HC Deb 15 May 1822 vol 7 cc597-604
Mr. S. Cooper

presented a petition from the high sheriff and land proprietors of Sligo, complaining of a claim recently set up in the county of Connaught to tithe upon potatoes; no such claim having ever before been asserted in that quarter of Ireland. The calamity of which it complained was likely to be a terrible one; and all parties were interested in alleviating it, if possible. A great portion of the disturbances in Ireland might be traced to the imposition of a tithe upon the potatoe; and the attempt to introduce that system into a province not yet afflicted with it, would extend that which now was a partial state of tumult, over the entire face of the country. The dispute, out of which the present petition arose, would have been amicably settled, if the bishop had not set his face against it.

Mr. Abercromby

thought that the subject must recommend itself to every man of feeling and humanity. He believed that the assertion of the claim complained of would be likely to extend the evil now operating in the south of Ireland. He trusted that the House would refuse to sanction the tithe now asserted, unless compelled to do so by the irresistible force of law; and, if the claim was really founded in law, he hoped that government would instantly interpose between the clergy and the petitioners. The Irish peasant, paying 6l. or 7l. for his acre of potatoe-land, derived already very slender return for the labour which he bestowed upon it. He was compelled, at any rent, to have the land, for his very means of existence were to come out of it. Neither wisdom, perhaps, nor providence, was the distinguishing feature of his character; but persons more wise, more careful, and more provident, might find themselves embarrassed, when compelled for very life to endure extortion. It was upon his potatoe garden that the Irish peasant depended absolutely for food. The raiment, wretched as it was, which he bestowed upon himself and upon his family, used to come out of the wheat; but, in the present state of the provision market, that resource was annihilated. The hon. gentleman then adverted to some proceedings which had taken place under the insurrection act of Ireland. In the county of Cork, a boy had been tried for resisting a driving for tithes; when the lad was aware that, at the very moment of seizure, his master was gone to meet the clergyman at the market-town. That same clergyman, in the course of 15 years, had issued no less than 6,000 processes to enforce payment of his tithes. He did not state those facts with any view to prejudice the clergy, but merely for the information of the House.

Sir J. Newport

looked upon the potatoe-tithe as a dreadful scourge, and firmly believed that those who attempted to in-force it, would have to combat tumult and insurrection. The demand of that tithe was accompanied with circumstances unlike those attending the exaction of any other. The potatoe was the daily food of the peasant. Very early in the season he was frequently compelled to resort to it for subsistence. But, if he took only a part of his early potatoes for the daily sustenance of himself and his family, that taking was in law held a severance, and he was that moment at the mercy of the clergyman or of the lay impropriator. If the House could imagine one half the calamities which the demand of this tithe would cast upon a part of Ireland not yet afflicted by it, it could not for a moment hesitate interfere. Let compensation, if necessary, be made for the claim; but let it be abandoned, never to be revived. He had no terms to express his abhorrence of that man's conduct who could introduce it.

Mr. Goulburn

rose to explain some circumstances connected with this petition. He would say nothing as to the general discretion of urging the claim of potatoe tithe at the present moment in the province of Connaught; but much might be said in palliation and in justification of the individual whose act had given rise to the petition. The facts of the case were these. A gentleman in the county of Sligo, who for some years worked a farm of 200 acres, having other lands in the same parish occupied by under tenants, agreed with the clergyman to pay a compensation of 8l. or 10l. per annum for the tithes of wool and lambs. In the course of years, this gentleman, thinking it advisable to take a larger portion of his land into his own hands, increased his own farm from 200 acres to 1,000; but he still declared that he would only pay the clergyman the 8l. or 10l. annually for the wool and lambs. All appeal to the gentleman's candour proving vain, the clergyman was compelled to institute a suit for the recovery of his right; and, very unfortunately, he was advised by his counsel to include the claim for potatoetithe for one special purpose; namely, to reimburse himself in the costs to which he would be subjected by process at law, even if his suit were successful. Such a proceeding had naturally excited some alarm; but he appealed to the House whether the clergyman was to blame. The cause, however, did not go at once to issue. The gentleman finding that his refusal was not tenable, offered to pay the wool and lamb tithe. But then, the clergyman naturally said—"I am entitled to the costs you have put me to; give me my costs, I will give up my suit, and I ask no more." The clergyman's claim for costs had been resisted, and therefore the suit for the potatoes continued. Now, if the clergyman had been indiscreet in enforcing such a demand, he had been driven to the measure by the fault of his opponent. But he (Mr. G.) denied that the bishop had in any way recommended the enforcement of the claim. He stated, upon the authority of the bishop himself, that he had been no party either to the institution or to the continuance of the suit. He understood that a negotiation for amicable arrangement was going on between the parties; and he wished to avoid any observations by which the existing differences might be inflamed. Because a clergyman instituted a variety of suits, it did not therefore follow that he should be chargeable with a litigious spirit. Every man who knew the state of Ireland, knew the difficulty which existed in getting tithes at all. The land was generally let at a rent exceeding its value. The leases were so framed with clauses for duties performed and articles furnished, that the landlord had the first opportunity of claiming his due. Then came the clergyman after the land was stripped, to lose his right altogether, or to take process at law as the last hope of obtaining it.

Mr. Hume

said, that at the request of the right hon. gentleman, he had postponed his motion respecting Irish tithes. He feared, however, that if the matter was left to the gentlemen opposite, the session would pass over without any thing being done in it; and he therefore gave notice that, in the first week of June, he would himself bring the subject fairly before the House.

Mr. Spring

Rice said, that this was a petition, not from one individual but from the county of Sligo, complaining of the existence of a suit at law tending to establish in that part of Ireland, the potatoetithe system, which did not before exist there. From the statement of both sides of the House, they learned that there was a practice in Ireland, of taxing the material article of potatoes betwixt the hand and the lip; that the tithe proctor interposed betwixt the hand and lip of the grower and consumer. They had also learnt that this practice was not universal in that country, and it remained for the House to determine whether it would allow so odious a system to be spread throughout the whole of Ireland. It was not from remissness that himself and his hon. friends had omitted to call the attention of the House to this important subject; but, in fact, they had been waiting in daily expectation of hearing ministers come forward with some proposition on the subject. He assured them that he would rather that the tithe for potatoes was inflicted on the Protestant landlord than on the Catholic population.

Mr. Denis Browne

thought, that the House must see the necessity of relieving the petitioners. If nothing were done by the legislature on the subject of this petition, he would himself renew the question in some shape or another.

Mr. Goulburn

said, he had a measure to submit to the House on the subject of the Irish tithe system, which he hoped to be able to bring forward in time to anticipate the motion of the hon. member for Aberdeen.

Mr. Plunkett

said, he should deal uncandidly with the House, if he did not take that opportunity of stating, that after all the reflexion which he had given this question, he was unable to see his way clearly through all the difficulties which surrounded the subject. With respect to this tithe on potatoes, what might be the rights of the clergy to it in some districts, and not in others—how to distinguish the one from the other—appeared to him to be no easy task. On the subject of the commutation which had been talked of, he could not see how it could be entertained without infringing upon the general rights of property. If the property of the clergy could be so regulated, why not that of the landlords? Whether any particular remedies could be devised to meet particular evils, he was most anxious to discover; at all events, he thought the House must feel how unsuitable it was, on the presentation of a petition, to embark in a discussion so large and so important. Whether any thing could or could not be done to remedy the evil, was a question well worth their attention; but it was one which ought to be approached with the greatest caution, and legislated upon in the total absence of all angry and vindictive feeling. With respect to the potatoetithe to which an hon. gentleman meant to call the attention of the House, he would only ask whether the hon. gentleman had made up his mind to extend that tithe generally under some modifications, in the parts where it was not claimed before, or whether his object was to abolish the claim altogether? It had been said, that the pressure upon the Irish peasantry, had not arisen from a demand for heavy rents, but from tithes. Now there, again, he should not deal fairly with the House, if he did not declare his opinion, that much of the evil arose from the heavy exaction of rent, and not of tithes. If the landlords of Ireland were not prepared to lower their rents, in vain would any relief be sought through a commutation of tithes. The situation of the clergy was in many places peculiarly distressing in Ireland. After the landlord had levied every thing for his rent, the clergyman came in to deal with an insolvent tenant, and had either to give up his claim, or proceed in a hostile manner for his payment.

Sir N. Colthurst

hoped, that the great question of tithes in Ireland would be submitted to the consideration of parliament. Of one thing he was convinced, namely, that the landlords of Ireland would be found ready to co-operate in any measure which should appear calculated to relieve the people.

Mr. Dawson

said, that whenever the question of tithes came under the consideration of parliament, it would be found that the clergy had acted with the greatest forbearance and moderation; and that much of the misery complained of was attributable to the rapacity of landlords.

Mr. Becher

said, that this description did not apply to the character of the landlords in the south of Ireland. He knew them to be as ready as any set of men could be, to reduce their claims to meet the necessities of the times. He did not complain of the clergy; for they never received their tenth. It was the acts of the tithe-proctor that inflicted oppression upon the people; and the sooner the House investigated the whole question the better. The people of England were not generally aware of the arduous duties which were thrown on the Irish landlords. They were obliged, in their capacity of magistrates, to act the part of police officers for the maintenance of tranquillity; and he knew them in many instances to forego their rents altogether. In the district with which he was immediately connected, the conduct of both clergy and landlords was exemplary.

Sir H. Parnell

denied, that the distress was imputable to the exaction of the Irish landlords. He would undertake to say, when the compact between the landlord and tenant was fully investigated, that his right hon. friend's observation would be utterly disproved.

Col. Trench

said, he had heard with regret, that the attorney-general for Ireland, was not prepared to propose such a commutation of tithes as would sustain the just rights of the church, and effect the general tranquillity of the country.

Mr. Martin,

of Galway, said, he could see no excuse for any clergyman who exacted his tithe in the manner mentioned in the petition. This tithe on potatoe-ground was a great hardship, and the claim was new. The tenant in his bargain with his landlord could always calculate upon the other tithes, and consider them in his terms; but he could not guard against the potatoe-tithe; for of the existence of such a claim he was unapprised when he made his bargain. Certainly there ought to be no tithe on potatoes, where such a claim was not pre-existing.

Colonel Butler

defended the Irish landlords, and maintained that they did not deserve the imputations which had been cast upon them. Many of them did not get a shilling in rent.

Mr. Curteis

said, that if a relaxation in tithes was adopted in Ireland, he must put in the claim of the people of England for an extension of the same indulgence, seeing that they wanted it quite as much.

Mr. Grattan

denied, that there was any similarity whatever in the condition of the peasantry of the two countries, and protested against the doctrine, that the clergy of Ireland were poor, and the landlords extortioners. On the contrary, the clergy were very rich; and the landlords were every year losing a large share of their property. The collection of tithes was in Ireland the never-ending source of conflict; and the sooner the subject was considered the better. The tithe on potatoes ought unquestionably to be done away with.

Mr. Hutchinson

also denied that there was any similarity, as to the question of tithes, between England and Ireland. He had visited different countries, in and out of Europe: he had often seen distressed and oppressed communities; but, in the course of his life, he had never seen any thing half so deplorable, as the distress that now existed, in the southern and western parts of Ireland. One grievance was the tithe question; and there were thousands of poor Irish who each held an acre or half an acre in potatoes, and were liable to this intolerable tax. A peasant, with a wife, and six children, even if employed every working day in the year, could only hope to obtain potatoes and water for his family—rarely a little milk—and as to animal food, it was totally out of the question. After this scanty and wretched produce of his labour, and after the landlord and the clergyman took their share, nothing hardly remained for clothing or education—no depth of privation could leave, a surplus for such purposes. Where in England could such a state of misery be found? He agreed that in looking at the condition of Ireland, no small part of the misery prevailing there might be traced, not only to absentee proprietors, but also to resident holders of land. He was very sorry to hear the right hon. gent. (Mr. Plunkett) hold out so hopeless a prospect of relief; for until this important question was thoroughly examined and settled, there could be no permanent peace or tranquility in Ireland.

Sir J. Newport

denied, that all these distresses, and the consequent insurrections, originated in the exactions of the Irish landlords. The great cause of the insubordination which the demand for tithes so frequently called forth, was the system itself. So far back as George 2nd the legislature had found it necessary to guard the people of Ireland against excessive demands for tithe on articles theretofore not deemed titheable. It was now the duty of the legislature, to prevent the calamities to which the existing state of things must lead. He was the last man in the world, to deprive the clergy of any thing, to which they were justly entitled; but he would tell his right hon. friend, that commutation of tithes implied the abolition of such as had not been clearly and lawfully sanctioned. The great root of the evil was to be traced to the manner in which the tithe system, especially as regarded potatoes, was carried on.

Ordered to lie on the table.