18 DECEMBER 1880, Page 13



[TO THE EDITOR OF THE "SPECTATOR."] SIR,—Mr. Shaw-Lefevre, speaking on the 8th of this month at Reading on the Irish Question, said he could not be surprised at the movement. If there was any ground for surprise, it was that the movement had not broken out before. He appears by these words, unintentionally, no doubt, to support the contention -of Lord Lansdowne when the Compensation for Disturbance Bill was before the House of Lords. Lord Lansdowne said, " We are not unfamiliar with Irish disaffection, and we have had experience of former periods of disloyalty and disorder in that country, but I do not believe that an epidemic of disloyalty and disorder has yet occurred there so dangerous as that which now affects some portions of Ireland."

It may be worth while to inquire how far it is historically accurate to represent the present agitation as unprecedented. Is it possible to point to any time within the present century in which this movement did not exist ? What is there in it that is new? Is there anything novel in it, except the fact that it is being led as it never was led before ? Has it not only grown to its present proportion because, all burning political griev- ances being eliminated, it has attracted to itself the undivided attention of the Irish people ?

It may be doubted whether even the proportion which it has of late assumed gives to it a new character. In 1814, Peel described twenty counties of Ireland to be in a condition which shows that Ireland was as ripe for a Parnell at that day as it has proved in 1880.

The movement which has been made by Mr. Parnell the lever by which he hopes to effect the separation of Ireland from this country, has smouldered since the Union. It burst out again and again, collaterally with other movements which had definite political aims, only to be smothered on each occasion by an Insurrection Act, or a Peace Preservation Act, or a sus- pension of the Habeas Corpus. That it embodied the lurking master-grievance of the Irish people, they showed by breaking .out into agrarian crime, whenever political agitation fired their spirit.

Half a century ago nothing perplexed the Government in dealing with Ireland so much as the difficulty of determining the relation which agrarian crime bore to political agitation.

To the mind of Peel, it seemed distinctly effect and cause. In 1833 he protested vehemently against making any distinction between "the wretched Whitefeet" and the political agitator. He scouted the idea that an organised political agitation could control popular excesses.

" It must," he said, " administer some great stimulant, it must excite a hope of some great measure of relief. At one time the'Cathelic question will serve its purpose, at another the repeal of the Union, or the destruction of the Church ; but if it should come to pass that excitement cannot be maintained, that the special object to be gained cannot possibly be achieved, then popular excesses will break their bonds, and prove too strong even for political agitation."

But no man knew better what was the real character of those

excesses, and what a "deep-seated evil" was stimulating agrarian crime. It was in 1814, when ho held office, that " combinations " for carrying out what are now the objects of the Land League attracted the attention of the Government. These combinations and their alarming consequences supplied him with his chief argument in support of the proposal of the Government to renew the 1 nsurrection Act which Fox, seventeen years before, had denounced as unjust and impolitic. But in 1797, the Act was aimed at political agitation ; when Peel pro- posed to renew it, it was aimed principally at repressing social disorder. No one can now read the description which he gave to the House of Commons of the state of Ireland, and mistake the identity of the movement of that year with the agrarian move- ment of the present. He described the objects of these combina- tions as being to punish persons " who gave more than the price which they chose to fix upon the land," and " to prevent new tenants from taking land which any person belonging to the combination had given up." He produced a letter from a magistrate of Westmeath, detailing the operations of the " Carders," who were " attacking houses, robbing fire-arms, and swearing the lower orders to obey their rules." They regulated the price of ground set in conacte, the fees and dues payable to the Roman Catholic clergy, and " prevented the old tenants from being turned out of their farms." They tortured or injured the property of those who did not submit to them.

This was the state of things in Ireland, which easily induced Parliament to re-enact a measure by which the magistrates, assisted by a King's Counsel, and exercising jurisdiction in any proclaimed district, might, without summoning a jury, sentence to seven years' transportation any person who could not show good cause for being outside his house between the hours of sunset and sunrise.

How far did this measure, much lauded though its working was, produce a real change in the social condition of Ireland ? Nineteen years afterwards, Sir Robert Peel spoke in favour of

again using coercive measures against Ireland, and in his speech he was led to quote the charge of a learned Judge to an Irish jury,—" Not many months ago, I found a system gaining head of tumultuary array against rights long undisputed, dis- tinctly recognised, and firmly established by law." The White- feet and Blackfeet wero overrunning the country, and, as it was said, " usurping the powers of the State." Parliament is to determine, said Peel, " whether bands of armed ruffians are to be permitted to break open houses by night, to plunder arms, to injure property, to destroy life."

If we are to judge by calendars, the Judges had harder work to perform in those clays of coercion pure and simple than they have now. Sir Robert Peel appealed to a cata- logue of crime, in which he said lay the true answer to objections against coercion. " 196 murders and murder- ous attempts, 194 burning:4, 1,827 burglaries and attacks on houses !" he exclaimed ; " can you deny these facts, and if you cannot, where is your answer to the argument drawn from them ?" (March 1st, 1833.) Yet, on the same occasion, he alluded to "the miserable state of that vast class of farmers who occu- pied less than fifteen acres,"—a misery which was " attributable not to the tithes of the clergy, but to the rent of the landlords." Nearly forty-eight years have passed since these words were spoken. What change—what new " epidemic "—do we now see in the social condition of Ireland ? If anything, there is a marked diminution of crime. To represent this movement as new, is to throw away the experience of three-quarters of a century.—I am, Sir, &c.,

December 10th.