This blog serial explored 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
“Whatever ‘landlordism’ may mean elsewhere in Ireland, it is plain enough that in the history of Gweedore it has meant the difference between savage squalor and civilization.”
–William Henry Hurlbert
Hurlbert reached Gweedore, in western Donegal, where he visited Father James McFadden, a tenant activist. Their discussion about the priest’s recent arrest would foreshadow a more famous event one year later.
Hurlbert begins this section of the book with a detailed history of Gweedore since Lord George Hill arrived 50 years earlier and “made up his mind to see what could be done with this forgotten corner of the world. … The old rundale plan of dividing up the land among the children was put a stop to, and every tenant was encouraged not to make his holding smaller, but to add to and enlarge it.”
Hurlbert’s description of rural peasants as “children,” above and below, once again demonstrates his pro-landlord, anti-tenant bias. He continued:
“Clearly in Gweedore I have a case not of the children of the soil despoiled and trampled upon by the stranger, but of the honest investment of alien capital in Irish land, and of the administration by the proprietor himself of the Irish property so acquired for the benefit alike of the owner and the occupiers of the land. That the deplorable state in which he found the people was mainly due to their own improvidence and gregarious incapacity is also tolerably clear.”
Hill certainly made improvements in the area: drainage, roads, and mills, which he detailed in his 1845 book, Facts from Gweedore. He died in 1879, the year Micheal Davitt, Charles Stewart Parnell and others launched the Irish National Land League to reduce rents, facilitate tenant ownership and foster Irish nationalism. Father McFadden took a leadership role in the League’s local chapter, which challenged the heir, Captain Arthur Hill, and other landlords.
In January 1888, Father McFadden was arrested on a charge of inciting tenants to withhold their rents under the Plan of Campaign, an activist strategy begun in late 1886 by Irish nationalists and their supporters in America. He was waiting to begin his sentence when Hurlburt arrived on 5 February 1888.
The priest “spoke freely and without undue heat” about his arrest and trial, Hurlbert reported. Father McFadden did complain that the court clerk read in eight minutes “a speech which it took me an hour and twenty minutes to deliver.”
Hurlbert is silent about whether he asked Father McFadden if he made the inflammatory statement, “I am the law in Gweedore; I despise the recent  Coercion Act.” In his meeting with Chief Secretary for Ireland Arthur Balfour earlier in the book, Hurlbert claimed he was shown the government’s evidence, which contained the statement.
Hurlbert asked the priest if the Plan of Campaign “did not in effect abrogate the moral duty of a man to meet the legal obligations he had voluntarily incurred?”
Father McFadden replied: “If a man can pay a fair year’s rent out of the produce of his holding, he is bound to pay it. But if the rent be a rack-rent, imposed on the tenant against his will, or if the holding does not produce the rent, then I don’t think that is a strict obligation of conscience.”
Their meeting ended on a friendly note, as Hurlbert accepted a glass of wine from the priest.
Six days later, at Baron’s Court, County Tyrone, Hurlbert interviewed Sergeant Owen Mahony, the R.I.C. constable who provided the testimony that convicted Father McFadden.
Mahony said that he was selected to monitor Father McFadden’s speech at the Land League rally at Doe, 20 miles northeast of Gweedore, because he spoke Irish, the language used by the priest; and because he also had stenographic skills.
“What I did was to put down in English words what I heard said in Irish,” Mahony told Hurlbert. “This I had to do because I have no stenographic signs for the Irish words. … [Father McFadden] said that ‘he is the law in Gweedore, and they should heed no other’ … He dislikes me because I am living proof that he is not the only law in Gweedore.”
Father McFadden was incarcerated in April 1888 at Derry, his original three month sentence doubled during appeal. He was released in October and greeted by a cheering crowd. “He declared the imprisonment had broken neither his health nor his spirits, and that he would continue to denounce the landlords’ government,” according to a news cable from Ireland.
Hurlbert’s coverage of Father McFadden was criticized as the American’s just-published book was being “devoured by the gullible people of England.”
On 3 February 1889, a year after Hurlbert’s visit, R.I.C. Inspector William Martin tried to arrest Father McFadden at Derryberg, four miles west of Greedore, in connection with further agrarian agitation. The priest reportedly was still wearing his vestments and carrying the Holy Eucharist in a ciborium. A crowd surrounded Martin and beat him to death. Father McFadden and several parishioners were soon arrested for murder.
At their highly publicized trial, the priest plead guilty to a lesser charge, while the others received manslaughter sentences, according to Tim O’Sullivan’s online history of Gweedore. Father McFadden was prohibited from further political activities and later transferred him to another parish.
The priest in 1889 published his own book, The Present and The Past of The Agrarian Struggle in Gweedore,” in which he criticized Lord George Hill’s title as “Fictions from Gweedore.” He did not mention Hurlbert’s book.
NEXT: Landscapes & landmarks
NOTES: This post is based on pages 46 (Balfour meeting), and 77 to 140 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. Quote about release of Father McFadden from 6 October 1888, issue of The Kingston (N.Y.) Daily Freeman. Quote about Hurlbert’s book from 8 September 1888 issue of the Dundalk Democrat.
Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan