HC Deb 08 February 1832 vol 10 cc66-76
Mr. O'Connell

presented a Petition from the parishioners of Trinity, within Waterford, complaining of the Irish Tithe System, and praying that all church property might be placed in the hands of Government, to be distributed more impartially for the support of religion. The petition was signed by Protestants as well as Catholics, and, he believed, the opinions they expressed were general throughout Ireland. No persons desired that the Protestant clergy should be deprived of their present incomes, but it was the general wish that while the interests of the present holders of Church property were considered, effectual steps should be taken to put an end to the existing system. The poor, undoubtedly, were formerly maintained out of tithes, and the clergy had but one-third of their produce at most for their own uses. The House would be compelled to put an end to the present evils, and the difficulties would be increased by procrastination. In many districts all classes united in the determination to resist the payment of tithes, and for the claimants to enforce the payment, would only add to the mischief. On these grounds, he had heard of the declaration made by a noble Earl in the other House, on the subject of the preservation of the tithe system with surprise. It could never be upheld even by the employment of all the force of the Government. He was sure if force was thus employed, it would fail, for Protestant and Catholic were united against it, and he thought there was insanity in the attempt. The mode of paying the Irish Church had excited feelings of indignation among all classes. Was it endurable that a rector who took 1,200l. or 1,500l. from the pockets of his parishioners, to spend in Surrey, Cheltenham, or Bath, only paid a poor curate who performed all the work of the parish, the miserable pittance of 69l. a-year, and yet such abominations were notorious. He cautioned Government against the obloquy of being thought to sanction such proceedings. If it were to attempt to coerce the whole Irish nation it would surely fail in the attempt.

On the Petition being brought up,

Mr. Weyland

observed, that few persons whatever their religion was, paid tithes or any other demands voluntarily; but, the true question was, whether the persons who demanded the payment had a right to it; at all events, those who resisted the payment had no possible right to withhold it. They had purchased their lands or hired them, with the distinct understanding that they were liable to such a claim. If they were to succeed in getting rid of it, all the advantage would go to the landlord or the consumer. As there was such right, the force to be employed to which the hon. and learned Gentleman alluded, was the legal means placed in the hands of the Government to support a demand sanctioned by the law. The tithes could, under no circumstances, belong to those who now refused to pay them; and when they declared that they were determined not to pay their tithes, they were guilty of something like robbery, for they had recourse to acts of violence to keep that money in their pockets which they knew did not belong to them, but to others. As long, therefore, as the law sanctioned the right, the Government was bound to sustain it. When the withholding of a just demand was backed by violence and murder, to give way was only shewing a weakness which would encourage resistance. The hon. and learned Member's doctrines must not be allowed to go forth without their antidote. With respect to the inadequate payment of the Protestant curates, that was not a question connected with the petition, although it was a subject that well merited inquiry.

Mr. O'Connell

said, the petitioners were calumniated by the hon. Member—[cries of "Spoke"]. He would not be deterred from speaking when he knew that he was right. He contended that there was no violation of the law in Ireland with respect to tithes, for all that the law could do was, in default of payment, to distrain; but the law could not compel any man to purchase the property thus seized. The people of Ireland only required that justice should be done to them in the same manner as it was done to the people of Scotland. The English fought for fifty years to establish an anti-national Church in Scotland. The Scotch swore by the hilts of their broad swords never to yield to the spiritual domination of a Church to which they were opposed; and they took to the hills, and obtained their rights. The Irish, however, yielded; they had suffered, and they now only wished that oppression should cease towards them. As for any one holding out a palliative to murder—as for the insinuation of the hon. Member respecting those who were opposed to the present system—he thought that he might have spared the language he indulged in. The charge against the people was, to say the least of it, ill-timed. The hon. Member ought rather to attack the system that leads to such results, than the poor people who suffer under that system. He regretted the atrocious murder which had lately taken place relative to tithes as much as any man: it was a base assassination. He did not wish to make much allusion to it; but that gentleman did not stand well with his Catholic parishioners. But did the hon. Member know that tithes were originally given—one-third to the poor, another third for the repair of Churches, and the remaining third for the support of the clergymen. Were those who withheld the portion due to the poor, guilty of robbery or not? The tithes were now, however, all placed in the hands of the clergy, and the Catholics had reason to complain that they had been diverted from their original purpose, when they were called upon to pay for the repair of Protestant Churches, instead of a portion of the Church property being appropriated for that purpose. What could be said of a case in which a Protestant rector refused leave to a Catholic priest to read the funeral service over a respectable Catholic at the grave? He knew that the spectators of the same religion must have felt highly indignant at the circumstance. But he would dismiss this part of the subject: it was unpleasant to continue it; and if his expressions were too warm, he begged to apologise for having used them.

Mr. Weyland

said, after the concluding observation of the hon. Member, he would no otherwise reply to the attack which he had made upon him, than by saying he had sufficiently atoned for it.

Mr. Lefroy

denied, that the Protestant clergy in Ireland had been guilty of any wrong in asserting their right to tithes. They were as much entitled to them as the landlord was to his rent. As to the assertion of the hon. and learned Member respecting the apportionment of tithes, and that they were divided into parts of which only one was for the support of the clergyman, he must declare that there was no foundation for that assertion. There was no proof in law that any distinct portion of the tithes was ever appropriated to the repairs of the Church, or the support of the poor, but that they were granted entirely for the decent maintenance of the clergy. There was another subject to which the hon. and learned Member had alluded, which he could not suffer to pass unnoticed. It was that which related to the respectable gentleman who fell a victim to base assassins. That respectable gentleman had always acted in the kindest manner, and there could be no doubt that his being murdered was the result of a deep laid conspiracy throughout many parts of Ireland to resist, the payment of tithes—that system had certainly been a cause of dissention in his parish, owing to the rector, contrary to the opinion of the Archbishop of the diocese, having agreed to take a less sum than their value. That arrangement the Archbishop refused to sanction, and then the rector told his parishioners, if they would agree to the Archbishop's terms, he would take what they pleased to give him for his life, but that at his death they would be liable to pay the full amount. They refused—ill-will ensued—and the result was the deplorable catastrophe which the observations of the hon. and learned Member seemed to palliate. He did not believe, that the hon. and learned Member meant any such thing, but his observations would undoubtedly be so regarded by the peasantry of Ireland. He regretted that one word should have fallen from anybody in excuse or extenuation of that atrocious combination which led to such frightful crimes. He was glad that the Government was at length awakened to a sense of its duty upon this subject; but he must confess he should be better satisfied to see their sincerity proved by their acts than their words.

Mr. Robert Fergusson

was convinced that Ireland would be a scene of discontent and religious strife, until the clergy were paid in another manner: it was impossible, in the present state of society, to maintain a Church Establishment inimical to the feelings of the people. In Scotland these questions relating to tithes could never arise, for the clergyman was paid directly by the landlord, and the Church possessed the attachment and support of the nation.

Mr. Sheil

said, that the member for the University of Dublin had peremptorily, and with all the authoritativeness which belonged to a person of so much authority, denied that tithes were ever divisible into four parts. He (Mr. Sheil) had, on hearing the statement, gone to the library for Blackstone's Commentaries. Let the hon. Gentleman condescend to listen to a passage in vol. i. p. 384: "At the first establishment of the parochial clergy, the tithes of the parish were distributed into a four-fold division—one for the Bishop, another for maintaining the fabric of the Church, a third for the poor, and a fourth for the incumbent." The same position was in Burn's Ecclesiastical Law. What became then of the bold and absolute negative of the hon. Member? The hon. and learned Gentleman was on the Tithe Committee nominated by Government, on account, he presumed, of his impartiality. How did it come to pass that he had hitherto absented himself? Where the interests of the Church were at stake, how could the sublunary concerns of a Court of Equity detain him in Ireland? Would that he had attended the Committee! He would then have got some insight into the state of Ireland; the mists that obscured his judgment, and enveloped his entire faculties with so thick a cloud would have been dispersed. He would have felt, on hearing the evidence, that to talk of new penal Statutes, and of imprisoning a nation for the benefit of religion was preposterous. The hon. member for Dysart (Mr. Fergusson), a Scotchman, had put the question on its real merits. Had not the Irish the same feelings and rights as the Scotch? Look at the Statute abolishing Episcopacy passed in 1689. It was contained in ten lines: it simply declared Episcopacy to be against the inclination of the people, and swept it away; and at the conclusion, the King and Queen declared that the religion of the country must be suited to the feelings of the people. The hon. and learned member for Kerry had referred to the declaration of a noble Earl at the head of his Majesty's Councils made in another place last night. He (Mr. Sheil) lamented, that Ministers did not remember that words uttered by men in office were measures in themselves. But he did not believe it possible, that Ministers intended to sustain the abuses of the Church. On the 6th of May, 1824, the hon. member for Middlesex (Mr. Hume) moved Resolutions to the effect that it was expedient to institute an inquiry into the Church revenues of Ireland, with a view to their reduction. Edward Ellice seconded the Resolution. Thomas Spring Rice and Lord John Russell, and, above all, a man encompassed with lustre, bearing a famous and a venerable name, of equal honour and service to his country—Henry Brougham, voted for the Resolution. From the phrases of the Prime Minister, Ireland should seek a resource in the acts of the Lord Chancellor. A pledge had been given, which policy and honour would compel the Cabinet to redeem.

Mr. Lefroy

said, that not withstanding what had just fallen from the hon. and learned Member, he begged to repeat his assertion that, by law, the only object to which tithe was to be devoted was the support of the clergy. If the hon. and learned Gentleman had looked a little further into Blackstone, he would have found that his (Mr. Lefroy's) assertion was borne out by that able writer.

Mr. Sheil

I really do not know in what part of his works, but will hand the volume which I have before me over to the hon. and learned Gentleman, and should feel obliged if he would correct me, and set the House right upon the law of the question.

Mr. Shaw

would not go into the general question as to the propriety of continuing the present mode of collecting tithes, nor make any allusions to what had fallen from the hon. and learned Gentleman only calculated to keep alive dissension. Nor would he attempt to answer the eloquent apostrophe of the hon. and learned member for Louth, to the venerated character of Lord Chancellor Brougham; he only felt called upon to make an observation relative to the combinations existing in Ireland among the King's subjects, to withhold the payment of tithes, and to resist the execution of the law. He wished the House to consider the consequences of suffering the law of the land to be set at defiance, and the officers of the law to be maltreated, in endeavouring to put it in force. Was it to be tolerated, that a man might be murdered for endeavouring to defend his rights? He must say, that he heard with the greatest regret the language that fell from the hon. and learned member for Kerry; for that, by many of the ignorant persons engaged in these illegal conspiracies, might be considered as a palliative of a most atrocious murder. The language of the hon. and learned Gentleman would not convey such an impression to the minds of men in that House, but such might be its effect on an ignorant peasantry. Could any one think that when an uneducated people were told that they ought to offer every resistance in their power to the collection of tithes, but at the same time not to do anything illegal, that they would pay any attention to the caution? If the ignorant people were excited to resist the law on one point, could they be restrained at pleasure? He must express his regret at the language that had been addressed to the peasantry on the subject of tithes by a Catholic prelate, between whom and the hon. member for Kerry there was now one of those quarrels which so often end in a stronger alliance. It was clear that as tithes were sanctioned by the law, and formed part of the law, if the collection of them was resisted by force, force must be had recourse to, in order to uphold the law. If the House suffered the payment of tithes to be got rid of by such means, the next refusal would be to pay rent and taxes.

Mr. Henry Grattan

was extremely surprised at what fell from the hon. member for the University of Dublin; for undoubtedly the law was, as stated by his hon. and learned friend the member for Louth, so laid down by the first authorities. The present system had its foundation in plunder and robbery, and the people had a right, if the House refused to interfere, to endeavour, by all means in their power, to enforce the application of tithes to the objects for which they were originally designed. The Church of Ireland was a Corporation—the trustee of a certain amount of public property—and the clergy ceased to possess the right to that property when they neglected or violated the conditions of their trust. The Protestant hierarchy of Ireland had violated the conditions on which they were invested with tithes, inasmuch as they had appropriated to their own exclusive use, property which, according to the institution and law of tithes, ought to be devoted to the maintenance of the poor, and to the repairs of the Church, as well as for the support of the ministers of that Church. If the hon. and learned Member would refer to the Act 32 Henry 8th, chap. 3, he would find that to be the case. But long before that time, when tithes were first adopted, this rule was rigorously acted upon. If the hon. and learned Gentleman would refer to the first Capitulaire of Charlemagne, who first gave tithes to the clergy of the Christian Church, he would find that great monarch expressly states the objects to be that one-fourth part should go to the poor, the second fourth to the Church, the third fourth to the Bishop, and the last to the clergy. Blackstone put the clergy first, and the poor last, but he evidently acknowledged the authority of this law. Again, the Bull of Pope Innocent 3rd, about 1200, which was a decretal to the Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke of tithes as a voluntary payment for the purposes just stated. To prove that this was always considered to be the old law of this country, he would only refer to the second of Coke's Institutes, in his Commentaries on the Statutes relative to tithes; and also to Comyn's Digest. The hon. and learned Member would also find it stated in the Chronicle written in the time of Alfred, in the account of what is called the fœdus Edwardi et Guthrumni; and again it is stated in the Legis Canuti. The 7th of Richard 2nd, too, recognized tithes to be for the maintenance of the poor, as well as of the clergy. That Act was referred to and confirmed in several subsequent Acts, for instance, the 14th Henry 4th; 15th Edward 4th; 39th Henry 6th; 32nd Henry 8th. What, then, was the case in Ireland? Tithes were not known in Ireland until the reign of Henry 2nd. After they were established, the produce was long devoted to the relief of the poor, as well as the support of the clergy. What ground, then, had the hon. and learned member for the University of Dublin, to assert that tithes were never appropriated to any other object than the decent support of the clergy? He admitted that, according to the existing Acts of Parliament, there was a legal obligation upon the Catholic peasantry of Ireland to pay tithes, but there was no moral obligation. The Church of Ireland had been guilty of an usurpation, and a more mischievous system of misappropriation and injustice never existed than in the Irish tithe system. Property in tithes was different from other property. Landowners did not, like the impropriators of tithes, hold their property from the law, but under the law. The tithes, however, were taken away from a class to which they were originally given, and shamefully devoted to other purposes. Such abominable laws as those connected with tithes in Ireland were never in force even in the worst days of the Roman empire—they were written in characters of blood, and more fit for the inhabitants of Barbary, than for a people calling themselves a nation of freemen. The tithe system had been the cause of nearly all the crimes and outrages that had been committed in Ireland. To that we were indebted for the Whiteboys and other similar lawless Associations. Arthur Young expressly imputed the origin of Whiteboys to the tithe system. The House had too long neglected its duty by suffering such disgraceful laws to continue in the Statute Book; and the blood of Archdeacon Whitty might be traced to the door of that House. The moral responsibility rested on the Legislature. Under the circumstances of the case, he was not surprised that combinations should take place, and outrages be committed. In cases connected with the tithe-law the question was not tried by a Jury, but the matter was left to the decision of two Magistrates, who were, very generally, clergymen, or the connexions of clergymen. It was too much, then, to expect that an ignorant and a starving peasantry should remain quiet and see the necessaries of life taken from them by the tithe proctor, and their children left to starvation. At present the rental of the glebe land in Ireland amounted to more than the expense of the whole judicial establishment in that country. He would not say that the Church Establishment was a bloated mass of corruption, but it possessed more wealth than it ought. He hoped that the House had been misinformed as to what occurred in another place, and that some effectual measure would be brought forward by the Government to reform the present system.

Mr. Callaghan

said, the present opposition to the payment of tithes was, not the first which had occurred in Ireland. In 1735, the Irish Parliament abolished the tithe of agistment, and outlawed those who assisted to recover them. Many of the Protestant clergy were in great distress, and he knew they were most anxious for the House to come to some arrangement respecting their rights. He had received information from friends of his in Ireland, stating that the tithes could never again be collected there.

Mr. Gillon

expressed a hope that Englishmen would be awakened to their rights, and resist by all constitutional and legal means, a system so absurd and unjust as the exaction of tithes. He most heartily congratulated his own countrymen (the Scotch) that they had abolished such a pernicious system, and the consequence was, that they had a church which was universally respected by the people.

Mr. Cresset Pelham

said, that when the Tithe Composition Act was passed, it was expected, on all sides, that it would pacify Ireland. He regretted to say, that every measure passed with that view only led to greater violence and turbulence.

Sir Robert Peel

said, that, in justice to the Executive Government, he must protest against these attempts to prejudge the measures which they had announced upon so important a question. He implored Members to suspend their opinion until the details of the evidence given before the Committee they had appointed should be in their hands. If, after that evidence bad been produced, the Government should think itself called upon to enforce the law, he should feel it his duty to give it his cordial support.

Sir Charles Wetherell

concurred in what had fallen from his right hon. friend, and trusted that the noble Lord opposite would confirm a statement made in another place as to the determination of Government.

Mr. Ruthven

said, he must take that opportunity to assure the House that there would be no peace in Ireland until the tithe system was totally abolished there, and he trusted the people of England would not be deceived upon such an important point.

Lord Ebrington

said, he hoped the Ministers would not have recourse to any system of coercion to enforce the payment of tithes, unless they accompanied such a course of proceeding with some conciliatory measure, which would be likely to settle the question satisfactorily to both parties. When he spoke of the question being satisfactorily settled, he did not mean an abolition of tithes without some fair adequate adjustment. For the sake of the peace and safety of the country, the question ought to be brought to a settlement.

The Petition laid on the Table.