HL Deb 26 January 1855 vol 136 cc944-7

rose, pursuant to notice, to inquire whether the attention of Her Majesty's Government had been called to the public procession of Roman Catholic ecclesiastics in the town of Tuam on the 15th day of August last, wearing the habits of their order, in contravention of the 10 Geo. IV. c. 7; and whether any proceedings had been taken to vindicate the law, and prevent its violation in future. In bringing forward this subject, he begged to remind their Lordships that on a former occasion the noble Earl at the head of the Government, in answer to a question from his noble and gallant Friend (the Earl of Cardigan) respecting the Six-Mile Bridge affray, declared that no distinction should be made between soldiers and priests, and that while he was at the head of the Government, whether it was the case of a soldier or of a priest, of a peasant or peer, justice should be administered. The statute to which he (Lord Berners) had alluded was the Roman Catholic Relief Bill, passed in 1829, and which was received by the Roman Catholic hierarchy as a constitutional compact, which admitted Roman Catholics to the freedom of the State. Such processions as that to which his question referred were prohibited by the 7th section of that Act, which rendered Roman Catholic ecclesiastics who exercised any of the rites or ceremonies of the Roman Catholic religion, or wore the habits of their orders, save within the usual places of Roman Catholic worship, liable to a penalty of 50l. It was considered by the late Government that there had been an infringement of the law, and they had thought it to be their duty to issue a proclamation to the effect that, while they were resolved to protect the Roman Catholic subjects of Her Majesty in the full enjoyment of their religious liberties, they were determined to repress the commission of all such offences. At another period, a question having been put to the noble Lord the Home Secretary with reference to an infringement of the law, he stated he was informed that it, had occurred inadvertently, and was, therefore, passed over, but it was at the same time intimated that if there was any further infringement of the law, the statute would be strictly enforced. The person who was the originator of. and who had instigated the breach of, the law to which he (Lord Berners) was now calling their Lordships' attention, was no other than Dr. M'Hale, the self-called Archbishop of Tuam. There could be no doubt that his object was to show that he set the law of the land at defiance, and to establish in this country an authority which was incompatible with the Imperial authority of the realm. This was a person who, in the years 1826 and 1830, signed two pastoral addresses, accepting in the fullest sense the Emancipation Act as a constitutional compact between the Roman Catholics of this country and the Government. The description of the procession was contained in the Tuam, Herald [an extract from which the noble Lord read], and a communication had been received from the resident magistrate in Tuam, stating that the substance of the report was correct. He would beg the House to reflect what the consequences of such a proceeding must be in a country like Ireland, where the feelings of the people were so excited, under the thraldom under which they were placed by the Romish priests. He had purposely abstained from alluding to the religious view of the question, but it had frequently occurred to him whether it would not be fitting for that assembly to ponder over the lesson which history had taught them, that the weal and woe of this great country had always followed the line of policy which had been adopted by the nation in promoting or discouraging the Protestant Church of which we were members.


begged to inform the noble Baron that the attention of the Government had been called to the procession referred to as having taken place in the town of Tuam, in the month of August last—a procession, in the opinion of many, undoubtedly in violation of the law. The Government and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland had referred the question to the law authorities, and it appeared that this violation of the law, which the noble Baron thought so clear and unquestionable, was matter of great doubt. It was doubtful whether the law had been violated at all, and doubtful whether the facts were as they were stated; and under these circumstances their Lordships would not be surprised if his noble Friend had hesitated in instituting a prosecution on such a subject upon authority so doubtful. No doubt an ostentatious procession had taken place from the dwelling of Archbishop M'Hale to the door of the cathedral, and no doubt it had been witnessed with respect by the population; but looking at the circumstances and to the difference of opinion among the learned persons consulted, he thought that a wise discretion was exercised in not instituting a prosecution, which would not have had a probability of success. The noble Lord (Lord Berners) spoke of the possibility of a violation of the peace; but he (the Earl of Aberdeen) thought that the institution of such a prosecution would have been infinitely more likely to provoke it, and that at this moment above all others it would be unwise to raise questions of a doubtful character, which would only be certain to produce religious animosity. If the law had been perfectly plain, and the Government could have expected with certainty a successful result, there might be much force in what the noble Lord stated. But though he admitted that all laws ought to be respected and enforced, yet he could conceive of cases in which it might be wise to abstain from enforcing a law. On this occasion, at all events, he thought that a wise discretion had been exercised in abstaining from a prosecution, considering all the circumstances, and that there had been no excess or outrage, or breach of the peace, but a simple procession, which was not prohibited by the Act to which the noble Lord referred, and for which it would have been probably most difficult to procure a conviction.


said, he deeply regretted to have heard the observations of the noble Earl, especially that the law of the land might be allowed to be broken with impunity. Such cases could be drawn into precedents, and fetter succeeding Governments who might desire to enforce the law.