Local Heroes

John Horgan

  • Elections, Politics and Society in Ireland 1832-1885 by Theodore Hoppen
    Oxford, 569 pp, £29.50, October 1984, ISBN 0 19 822630 6
  • Ireland and the English Crisis by Tom Paulin
    Bloodaxe, 222 pp, £12.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 906427 63 0
  • The Great Dan: A Biography of Daniel O’Connell by Charles Chenevix Trench
    Cape, 345 pp, £10.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 224 02176 1

In the 1840s, according to Theodore Hoppen’s densely-packed and illuminating study of Irish political realities, ‘bored’ British ministers ‘grappled with the tedious but mildly pressing problems of the Irish electorate’. Douglas Hurd may not yet be bored, but he would have difficulty in bettering the description of the problems he is facing. So few of them have changed, or have been solved.

Part of the difficulty, indeed, is that the nature of the original solution was that it could be applied to only one part of the island. The original problems remain, with a malignancy enhanced by the passage of time, in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland remains a mirror image of the original ‘Irish problem’, but with the very considerable complication that the political balance militates against the application of a similar solution.

The period between O’Connell and Parnell saw the creation, in fitful stages, of an Irish electorate which took to the practice of voting with as much gusto as it had previously engaged in riot and rebellion, but without ever actually abandoning such tactics. The traditional irredentist belief that when peaceful means do not secure the redress of grievances rapidly enough, the other option may be invoked simultaneously finds its most dramatic contemporary expression in the Sinn Fein slogan: ‘a ballot-box in one hand, and an Armalite in the other’.

At elections in various parts of Ireland between 1832 and 1868, cudgels were the basic equipment at polling stations, supplemented as and where necessary by an imposing armoury of, among other things, crutches, spikes, hatchets, knives, axes, cleavers, skewers, loaded whips and sticks, pikes, paving stones, iron bars, bottles, sword canes – and, of course, guns. These somewhat crude interferences with the system were reinforced by enthusiastic and skilful voting personation practices which, aided and abetted by the inadequacies of the relevant legislation, offered splendid opportunities to the resourceful. The Northern Ireland Office, it is to be noted, is still grappling with this particular problem.

The combination of poverty, injustice and corruption in the Ireland of that time was an explosive mixture, and it is little wonder that the ballot acted to some degree as a touch-paper. Vote-buying was rife. In Athlone, one of the boroughs where the electorate was comparatively small, and where each vote was worth proportionately more, it was hardly surprising that, in the words of one commentator, ‘with many people the periodic bribe entered into the whole economy of their poor, shrivelled, squalid and weary lives.’ Not always that shrivelled or weary, however: one English candidate for election in the town failed so signally to live up to the standards required of him in the matter of resistance to alcoholic poisoning that he was eventually shipped home with a bad case of delirium tremens. Nor was bribery always eschewed even by those whose supposed stock-in-trade was principle and morality. ‘Holy Mother Church,’ complained one embittered carpet-bagger in Cashel, ‘has a very wide mouth.’

Where the power of the purse or aggressive hospitality had failed, the power of intimidation and the mob was never far behind. The landlords, not slow to see the significance of electoral reform, operated a powerful rearguard action comprised of paternalism and oppression in carefully selected proportions. So successful were they in this exercise that when O’Connell and the clergy came to wrest the weapon of popular support from their hands, it was with some difficulty that they eventually succeeded in doing so. ‘At the Kerry election of 1835,’ Hoppen notes, ‘O’Connell’s speeches reduced audiences to wild weeping, men met in excited clusters for mutual support, one voter desperately went into hiding to escape from both proprietorial and clerical coercion only to be discovered by a priest who “gave him two glasses of brandy and then took him to vote”.’

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