Bill for extending the Ulster custom was rejected. For several sessions he had introduced Bills for this purpose, but without success, the majority of the members of Parliament regarding Sharman Crawford's Bill as a proposal of confiscation. A vigorous land agitation now commenced. Tenant-protection Societies sprang up throughout the south and west, and early in the year the tenants of Ulster, who at the beginning of the famine had formed a general Tenant-Right Association, adopted the same plan of local defence.

In order to present a united front, a Conference was summoned "to devise some specific measure of legislation to be sought for, and some plan of united action for its accomplishment". The Conference met in Dublin on the 6th of August, 1850, and presented the strange spectacle of a genuine league of the north and south. "Reserved stern Covenanters from the north," says Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, "ministers and their elders for the most part, with a group of brighter recruits from a new generation, who came afterwards to be known as Young Ulster, sat beside priests who had lived through the horrors of a famine which left their churches empty and their graveyards overflowing; flanked by farmers who survived that evil time like the veterans of a hard campaign; while citizens, professional men, the popular journalists from the four provinces, and the founders and officers of the Tenant Protection Societies, completed the assembly." No dissenting voice was raised when an Ulster man and Presbyterian, Dr. James M'Knight, the editor of the Banner of Ulster, who had for years been pleading the tenants' cause, was chosen as president. It was a league of north and south, but only partially a league of Protestants and Catholics. The Presbyterian leaders stood with the people, but the Episcopalians were mostly ranged on the landlords' side, while the priests were fighting their own battle in fighting that of the tenants.

Having discussed matters for three days the conference resolved upon their programme, of which the chief points were: fair rents to be determined by valuation; the exclusion of tenants' improvements from the valuation; security from disturbance of possession so long as the valuation rent was paid; and a provision of relief with regard to arrears of rent which had accrued due during the famine. These points the delegates determined to press upon Parliament. The conference concluded by formally establishing the Irish Tenant-Right League, and by appointing a general council of the four provinces.

For the two years following the leaders devoted themselves mainly to popular agitation. Deputations were sent to all parts of the country to spread the principles of the League, to enroll new members, and to form local organizations. Presbyterians went to preach the cause in the south, and Catholics to preach it in the north. Everywhere the meetings were enthusiastic, and the Press took up the subject with zeal and pleaded for justice to Ireland with acumen and energy. Early in 1852 the Ministry was defeated on a Militia Bill, and resigned, having held office for four years. The Earl of Derby then formed a Conservative Ministry in which Benjamin Disraeli was Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. In the election the Irish Tenant-Right League laboured with great energy to secure the return of a tenant-right party. The candidates were pledged not only to advocate tenant-right in Parliament, but to adopt a policy of independent opposition, holding themselves aloof from both English parties and supporting no Government which refused to grant a satisfactory tenant-right measure.

Some fifty members were returned pledged to tenant-right and independent opposition. To all appearance the League had been so far successful that they had formed a party strong enough in numbers to turn the scale on either side. In order to determine the course of action, a Conference was held in Dublin two months before the meeting of Parliament. The principles of Sharman Crawford's Bill, with some additional clauses, were unanimously declared to be the minimum that could be accepted, and it was also resolved that the tenant-right members "should hold themselves perfectly independent of, and in opposition to, all Governments which do not make it a part of their policy, and a Cabinet question, to give to the tenantry of Ireland a measure fully embodying the principles of Sharman Crawford's Bill".

In November, 1852, Napier, the Irish Attorney-General, introduced four Bills which closely followed the recommendations of the Devon Commission, and which admitted the principle of nearly everything claimed by the League. These four Bills, with the Bill of the Tenant-Right League, were referred to a select committee. In the Lords the Earl of Roden asked whether, by consenting to this course, the Government meant to give their sanction to "propositions of so communistic a nature", a question which Lord Derby evaded by summarizing the Napier Code without comment, and by declaring that he thought the Bill of the Tenant League to be destructive of the rights of property. The fall of the Ministry quickly followed. Every Irish member who had pledged himself to the policy of independent opposition was bound to stand on the other side, and on Disraeli's Budget the Government were defeated by nineteen votes, and resigned in December.

Lord Aberdeen now formed a Coalition Ministry, consisting of Whigs and Peelites, and including Lord John Russell, Lord Palmerston, and William Ewart Gladstone. The new Ministry was pledged to a Free Trade policy. Certain members of the Irish Parliamentary party took office in this Government: Mr. Keogh was made Solicitor-General for Ireland, Mr. John Sadleir became a Lord of the Treasury, and Mr. O'Flaherty was made a Commissioner of Income Tax. These men had been pledged to the principle of the Tenant-Right League, and their desertions helped to break it up. All unity of action disappeared, and gradually the League lost its power in Parliament. In 1853 the Napier Bills passed through the House of Commons. In the House of Lords they were read a second time and then, on account of the opposition which they excited, abandoned for the session. The only other matter of interest in the Parliamentary history of the year was the extension of the income-tax to Ireland.

The outbreak of the Crimean War early in 1854 placed such measures as the Tenant-Right Bill in the background, Napier indignantly asserting that "it is notorious that the House of Lords will pass no such measure, and that for a Government to propose it to them, or to pretend to support it, is an imposture and a sham". In 1856 the Tenant League, which still met from time to time, resolved, after their Bill had failed for the year, to clear it of its most objectionable clauses—those legalizing the Ulster custom, the valuation clauses, the O'Connell clause] providing that improvements should be presumed to be the tenant's till the contrary was proved, and others which were likely to be resisted—but the mutilated Bill met with even less respect than its predecessors had done, and the question of tenant-right almost ceased to excite any political interest.

Though the Crime and Outrage Act of 1848 had been renewed from year to year, and still existed under the title of the Peace Preservation Act, the country was still harassed by the crimes of Ribbonmen and Orangemen. Belfast was the scene of many scandalous riots caused by the latter. So dangerous to the peace of the country did this organization appear to be that in 1857 Lord Chancellor Brady, in a letter to Londonderry, gave notice that for the future he should require from every person holding the Commission of the Peace an assurance that he was not and would not, while he held the commission, become a member of the society. This declaration raised a storm of indignation. Early in 1858 a deputation, headed by Mr. (afterwards Lord) Cairns, waited on Lord Palmerston to present a memorial of protest against Lord Chancellor Brady's declaration. They met with no encouragement. Lord Palmerston was at a loss to understand the merits or use of the association, and gave his opinion that nothing could be more desirable for the real interests of Ireland than its complete abandonment, and thus the matter ended and the Brady letter led to nothing.

Agrarian discontent reached such a pitch in 1859 that the Government determined that something must be done to place the law of landlord and tenant on a better footing. With this view two important measures were carried through Parliament in 1860. The first of these, the Landed Property (Ireland) Improvement Act, dealt with the existing restrictions on the powers of limited owners, and with the improvements effected by certain classes of tenants upon their holdings. The second Act, the Landlord and Tenant Law Amendment Act (Ireland), consolidated and amended the law. It declared that the relation should be deemed to be founded on the express or implied contract of the parties, and not upon tenure or service. The second Act made the tenant's position worse than before. "Every improvement in the real property law", said Professor Richey, "has been injurious to the tenants; to a man in possession, a defendant in ejection, no system of law is so advantageous as one hopelessly entangled and incomprehensible."

The first Act came into operation on the 2nd of November, 1860; the second on the 1st of January, 1861. They did little or nothing to lessen agrarian agitation. In November, 1860, the agent who acted for Mr. Adair of Derryveagh, in Donegal, was murdered, and, as the murderer could not be found, the district in which it was believed he lived was cleared. This led to the notorious Glenveagh evictions, whereby "Twenty-eight houses were unroofed or levelled; 46 houses evicted; 47 families, comprising 37 husbands, 35 wives, 159 children, 13 other inmates, making a total of 244 persons", rendered homeless.

In 1862 the conditions of poor relief were greatly modified by an Act passed in accordance with the recommendations of a committee appointed in 1861 to enquire into the Irish Poor Law system.

The treasonous plottings of the Fenians or Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood about this time (1865) assumed alarming proportions. The association was organized in the United States, and drew its chief strength from beyond the Atlantic. Possessed of a secret machinery of passwords and oaths, it aimed at the separation of Ireland from the British Crown. Money was raised, midnight drills were held, the artisans and peasantry were induced to take the oath, and an insurrection was fast ripening when an informer handed in a letter written by James Stephens, a "Head centre", in which the writer declared that "This year . . . the flag of the Irish Republic must be raised". The Lord-Lieutenant, Lord Wodehouse, immediately took action and suddenly seized some of the ring-leaders in the office of the Irish People in Dublin. A Special Commission tried the prisoners, who were sentenced to various terms of penal servitude.

Early in 1866 it was found necessary to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act in Ireland—a step which had the effect of driving the American adventurers out of the country; but arms and money continued to pour into Ireland from the States. A slight rising in March, 1867, was easily quelled by the Royal Irish Constabulary. By the beginning of 1868 the violent phase of Fenianism was nearly at an end. In February the failure of the Earl of Derby's health caused the elevation of Disraeli to the position of Prime Minister. The other prominent members of the Conservative Government were Lord Stanley, who was Foreign Secretary, Sir Stafford Northcote, Indian Secretary, and Sir Hugh (afterwards Earl) Cairns, who became Lord Chancellor. Mr. Gladstone now moved a series of resolutions declaring the disestablishment of the Irish Church to be just and necessary. The first and most important resolution was carried by a large majority. There were many arguments against disestablishment urged both within and without Parliament. Towards the end of the struggle, when the inevitable result was foreseen, loud were the threats of the Orange Association: "If ever they dare", said the Rev. Mr. Flanagan, "to lay unholy hands upon the Church, 200,000 Orangemen will tell them it never shall be. . . . Protestant loyalty must make itself understood. People will say, 'Oh, your loyalty is conditional.' I say it is conditional, and it must be explained as such. . . . We must speak out boldly and tell our gracious Queen that if she break her oath, she has no longer any claim to the crown." That the clergyman just quoted was not alone in his opinions may be seen from the rhetoric employed by the Rev. Nash Griffin, who declared that the Protestants "would not suffer themselves to be robbed of their blood-bought rights. They were animated by the same spirit as broke the boom, as closed the gates of Derry; by the same spirit as chased the craven followers of James like timid sheep into the Boyne; and if one of the two parties should go to the wall, it would not be the Protestants." Such was the language employed. " In short," says Mr. G. P. Macdonell (not the least brilliant of the essayists on Irish history) in words written in 1907, "Great Britain appeared to be on the brink of a bloody war with Ulster."

Parliament was dissolved in November. The general election placed Gladstone in power, and on the 1st of March, 1869, he introduced a Bill for the disestablishment and dis-endowment of the Church of Ireland. After long and fierce debate it was read a third time in the House of Commons by 361 votes to 247. Modifications were made in accordance with amendments carried in the House of Lords, and the Bill passed into law on the 26th of July. The provisions included compensation for the Regium Donum and other payments to Nonconformists. Thus was settled "the most beneficial and healing measure which could possibly be passed for the United Kingdom in general and for Ireland in particular".

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