When Mitchell Henry entered Westminster parliament in 1871 he went with hope in his heart and a mission to tell the British people the circumstances of the Irish tenant farmer. He reminds me of the Frank Cappa film Mr Smith Goes to Washington where a naive, idealistic young man has plans to change America.* Mitchell Henry, a liberal, kindly man, had however, walked into a political cauldron, waiting to explode.
He immediately got down to business as an active member with the Irish parties already established there. He had a list of his own priorities including a railway service through Connemara to Clifden, which would give access to markets for farmers to sell their produce, and to attract tourists. Henry agreed that the Irish tenant farmer must have rights to the land he worked, and saw Home Rule as a means to that end. He allied himself to the Home Rule League, headed by the Dublin barrister Isaac Butt. He endorsed Butt’s policy that this could be achieved by persuasion and argument.
The Great Famine, however, and Britain’s sluggish response, had left deep scars. The Land League, established in Castlebar, began to show its teeth. It urged tenants in certain areas, not to pay exorbitant rents. If they were evicted the League would provide for them. Landlords, and in some cases even a tenant farmer, shopkeeper or publican, if they refused to obey the dictates of the League, were ostracised by their community. Membership of the League grew rapidly.
In places hotheads hacked off the feet of landlord’s cattle, released their animals on to the roads, burnt their barns; and in extreme cases landlords and their agents were shot dead.
Following the unexpected death of Isaac Butt there was a scramble for leadership of the Irish Parliamentary parties. Henry put his name forward, but he was totally out of his league when faced by the rising star of Charles Stewart Parnell. A ruthless political tactician, Parnell, in his drive for power, balanced his support for the Land League with skilful use of parliamentary procedure. For a time it actually seemed as if Home Rule was within grasp.
Parnell did not approve of some of the more extreme Land League methods but he was steadfast in his goal of Home Rule which he believed could be achieved by radical political action. One of his ploys was the use of ‘obstructionism’ preventing bills being passed in the House of Commons until Home Rule was granted. Irish MPs talked for as long as they wished on any subject, which caused havoc in parliament. One member spoke non-stop for 45 hours. All legislation was deadlocked.
In a letter to the Board of Guardians of the Glenamaddy Union Mitchell Henry explained why he could not support the methods used by Parnell and his followers in pursuit of their goal: ‘I solemnly declare my conviction that if ordinary common sense had been used in Parliament, and if the policy of Mr Butt had been followed, that is to convince by argument and not to attempt to exasperate for the sake of exasperation, not only would the Land Bill have been passed long before it was passed, but there would have been no coercion….all sympathy for the country has been destroyed, and the reputation of the Irish people as a God-fearing, honest, and gallant race has been rudely shaken in the eyes of the world.’
A benevolent landlord
The biggest blow that Henry suffered was not from politics, but the sudden death of his beloved wife Margaret. In 1874, just a few years after the completion of Kylemore, he had taken her, and 6 of his 9 children on a holiday to Egypt when she was struck down by fever. After two weeks suffering, and despite the best medical attention, she died. Henry was heartbroken. He had her body embalmed in Cairo and brought home to Kylemore where she rested in a glass coffin beneath the grand staircase in the front hall. Family, neighbours and tenants queued to pay their respects before she was placed in a mausoleum in the grounds.
Despite his grief Henry continued his political life as best he could. At Westminster he carried on the argument for Home Rule, while supporting the role of the landlord in Irish society. Henry saw himself as a benevolent landlord, yet he had to defend himself from accusations which were often untrue, but in a society where tenants were totally dependent of their landlord’s goodwill, there was always some general truth in their complaints.
“It is an absolute falsehood to say that I deprived any tenants of seaweed and sand. On the contrary I made a new road, the better to enable them to obtain it, and I charge nobody for seaweed or for turbary, as is the case elsewhere. Doubtless there is still much misery on parts of my estate. But I cannot make people provident all at once, nor can I control the seasons, or build and improve houses faster than I am doing …one phrase common among them (the tenants ) when the great sorrow fell upon my house and will never fade from my memory, and has often brought tears to my eyes - for when she, who was their benefactress and their friend, but not their landlord, was taken away, these ‘ill-used’ tenants said ‘It is not our mistress we have lost, but our mother.’”
Next week: A further tragedy, disillusionment, and the Henrys abandon Kylemore.
NOTES: It is still one of my favourite movies. Jefferson Smith (James Stewart ) is appointed to the US Senate as a stooge for property wheelers and dealers (Claude Rains ), but is quickly disillusioned by the corruption he finds. Instead of packing his bags and heading for home, he is persuaded by his secretary (Jean Arthur ) to mount an impassioned challenge to the system in the form of a marathon filibuster or obstructionism. Smith may have learned something from Parnell.
In the popular climatic scene of the movie, Smith successfully exposes the attempted graft, and wins the day, and the girl. Unfortunately Mitchell Henry did not approve of ‘obstructionism’ and did not succeed with his political ambitions.
For this article I am leaning on The Last Pool of Darkness, by Tim Robinson, Penguin Books 2008, and Beyond The Twelve Bens, by Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill, first published 1986.