Tuesday, April 16, 2019
The Tithe Wars of the 1830s
Many of us have been transfixed by the machinations of the Westminster Parliament in London since the Brexit vote. There has been a sense, until very recently, that the public at large had lost interest in parliamentary politics but the daily dissection of parliamentary matters across the water is proof that this is not the case. Kildare and particularly Athy occupied a prominent place in the thoughts and actions of the legislators in Westminster in the 1830’s with the upheaval triggered by the outbreak of the Tithe wars of the 1830’s. It is mostly forgotten today, bookended as it was by Daniel O’Connell’s emancipation campaigns of the 1820’s and the Great Famine of the 1840’s. None the less it was a period of significant civil discord and dissent in Ireland and Athy. The Tithes were a form of tax levied on the population to maintain protestant churches. The taxes were applied to the population whether they were members of the church or not, therefore the Catholic peasantry and the members of the Presbyterian community were also liable for the tax. The war or campaign against Tithes was triggered by the actions of Fr. Martin Doyle, the Parish Priest of Graiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny, the cousin of Bishop Doyle of Kildare and Leighlin when Fr. Doyle refused to pay Tithes on a 40-acre farm which he had in addition to his parochial house. Thereafter the campaign spread rapidly through the country. By 1833 the matter was of such concern that it received considerable attention in the House of Commons. The chief secretary of Ireland E.G. Stanley delivered a substantial speech to the house on February 27th, 1833 where he detailed what he described as the ‘outrages’ in Kildare. The purpose of the speech was to support his promotion of the Disturbances (Ireland) bill which was in his words “for the repression of violence and disturbance, for the protection of life and property and for the maintenance of order”, he described its adoption as “a most imperious and pressing necessity”. Speaking of Athy he referred to reports received from the Chief Constable of the Irish Constabulary. He noted that on the night of the 15th of January 1833 that the house of William Batt, a retired naval officer living at Bray, Athy was entered by several men who robbed Batt of a case of pistols, a fowling piece and some ball cartridges. The house of a Dr. Carter of Castledermot was burnt on the 25th of January, while an armed party went to the house of a farmer called Kelly near Kildangan and demanded the surrender of his arms. Kelly refused, the armed party opened fire and Kelly returned fire wounding one of his assailants in the face. Stanley went on to refer to a letter he had received from a correspondent from Athy in February 1833. This correspondent advised him that members of juries at the last Court sittings had been obliged to carry firearms for their personal protection while attending the courts and that magistrates had been unable to get providers of coaches, caravans or conveyances locally to bring witnesses to court. They had been threatened that their carriages would be broken up if they facilitated the court sittings. Thereafter the Court officials were obliged to order carriages from Dublin to bring witnesses to the Court in Athy. Previously Mr. M. Singleton, a magistrate sitting in Athy, writing from the town on the 23rd of September 1832 informed Stanley of his difficulty in getting a witness to give evidence in relation to an attack on a farmer’s house in Athy. The witness, from Kilkenny, refused to give evidence for fear of the consequences of his actions. Singleton committed him to Carlow jail for his contempt of Court. When next brought before the Court the witness said that he would only give evidence if he could get the approval of his priest. After the intervention of the clergymen the witness was more forthcoming, and the ultimate culprit was committed for trial in Portlaoise later that year. Stanley’s bill was ultimately passed but the Tithe war rumbled on until the late 1830’s and only petered out when responsibility for payment passed to the landlord and not the tenant. Stanley, later to become Earl Derby, would go on to become Prime Minster on three separate occasions. His contribution to Irish affairs is probably better and more positively remembered by reference to “the Stanley letter”. In writing, in 1831, to the 3rd Duke of Leinster he set out the governments proposals to establish the legal basis for national schools in Ireland. The letter was an important stepping point for the establishment of the national schools’ system which remains the basis for primary education in this country to this day.