HC Deb 28 June 1836 vol 34 cc1004-10
Mr. Dillon Browne

presented a petition from John Byrne, complaining of the conduct of James Cuffe, of Creagh, a magistrate and deputy-lieutenant of the county of Mayo. The petitioner alleged that he was a native of that county, and was following his occupation as a ballad singer, when he was arrested by Mr. Cuffe, and committed to gaol by him and other magistrates. He therefore prayed for an inquiry into the circumstances of his case, and" that the House would adopt such measures as would prevent a similar violation of the rights of the subject.

Colonel Perceval

said, before he adverted to the charges contained in the petition, he must beg leave to thank the hon. Member for the courtesy he had shown in postponing the presentation of the petition at an earlier period, and also for his having given him notice of his intention of presenting it that day. The petition was from an individual, calling himself a native of the county of Mayo, whereas he is a ballad singer, residing in Pill-lane, in the city of Dublin. This person brought charges against Mr. Cuffe, a magistrate and deputy-lieutenant of the county of Mayo—he accused him, in the first place, of having deprived him of his liberty without just cause, and also of unjustly depriving him of his property. He had had the pleasure of Mr. Cuffe's acquaintance for thirty years, and he could take upon himself to say, that Mr. Cuffe was incapable of acting unjustly towards any individual. The facts of the case were simply these:—Mr. Cuffe went into the town of Ballinasloe on the day in question, and found this Byrne, to whom the epithet of "a missionary of mischief" might with more justice be applied than it had been to a respected friend of his by the noble Lord opposite—Mr. Cuffe found this man in the market-place surrounded by a large mob, to whom he was singing ballads of a treasonable nature. Mr. Cuffe cautioned him against pursuing such a course, and told him that if he continued so to disturb the market and irritate the minds of the people, he would, for that day, at least, keep him quiet. Mr. Cuffe proceeded to another part of the town, and on his return in an hour afterwards, he found Byrne similarly occupied, and, in order to preserve the peace, he committed him. Mr. Cuffe, before committing him, again remonstrated with Byrne, but he openly declared his determination to continue to sing these treasonable ballads, in spite of the magistrate. Mr. Cuffe finding him so resolved, called to a constable, and desired him to take the man to the Bridewell, and directed him to have Byrne detained until the market business should be over, and to let him be discharged at seven o'clock, and at that hour he was accordingly liberated. In the observations which he had to make, he should not put forward any statement that was not supported by affidavits and certificates. He held in his hand the affidavit of the constable who took the man into custody, and of the bridewell-keeper; he had also the certificate of the chief constable as to the conduct of the petitioner. The constable who took the man into custody swears "that he was outside the Court-house, in the market-place of Ballinasloe, and that he there saw a man named Byrne, who had collected a large mob about him, and was singing ballads of a political character, very likely to inflame the minds of the persons about him." The petitioner charged Mr. Cuffe with having deprived him of his property; but the constable positively swore "that Mr. Cuffe did not take from Byrne any of the ballads, nor did he desire this deponent to do so, nor did this deponent tale any of them." The bridewell-keeper had also made an affidavit, and he swore that Mr. Cuffe did not take any ballads from Byrne, nor did Byrne complain or allege that Mr. Cuffe had done so. The bridewell-keeper further swore that he purchased some of those ballads which, on reading, he conceived to be in language calculated to create riot. There was another circumstance connected with this petition, to which he should briefly advert. A certificate was appended to the petition. signed by six Roman Catholic clergymen, verifying the truth of the statements contained in the petition. [Mr. Browne: He had detached the certificate from the petition.] But the priests had signed a certificate as to the truth of the statements contained in the petition, notwithstanding they had no means of knowing whether they were there or no. The bridewell-keeper swore that he had read a copy of the memorial of Byrne to the House of Commons, with the names affixed to it of several Roman Catholic clergymen—none of whom, with the exception of the rev. James Machale and the rev. Peter Hughes, came that day to the bridewell. The House would see that only two out of the six were competent to speak of their own knowledge of the transaction. The House would bear in mind that the bridewell-keeper had sworn that the language in which these ballads were couched was of such a nature as was calculated to create riot; and yet for the honest and conscientious discharge of his duty in preventing a riot, a respectable magistrate was to be dragged before the public, his motives misrepresented, and charges preferred against him, totally un-sustained by facts. He felt it to be his duty to stand forward and put the conduct of Mr. Cuffe in its proper light, and he felt that the magistrates of Ireland had a right to demand of that House its marked disapproval of the line of conduct pursued on the present occasion. If Mr. Cuffe had done wrong, the laws provided a redress— but he would protest against the unfairness of dragging the most respectable persons in the country to the bar of that House on the unsupported testimony of the most worthless of mankind. He should take the liberty of reading a letter from a most respectable clergyman, named Anderson, giving his description of this Byrne, the letter was as follows: Ballinrobe, June 8, 1836. I have just read that a petition has been forwarded to Mr. Dillon Browne, M.P., for this county, for presentation to the House of Commons, in which the conduct of Mr. Cuffe, as a magistrate, is reflected upon for having committed to gaol John Byrne, a ballad singer, on the 16th of May last. I did not happen to see this man on that day, but I did on the following; and I can assure you, that Mr. Cuffe's conduct in committing him was highly proper, at least in my judgment, and that of all the respectable persons in the town; for I have never seen so depraved a character as Byrne seemed to be. His savage yells, blasphemous vociferations, and rebellious defiance of the authorities, rendered the exhibition he made of himself awfully revolting to the community. He had now endeavoured to discharge his duty to his friend Mr. Cuffe, as a magistrate and a gentleman, and took upon himself solemnly to state his firm conviction that Mr. Cuffe was quite incapable of acting oppressively or unjustly towards any individual. He conceived that the reception of such a petition reflecting upon the character of a most respectable magistrate, and unsustained as the charges were, would form a bad precedent, and he should therefore move that the petition be withdrawn.

Mr. Hume

was anxious, as the hon. and gallant Colonel had talked of seditious ballads, to know whether he had seen or could produce them. Perhaps he could inform the House whether they belonged to the same school with that of which they had heard so much, and of which two of the lines run thus:— Put your trust in God, my boys, And keep your powder dry.

Colonel Perceval

had only stated, that he held two affidavits in his hand, from the two officers to whom he had alluded, stating that the petitioner had been singing treasonable and seditious ballads; he had never said that he had seen any of them. And when the hon. Member for Middlesex measuring others by himself, tried to convict him of telling an untruth, he would appeal to the House and the recollection of hon. Gentlemen as to what precisely he did say.—A particular ballad having been alluded to by the hon. Member, he must say there could be no doubt each differed very widely in his notions of sedition—so much so, indeed, that what he considered seditious, the hon. Member would perhaps not only not consider seditious, but highly useful and creditable to him in the particular course he endeavoured to pursue. He had only in conclusion to say, as to any reflections thrown out upon him or upon that party with whom he had formerly been connected, and with whom he ever would act, he should treat them—not to use a stronger word than the forms of the House would allow—he should treat them, considering the quarter whence they came, as they deserved.

Mr. Dillon Browne

had presented the petition without at all reflecting or intending to reflect on the character of Mr. Cuffe. The case, however, demanded an inquiry, and he hoped the Government would communicate with the local authorities, and properly investigate the matter. He was not surprised to hear the hon. and gallant Colonel defending the conduct of magistrates who had violated the law.

The Speaker

interposed. The hon. Member had no right to charge the hon. and gallant Colonel with an intention to defend magistrates who had violated the law.

Mr. Dillon Browne

begged, if what he had stated were considered at all out of order, at once to apologize to the House; still, however, he could not but think the hon. and gallant Colonel had shown much anxiety that the spirit of liberty should not be extended to the county of Mayo.

Mr. O'Connell

considered it quite clear that a gross neglect of duty had taken place on the part of this magistrate; for if any offence had been committed by the petitioner, why had he not been sent to trial? But though sent to gaol, no criminal charge had been lodged against him, and the ballad described as treasonable and seditious, was carefully kept back. He was sorry to see, that while in this country every one put himself forward as the advocate of the poor, in Ireland there was no hope of justice for the oppressed.

Mr. Sergeant Jackson

protested against the time of the House being wasted with such matters. If any injury had been done to this individual, he could bring his action at law against the magistrate. The attention of Government should have been called to the subject, and they would no doubt have directed the necessary inquiries to be made.

Sir John Wrottesley

asserted the right of every man to petition the House, and expressed his surprise, that among the papers with which the hon. and gallant Member was furnished, one of the seditious and trea- sonable ballads was not found. The whole gist of the question was, whether the bal- lads were or were not such as had been described.

Mr. Wynn

maintained, that the House of Commons was not the proper judge of a question of this kind, and that resort ought to be had to the proper tribunals provided by the Constitution, There was too strong a disposition at this time to pass by the regular tribunals for the administration of justice, and to appeal to the House.

Mr. Sheil

referred to the use sometimes made of ballads in debates in Parliament, of which he had himself witnessed a very recent instance. If any information had been sworn before Mr. Cuffe, he might have been justified in the course he had pursued; but here it was merely suggested, that the language of the ballads was seditious and treasonable. There certainly was no better judge of treason and rebellion than the hon. and gallant Member; but he had not answered the question where any of these seditious and treasonable ballads were to be found. The right hon. Member for Monmouthshire had asked if this were a fit question for the House? Undoubtedly, if a magistrate exceeded his duty by committing a man, the party injured could appeal to no more proper tribunal. The right hon. Gentleman's knowledge of the forms of the House was great and accurate, but he knew very little of its great constitutional powers. If an individual were aggrieved, he had a right to state his grievance to the House. Here it was evident that the law had been violated, and the liberty of the subject improperly restrained; and he trusted that the Lord Chancellor of Ireland would take care to investigate all the facts of the case.

Mr. Shaw

said, the time of the House ought not to be occupied with trifling complaints of this nature. The question was not, whether the ballad was treasonable or not, but, as stated by his hon. and gallant Friend, whether Mr. Cuffe, in the discharge of his duty as a magistrate, had acted wrong, when, upon his own responsibility, and apprehending a disturbance of the public peace, he had committed for a short time to prison the individual through whose means that breach of the peace was likely to occur. Would English gentlemen like such complaints as these to be made against them, as magistrates, upon such grounds? He most earnestly, and once for all, protested against the doctrine, that the poor man could not procure legal redress in Ireland, and in the present case no attempt was made to seek redress by the ordinary course of the law, if any grievance at all existed, which he was persuaded was not the case.

Colonel Perceval

added, that the magistrate had acted upon his own personal cognizance, that Byrne was singing treasonable ballads.

Sir William Brabazon

was understood to say, that he had seen the ballads, and that he could find nothing treasonable in them. Without the production of them, the case could not properly be decided.

Petition to lie on the Table.