HC Deb 06 October 1831 vol 8 cc134-42
Lord Ingestrie

presented a Petition from forty beneficed Clergymen of the diocese of Leighlin and Ferns, complaining of the difficulty they felt, in the collection of their Tithes, and praying that some redress might be afforded them. The right of the clergy to their tithes was as strong and as well-founded as that of the right of any gentleman to his landed property. There was a combination in some parts of Ireland against the payment of tithe, and although he knew the difficulty attending the general question of tithes, still he thought, that the Government were bound to provide for the execution of the law with respect to their collection. He did not mean to detract from the merits of the Catholic clergy; but he must say, that, the recent attack of the hon. Member (Mr. Sheil) upon the Protestant Clergy of Ireland was undeserved and unjust. The Protestant clergy discharged their spiritual duties in the most exemplary manner, and all the petitioners required was, that they should be supported in the maintenance of their just and lawful rights.

Colonel Conolly

had been requested to support the prayer of this petition, and he did so with the utmost cordiality. These respectable petitioners would gladly forego a considerable portion of their legal rights in order to secure the remainder; but in consequence of the combination to resist the payment of tithes, the petitioner, were reduced to the greatest difficulty and distress. That this system prevailed in the county of Kilkenny he could state of his own knowledge. The conduct of the Protestant clergy was marked with the most Christian forbearance, and yet they were stigmatized by a party in such language as must shock the ears of decency and humanity. The system of combination was rapidly extending in Ireland, and if the landed proprietors stood quietly by, while the property of the Church was spoliated, he could assure them that their own properties would be no longer safe. He attributed much of this combination to the writings of Dr. Doyle, which had almost sanctified it. He asked if such a state of things could last? They had now a most abundant harvest in Ireland, and yet the Protestant clergy could not obtain their rights, nor even a moderate portion of them: in fact, they could not go upon the farms to ascertain what portion of income they might derive for their sustenance.

Sir John Newport

said, as the difficulty was complained of by the hon. Member, why did he not suggest some remedy? The clergy had the power of distraining for non-payment of tithes, and they exercised it; but there was no law to compel the purchase of such cattle or corn as might be distrained. The great objectors to tithe were Protestants of rank and station, and not the poorer Catholics, so that the blame should attach to the high in station and wealth rather than to the Catholic tenants, who paid rack-rents. It was well known that on potatoes in the north of Ireland tithes were not paid, while the people were compelled to pay them in the south. And it should not be forgotten that a public meeting was held in the north-west of Ireland some time ago, at which it was determined by the gentry to resist the payment of the tithe upon hay. However, he would in no degree justify any thing in the shape of combination, while he feared that the conduct of many of the clergy, in strictly insisting upon their rights, had excited a considerable feeling of hostility against them. He sincerely felt for the privations of the clergy; at the same time he was convinced, that if the Tithe Composition Act had been more generally agreed to, much of these inconveniences would have been obviated.

Mr. William Peel

said, that if Church property was not protected in Ireland every other species of property would be insecure. He had been but a short time in Ireland, but while he was there he could bear testimony to the exemplary conduct of the Protestant clergy.

Mr. Blackney

was of opinion, that the Government was not called upon to entertain the prayer of this petition, on the ground that the clergy, by their own conduct, incurred the ill-will of the people, and drove them to resist the payment of their tithes. The system of collecting the tithes by means of their proctors was most vexatious and oppressive; and the conduct of many of the clergy, and more especially of many of those holding his Majesty's commission of the peace, was derogatory to their sacred calling, and calculated to destroy all respect towards them in the minds of the people. Many of the people were unable—utterly unable as was well known—to pay the full amount of tithes; yet they were willing to pay as much as was in their power, and frequently made overtures to the clergy to make abatements in their tithes, but, with very few exceptions, those overtures were spurned by the clergy, and their dues exacted to the uttermost. Instead of showing any kindly feeling towards the people, they not unfrequently did every thing to excite them to discontent and opposition.

Mr. James E. Gordon

considered that the non-payment of tithes could be traced to the influential writings of Dr. Doyle, who expressed a hope 'that the hatred of the people to tithes would be as lasting as their love of justice.' The Catholic clergy under Dr. Doyle acted upon his advice, and told their flocks to swear their children against the payment of tithes. These appeals produced the combination against the Protestant clergy; and it was high time for the Government, and for that House, to interfere for the protection of the oppressed, and he would say—severely oppressed Protestant clergy.

Mr. Henry Grattan

said, he would not prolong this discussion, but he must state, that the poor farmers in Ireland felt greatly aggrieved by the payment of tidies. He knew many instances of persons being put to considerable expense for the recovery of very small sums. The Protestant clergy had, in the south of Ireland, little or nothing to do except on the Sundays; and under such circumstances they should not be too strict in their exactions. He wished that the Tithe Composition Act was more generally called into use, for he knew that whatever charges might be made against the Catholics for not paying tithes, they had less reluctance to pay them than many influential Protestants, at least in his part of the country.

Mr. Lefroy

regretted to say, that a strong combination had for a long time been getting up against, the payment of tithes. It was not set on foot by the tenants, but by those who had an object in view, and who, looking to their own advantage, made such statements and disseminated so many malicious and plausible doctrines, that the poor peasantry fell a prey to their designs, and refused to pay their tithes. Amongst the numerous publications which were calculated to cause great injury and dissension, and were of the most reprehensible nature, was a letter addressed by a distinguished Irish prelate to a member of his Majesty's Government, in which the peasants were almost encouraged to resist the law enacting the payment of tithes in Ireland. That Prelate said, 'The Irish people, since their first conversion to the Christian faith, always understood rightly the gospel dispensation. They were always too rational and too acute to submit willingly to an unreasonable—I might add an unjust—imposition; and the law of tithe, whether civil or ecclesiastical, has never had, either in Catholic or Protestant times—no not to the present hour—the assent or consent of the Irish nation; they have been always at war with it, and I trust in God they will never cheerfully submit to it. It was imputed to them as a crime by Giraldus Cambrensis, that they had never paid tithe, and would not pay tithe, notwithstanding the laws which enjoined such payment; and now, at the end of 600 years, they are found to persevere with increased obstinacy in their struggles to cast off this most obnoxious impost. There are many noble traits in the Irish character, mixed with failings which have always raised obstacles to their own well-being; but an innate love of justice, and an indomitable hatred of oppression, which no darkness can obscure. To this fine quality I trace their hatred of tithe; may it be lasting as their love of justice.' He could not but say, that the connection of the Ministers in this way with a person who was a decided partisan, did not go far to add to the respect due to their station. He should have thought that Government would have taken the case of the petitioners, and others similarly situated, in to hand, and by a prompt arrangement, prevented such an example as some parishes had given, being generally followed.

Mr. George Dawson

was sorry to say, that a combination existed amongst a large body of persons in Ireland, and that the parishioners, in many places, were afraid to pay their tithes. They were perfectly willing to do so—they acknowledged the right that was entailed upon them to comply with the law; but they were too much intimidated to act up to what they acknowledged was right. He had known instances in which the tenants had paid tithes in secret to the clergyman, and begged of him, as the greatest favour which he could grant, not to mention the circumstance, for fear it should reach the ears of parties who would take care to vent their vengeance upon them. He sincerely hoped that the right hon. Secretary for Ireland would deem it his duty to stand up in his place and declare that the Government was inimical to the illegal proceedings which took place in Ireland. He must declare that the characters of the Protestant clergy had been most unjustly assailed; and as to the exorbitant exaction of which they had been accused, he must say, that 2s. 6d. an acre was in general the sum, and not 3s. 6d., which was the maximum. Supposing it were 3s. 6d., how many tithe-payers would be content to pay that sum in England, where he believed, in general, tithes were twice that amount.

Sir John Sebright

considered that 2s. 6d. an acre was no great sum to pay as tithes to the clergy of the Church to which a man himself was attached; but if the Catholic clergy were to make such a demand upon him, he should not approve of it any more than the Catholics did to pay the Protestant clergy.

Mr. Spencer Perceval

said, the question was not whether they liked it, or not, but whether they were not bound by law to pay it.

Mr. Sheil

wondered what hon. Gentlemen who sat opposite required the House or the Government to do. The petitioners complained that they could not obtain the payment of their tithes. Perhaps so; but then they could resort to measures to enforce the payment, either by proceedings in the Courts of law, or by distress. They might rest assured that there would be objections to the payment of tithes, as long as the Catholics remained Catholics, and the clergymen Protestants. The only measure that he could recommend, was to convert the Catholics into Protestants.

Mr. Stanley

said, that he should not have addressed the House, had it not been for the direct appeal which was made to him by the right hon. member for Harwich. It was, in his opinion, unnecessary for any individual holding a responsible situation in the Government, to signify his disapprobation of proceedings, which went to disturb the peace of the country, and resist the authority and execution of the laws of the land. The right hon. Gentleman well knew, and it was agreed on all hands, that as far as the assistance of Government could be given, it had been afforded. It had stretched the power it possessed to the fullest extent; it had even gone beyond that power in some instances, by employing that constabulary force which was not intended to levy tithes, whenever the least violence or disturbance was threatened. In all such cases the Government would make use of the powers with which it was invested. But what was it that the petitioners required? They came forward, and after stating a case, the hardship of which he did not wish to underrate, asked the Government to do that which was not in its power, without the assistance of the Legislature. The petitioners requested the Government to make the Tithe Composition Act compulsory on all parishes which refused to pay tithes. It was possible the Legislature might at length deem it proper to take that step, but he thought it would be better not to do so until the last moment, as agreements and arrangements between the parties concerned were far preferable to compulsory Acts of Parliament. The next prayer of the peti ioners was one which certainly was not in the power of the Go- vernment. It required Government to pass an Act whereby landlords should be obliged to pay the tithes, which they could afterwards obtain from the tenants, by making an addition to the rent. He did not say, that it would not be a better way to avoid, if possible, all collision between the tenants and clergymen, but he must say, that such an arrangement would not be relished by the Irish landowners; and without the consent of the Irish Members such an arrangement could not be made. He concluded by expressing the readiness with which Government would always assist those who demanded its aid, and its conviction that so important a measure as the introduction of the extended operation of the Tithe Composition Act, which was in force in some places, would require more consideration than could be given to it on a discussion arising from the presenting a petition.

Mr. Walker

said, he must, deny, that up to the present meeting of Parliament, when he had left Ireland, there was any illegal combination or opposition to the payment of tithes. He knew there was a strong and natural repugnance in the minds of many Catholics to pay them, and he knew there were frequent extortions on the other side. He also knew, that the costs attending the recovery of tithes were the source of much ill feeling. In many instances the Protestant clergy resorted to the most expensive Courts for their recovery, and by that means terrified the unfortunate payers into submission to their demands. As to the amount of tithes on land that must depend entirely upon its quality, the manner of its tillage, and the amount of its produce.

Mr. Goulburn

said, there were among those who had signed the petition men of the most respectable character in the country, and the statement was, therefore, entitled to the most serious consideration. The subject should be fairly discussed, in order that some measure might be devised in order to put an end to the disgraceful scenes which had recently taken place.

Lord Ingestrie

, in moving, that the petition be printed, took occasion to observe, that the Courts of Law were of little use to the petitioners, in consequence of the expense attendant on all proceedings for the recovery of tithes, and some of the machinery belonging to the Tithe Composition Act would not work.

Colonel Trench

said, the hon. Member (Mr. Walker) had brought vague charges of oppression against the Protestant clergy relating to the payment of tithes, and he also affirmed that there was no combination to resist their payment in that part of the country to which he belonged; in opposition to which he (Colonel Trench) must say, that he also knew the state of that part of Ireland, and could affirm, that many of the clergy had abstained from having recourse to the law, although they had two years arrears of tithes due, and he also knew other instances where they were paid in secret.

Mr. Walker

said, one case of fact he would mention in justification of his remark. The gentlemen of Wexford had advertised a premium for the best crop of mangel wurzel; a farmer in the parish of Clonmore, which paid rectorial tithes to the Bishop of Ferns, tried the experiment of a crop, and the Bishop immediately demanded tithe for it. The farmer remonstrated, and his Lordship instead of citing him before the Magistrates, where the costs would be only 6d. or before the Ecclesiastical Courts of the, diocese, where the costs would have been also small comparatively, determined to institute a process in the Court of Exchequer, and the unfortunate farmer, for fear of being ruined by the enormous costs, was compelled to abandon his rights. But before he did so, the costs had amounted to upward of 60l. Now this manner of enforcing payment, even allowing the claim to be just, he called extortion and oppression. Thus was seen the landlords coming forward with premiums to encourage agriculture, and the Church instantly endeavouring to crush improvements by taxing them.

Mr. Spring Rice

said, hon. Members must, indeed, be badly off for arguments when they alluded lo the letter which had been written to him by Dr. Doyle. He could not conceive how those Gentlemen could make him the link between the right reverend Prelate's opinions and the conduct, of the Government to which he had the honour to belong. Was this the first letter that Dr. Doyle had written? Had he not addressed letters to the Earl of Liverpool and the Duke of Wellington respecting the Catholic Emancipation? but no one then insinuated, that because a letter was addressed to an individual, that individual must coincide with the opinions contained in it. He could not refrain from saying, that the late Government had been ap pealed to, day after day, and week after week, for the introduction of that measure, which, if it had been passed in time, would have prevented the evils which were now so much the source of complaint. They had, indeed, the credit of passing that measure, but it was passed too late; he meant too late to enable the unfortunate country to reap those benefits which otherwise it would have reaped.

Petition to be printed.