An economic scholar in his own right Dr Thomas Nulty was a 19th century Bishop and academic noted for his contributions to economic school of Georgism, early on in his career however he served as a parish priest in the typhus stricken Midlands region during the hungry years of the Great Famine. A defender of indigent tenant farmers and witness to some of the worst atrocities of the period, Dr Nulty documented the eviction of tenants including here with his account of the infamous Lough Sheelin evictions of 1848 where following the eviction of 700 tenants many were driven to their deaths. In this piece, a newly ordained Dr Nulty recalls the plight of the evicted, the social conditions that created the evictions as well as the growing problem of violent Ribbonism emerging as a response.
The Crowbar Brigade, employed on the occasion to extinguish the hearths and demolish the homes of honest industrious men, worked away with a will at their awful calling until evening. At length an incident occurred that varied the monotony of the grim, ghastly ruin which they were spreading all around. They stopped suddenly, and recoiled panic-stricken with terror from two dwellings which they were directed to destroy with the rest.
They had just learned that a frightful typhus-fever held those houses in its grasp, and had already brought pestilence and death to their inmates.
They, therefore, supplicated the agent to spare these houses a little longer; but the agent was inexorable, and insisted that the houses should come down. The ingenuity with which he extricated himself from the difficulties of the situation was characteristic alike of the heartlessness of the man and of the cruel necessities of the work in which he was engaged. He ordered a large winnowing-sheet to be secured over the beds in which the fever victims lay — fortunately they happened to be perfectly delirious at the time — and then directed the houses to be unroofed cautiously and slowly, because, he said, ‘he very much disliked the bother and discomfort of a coroner’s inquest.
I administered the last Sacrament of the Church to four of these fever victims the next day ; and, save the above-mentioned winnowing-sheet, there was not a roof nearer to me than the canopy of heaven. The horrid scenes I then witnessed must be remembered all my life long.
The wailing of women; the screams, the terror, the consternation of children; the speechless agony of honest industrious men, wrung tears of grief from all who saw them. I saw the officers and men of a large police force, who were obliged to attend on the occasion, cry like children at beholding the cruel sufferings of the very people whom they would be obliged to butcher had they offered the least resistance. The heavy rains that usually attend the autumnal equinoxes descended in cold, copious torrents throughout the night, and at once revealed to those houseless sufferers the awful realities of their condition.
I visited them next morning, and rode from place to place administering to them all the comfort and consolation I could. The appearance of men, women, and children, as they emerged from the ruins of their former homes — saturated with rain, blackened and besmeared with soot, shivering in every member from cold and misery — presented positively the most appalling spectacle I ever looked at. The landed proprietors, in a circle all around — and for many miles in every direction — warned their tenantry, with threats of their direst vengeance, against the humanity of extending to any of them the hospitality of a single night’s shelter. Many of these poor people were unable to emigrate with their families; while, at home, the hand of every man was thus raised against them.
They were driven from the land on which Providence had placed them; and, in the state of society surrounding them, every other walk of life was rigidly closed against them. What was the result? After battling in vain with privation and pestilence, they at last graduated from the workhouse to the tomb; and in little more than three years nearly a fourth of them lay quietly in their graves.
The eviction which I have thus described, and of which I was an eyewitness, must not be considered an isolated exceptional event which could occur only in a remote locality, where public opinion could not reach and expose it. The fact is quite the reverse.
Every county, barony, poor-law union, and indeed every parish in the Diocese, is perfectly familiar with evictions that are oftentimes surrounded by circumstances and distinguished by traits of darker and more disgusting atrocity. Quite near the town in which I write, and in the parish in which I live, I lately passed through what might be characterized as a wilderness, in which, as far as the eye could reach, not a single human being or the vestige of a human habitation was anywhere discernible.
It was only with great difficulty, and much uncertainty too, that I was able to distinguish the spot on which till lately stood one of the most respectable houses of this parish. A few miles farther on I fell in with the scene of another extensive clearance, in which the houses that had sheltered 300 human beings were razed to the ground some few years ago.
That same proprietor desolated, in an adjoining parish, a densely-populated district, by batches of so many families in each of a series of successive clearances. Seventeen families formed the first batch. But there are other public unquestionable facts which demonstrate the enormous injustice of these clearances, without wearying ourselves with their disgusting details.
A sentence of eviction from the land (in a state of society in which, without the land, it is impossible to support life) is tantamount to a sentence of a slow but certain execution; and hence it is very difficult to distinguish in thought between the system of wholesale clearances — that has been proved to prevail in these counties — and a system of wholesale murder. Unjust laws have divided us into a class on the one side, and the vast mass of the people on the other.
The class were armed with absolute, unlimited, and irresponsible powers; and as they used these powers in utter contempt of justice and humanity, the people necessarily became their victims. And the very Governments that thus armed the class, and hurled them with bitterest animosity against the masses — to exterminate and destroy them — expressed themselves shocked, horrified, and scandalized, because the people did not submit themselves to the operation peaceably and without a murmur.
They imputed to a detestable perverseness of the Celtic character the Celt’s unwillingness to suffer himself to be robbed and murdered unresistingly. But, surely, the worm only obeys his instinct when he turns upon the camel that treads upon him. When the people saw themselves given up to their destroyer by the very authorities that were bound to protect them, they instinctively fell back upon their own resources, and turned upon their oppressors with the energy and frenzy of despair.
The very instincts of nature taught them to collect their scattered energies into confederations which would organize, develop, and utilize them. In fact, the situation was virtually a state of civil war between the nation and a class — the people keeping purely on the defensive. The Church never ceased to interfere between the belligerents, and the duties of her mission were most delicate and difficult. It taxed all her charity, all her prudence, and all her divine power of persuasion to the utmost, to put her on an equality with the difficulties of her position.
It is a very arduous task to reason into patience and resignation a man who once enjoyed plenty and affluence in the home in which he was born, and from which he was unjustly expelled; who now sees his wife and children slowly tortured to death by starvation, in spite of all his efforts to save them. It is a splendid achievement if you persuade him to bridle his rage and restrain his arm on an occasion in which he can retaliate on his oppressor with deadliest effect and perfect security. Yet even we ourselves have often reasoned with, and succeeded with such men; and, with the help of God’s powerful grace, have often persuaded them to show mercy and forgiveness to enemies against whom every instinct, every feeling, and every passion of mere nature cried aloud for retaliation and vengeance.
Although the Church did not then, and could not at any time, deny the cruel injustice with which the people were persecuted, she uniformly exhorted, after the example of our Divine Lord, to patience and forgiveness in the endurance of unjust suffering. Therefore, she combated Ribbonism from the very beginning, on the ground of its being inconsistent with the perfect forgiveness of enemies, and with the higher perfection recommended in the Gospel. But the Ribbonism that at present prevails, besides degenerating into a totally different form from what it had been formerly, contradicts directly not merely the counsels of the Gospel, but strikes at the very root of Christianity itself. Ribbonism, as an organization, is the necessary and logical result of had land laws, and of the tyranny of bad landlords.
If it was the injustice of bad landlords that first created it, so it was their cleverness and sagacity, to advance their own interests, that nurtured and fostered it into the pernicious energy and activity that all good men now deplore.
Whenever Ribbonism became really dangerous and formidable, they purchased up its most influential members; and through the exertions of these hired traitors — or the secret information supplied by them — they were enabled to carry out all their projected clearances with increased security and confidence. It is a matter of notoriety that two of the most cruel and extensive exterminators in this Diocese had been centres of Ribbonisin in their respective districts while carrying their inhuman clearance through. I have before me what I cannot but regard as solid ground for believing that the relations still subsisting between exterminating landlordism and Ribbonism are the very reverse of unfriendly.