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In the year 1845 marked symptoms appeared of the approaching total failure of the national food. The early crop had been saved, but throughout the whole country the late crop was lost. As, however, the grain crop was abundant, the loss was not so severely felt. But the Government were so alarmed that they appointed a commission, consisting of Professors Kane, Lindley, and Playfair, eminent chemists, to inquire into the cause of the failure; but all their skill was unavailing to discover the nature of the mysterious agency by which the destruction was effected. The farmers and peasantry were not deterred from putting in an abundant crop of potatoes next year. In the beginning of the season the crops seemed in excellent condition, and there was every prospect of a plentiful harvest; but suddenly the blight came, as if the crop had been everywhere smitten with lightning, or a withering blast had swept over the whole country. "On the 27th of July," said Father Mathew, "I passed from Cork to Dublin, and this doomed plant bloomed in all the luxuriance of an abundant harvest. Returning on the 3rd of August, I beheld one wide waste of putrefying vegetation. In many places the wretched people were seated on the fences of their decaying gardens, wringing their hands and bewailing bitterly the destruction that had left them foodless." First a brown spot appeared on the leaf; the spots gradually increased in number and size until the foliage withered, the stem became brittle, and snapped off immediately when touched. In less than a week the whole process of destruction was accomplished. The fields assumed a blackened appearance; the roots were like pigeons' eggs, which gradually rotted away, and were wholly unfit for food. In one week the chief support of the masses was utterly lost.
Such are the elements which constituted the nucleus of that great nation which has been growing up under the British sceptre in North America. The French and Roman Catholic portions of the community could be most easily excited to disaffection against their Protestant governors, and in 1834 the irritation of the popular mind, supposed to be chiefly the work of the clergy, had risen to such a height that the Home Government thought it prudent to recall the Governor, Lord Aylmer, supposing his administration to be the cause of it. Sir Robert Peel appointed Lord Amherst as his successor. In one respect he was not the best that could be selected; for though his antecedents and experience were sufficient to warrant the appointment, the name must have been obnoxious to the priests and people of Lower Canada, as it was by the arms of his uncle, whose title he inherited, that the province had been wrested from France. He had been at one time ambassador to China, and subsequently Governor-General of India. He had, however, no opportunity of testing his administrative abilities in this new field, for after the fall of Peel the Melbourne Government determined on associating him with two Commissioners. Lord Melbourne thereupon sent out the Earl of Gosford as Governor, with a Board of Commissioners, of which he was chairman, to inquire into the grievances by which the colony was agitated. The Government having refused to sanction a Bill that had been brought into the Lower House of Assembly for the purpose of rendering the Upper House elective, the Lower House had recourse to the extreme proceeding of stopping the supplies. The salaries of all the public servants ceased to be paid, in consequence of which the Colonial Secretary authorised the Governor to advance 31,000 from the military chest to meet the emergency. The Governor having required time to consider the answer he should give in these circumstances, the Opposition members all withdrew; and they were so numerous that they did not leave a quorum to carry on the public business.
The Duke brought this letter to Mr. Peel, who read it in his presence, and then at once told him that he would not press his retirement, but would remain in office, and would propose, with the king's consent, the measures contemplated by the Government for the settlement of the Catholic question. Immediately after this decision was taken he attended a meeting of the Cabinet and announced his determination to his colleagues. One of these, Lord Ellenborough, could not refrain from writing to express his admiration of his conduct, dictated by true statesmanlike wisdom; adding that he had acted nobly by the Government, and in a manner which no member of it would forget. On the day that the king got the paper, those of the Ministers who had uniformly voted against the Catholic question had each a separate interview with the king, and individually expressed their concurrence in the course Mr. Peel recommended. The Ministers werethe Duke of Wellington, Lord Lyndhurst, Lord Bathurst, Mr. Goulburn, and Mr. Herries. The king, after this interview, intimated his consent that the Cabinet should consider the whole state of Ireland, and submit their views to him, not pledging himself, however, to adopt them, even if they should concur unanimously in the course to be pursued. The king was not convinced by Mr. Peel's arguments. He admitted it to be a good statement, but denied that it was an argumentative one.
The disorganised state of Ireland, occasioned by the famine and the enormous system of public relief which fostered idleness and destroyed the customary social restraints that kept the people in order, naturally led to much outrage and crime in that country. At the close of the ordinary Session of 1847, the Parliament, which had existed six years, was dissolved. The general election excited very little political interest, the minds of all parties being concentrated upon the terrible famine in Ireland, and the means necessary to mitigate its effects. The first Session of the new Parliament commenced on the 18th of November. Mr. Shaw-Lefevre was re-elected Speaker without opposition, some leading Conservatives expressing their admiration of the impartiality and dignity with which he had presided over the deliberations of the House. The Royal Speech was delivered by commission. It lamented that in some counties in Ireland atrocious crimes had been committed, and a spirit of insubordination had manifested itself, leading to an organised resistance to legal rights. Parliament was therefore requested to take further precautions against the perpetration of crime in that country; at the same time recommending the consideration of measures that would advance the social improvement of its people. In the course of the debate on the Address the state of Ireland was the subject of much discussion; and on the 29th of November Sir George Grey, then Home Secretary, brought in a Bill for this purpose. In doing so, he gave a full exposition of the disorganised state of the country. He showed that "the number of attempts on life by firing at the person, which was, in six months of 1846, 55, was in the same six months of 1847, 126; the number of robberies of arms, which was, in six months of 1846, 207, in the same six months of 1847 was 530; and the number of firings of dwellings, which in six months of 1846 was 51, was, in the same six months of 1847, 116. Even this statement gave an inadequate idea of the increase of those offences in districts which were now particularly infested by crime. The total number of offences of the three classes which he had just mentioned amounted, in the last month, to 195 in the whole of Ireland; but the counties of Clare, Limerick, and Tipperary furnished 139 of themthe extent of offences in those counties being 71 per cent. on the total of offences in Ireland, and the population being only 13 per cent. on the whole population of Ireland." It was principally to those counties that his observations applied; but as the tendency of crime was to spread, they must be applied in some degree also to King's County, Roscommon, and part of Fermanagh. The crimes which he wished to repress were not directed against the landlord class alone, but against every class and description of landowners. Their ordinary object was the commission of wilful and deliberate assassination, not in dark or desolate places, but in broad daylightof assassination, too, encouraged by the entire impunity with which it was perpetrated; for it was notorious that none but the police would lend a hand to arrest the flight, or capture the person, of the assassin. The reader of this treatise will perceive that I have omitted all reference to a certain class of crime, which has deluged Europe with human blood; a crime which raised those fatal piles, where living human bodies served as food for the flames, and where the blind multitude sought a pleasant spectacle and a sweet harmony from the low dull groans, emitted by wretched sufferers from volumes of black smoke, the smoke of human limbs, whilst their bones and still palpitating entrails were scorched and consumed by the flames. But reasonable men will see that the place, the age, and the subject suffer me not to inquire into the nature of such a crime. It would be too long and remote from my subject to show, how a perfect uniformity of thought ought, contrary to the practice of many countries, to be a necessity in a State; how opinions, which only differ by the most subtle and imperceptible degrees, and are altogether beyond the reach of human intelligence, can yet convulse society, when one of them is not legally authorised in preference to the others; and how the nature of opinions is such, that, whilst some become clearer by virtue of their conflict and opposition, (those that are true floating and surviving, but those that are false sinking to oblivion,) others again, with no inherent self-support, require to be clothed with authority and power. Too long would it be to prove, that howsoever hateful may seem the government of force over human minds, with no other triumphs to boast of but dissimulation and debasement, and howsoever contrary it may seem to the spirit of gentleness and fraternity, commanded alike by reason and the authority we most venerate, it is yet necessary and indispensable. All this should be taken as clearly proved and conformable to the true interests of humanity, if there be anyone who, with recognised authority, acts accordingly. I speak only of crimes that spring from the nature of humanity and the social compact; not of sins, of which even the temporal punishments should be regulated by other principles than those of a narrow philosophy.
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