WE have already recorded some desperate and foolish acts of the Irish peasantry; but, if crime ever admits of palliation, much may be advanced in apology for the illegal conduct of that oppressed people. Apprehensive that the laws of the realm are unfavourable to them, they lie at the mercy of every tyrant who may choose to gratify caprice or promote his own interest. Driven thus by oppression, can it be wondered at that they take upon themselves to do what they erroneously suppose the law will not do for them, and plunge into acts that make them amenable to justice? The weak and the defenceless are soon overpowered by legal authority, but their lordly and imperious tyrants, who goaded them to deeds of blood are applauded for their loyalty, while their poor tenantry are suspended upon the gibbet as examples to scare the million, who return from the sight strengthened in their hereditary opinion that there is "no law for an Irishman." Let them, however, undeceive themselves, and learn, from the following case, that the impartial omnipotence of British laws is able to protect the poorest peasant and punish the most lordly villain.
Lord Louth disgraced at once the peerage and the magistracy*[see Note] by an act of oppression which, alas! is too frequent in Ireland. His lordship had a tenant, named Matthews, who occupied four acres of land, and was employed as a labourer. by his lordship, from 1801 to 1809, without ever incurring the displeasure of this stem of aristocracy. But the noble peer thought his tenant too happy, and resolved upon diminishing his enjoyments, by converting his four acres of poor land to his own use. Perhaps his lordship wanted to try upon this mighty farm some new system of agriculture; but Paddy thought his lordship might put his theory into practice in some corner of his large domain, and bluntly refused to surrender his little field to the rapacious nobleman, who; it appeared, wanted it only because he thought, by sowing turnips in it, he could make it more productive than by leaving it at a moderate rent with Mr Matthews.
'Provoke not the mighty,' said the moralist; but Paddy did not understand, or at least did not act upon this maxim, and from that hour forward he experienced nothing from his lordship but repeated acts of vexatious oppression. But the Irish are an enduring people, and from long habit are regardless of such trifling acts of cruelty from their betters. His lordship vas no philosopher. and he was indignant at finding Paddy a stoic, when he had not the honour himself of belonging to any fraternity of sages, although his economical propensities entitled him to be classed with the respectable followers of the elder Cato, and the turnip-loving Fabius, whose attachment to cheap diet was equalled, if not surpassed, by this Irish nobleman.
Paddy had his full share of that shrewd sagacity which Providence has, for wise reasons, no doubt, so amply dispensed to his countrymen, and defeated, for a while, by his cunning, the anger of his landlord. But what can wisdom do, when opposed to power without principle? His lordship caused Matthews to be summoned before him on an alleged charge of cutting down some trees of his lordship's between sunrise and sunset; but the wisdom of Providence has wonderfully qualified all things in nature. Where it has given the poisonous sting, it has denied the members of progression, wings or feet. In the moral world, where we find a bad man we generally find a great deficiency of intellect. It appeared, that where his lordship accused Matthews of cutting down the timber, a tree had not grown for centuries; and consequently the hearing of the case was postponed from that day, Monday, to the following Saturday.
Matthews thought the charge abandoned; but no! on the following Thursday his lordship, accompanied by several constables, beset his house sad made him prisoner. In vain the poor man declared his wife was dying! In vain he pointed to his dead infant, that required to be interred! In vain he protested his innocence, sad beseeched his landlord to allow him to remain at home for another day to perform the last melancholy office for his child. But the peer was inexorable, and, without either oath, information, or document whatever, to substantiate the charge, committed the poor man to gaol for a felony. Here he remained twenty-four days, and was not discharged until the assizes, when there was no prosecution.
For this conduct a criminal information was filed against his lordship in the Court of King's Bench; and, it appearing that he was actuated by malicious motives, and a vile spirit of revenge, he was found guilty of abuse in his office of magistrate. The Court recommended him to make adequate compensation to the injured man, and, to afford him time to do so, protracted the period of declaiming his sentence.
On the 19th of June, 1811, his lordship was brought up to receive sentence, and, it appearing that he had paid Matthews three hundred pounds, Judge Day sentenced him to three months' confinement in Newgate.
During his lordship's sojourn in durance, his parsimonious habits attracted the notice of Watty Cox, the editor of the Irish Magazine, who was confined for a libel. Accordingly Watty honoured his lordship with a place in his publication, and gave an engraving of the degraded nobleman in the act of blowing his fire with a mutilated pair of bellows, insinuating that his parsimony would not allow him to purchase a good one.
*Note: A memorable reproof of a magistrate occurred at Cardiff this year, 1811, upon the circuit there. A gentleman of opulence, a magistrate, and of undoubted repute, addressed a letter to one of the judges, in which his object was, not only to accuse a culprit (committed for manslaughter upon a coroner's inquest) of a deliberate and savage murder, but also, upon the evidence of assertion alone, to inflame the judicial mind of his correspondent against that prisoner, by persuading the judge, before-hand, that unless the accused should be cut off by the law, not a life near him, or within his reach, could be safe. He represented this man as a conspirator in a desperate clan of miscreants, who were men of sanguinary habits and passions.
He told the judge that all the witnesses who were to be heard were partial to the accused, and would suppress the facts they knew, unless his lordship would make them speak out; and he desired him to keep the secret of these hints, for which he gave this reason, that every thing valuable to him was at stake in withholding from this clan a knowledge of the part he took against them.
When the judge had read this letter, which he received in court, the bar and grand jury attending, he told them a letter had been just put into his hand, and he named the writer of it; he added, that circumstances of peculiar delicacy respecting the subject of that letter imposed upon his feelings the painful necessity of deferring to publish the contents till the gaol had been delivered, but that he should then direct his principal officer to read it aloud, and should pass a marked and public censure upon it, after delivering which he should command the deposit of the letter upon the files of the court, for safe custody, accompanied by a note of its doom, that if the writer chose to appear he would be in time, and would be heard. When the man accused of the manslaughter had been tried, and had received sentence of imprisonment for three months, he was remanded. The writer of the letter did not appear, and the judge delivered himself nearly as follows to a numerous audience:--
'You have heard this letter, and your looks were eloquent. They reprobated this tampering and cruel artifice.
'A magistrate of the county, at whose mercy, in some degree, are the lives and liberties of men, writes to me for the single purpose of insinuating and whispering away a man's life, by undue influence upon the judgment or the feelings of his correspondent.
'His object is, to invert the habit and principle of a judicial trust, which is that of being counsel for the prisoners, into the new and sanguinary department of a suborned advocate against them. His letter prompts me to goad the witnesses into evidence more hostile to the culprit than it was their intention to give -- advice to me, insinuated behind the back of the accused, and just before his trial, upon evidence of assertion alone, unduly and surreptitiously communicated!
'But what heightens the depravity of this insult upon the Court, and the cruelty of it, as it has taken aim at the parties who are implicated, is the confidence proposed and claimed.
'My God!' said the judge, 'is it in 1811 that any man breathing, a subject of this realm, could think a judge base enough to be an accomplices in this fraud upon the sacred honour of his covenant upon oath; of his dignified indifference to parties; and. above all, of his presumptions, which are those of the law, that up to the moment of conviction, by authentic and sworn proof, the accused be innocent?
'What can be said for the writer?
'Even to him I would be merciful. is it an error of judgment? Is it ignorance? But can we forget that he is a magistrate, and that he is a man? Shall a magistrate be indemnified, or dismissed with a gentle rebuke, who is ignorant of the judicial honour imposed upon him by his peculiar office? Is he a man so unenlightened as to be unapprised of those feelings which tell every honourable mind that no man is to be condemned unheard, and whispered out of the world by a secret between his accuser and his judge?
'As a memorial to after-ages of the disgrace inseparable from attempts like these, I direct the officer to file this letter upon the records of the Court, accompanied by a note of the fact that it was read aloud in open Court, and severely censured by the Judge to whom it was addressed.'
The other judge assenting, it was made a rule of the Court.