The conditions of Ireland soon began to be a fresh source of disappointment to all the easy-minded persons who are fond of the belief that when a Government has taken one step on the path of reform it ought to be thereby relieved from the trouble of taking any further step in the same direction. " What do these discontented Irishmen want ?" it was angrily asked. Ireland demanded Catholic Emancipation; and prevailed upon the English Government, partly by argument and partly by threats, to grant that emancipation, and yet Ireland is not happy. We read of disturbances going on every day in that ungrateful country; we hear of riots, of conflicts with the police authorities; of resistance to the payment of tithes; and it seems to us - so these easygoing people argued - that the Government might as well in the beginning have taken the stand which was recommended by so sound and enlightened a statesman as Lord Eldon, and refused to give to such a thankless nation any instalment whatever of justice. This is indeed the kind of argument which is repeated again and again at every great political crisis, and whenever any social or political reform is demanded. It is quite certain that the emancipation of the Catholics had not so satisfied the people of Ireland as to make them put up with every existing political grievance to the end of time. The question which was now creating so much commotion in Ireland was that which concerned the levying of tithes; and the barest statement of the principle and the working of the tithe system will satisfy every intelligent reader of the present day that no people on earth would have endured it for a moment longer than mere physical compulsion could make them.
Lord Melbourne. 1779-1848.].
The tithe system was denounced, indeed, strongly and passionately by leading Irishmen; but it never was denounced more bitterly than by such English writers as Sydney Smith and Lord Macaulay. Sydney Smith said of the whole system that there was nothing like it in any civilised country with which we were acquainted, and that nothing we knew of the internal condition of Timbuctoo warranted us in supposing that it could exist even there. The principle of the tithes was one which it would be only possible to maintain in a country where one religion, and one alone, prevailed amongst the whole population. In Ireland there were then between six and seven millions of a Catholic population who had nothing to do with the State Church-of men and women who had never entered, and never would enter, the doors of a Protestant place of worship. On the other side there was the State Church, with its four archbishops, its eighteen bishops, and a law which authorised its clergy to draw an important part of their income, by force if needs be, and force was the common means of obtaining it, from that same Irish population. Ireland was then, and indeed even still is, a country depending mainly upon agriculture for its support. The tithe came upon the smallest farmer as well as upon the richest landowner; and the smallest farmer had to make his regular contribution towards the maintenance of the clergy of the Established Church.
Often when a harvest failed - and a bad harvest was no uncommon calamity in a rainy country - the Irish tenant farmer found it hard enough to supply his own family with the mere necessities of life; and it was not likely that he could be in quite a contented and loyal mood when the tithe collector came round to exact a contribution towards the support of the Protestant clergy with whose ministrations the Catholic farmer had nothing to do. The whole Protestant population of Ireland numbered little more than three-quarters of a million of persons; with the State Church set up and endowed for their especial benefit, and the additional right to extort contributions for the support of their clergy from the six and a half millions of Catholics by whom the mere presence of an endowed State Church was regarded as a grievance and an insult. It might have been thought that any one with capacity enough to look calmly into the whole question must have seen that to maintain such a system for long would be absolutely incompatible with the growth of civilisation. Our wonder is now how any human being with two ideas in his head could even then, even amid all the tumult of conflicting partisanship, have formed any other opinion. It was as absurd to expect that the Irish Catholics would put up with the tithe system because they had been allowed to send representatives into the House of Commons as it would be to expect that a prisoner in a cell should make no complaint if deprived of his dinner, because he was reminded that he had been conceded some food for his breakfast. The plain and practical truth is that reform of necessity leads to reform; that you cannot admit a man to have any one right without expecting that he will claim in time other rights as well.
Despotism can be maintained so long as there is force to maintain it, but the trouble which haunts the despot is that there is never force enough to maintain it for long. Lord Eldon's principles might be logical enough, but they had the considerable disadvantage that it was wholly impossible to maintain them in action. Even of the Liberals in England, only the most advanced were enlightened enough to see that the chapter of reform once opened could not be closed at will. The struggle to maintain and to resist the tithe system was convulsing the whole of Ireland. The strong arm of the law, as it was called, had constantly to be invoked in order to enable the Protestant clergy to get in their tithes from the Catholic farmers and cottagers. In some districts every farm was the scene of a periodical fight between the police and the peasantry. Numbers of lives were lost each year in that way; the authorities fought for what they considered the proper enforcement of the law; the peasantry fought for dear life - that is, for the means of living. Sydney Smith declared that the enforcement of the tithe system in Ireland must have cost ten thousand lives. Then again, the bitterest hatreds were engendered between creed and creed, between class and class. Many of the Protestant clergymen, who were regarded by their victimised Catholic fellow - subjects as bloated and over-fed oppressors of the poor, were living in a state hardly above the meanest poverty, and themselves regarded with loathing the system which compelled them to extort a means of living from half-starving Irish cottagers who never crossed the threshold of a Protestant church. One Protestant prelate, the Archbishop of Dublin, who gave evidence before a Committee of the House of Lords on the subject of the tithe system, declared that he spoke for himself and for many of his clerical brethren when he declared that, "as for the continuance of the tithe system, it seems to me that it must be at the point of the bayonet - that it must be through a sort of chronic civil war." The Archbishop went on to say that " the ill-feelings which have so long existed against it have been embodied in so organised a combination that I conceive that there would be continual breakings-out of resistance which must be kept clown by a continuance of very severe measures such as the Government might, indeed, resolve to have recourse to for once if necessary, but would be very unwilling to resort to habitually so as to keep the country under military government; and the most intelligent persons and the most experienced I have conversed with, seem to think that nothing else will permanently secure the payment of tithes under the present system."