HE HAS BEEN described as Ireland’s favourite Englishman. He was George Howard, Lord Morpeth of Castle Howard in North Yorkshire.
He was the scion of an ancient English aristocratic family, and in the context of the immediate post-revolution Ireland in which I grew up, an unlikely candidate for an Irish accolade.
He did not merit even a footnote in the history textbooks which I studied at school, where objectivity or analysis was an unwritten prohibition and where “Can anything good come out of England?” was the skewed mantra of the time. The fact that all, but three, of my contemporaries ultimately emigrated and earned their livings in England, was not anticipated, even as a possibility. The importance of peaceful legislation and reform, versus the gun and the spilling of blood, was never debated.
Yet, Lord Morpeth was so respected and loved in the Ireland in which he served for five years from 1835-41, that upwards of 200,000 people from all strata of Irish society, signed a testimonial of appreciation to him when he was leaving Ireland. Approximately 160,000 of these signatures survive in a most unique way, and form the centrepiece of an absorbing exhibition in the Main Guard, Clonmel, under the title of The Morpeth Roll. It is a must-see. For everybody!
Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, requested and organised the signatures, which were gathered on sheets of paper, ultimately assembled on a roll - a large wooden bobbin, housed in a chest. This, in the circumstances of communication in the Ireland of 1841, was a feat of organisation and all achieved within five weeks. It is assumed that Charles Bianconi, whose signature is contained on the roll, was instrumental in the transport of at least some sections of this enormous document.
The Roll is presented against a backdrop of explanatory text, easily readable and very succinct. The presentation has been a joint project between Castle Howard, where it has resided for over 170 years, Maynooth and Ancestry.com and is supported by The Gathering. And its display in the Main Guard - well, what can one say - except that when our Irish Board of Works does something, it does it superbly well!
Lord Morpeth was under secretary in Ireland to Thomas Drummond under a Whig administration in 1835. It could be cynically said that the balance of power in that government, which was supported by Daniel O’Connell, informed many of the legislative reforms which took place in the Ireland of the time. It could also be said that there was a pragmatic decision based on the opinion that “if we give something to the lawless Irish now, it will keep them quiet.”
But is this too simplistic? The 19th century was significant in the changes which took place in political and social thinking, and in concepts of social justice. It became the century of reforms, and in Ireland, Lord Morpeth and the Irish Members of Parliament, led by Daniel O’Connell, were at the forefront of that reform. It was a practical combination of politics and pragmatism. Although Dan Breen (of this parish) was to say, more than eight decades later: “It’s not reform we want it’s revenge,” the facts are that legislative reform is the slow-route to real freedom and democracy. When the guns and the bullets have ceased, and all the bodies have been buried, it is the people meeting and talking, agreeing and disagreeing, arguing and compromising, that makes for a climate of peace.
And, anyway, as we all know, revenge is a dish best eaten cold!
In contrast with many of their predecessors, Secretary Drummond and Under-secretary, Morpeth, travelled widely in the country and were appalled by the conditions under which a now expanding population of Irish people, lived. They identified discrepancies in the appointment of Catholics, even well-educated Catholics, to posts in administration and the law, and subsequently Irish Catholics were appointed to important positions of influence.
They were instrumental in paving the way for local government reform, and though not entirely successful, efforts were made to eradicate the systematic exclusion of Catholics from juries. The use of the military in the collection of tithes was abolished. The duo oversaw the implementation of the National School system of education. They emphasised the responsibility of landlords to their tenants: “property has its duties as well as its right.”
Again, it could be said that they were pragmatically improving standards in Ireland to reinforce the Union, but it seems that both men genuinely liked the Irish people and were concerned with improving their conditions.
Daniel O’Connell, although touched by passion, was no mean political pragmatist himself, had a close friendship with Morpeth, and he was responsible for the Roll.
The reforms enacted, although now accepted as basic human rights were, in their time, revolutionary, and ushered in the slow steady growth of democracy which led to independence and our modern state. The advancements made, through politics and legislation, were lost in folk memory in the devastation of the Great Famine, and the subsequent episodes of militancy became the dominant force in that memory.
The Morpeth exhibition is intersting in itself, but it also invites us to re-assess how we look at the complexity of our history. There were, in fact, good Englishmen!