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- Peg O' My Heart - 6/72 -
unfailing source of gratification to him that he had coined the historical utterance. He quoted it with a grim chuckle on the few occasions when some guest, unfamiliar with his prejudice, would mention in his presence the hated word "Ireland."
It appears that one particularly hard winter, when, for some unnecessary and wholly unwarrantable reason, the potato crop had failed, and the little Irish village was in a condition of desperate distress, it was found impossible to collect more than a tithe of Mr. Kingsnorth's just dues. No persuasion could make the obstinate tenants pay their rents. Threats, law-proceedings, evictions--all were useless. They simply would not pay. His agent finally admitted himself beaten. Mr. Kingsnorth must wait for better times.
Furious at his diminished income and hating, with a bitter hatred, the disloyal and cheating tenantry, he rose at a Guildhall banquet to reply to the toast of "The Colonies."
He drew vivid pictures of the splendour of the British possessions: of India--that golden and loyal Empire; Australia with its hidden mines of wealth, whose soil had scarce been scratched, peopled by patriotic, zealous and toiling millions, honestly paying their way through life by the sweat of their God-and-Queen-fearing brows. What an example to the world! A country where the wage-earner hurried, with eager footsteps, to place the honestly earned tolls at the feet of generous and trusting landlords!
Then, on the other hand, he pointed to that small portion of the British Isles, where to pay rent was a crime: where landlords were but targets for insult and vituperation--yes, and indeed for BULLETS from the hidden assassin whenever they were indiscreet enough to visit a country where laws existed but that they might be broken, and crime stalked fearlessly through the land. Such a condition was a reproach to the English government.
"Why," he asked the astonished gathering of dignitaries, "why should such a condition exist when three hundred and sixty-five men sat in the House of Commons, sent there by electors to administer the just and wise laws of a just and wise country? Why?"
As he paused and glared around the table for the reply that was not forthcoming, the undying phrase sprang new-born from his lips:
"Oh," he cried; "oh! that for one brief hour Providence would immerse that island of discontent beneath the waters of the Atlantic and destroy a people who seemed bent on destroying themselves and on disintegrating the majesty and dignity and honour of our great Empire!"
Feeling that no words of his could follow so marvellous a climax, he sat down, amid a silence that seemed to him to be fraught with eloquence, so impressive and significant was--to him--its full meaning. Some speeches are cheered vulgarly. It was the outward sign of coarse approval. Others are enjoyed and sympathised with inwardly, and the outward tribute to which was silence--and that was the tribute of that particular Guildhall gathering on that great night.
It seemed to Wilberforce Kingsnorth, hardened after-dinner speaker though he was, that never had a body of men such as he confronted and who met his gaze by dropping their eyes modestly to their glasses, been so genuinely thrilled by so original, so comprehensive and so dramatic a conclusion to a powerful appeal.
Kingsnorth felt, as he sat down, that it was indeed a red-letter night for him--and for England.
The Times, in reviewing the speeches the following morning, significantly commented that:
"Mr. Kingsnorth had solved, in a moment of entreaty, to a hitherto indifferent Providence, the entire Irish difficulty."
When Nathaniel Kingsnorth found himself the fortunate possessor of this tract of land peopled by so lawless a race, he determined to see for himself what the conditions really were, so for the first time since they owned a portion of it, a Kingsnorth set foot on Irish soil.
Accompanied by his two sisters he arrived quietly some few weeks before and addressed himself at once to the task of understanding the people and the circumstances in which they lived.
On this particular afternoon he was occupied with his agent, going systematically through the details of the management of the estate.
It was indeed a discouraging prospect. Such a condition of pauperism seemed incredible in a village within a few hours of his own England. Except for a few moderately thriving tradesmen, the whole population seemed to live from hand to mouth. The entire village was in debt. They owed the landlords, the tradesmen, they even owed each other money and goods. It seemed to be a community cut off from the rest of the world, in which nothing from the outside ever entered. No money was ever put into the village. On the contrary there was a continuous withdrawal. By present standards a day would come when the last coin would depart and the favoured spot would be as independent of money as many of the poorer people were of clothing.
It came as a shock to Nathaniel Kingsnorth. For the first time it began to dawn on him that, after all, the agitators might really have some cause to agitate: that their attitude was not one of merely fighting for the sake of the fight. Yet a lingering suspicion, borne of his early training, and his father's doctrines about Ireland, that Pat was really a scheming, dishonest fellow, obtruded itself on his mind, even as he became more than half convinced of the little village's desperate plight.
Nathaniel loathed injustice. As the magistrate of his county he punished dishonesty. Was the condition he saw due to English injustice or Irish dishonesty? That was the problem that he was endeavouring to solve.
"There doesn't seem to be a sixpence circulating through the whole place," he remarked to the agent when that gentleman had concluded his statement of the position of matters.
"And there never will be, until some one puts money into the village instead of taking it out of it," said the agent.
"You refer to the land-owners?"
"I do. And it's many's the time I wrote your father them same words."
"It is surely not unnatural for owners to expect to be paid for the use of houses and land, is it? We expect it in England," said Kingsnorth drily.
"In England the landlord usually lives on his estate and takes some pride in it."
"Small pride anyone could take in such an estate as this," Kingsnorth laughed bitterly. Then he went on: "And as for living on it--," and he shrugged his shoulders in disgust. "Before the Kingsnorths came into possession the MacMahons lived on it, and proud the people were of them and they of the people, sir."
"I wish to God they'd continued to," said Kingsnorth wrathfully.
"They beggared themselves for the people--that's what they did, sir. Improvements here--a road there. A quarry cut to give men work and a breakwater built to keep the sea from washing away the poor fishermen's homes. And when famine came not a penny rent asked--and their women-kind feedin' and nursin' the starvin' and the sick. An' all the time raisin' money to do it. A mortgage on this and a note of hand for that--until the whole place was plastered with debt. Then out they were turned."
The agent moved away and looked out across the well-trimmed lawn to conceal his emotion.
"Ill-timed charity and business principles scarcely go together, my good Burke," said Kingsnorth, with ill-concealed impatience. He did not like this man's tone. It suggested a glorification of the former BANKRUPT landlord and a lack of appreciation of the present SOLVENT one.
"So the English think," Burke answered.
Kingsnorth went on: "If we knew the whole truth we would probably find the very methods these people used were the cause of the sorry condition this village is in now. No landlord has the right to pauperise his tenantry by giving them money and their homes rent- free. It is a man's duty and privilege to WORK. INDEPENDENCE--that is what a man should aim at. The Irish are always CRYING for it. They never seem to PRACTISE it."
"Ye can't draw the water out of a kettle and expect it to boil, sir, and by the same token independence is a fine thing to tache to men who are dependent on all."
"Your sympathies appear to be entirely with the people," said Kingsnorth, looking shrewdly and suspiciously at the agent.
"No one could live here man and boy and not give it to them," answered Burke.
"You're frank, anyway."
"Pity there are not more like me, sir."
"I'll see what it is possible to do in the matter of improving conditions. Mind--I promise nothing. I put my tenants on probation. It seems hopeless. I'll start works for the really needy. If they show a desire to take advantage of my interest in them I'll extend my operations. If they do NOT I'll stop everything and put the estate on the market."
Burke looked at him and smiled a dry, cracked smile.
He was a thin, active, grizzled man, well past fifty, with keen, shrewd eyes that twinkled with humour, or sparkled with ferocity, or melted with sorrow as the mood seized him. As he answered Kingsnorth the eyes twinkled.
"I'm sure it's grateful the poor people 'ull be when they hear the good news of yer honour's interest in them."
"I hope so. Although history teaches us that gratitude is not a common quality in Ireland. 'If an Irishman is being roasted you will
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