This is a work-in-progress blog serial about aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page. #IUCRevisited
“As to the troubles of the Ponsonby estate, Father Keller spoke freely. He divided the responsibility for them between the untractableness of the agent, and the absenteeism of the owner.”
–William Henry Hurlbert
Hurlbert’s interview with Father Daniel Keller in Youghal, County Cork, provided another glimpse of a local Catholic priest involved in the land struggles of the 1880s. It added to Hurlbert’s earlier encounters with Father James McFadden in Gweedore, County Donegal, and Father Patrick White in Milltown Malby, County Clare. In all three cases, the American journalist arrived with some aspects of the story already developed, with more elements to come after he left Ireland.
The 10,000-acre estate of Charles Talbot Ponsonby, about 30 miles east Cork city, in November 1886 became the first property targeted for the Plan of Campaign, the Irish nationalist strategy to force landlords to reduce rents. If landlords refused to lower rates, the rent was placed in a fund used to assist evicted tenants. In March 1887, Father Keller was summoned to testify about the fund because authorities believed he was the secret trustee.
Calling the priest into court stirred a riot in Youghal that left Patrick Hanlon, a young fisherman, bayoneted to death by police. When Father Keller refused to testify about the fund, he was cited for contempt of court and jailed for two months at Kilmainhan Gaol. The first tenant evictions on the Ponsonby estate occurred shortly after the priest’s release in May 1887.
The troubled simmered until Hurlbert arrived in late February 1888. He described Father Keller as “the best dressed and most distinguished-looking priest I have yet seen in Ireland, with … the erect bearing of a soldier.” The priest, he wrote, “stands firmly by the position which earned him a sentence of imprisonment last year.”
Father Keller told Hurlbert that “it was by the tenants themselves that the determination was taken to adopt” the Plan of Campaign. He described his own role as “peace-maker” and blamed Ponsonby for not accepting the “reasonable rental” offered by the tenants. The priest continued:
Instead of this, look at the law costs arising out of bankruptcy proceedings and sheriff’s sales and writs and processes, and the whole district thrown in to disorder and confusion, and the industrious people now put out of holdings, and forced into idleness. … [T]he unfortunate incident of the loss of Hanlon’s life would never have occurred had I been duly appraised of what was going on in the town. … Pray understand that I do not say all landlords stand at all where Mr. Ponsonby has been put by his agent, for that is not the case; but the action of many landlords in the county Cork is sustaining Mr. Ponsonby, whose estate is and has been as badly rack-rented an estate as can be found, is, in my judgement, most unwise, and threatening to the peace and happiness of Ireland.
Father Keller gave Hurlbert a copy of his 18-page pamphlet, “The Struggle for Life on the Ponsonby Estate.” Hurlbert, in the appendix of his book, said the tract was “so circumstantial and elaborate” that he reached out to Ponsonby for comment. He met the landlord 15 May 1888, in London.
Ponsonby dismissed Father Keller as “a newcomer at Youghal” [The priest arrived three years earlier.] who was “hardly so much of an authority” about the estate he acquired 20 years earlier. Ponsonby showed Hurlbert the May 1868 letter of welcome signed by 50 of his tenants. In part, it said:
We will not disguise from you the conviction generally entertained that the improvement of landed property, and the condition of its occupiers, is best promoted under the personal observation and supervision of the proprietor, and your tenantry on that account hail with satisfaction the promise your presence affords of future intercourse between you and them.
Ponsonby said he immediately borrowed 2,000 pounds to make drainage improvements on the land, with the estate’s 300 tenants agreed to pay half the interest on the loan. “As a matter of fact some never paid at all, and I afterwards wiped out the claims against them,” the landlord said.
Ponsonby said it was “nonsense” for Father Keller to describe his rates as rack renting, and that prior to the Plan of Campaign he had never evicted any tenants for being less than three years in arrears. Since then, he said, tenants selected for eviction were not those who could not pay, but those who could pay, “and who were led, or, I believe in most cases, ‘coerced’ into refusing to pay by agitators with Mr. [William John] Lane, MP, to inspire them, and Canon Keller, PP, to glorify them in tracts.”
The landlord’s use of “coercion” matched Hurlbert’s own deployment of the word in the title of his book, and throughout the text. Ponsonby also made another point that Hurlbert noted in other parts of his book: that even as tenants refused their rents, the landlords still had to pay taxes.
By January 1889, Ponsonby was broke. He sold the estate two months later to a syndicate of wealthy men secretly organized by Chief Secretary for Ireland Arthur Balfour. That summer, the new owners evicted more tenants, who were unable to draw money from the depleted Plan of Campaign fund. The standoff continued until early 1892, when over 100 tenants accepted the terms of the new owners and returned to the estate, much to the dismay of Father Keller.
NOTES: From pages 236-242, and 448-454, of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. … Also, “Canon Keller of Youghal,” by Felix M. Larkin, pages 154-163 in Defying The Law of the Land: Agrarian Radicals in Irish History, edited by Brian Casey, The History Press, Ireland, 2013. … Cork Past and Present.IE.
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Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan