The Famous 1881 Debate - Key Issues

While in popular folklore, the grate debate between Father John O'Leary and William Bence Jones is often mentioned, and particularly as it have rise to the well known ballad 'The Wife of the Bold Tenant Farmer', nobody, as far as we know, has attempted to examine the key issues of the controversy itself. This examination, which does not claim to be definitive, is based on the main sources available, namely the autobiography of Bence Jones, published in December, 1880, entitled "A Life's Work in Ireland', containing the original assault on Father O'Leary and the Land League, and the three subsequent articles in 'The Contemporary Review' of London, which the 'Skibbereen Eagle' also re-published. These articles were titled - 'Mr. Bence Jones' Experiences in Ireland' by Father O'Leary (June 15th, 1881), 'My Answer to Opponents' by Bence Jones (July 15, 1881) and 'Mr. Bence Jones' Answer to Opponents Examined' (September, 1881)

"The series of articles contributed by Rev. Monsignor John O'Leary to the 'Contemporary Review' created almost a sensation in England at the time and made so deep an impression in high quarters that among others Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, wrote warmly congratulating him on his brilliant indictment of Irish landlordism.".
When Monsignor O'Leary, first chairman of the Southern Star Company Limited, died in November 1921, the 'Dublin Evening Telegraph' carried an obituary of him containing the above words and while we have dealt elsewhere in this Centenary Supplement, in a general fashion, with the controversy involving the Clonakilty P.P. and William Bence Jones of Lisselane as the 'Evening Telegraph' call him in the same piece 'that greatest landlord scourge in the South of Ireland, that typical racket-renter and exterminator, whose name became a byword throughout the land,' no core details of the dispute were cited in our other article.
The general setting and background to the landlord and tenant question, the significant comparison with England and Ulster (to Southern Irish advantage) as well as a resume of the Land League agitation and the early Land Acts were given in that article, so here it is only necessary to summarise the particular dispute involving Monsignor O'Leary and Bence Jones because not to do so would leave readers with only a sketchy account of exactly why this altercation was so butter and why it was so important nationally as well as in a British and Ireland context.

A major work in 1880

Irish landlords in that terrible 19th century dominated by the Great Famine and other pestilences, rarely, if ever, rushed into print, except for letters to newspapers, to attempt to vindicate their doings, but one who did publish a 'major work' a book of 338 pages, published  in London by MacMillan and Co. in 1880 was this William Bence Jones of Lisselane, Clonakilty.
The title as mentioned elsewhere was "Life's Work in Ireland or a Landlord Who Tried to do Hid Duty' and though detailing various stages in his Irish career, from arrival in 1840 to date of publication, 1880, the main thrust, as detailed in the preface, is directed at the Land League and particularly at the person of Father O'Leary, then curate in Clonakilty.
That Bence Jones, alone of the Irish landlord class, went to such trouble and expense, must have said something for his sense of guilt and his pressing need to exonerate himself before the eyes of, particularly, his peers. Yet, his very rushing into print was perhaps his greatest mistake because if he were akin to 'good' landlords, who, as in England, did not hold land for exorbitant profit, his case would have been defensible. Unluckily for him, Bence Jones encountered an opponent of the calibre, intelligence and moral courage of Father O'Leary and that was his undoing.
Having lost the argument, in the end, Bence Jones also turned on his peers. According to Father O'Leary's final foray in the 'Contemporary Review' (September, 1881), Bence Jones not only imputed 'bad and unworthy motives' to himself but also to 'the New York Herald, the Standard newspaper - and to Mr. Gladstone and the chief members of the present Cabinet.'
Bence Jones also came badly unstuck in his attempts to portray Father O'Leary as an 'ignorant man' associated with 'inferior townspeople,' a man 'discreditable to the Roman Catholic Church' and a man without friends.
That Father O'Leary had plenty friends, and very reputable ones at that, had been quickly proved in these same months when the people of Clonakilty got together to present him with the testimonial that, having been lost on a number of occasions, down through the years, was eventually found and now has an honoured place in the West Cork Museum in Clonakilty.

Testimonial to Father O'Leary

Arising mainly from his work with the Land League, this testimonial was presented to Father O'Leary at a public meeting in the Town Hall, Clonakilty, in August, 1881 and presiding was the chairman of the Town Commissioners, Daniel O'Leary and present also were the other town commissioners as well as such well-know personages as T.J. Canty, Callaghan McCarthy and Thomas Hurley T.C. who made an emotional speech in favor of Father O'Leary.
Bence Jones has stated according to Thomas Hurley, that Father O'Leary had no friends in Clonakilty and that the Land League contained no 'respectable people' so 'this testimonial would let Mr. Bence Jones see the friends of Father O'Leary and the estimation in which he is held by all creeds' and so 'the lie is put down the throat of Bence Jones.'
'Father O' Leary,' he added 'was beloved of all parties without distinction of class or creed' while Bence Jones 'abuses everyone, ministers as well as priests, Protestants as well as Catholics alike, he spared no one. He represented the Irishmen as lazy drunken rogues and the women as dirty drudges.'
John Hurley went on to praise Father O'Leary's 'manliness and pluck in exposing him and 'clearly proving to the English people and the world that Mr. Bence Jones was deceiving them, that he was a rack renting, exterminating landlord, a tyrant and a slanderer of the Irish people.'
Many honours were in fact showered on Father O'Leary from his own kith and kin as when in February, 1884, a deputation travelled from Clonakilty to Skibbereen, where he then ministered, to present him with a silver salver. Its spokesman, Father Daniel O'Brien, on behalf of Clonakilty described him as a 'household word for all that is truly good, honest, independent and high-souled.'
So much for an 'ignorant man' who had no friends but, as for the man substance of our treaties, the kernel of the controversy that 'assailed' the London 'Contemporary Review' in 1881 and arising, originally from the assertions of Bence Jones in his 'Life's work in Ireland' it has to be said that, given the convoluted and superficially clever style of Bence Jones, and the various accusations and denials, a short summary does not present an easy task.
Having, however, eschewed the racialist and religious bigotry, the argument, ultimately, gets down to a series of 'case histories' involving the treatment of particular named tenants and while the overall number was, overall many more, the 'Contemporary Review' series deals, in the main with ten.
If this seems a small number, it should be noted that while he has 4,000 acres, Bence Jones's total number of tenants was about forty, so the ten cited would clearly constitute a fair representation, or cross section.

Finding a yardstick for what might constitute fair rents might have been extremely difficult for anybody anxious to expose rack-renting landlords, particularly if one considers obvious variations in land quality, agricultural prices and areas of difficulty such as unimproved holdings, absence of roads or whatever.
Fortunately for Father O'Leary, there was a yardstick and a yardstick that in 1881 was considerably more valid that it is to-day. namely Griffith's Valuation, a monumental process of valuing all the land of Ireland carried out in the 1840s and 1850s by Sir R. Griffith and the Ordnance Survey Department

Griffith's was fair standard

Griffith's Valuation is still the standard for land valuation and through amended in some counties, is obviously less than valid now, given the vast changes in agricultural conditions, but in 1881, it was still near enough as accurate as when drawn up, except, as then stated by Mr. Greene of the Ordnance Survey, where holdings had been considerably improved.
Where Bence Jones was concerned, however, only a few trifling improvements had been made, so Father O'Leary was on solid enough ground when comparing his rents, on the basis of Griffith's Valuation, with rents charged by other Irish landlords and his first article in the 'Contemporary Review' (June 1881) appends the rents of 32 of Bence Jones' tenants. The ones omitted were those holding leases from before Jones had purchased the lands and being unexpired, the new landlord was not responsible for them, whether, as Father O'Leary says, the rents were 'low or high'
Father O'Leary cites the fact that when recently the special correspondent of the London 'Times' visited the large and 'well-managed' estates, particularly those of the Duke of Devonshire and Earl Fitzwilliam, the rents were 'not much in excess of Griffith's Valuation.' Griffith's Valuation was expressed as a certain figure for an entire holding, breaking down to so much an acre, so that the rent could be expressed as so much an acre or so much for the entire holding.
If the rents generally in Ireland were around the amount of Griffith's Valuation per acre, or per holding, Father O'Leary's list was able to show that the rents charged by Bence Jones were mostly at least twice that level and sometimes up to three times.
Since the names will still be of interest to people living in the district to-day. we append the full list in a separate panel and except in the case of  three marked with an asterisk, who are tenants ("on whose deaths the rents will be considerably raised'), all of the rents are between two and three times Griffith's Valuation.
The list shows clearly that most of Bence Jones' tenants have rents significantly higher than Griffith's Valuation. One smallholder in Clogheen, Sam Helen, whose valuation is
8/5/0, has a rent of 30, more than three times the valuation, and another smallholder, James Brien, has a rent almost four times valuation. Even a larger tenant like Charles Regan is close on three times.


Quotation from Father O'Leary

As to comparisons between Bence Jones and other neighbouring landlords, a paragraph from Father O'Leary's own 'Contemporary Review' article best illustrates some of the situations and arguments employed. It reads :-
"(2) Mr. Bence Jones's rents are far higher that the rents on the neighbouring estates. The proximity of Clogheen to the small town of Clonakilty has been assigned by Mr. Bence Jones as a reason for charging some of the tenants three pounds an acre - an English acre, be it always remembered - for the land which they hold from him there. Of course contiguity to a town adds considerably to the value of the land. But tenants who hold better land near the town under other landlords do not pay anything like the rents extracted by Mr. Bence Jones.
The townland of the Mills is as near to the town as Clogheen. The tenants hold under Lord Shannon, William Gallwey holds a farm adjoining that of Charles Regan, and nearer the town. The valuation of Gallwey's farm is
32, the rent 24. So much for the Mills. The townland of Youghals is also held under Lord Shannon. Mr. McCarthy holds a farm there for 26s an acre just opposite that of Mrs. White, on whom Mr. Bence Jones raised the rent to 2 an acre. Mr. Bence Jones states in his preface adjoining Mrs. White's let last year at 45s 6d. This is not the case. It let at 35s 6d an acre, and Mr. Bence Jones omits to say that the tenant who held it previously, though an exceedingly industrious man, had to throw it up. Lord Bandon had land adjoining Kingston's farm at Clogheen, the tenants hold at about half Kingston's rent.
Kilbree is the next last to Cashakiskey. The Andy of whom the storey is told in p. 185 of "The Life's Work" lives there. He bought a farm last year, of which the rent is 10s an acre. Mr. Bence Jones says it is worth 20s an acre. So that the tenants in Kilbree hold at about half the rent which they should pay if they were under tenants to Mr. Bence Jones. It is needless to quote further instances."
As to evictions, the arguments used by Bence Jones, in these regards are near to nonsensical but might sound convincing to those without knowledge of the details and it was on this that the landlord was banking. He had not reckoned on the likelihood of a man with the astuteness of perseverance of Father O'Leary taking up the cudgels.
No 'tenant' he wrote, 'was ever turned out because I wished for his land. I just took up what the tenants could not live on.' This proves, according to him, not that the rents were too high, but that the tenants were 'incapable, lazy or drunken.'
'I let them the land' said Jones 'at the highest rent in my opinion it was worth to them' and further (from 'A Life's Work') he states that 'in bad years, the utmost exertion and economy were necessary.' Yet, while there was 'terrible grumbling,' he says of his nine tenants in Carrick in 1865 'every single man was thriven.'
Father O'Leary's rejoinder on this point is that while he had six tenants in Carrick in 1865, now (in 1881) 'only three of them are there to-day.' 'This,' says Father O'Leary, 'is how every man has thriven.'

Case histories

Taking some of the 'case histories,' it is illuminating, briefly, to examine the arguments and counter arguments by Bence Jones, on the allegations made by Father O'Leary and we will look at six of them in order given in the 'Contemporary Review' articles.
(1) Widow Dempsey of Clogheen. She, according to Father O'Leary, was a poor woman who held a small farm at 17s 6d an acre and on the death of her father-in-law, Bence Jones took away two thirds of the farm and charged almost the same rent for the remaining one third. Mrs. Dempsey could not pay, so was evicted with her son-in-law. On this, Bence Jones replied that Mrs. Dempsey was a 'silly woman, with neither industry nor sense, who married her daughters worse than badly and got rid of all he money.' He also uses the 'near to the town' argument for the high rent and that she could have sold milk in town but Father O'Leary replied again that 'all the Clogheen tenants could not find a market for milk in the town.' This 'misleading argument' could not justify her rent being raised 120 per cent, paying four times Griffith's Valuation but Bence Jones reasons that because she lost he money she was a 'silly woman'.
(2) The Driscoll children of Carrick. Their eviction was according to Father O'Leary, done under circumstances that 'would melt the hear of the hardest' and without a doubt, this case is one of the 'blackest of the black' where the reputation of Bence Jones in concerned. The O'Driscolls, a family 'much respected in the district' were made orphans when both father and mother died, and though a rich uncle who came back from Australia (with according to Bence Jones a very large sum), had himself visited Lisselane House and offered to pay their rent, Jones according to Father O'Leary 'was inexorable.' He would not have the land in the hands of orphans (eldest boy was sixteen) and even denied that the rich uncle offered to pay the rent. Yet, Father O'Leary, in his final reply, states definitely that  "I have it from My Hurley, the rich uncle who brought 30,000 from Australia, that he made the offer to Mr. Jones in Lisselane House and was told 'the land could not be left in the hands of orphans'."
(3) Edward Lucey of Cashaliskey. Most tenants in this townland held leases not yet run out but Edward Lucey, a 'most respectable man' held from year to year and was suddenly informed that his rent would be raised from 14s an acre to 1. This demand was made about 1860 but Lucey, being unable to pay was 'ejected' but Bence Jones tries to justify it by saying that Lucey's sons successfully farmed other land a few miles away. Father O'Leary, in replying, points out that Bence Jones omitted to state that Lucey was told that on his death (nor remote since was advanced in years), a further 40 per cent increase in rent would be charged to his sons. Bence Jones is especially condescending here because he claims he gave him extra time to consider, because 'he had a son a priest.' He was thrown out, nonetheless.

Taking away of 70 acres

(4) Patrick Hennessy, Mounteen. There were five tenants in Mounteen, which farm was purchased by Bence Jones about 1860 from a Mr. Hawks, who was known for 'smart rents' and though landlords there had made no improvements and done no more than 'fix the rents and collect  them.' Hawkes enjoyed goodwill and affection.
How did Bence Jones try to maintain this goodwill? The largest farm, 130 acres, was held by Patrick Hennessy, at a rent of 100 but when the lease expired in 1875, Bence Jones confiscated 60 of the acres and made Hennessy pay the old rent - 100 for the remaining 60. This was a familiar trick.
Patrick Hennessy had himself made large improvements, estimated by him to be 700 and the custom allowed that in fixing rents, some compensation should be made, or extra charges if the landlord had paid for the improvements. Bence Jones did not accept this 700 estimate and insisted that improvements should be registered according to his own estimate of 100. Is this, asks Father O'Leary referring to the entire case, confiscation or freedom of contact?
In his reply in 'Contemporary Review,' Bence Jones argues that 'I decided it was best for us both to leave him the good land and take away the hill' (70 acres)
Father O'Leary in his second reply, comments - 'So Mr. Bence Jones decided that it was best for both of them to take away the 70 acres.' So he adds,' Germany decided that it was best for them both France and himself - to take away Alsaace and Lorraine, and so, too, Russia decided that is was best for them both - Roumania and herself - to away Bessarabia.'
Bence Jones has also argues that Patrick Hennessy was able to give one daughter 600 on her marriage and another daughter 150 (husband not so much approved he hints) but Father O'Leary counters by saying these dowries were given before 1875 when the tenant was independent of the landlord because the lease had not yet expired until that year.
Bence Jones, then, could not claim credit (as he did) for Hennessy's prosperity up to 1875 because his lower rent had been fixed by the earlier landlord, Mr. Hawkes. After 1875, however, with the new Bence Jones 'arrangement' even the landlord himself, in a letter to the 'Times,' described his condition as 'shaky.'
Hennessy's position however, had been technically strengthened by the 1881 Land Act and Father O'Leary contends that when his lease next expires in 1882, it will not be for Bence Jones solely to 'decide what is best for them both.' Henceforth, new leases could be scrutinised by an impartial tribunal.
(5) Hayes of Carrick. This case was quoted by Father O'Leary to show how, even with the new Land Acts, powerful landlords could take on the law and get away with it. Hayes, when evicted by Bence Jones went to court to get compensation from the County Court Judge but Bence Jones pay it? No, indeed, he claimed he was 'most unjustly treated by the County Cork judge' and on appealing at the assizes, 'was forced on a compromise and thus got further relief.'
When Bence Jones replied in 'Contemporary Review' to Father O'Leary's criticisms, he produced the usual stories about the degenerate Irishry, mentioning attempted rape by the son and robbery of the fathers potato put, all being poor excuses for an eviction.
Father O'Leary underlines this in his second reply. 'We are treated,' he says, 'to a long story about robbery and rape and learn how when ages and infirmities had come on poor Hayes and when his sons had treated him badly, Mr. Bence Jones came to the rescue - by rescuing the farm - and by forcing on a compromise when the County Court Judge had given him compensation for disturbance."
(6) Dan Walsh of Ahaliska. This important example Father O'Leary describes as 'a test case regarding rack rents.' For half a century, he says, and during the famine years, the Walshes had paid 41 a year for a farm valued by Griffith at 35 but on the death of Mrs. Walsh in 1880, Bence Jones sought to raise the rent from 14s 3d to 1 an acre. The tenant complained that this 40 per cent increase was 'harsh and vexatious' but attempting to justify it, Bence Jones contended that over fifty years, the Walshes ('a most industrious family') has saved 820.
Father O'Leary retorts that about half of this was not attributable to farming (dowries and other sources being cited) and he also contends that of the Walsh's supposed 58 acres, five acres had 'been lost by a road made through the farm,' this being the 'hardest, unkindest cut' because apart from paying for the road in rent, same as if it were land, the tenant had to pay for making the road and its upkeep.
So what does Bence Jones do? On finding that the Walshes are saving about 16 a year, he 'puts on exactly an increase of rent equal to what he calculates the yearly savings of that family had been for the past half century.'
Imagine, exclaims Father O'Leary, 'an English landlord computing the annual profits of his tenants and adding that to the rent and during an agricultural depression unequalled since 1848, when landlord after landlord is reducing rents.'
'Surely,' concludes Father O'Leary, 'Bence Jones is a considerate landlord.'
In his 'Contemporary Review' reply, Bence Jones admits defeat, more or less and is reduced to arguing about the space taken by the road, describing it as a 'great gain' and further, 'if they made good butter, instead of bad, the difference would be double, the increased rent sought.'
To this, Father O'Leary's rejoinder is most delicate - 'only let the frog puff himself out and he will be as big as the bullock.'
Four other similar case histories are given but these will suffice to paint the picture. Additionally, there is a lengthy argument about the so-called 'balance sheets' cited by Bence Jones in his "Life's Work" and Father O'Leary uses them to turn the landlords word against himself - i.e. his sometime contention that Irish farming was unprofitable and yet, he himself did very well out of it.

The boycotting of Bence Jones is another saga. Having head the 'Life's Work,' the English people, said Father O'Leary, were amazed to find that Jones has been boycotted, that his labourers left his employment, that he could not get provisions for his household in his own village of Ballinascarthy, that his corn could not be sold in 'Orange Bandon,' that more than one steamship company refused to convey his cattle to England and that even when they got to Liverpool it was not east to get purchasers for them.
'What Homer have been to Achilles,' concludes Father O'Leary, the classical scholar, 'Bence Jones has been to himself.' He seeks to 'tie up within his own discomfiture the fair name of an ancient nation' and according to him the 'Irish trouble is nothing else than the outcome of the low moral and social state of the people.'
Why was Bence Jones boycotted asks Father O'Leary. 'Because,' says the correspondent of the 'New York Herald,' ' he was the worst of Irish landlords' but according to Bence Jones himself, it was 'because he was a good landlord.' Amazing self-deception, assuredly, but it deceived nobody.
Bence Jones also accused Father O'Leary and the parish priest Father Mulcahy of 'drawing away his labourers' in the boycott and here he is challenged to provide proof and fails miserably, except that some men were seen going into the P.P.s vestry. 'Excellent logic,' retorts Father O'Leary, that a 'priest could speak to his parishioners in his own parish.' Their treatment would take another chapter and in Bence Jones's own book, he admits that 'in summer, they must appear in the field, with breakfast taken, at six o'clock, with only one stop, at mid-day.
To find a closing paragraph to this terrible tale of 19th century oppression of a mostly poor and starving people is, so myriad are the complexities of the saga, difficult, but Father O'Leary himself provides a touching and beautifully written, as it might be called, epitaph.
'The end of Bence Jones' life's work,' was not written when his book was completed.' 'Another chapter remained to be added, the chapter which contained the denouement, as unexpected as tragic, which told of the way in which he had been repaid by the Irish people for having done his duty to them for forty years.'

Of tragedy

"And in truth, the tale now tolerably familiar to the world, is terrible withal. To be placed in the circumstances in which he describes himself to have lived in Lisselane during the snows of the most inclement winter which our generation has witnessed; circumstances, which, as he tells us, and as we can well believe, would have tested the patience of a Job, and which is no less that the guilty conscience of Macbeth would have murdered sleep - 'sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care' - to be placed in such a situation would undoubtedly have been a dire retribution for the worst Pasha that ever oppressed a province, or the most rapacious landlord that ever extorted the hard-earned substance of the poor. And yet this victim tells us that he is a benefactor of the people."
Bence Jones, it is clear, had, in the last two years of his life, been boycotted and blackballed by everybody in Ireland, even by his coreligionists and while this ancient storey, a tale of tragedy and high drama, is no longer 'tolerably familiar to the world,' the denouement that Father O'Leary mentions is some what unclear.
The effective imprisonment of Bence Jones in the Lisselane Castle of his own greed, rapacity and cruelty is the likely meaning but then, like Dr. Webster of Cork referred to elsewhere, Bence Jones also 'fled the country' for London on at least two occasions before his death in 1882.
According to the 'Skibbereen Eagle,' he did return, probably briefly in February 1882, accompanied by his son, but then must have left again because the general belief is that on the occasion of another return, later in that year, his death took place aboard ship.
If the famous Captain Boycott incidents in County Mayo had not received notoriety prior to the 1881 saga of Bence Jones and Father O'Leary, the strong belief is that the term 'bencing' would have passed into common usage rather than 'boycotting' and that is a true measure of William Bence Jones of Lisselane near Ballinascarthy in West Cork.