Ireland in the late 1840s
To better understand the reasons for Michael’s lawlessness, we need to appreciate what conditions were like for people such as he in Ireland at the time. Most of the rural land in Ireland belongs to wealthy men, some of whom live on their properties, administering them personally. Others are absentee English gentry who probably inherited their estate, and not wishing to live there, employ agents as Managers. Landlords rent out much of their land to the local farming people, taking a substantial percentage of any crop as part payment of rent. Poorer people unable to afford to rent a plot may get some work with the small farmers, work as servants of the rich-or starve!
The mainstay of the economy and staple diet of the common people is the potato, which, since 1846, has been rotting in the ground due to the Blight. People are unable to pay their rents or obtain food. Additionally they are all expected to pay “Tithes” (One tenth of any proceeds from their land) to the Anglican Church-known as the Church of Ireland-the Church of the upper classes.
Labouring class people are almost all Catholic, but are still required to pay these tithes, famine or no famine! People are being evicted from their homes and dying in thousands from starvation. Typhoid fever is rampant, claiming many more lives. Many realise that their only hope of survival is to flee the country by any means possible. During the famine years 1846 to 1851, about one million people died in Ireland and two and a half million left the country as emigrants or convicts.
Could it be that Michael’s “crime” was his desperate attempt to avoid death from starvation or disease by deliberately getting himself arrested, with the almost certain consequential sentence of transportation given his political activism?
Or was it an act of political protest? Answers to questions such as these would enhance the somewhat sketchy image that we have of the man so far.
The Agrarian Outrages
Groups of Irish men, mainly from the labouring class, banded together to plan campaigns of action against the injustices of the system which treated them so unfairly.
Their aim was to make their grievances known, and to reclaim “Ireland for the Irish.” They planned and carried out almost constant harassment of the property of the wealthy landlords. These actions became known as the “Agrarian Outrages” and included:-
Burning buildings, hayricks and crops.
Stealing livestock – sometimes for food – sometimes for revenge. Cows were often taken to provide the milk in which the potatoes were cooked whenever possible.
Killing or maiming livestock, leaving it to be found by the owner or his agent.
Predictably the privileged class soon had laws passed to outlaw belonging (or being suspected of belonging) to any protest group.
At the time of Michael’s arrest the most active protest group, “The Young Irelanders,” was causing great havoc. The severity of his sentence, compared to that handed out to others convicted on the same day, almost certainly indicates that the Magistrate believed him to be a member of that group.