The words of the Archbishop contained for the most part nothing but sound sense and truth. Resistance to the payment of tithes in Ireland had, indeed, become so thoroughly and actively organised that it could be stamped out only by the sort of force which stamps out a rebellion. The combination was quite natural and obvious, and indeed a matter of necessity. It did not require any secret association or any military drilling. A set of agricultural workers, who were threatened with military force to compel them to pay the tithes, would be only too ready to join with some neighbouring group of agriculturists to help them in resisting the armed invasion of the tithe collectors. But the Archbishop of Dublin, who had said so much that was sound and true, did not seem to have asked himself whether the suggested alternative was possible. He gave it as the opinion of the most intelligent and experienced persons, that the tithe system could not be maintained except at the point of the bayonet, and by putting the whole country under the absolute dominion of martial law. He did not, however, appear to have considered whether there was any possibility of maintaining a system of martial law for such a purpose. Would it be possible in an age of civilisation to put the second island of the United Kingdom under martial law, merely in order that six and a half millions of Catholics should be compelled to contribute to the support of the clergy who ministered to the religious wants of three-quarters of a million? One might have thought that the Duke of Wellington, when he gave his reluctant assent to the passing of Catholic Emancipation, had already answered that question. Wellington gave in because he did not believe that it would be possible to maintain the system of religious exclusion without running the risk of civil war, and because he did not believe it certain that civil war itself would answer the purpose in the end. The very same argument might be applied to the maintenance of the tithe system.
Then, again, it has to be remembered that the manner in which Catholic Emancipation had at last been conceded was not likely to fill the Irish people with warm feelings of gratitude, or to make them particularly reluctant about entering on a new agitation in furtherance of a fresh and a rightful claim. If Catholic Emancipation had been granted as an act of justice, as the concession of a rightful claim, there might have been reason to expect enduring gratitude from the Irish people; although, even then, it could not fairly be said that gratitude for the concession of one rightful claim could pledge any people never to ask for the recognition of any other rightful claim. To add to all the other inconveniences of the tithe system, it has to be stated that the tithes were not simple in their imposition but were highly complex. It was not the case of one person alone coming to the tenant farmer to insist on the payment of tithes. There were several different kinds of tithes; and many claimants, whose claims were legally antagonistic to each other, all came down at once or at rapid intervals on the unfortunate farmer, and all demanded a settlement. The farmer, even if he had been able and willing to pay the amount to which he was legally liable, could not always tell which was the particular claim answering to that description, and thus he was often perplexed and harassed beyond endurance. At last it became necessary for the Government, which was then Whig, or what would now be called Liberal, to do something towards the removal of this terrible cause of disturbance and disaffection in Ireland. There could be no doubt that the exaction of tithes and the desperate struggle to resist their exaction had brought Ireland, to adopt certain memorable words used by Mr. Gladstone many years after, " within a measurable distance of civil war." No one could possibly pretend to justify the violent deeds which were done at that time at various places all over the country; but, on the other hand, no one who studies the history of the tithe agitation can pretend to be surprised that violent and horrible deeds were sometimes done by the maddened Irish peasantry.
At last the Ministry appeared to have made up their minds to do something; and the Royal Speech at the opening of a parliamentary session requested Parliament to consider whether some improvement could not be made in the laws relating to the imposition and the collection of tithes in Ireland. Now, this was a necessary step at the opening of a question of such grave importance; but it had none the less the momentary effect of encouraging the refusal of the Irish farmers and peasants to pay the tithes at all. Any one who considers the subject calmly for a moment will understand the meaning of this. Up to that time Governments had steadily refused to deal with the tithe question; and had simply held to the principle that the law of the land had given to the clergy of the State Church the right of the tithes, and that the clergy were, therefore, quite justified in enforcing their payment even at the point of the bayonet. To read some of the speeches made and the letters written by Tory public men, and even by some Whig public men, at the time, one might fancy that a law passed by Parliament could never be repealed, and that no such thing as a change for the better was possible to the legislation of the State.
But the moment the Royal Speech invited Parliament to consider some method of dealing satisfactorily with the tithe question, that moment it became apparent to the Irish peasantry that a reform of the whole system was only a matter of time. Now, of course, it would have been a more patient and more philosophical policy on the part of the Irish peasantry, to endeavour to pay up the tithes in the meanwhile and wait for the coming of the better time foreshadowed in the words of the Sovereign. Rut reasonable persons do not expect patience and philosophy to be the guiding virtues of a half-starving population; and it cannot be doubted that the Irish peasantry caught at the encouragement given to them; and became more unwilling than ever to contribute the tithes from which they saw that sooner or later they were to be to some extent exempted. So the resistance went on, and there were the usual deeds of violence and the usual prosecutions, and O'Connell was fiercely denounced by Tory speakers and the Tory press, as if he, and not the iniquitous tithe system, were responsible for all the troubles. Committees were appointed by both Houses of Parliament to consider the whole subject; and the committees reported in substance, that no reform would be of any use which did not amount to a complete extinction of the tithes by commutation for a charge upon the land; in other words, which did not make the landowner responsible for the payment of the tithes and leave him to adjust the rents which he demanded from his tenants in accordance with the altered system.