HC Deb 16 February 1847 vol 90 cc27-33

moved the Order of the Day for the Adjourned Debate on the Railways (Ireland) Bill, in order that he might have an opportunity of putting some questions to Her Majesty's Government. He was sorry to protract the discussion of the Railway Bill; but the matter on which he sought information affected the lives of many of his fellow-countrymen. He alluded to the system of punishment, adopted under the sanction of Government, for outrages committed by any person on the public works in Ireland. Whenever any outrage took place in a district where those works were being carried on, the works were immediately stopped, and the population engaged on them thrown out of employment and left to die. Now, he wanted to know if it was the intention of the Legislature, in passing these relief measures, that Government should be entrusted with such powers? He must say it was the most barbarous kind of punishment ever enacted by any civilized country. His attention had been called to the subject before, principally in the county which he represented; and, at the risk of delaying the House, he would read an extract of a letter he had just received from a Roman Catholic archdeacon in reference to it:— For some days before the 22nd of January, 288 men, boys, and women, were employed in making some improvements on a line of road between the cross of Kilmichael and the cross of Ballyscanlan. The distance between those two points is nearly two Irish miles. On the day mentioned a young man, the son of a small farmer, named Hedderman, and the overseer on the line, was suddenly surrounded by eight armed men, he being then nearly at one extremity of the line of road, about a furlong from the village of Ballyscanlan. These men had their faces blackened, for the purpose of disguise, and the overseer was, as may be supposed, greatly frightened. I had his own account of the adventure, and he stated that he was more particularly afraid of one of the ruffians, who was armed with a bayonet. He got off cheaply, however, all the circumstances considered, as only one of the party assaulted him, giving him a blow behind the ear with the butt-end of a gun, and inflicting a slight wound, or rather a scratch. A demonstration of the power of doing mischief, with a view to intimidation, seems to have been the object of these fellows, who then went off across the fields. Now the line being, as you may recollect, two miles long, and the men grouped in gangs of eleven along its whole length, a cross or turning being also interposed, it followed that nine-tenths of the working people knew nothing whatever of the attack, which occupied but a few minutes, until the whole matter had passed over. Some four or five of the workmen hastened to his assistance, from motives of private friendship; but such assistance would have availed but little against eight men fully armed, if these latter had really intended to inflict serious injury. I do not, of course, mean to palliate this outrage, which was still of almost a bloodless character, and the very first attempt upon overseer or officer in this large barony, where many hundreds (at present over 5,000) have been constantly employed since the public works began. It is certain that those fellows who attacked the overseer were not persons living in the parish or neighbourhood, though it is likely they were instigated and suborned by some few among the working people. This guilty complicity was (there is reason to think) confined to a few, as the overseer was generally popular with those employed under him. Such are the details of the transaction of the 22nd of January—a transaction which proved to many hundreds, who had not the slightest share in its guilt, such as it was, a source of suffering, compared to which, death by the sword or the bullet would have been mercy. You are no doubt aware, that by an order issued, I believe in October, the Board of Works were authorized to dismiss the men employed on any public work on which violence or menace should be exhibited against overseer or officer. This order, as understood and carried out by the officers of the board, seems arbitrary enough. I know not whether it be law, but assuredly it is not justice, to confound the innocent with the guilty by the indiscriminate infliction of a puuishment of great severity. It cannot be just to punish the misdeeds of one or two, or even a dozen, by the torture of hundreds. The entire 288 employed on the Kilmichael and Ballyscanlan line were dismissed on the instant, and a list furnished to the relief committee, with the view of excluding them from any employment whatever on the public works; and this is the 20th day of extreme and frightful sufferings of nearly 900 persons, those 288 namely, and the members of their respective families, dependent on them for their sole means of subsistence. This terrible and protracted torture, as I may call it, is inflicted on them, avowedly, to extract from them evidence with a view to identify and convict the authors and actors in the attack on the overseer. Now, 850 of those so tortured, at least did not see the offenders in question. Of the 288 actually employed, some were small boys, some were women, destitute widows and others, who have no other resource than that of sitting on the road-side breaking stones under the sky of January. Torture by the rack was, I believe, held good and lawful in the days of Lord Strafford. Torture by the triangles was resorted to at a later period to obtain evidence against offenders; but even then it was required that there should be reasonable grounds for believing that the parties subjected to the torture could really give the evidence sought for, if willing to do so. In the parish of Ballingarry, and in the year of grace 1847, the slow torture of famine has been inflicted on old men, children, and women, to compel them to reveal that of which it was utterly impossible that one out of every fifty among them could have any knowledge whatever. There were among the 288 two blind pipers, who are of course doomed to starve because they refuse to give ocular testimony. When, after a week's fast, it was proposed in the committee to raise a subscription amongst the members present to supply the immediate wants of those wretched people, the inspecting officer, as he is termed, opposed it on the ground that it would be yielding to intimidation. Now, those despairing but patient victims had exhibited no menace whatever, save an humble request to the relief committee to send them to the workhouse. This 'saving counsel' was, however, adopted by the committee—I suppose on the good old principle, ne respublica detrimentum capiat. It was thought a desirable thing to inspire those wretehes with a sentiment of respect for the law for the time to come. But I have my doubts if this object was promoted greatly by placing in every one of six score hovels a starving father seated in Ugolino mood and attitude near his fireless hearth, and watching at the same time the gradual emaciation of the faces of those he loved with all the warm affection of an Irishman. He was not the more likely, I think, to respect the laws from the utter unconsciousness of any guilt which could call down as punishment the frightful doom of misery inflicted on him and his. Moreover, as 40l. reward was offered for information, and as 40l. in this season of dearth would be to a poor man as the treasures of Peru, there was no reason to hope that what such a bribe could not effect, would be elicited by the protracted pangs of hunger. I am, however, delighted that no information was obtained, and trust, whenever any one in authority will dare under our free laws to apply torture to extort evidence, that he will meet with the disappointment he deserves, as well as with the contempt and execration of every man of just and upright feeling. He must say he thoroughly and entirely coincided in the sentiments expressed by that letter. It was monstrous to punish a whole population with death, for that was the effect of the system—and the reverend gentleman stated that some of those dismissed in the case he alluded to had died in consequence—because one or two or half a dozen persons committed a crime for which they might be imprisoned or transported. He had witnessed the operation of the system in Clare, where five hundred families had been reduced to famine in consequence of the suspension of the works in the neighbourhood; and the question with them was whether they would adopt a course of plunder, which their patience and respect for the law fortunately forbade, or to lie down and die. He had seen the inspecting officer, and spoken to him on the subject; and it was his opinion that if the suspension of the works had been carried on any longer, several families must have died. He rose to ascertain whether the Government and the House of Commons would sanction such a barbarous mode of punishment as that at present in use in Ireland.


regretted the hon. Gentleman had not given him notice of his intention of bringing the particular case of the stoppage of works to which he alluded to the notice of the House; as in that case he certainly would have informed himself as to the circumstances, and would have been prepared to meet the statement; but with respect to the general policy of the Government on the subject, he had no hesitation in stating to the House what had been the course they had adopted in Ireland. It was undoubtedly true that the Lord Lieutenant thought it absolutely necessary, with a view to protect public servants and officers engaged in a most difficult and arduous duty, and to defend their lives and persons, to lay down as a rule, that whenever outrages were committed in the neighbourhood or on the line of any public work, under circumstances which rendered it probable that any labourers engaged thereon were cognizant of it, the work should be suspended till information had been given respecting its authors. But he confessed he had heard with astonishment the hon. Member for Limerick expressing his concurrence with the sentiments of the letter he had read, and declaring that where an outrage had been committed on a public officer in the discharge of his duty, he for his part rejoiced that nothing had transpired which could lead to the discovery of the offenders. He would not yield to that hon. Member in feelings of deep sympathy for the dreadful amount of human suffering which he knew was endured by large classes of the people of Ireland; but he thought it consistent with that deep sympathy, and with an earnest desire to relieve that distress, to say at the same time that he believed it to be the duty of the Government in Ireland to protect their servants and officers engaged in the public service for the employment of the people; and the Lord Lieutenant also believed the only effectual way of protecting them, was to lay down this rule and to act upon it. He was happy to say the result had fully proved the wisdom of the course adopted by the Irish Government, and that in many instances it had led to the discovery of the perpetrators of those outrages. In a very recent case, when an attack was made on an officer of the works by persons who calculated on the assistance of the labourers engaged on it, the latter, so far from aiding them, rose up and defended the officer; and when the offenders endeavoured to escape, pursued and endeavoured to capture them. He was fully prepared to justify the conduct of the Irish Government, and he could not agree in the views of the hon. Member on this subject. He held it to be the duty of every Government to defend the lives and persons of gallant and unprotected men engaged in a dangerous public service; and he did not believe the House of Commons, to which the hon. Member had appealed, would think the Government of Ireland had not done their duty in adopting the only course which, concurrently with the opinion of every person conversant with the subject, could effect that object, and preserve the lives of their officers, by giving the labourers on the works a deep interest in protecting the lives and properties of the officers engaged upon them. He could not answer the particular case referred to by the hon. Member, as he had not given him notice of it; but he thought it right to make that statement as to the general policy of the Government in such cases.


said, that of all the subjects which could be introduced to the House, that was the most important, for if there were one evil more than another which, if allowed to continue, would create disorder in Ireland, it was that of not being able to follow and apprehend a culprit. They saw every day accounts in the papers of murders of the most barbarous nature committed in cabins and houses, and yet there was no possibility of the detection of the murderers. He thought that so far from blaming the Irish Government for the course they had adopted, the House of Commons should express a favourable opinion of their firmness, and of the course by which alone order could be restored in Ireland. He entirely concurred with the right hon. the Secretary for Ireland in his remarks, and regretted that any Member belonging to Ireland should have said he rejoiced, where an outrage had been committed, that the culprit had not been discovered. He thought it would be a most unfortunate thing if such a sentiment were to go forth to the country without explanation. He hoped the Government would stand firm on this point, and show the people of Ireland that it was the duty of every one of them to see that justice was carried out, and to discover every offender against law and order to the proper authorities.


begged to make some explanation as to what had fallen from the right hon. Secretary for Ireland. He had not given notice of his intention to put the question, as he only wished to ascertain the views of Government generally on the question. With respect to the phrase used in the letter of his correspondent, he thought the meaning was, that he rejoiced, not because the law had not been vindicated—for he believed his correspondent to be as anxious for the maintenance of the law as any one could be—but because none of the persons dismissed the works had been induced, by the powers of torture, to do that which they would not have done from their sense of duty and justice.


hoped he might thank the Government for the determination they had shown on this point. He thought it would have been utterly impossible to have carried on the works without even more extraordinary confusion than existed at present, if the Lord Lieutenant had not adopted that rule; and he did not believe the life of any officer engaged on them would have been worth a day's purchase without some such regulation.


said, as he had, early in the progress of the system, made a communication to the Irish Government on the subject, and had urged on them the propriety of adopting this very course, he would not shrink from sharing the responsibility of it. He entirely concurred in the propriety of the system, and in the sentiments of the right hon. the Secretary for Ireland. Unless the officers of the public were protected, they could not be got to lay out the works, and then the people must be left to starve. The only hope for Ireland was, the investment of capital; and capital would not be invested unless life and property were secure. Instead of regretting the course taken by Government, he boldly stood up to take share in the responsibility of recommending it.


begged to say, that he employed a great number of labourers in Ireland, and that when any attack upon any person was made, or when any outrage was committed, he always suspended employment, and continued the suspension until the delinquent was discovered and given up. He had found that system work with the best results; and he sincerely hoped, that, as a measure of precaution, the Government would act in the same way.