In 1887 Arthur J Balfour, a quintessential English unionist, was appointed chief secretary of Ireland by his uncle Lord Salisbury, the Conservative prime minister. No one expected much from this man whose appointment appeared so nepotistic as to suggest he was an incompetent. He was far from that.
Despite his aristocratic heritage, through a series of revolutionary Acts he threw most of the landlord class out of Ireland, giving some 200,000 former tenants ownership of their own land through generous loans spread out over 60 years.
How did this extraordinary change of affairs come about? English politics at the time was in chaos, driven mad by the Irish Parliamentary Party under the leadership of one of the most formidable figures in parliamentary history, Charles S Parnell.
The IPP virtually had Home Rule in its grasp. The previous prime minister Gladstone (Liberal ) was converted to Parnell’s belief that only Home Rule would bring peace to Ireland which in the preceding decade had seen the murder of landlords and their agents, rent strikes, evictions, boycott, huge protest meetings and demonstrations, and a growing international outcry that something must be done.
Balfour saw immediately that the problem was rural poverty, the landlord system, and the lack of commercial opportunities for rural inhabitants. He believed that if the land question was solved the Home Rule campaign would lose its vigour. He set about killing Home Rule with kindness.
He described the Irish land system as ‘essentially and radically rotten’. He was abrasive in his opinions of the greedier landlords, and was particularly critical of absentee landowners.
With his secretary George Wyndham (who would later succeed him as chief secretary )*, he drafted a series of Land Acts which bought out landlords (compulsory purchase was there if required ), and offered easy repayable loans for tenants to buy land, and have what the Land League had long promised, ‘security of tenure’ for ever.
Most landlords and their families re-located to Britain giving up their political power in Ireland. Rural violence dramatically declined. Balfour succeeded in out-manoeuvring Parnell at his own game.
Balfour continued his reforms with renewed energy. Through the Light Railways Act of 1889 he paved the way for a series of railways to link distant communities with new markets and terminal hubs. This included the Galway-Clifden railway.
Like other observers, Balfour found it hard to understand why, when the seas were plentiful, commercial fishing was poorly regarded by western islanders. He set up the Congested Districts Board to spend money developing fisheries, small industries, land drainage and better housing.
And in yet another extraordinary move, accompanied only by his sister Miss Balfour, George Wyndham and two other government officials, setting out from Dublin on October 29 1890, ** he went on a prolonged ‘walkabout’ through Connemara, into Mayo, and Donegal.
Coming as it did only eight years after the murder of the newly appointed chief secretary of Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and his assistant Thomas H Burke, in Phoenix Park, such an exposure, without police escort, was regarded as foolhardy. But with only very rare exceptions Balfour was greeted with courtesy and friendliness. He listened to people’s hardships and took note of the improvements they sought. It was a PR masterstroke.
The possibility of a railway link, or steam tramway, between Clifden and Galway had long gripped the imagination of every forward-looking man in the area. Ten years before Balfour’s Light Railway’s Act there were several plans for a railway link as Clifden, and its surrounding small villages, could be cut off from the rest of the world due to its location. For most of the year, because of a poor road network, they were supplied with the necessities of life by sea, but were abandoned in bad weather leaving them at the mercy of cart-owners who drove out from Galway and delivered small parcels at £1.10 shillings a load.
A rail-link made good commercial sense and it was well supported. Mitchel Henry of Kylemore and Mr Eyre contributed £5,000 each, with others giving anything from £1,000 to £500 towards a private company.
Then, a bit like the Galway Gluas proposal, someone suggested a steam-tram along the coast was a far cheaper option. Representatives from a Dublin company who had created two steam-ways from Dublin to Blessington, and from Dublin to Lucan were anxious for the contract, and explained their system at public meetings. But all that was lost when the Balfour railway scheme was announced, to be built and managed by the Midland Great Western and Railway Company.
Disagreement arose as to which district the proposed line would serve. Everyone agreed with the Galway to Oughterard route, but after that opinions were divided. The largest population lived along the coast, said to be 60,000; and as the railway was purposed to advance the development of fisheries many believed that it should follow the coast through Spiddal, Carraroe, Roundstone and on to Clifden. Even the MGWR company agreed this was the best route, but we are told that when all possibilities were placed before the Royal Commission for Irish Public Works, it decided that the route was Oughterard through Connemara to Clifden. Despite it being the least populated route, it was probably the cheaper of the two choices.
Applause for Balfour
The route was already decided when Balfour and his party arrived in Galway, in a succession of cars after his Connemara tour. The city’s great and good gathered to meet him at the Railway Hotel (now The Hardiman ). The railway was discussed. It was suggested that in addition a steam tram could also service the coastal towns, but Balfour shook his head. The route through Connemara was decided by the Commission. ‘It will cost £300,000 to £330,000 no further monies will be spent’. But he would look at the proposal again, adding: “ everyone will, I am sure, understand me when I say that it is from no lack of zeal on my part (applause ) if that or any other scheme which is for the benefit of this country cannot be carried out at this present time.” (Applause )
As Balfour and his party left the hotel to catch the Dublin train, a crowd had gathered ‘and was perfectly good humoured and the entire proceedings passed off pleasantly’.
‘Mr Balfour was again cheered as the train steamed out of the station, and several persons on the platform raised their hats.’ ***
Next week: A vast building site through the centre of Connemara.
NOTES: *After Balfour, Wyndham continued with land reform, tackled poor and inadequate housing in rural districts, made a generous attempt to settle the university question (where the Catholic hierarchy was not happy with the education offered ), and continued his support for industries and communications.
** The following month, November 17 1890, marked the beginning of Parnell’s downfall. Although his affair with Katherine O’ Shea had been known for some time, when a divorce decree was granted to her on that date, and Parnell named as co-respondent, it caused a huge political scandal, leading to the breakup of the IPP. Home Rule was a lost cause. Despite his best endeavours Parnell never recovered political power again. He died the following year aged 45. His grave is movingly marked in Glasnevin by a rough-hewn Wicklow stone with one word only: Parnell.
*** Balfour must have been pleased with his work in Ireland, and the postponement of Home Rule for the foreseeable future. In July 1902 he succeeded his uncle as prime minister.
(Sources include Beyond The Twelve Bens by K Villiers-Tuthill, The Balfour Tours in Connemara and Donegal, a booklet by The Daily Express, and Google. )
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