Bigotry Exposed

Setting a scenario for conflict - the great debate between Father O'Leary and Bence Jones

The year was 1881. In one corner, a veritable 'angel in shining light,' one Father John O'Leary, then C.C., Clonakilty, later Monsignor, P.P. and chairman of the Southern Star Company Limited and in the other corner landlord supreme, rack renter, persecutor of the poor and defenceless, despiser of the Irish and all things Irish, a veritable monster, a Caliban to wit William Bence Jones of Lisselane, Clonakilty, and parts around.

To achieve any understanding of how Father O'Leary achieved a towering reputation in West Cork and a clearly nationally prominent position in the Land League, an examination of his celebrated altercation with William Bence Jones is of fundamental importance.
A description of one as an angel and the other a Caliban, or a devil, might well be to extreme but such was the ferocity of exchanges conducted publicly in the English and Irish press during the early 1880s, it is well nigh impossible to avoid being judgemental.
Removed at such a present distance of over one hundred years from the 'scene of battle' anybody attempting an analysis of the bitter dispute, which was not just a local issue but very much national, can only examine the evidence and where possible cite such contemporary views as might be unearthed.


One hitherto unpublished view, and which, it has to be admitted comes from a then clearly prejudiced pen (prejudiced, surprisingly as a Catholic and subsequent Southern Star editor against Father O'Leary) is that of the celebrated James M. Burke, B.L.
Writing, in the late 1890s, a diatribe entirely against Father O'Leary (then Monsignor), and mainly to do with other controversies, James M. Burke penned this paragraph -
"As a curate of Clonakilty parish and head centre of the National League, Father O'Leary was a great hero. He got involved in a great controversy with a local landlord named Bence Jones. The reviews and journals were full of it. Jones was a ruthless landlord; Father O'Leary was a merciless boycotter. Jones was subjected to indignities of all kinds, graves were dug in front of his door and during the controversy, he died. It is needless to say to what the peasants attributed his death."
This was another jaundiced view of the Rev. Monsignor O'Leary will, we feel, be later evident, as will the justification for a priest becoming involved in politics, not to mention the Fourth Estate, but initially, it is necessary to paint a brief picture of the contemporary landlord versus tenant scene and put it in perspective apropos the Irish and English varieties.
Given that the landlord system prevailed in England also, why the absence there of such bitter disputes, evictions, boycotting, labourers' strikes, imprisonments and all the rest?
The landlord and tenant climate in England was entirely different to the Irish situation. In England, the ownership of land was a sign of gentility and of industrial success and anybody who made money during the Industrial Revolution, bought land but were not dependent for their income on what they got from tenants.
Thus, unlike in Ireland, the English landlord treated their tenants generously and the general principle was that no gentleman should try to get more out of his land than he would get out of a gilt-edged investment.
The English tenant also had security of tenure, with leases of perhaps 25 years or more significantly with a right to a new lease. While some Irish tenants had long leases, these arrangements began to fail late 18th and early 19th century and most common were leases from year to year, commencing at a fixed date and determinable at the end of any current year by either party giving six months' notice, usually the landlord.


Insecurity of tenure was, therefore, rife in Ireland and led to the celebrated demand for the "Three Fs" (Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale) and this call was backed by the Devon Commission but none of its recommendations were implemented. As early as the 1850s, the Tenant Right League and the League of the North and South campaigned for the "Three Fs" but early legislation such as Deasy's Land Act of 1860 did nothing to help the tenants.
All this time, in the planted Ulster counties, and now echoing the Partition of Ireland, later to materialsise, there existed the so called "Ulster Custom" and which approached the English landlord and tenant system in that tenants had a right to review leases (if they were good farmers) and also to free sale. They had fair rent and a higher bidder could not dispossess and established tenant. Even though the Ulster Custom was no law, if a landlord tried to break it, he was liable to be shot.
The Land Act of 1870 represented the first attempt to help the Southern Irish tenant and tried to give the Ulster Custom force of law in the South and also sought to give tenants compensation for improvements. The British prime minister, Gladstone, also wanted to stop landlords evicting tenants but he could not get the measure through a parliament filled with landlords.
So to the Land Act of 1881 (and the high point of the Bence Jones - Father O'Leary controversy) and this bill provided for statutory tenancies running for fifteen years to be renewed if tenants were satisfactory. There were new measures for compensations for improvements which did not work but the Land Commission began to fix judicial tenancies (average reductions about 21 per cent) and gradually, the power of landlords began to wane.
By 1881, the Irish landlord began to feel that the British parliament was against him and when the Conservatives came to power, their line was to weaken the demand for Home Rule by economic amelioration (killing Home Rule by kindness) and so they passed the Land Purchase Acts of 1885 and 1903. When all that stage came to pass, the power of the rackatrenting Irish landlord class was over and the great battle initiated by Michael Davitt, Charles Stewart Parnell and their Land League colleagues had been won. It was a bitter struggle but the argument that this victory matched the later achievement of Independence is hard to resist,


That aside from his activities as a landlord, William Bence Jones exhibited characteristics redolent of Northern Orange bigotry and which was likely to be tolerated more in thickly "planted" West Cork than elsewhere in the South, is an aspect worthy of exposure in all it connotations.

Two particular 'bribes' proferred by William Bence Jones at two quite separate junctures, had particularly sinister racial discrimination undertones and, at the later stage, 1881, caused considerable public controversy, with the 'Skibbereen Eagle' coming out editorially against the Lisselane landlord.
The later bribe, in 1991, related to a College Hall in Cork (
500 if no Irish materials or labour were employed) but the earlier one in 1863 relating to the rebuilding of St. Finbarre's Cathedral - 5,000 to Bishop John Gregg, if no Irish architect was employed, constituted an inducement of then monumental proportions !

Bence Jones, according to his own book "A Life's Work in Ireland" first came to the Lisselane Estate in 1840. The estate was originally 2,000 acres but, by purchase, it was increased to about 4,000 acres and prior to his arrival, had been let by his father, and grandfather before, to agents and was, in his words "thoroughly neglected." Farms averaged 25 acres, through some were 50 acres or more and many only from ten to fifteen acres.
The grandfather of William Bence Jones was a true 'absentee landlord' because he 'never saw the estate in his life' while his father 'saw it but once when arriving in a carriage, he stopped for half an hour to talk to tenants and then drove away again.'
The agent employed, says Jones in his book, was 'bad and about 1838 turned out dishonest and took a large sum of rent for his own use.' It was therefore necessary that somebody look after the estate and through educated at Harrow and Balliol and having been a lawyer in London, he resolved to come to Lisselane and settle there.
Though born and reared in Suffolk, where a knowledge of farming 'came by nature,' Bence Jones 'knew all about the theory of good farming but very little of the practical working details.'
That he soon found out and significantly from a North of Ireland agent, a W. Blacker, was unsurprising but clearly, Bence Jones also learned a lot about persecution and exploitation and in the process, acquired a large modicum of anti-Irish , and thinly-veiled anti-Catholic, prejudice.
Central to the nation-wide controversy that surrounded him, and for which his ill-treatment of tenants and labourers and while that is the kernel of the story, it is instructive to illustrate some of his other odious attributes with specific incidents.
If we take these reprehensible characteristics as being based on first, religion, secondly race and thirdly, class or social status, one has to remember that in regard to the first-names in particular, it would have been highly dangerous in the climate of the times, with Catholic priests forming a major backbone of the Land League agitation for any landlord to be publicly identified as an anti-catholic bigot.
Bence Jones' major tome "A Life's Work in Ireland" while striking very directly against the person of Rev. Monsignor John O'Leary, with whom this entire book is mainly concerned, is careful to exclude from his criticisms 'Roman Catholics as such' and a 'large proportion of whom are fully to be relied upon.'
That such a 'concession' by Bence Jones was very much a tongue in cheek and aimed more at self-preservation, than with 'ecumenical' feelings, is elf-evident but like the rest of his thesis, his argument is very adroit if, it has to be said, boringly circuitous. Trained as a lawyer, his legal mind is always at work but, in fact, this entire 'apologia pro vita sua' is directed at redeeming his already lost reputation and as such, does blatantly 'protest too much.'
When Bence Jones, consequently, tries to dissect the motivations and intentions of the Catholic Church in general and individual Catholics in particular, it is hardly necessary to pinpoint the large does of ambivalence involved. 'It is the fashion to say,' he writes, that 'Roman Catholic priests will have to follow their people into disaffection' and while 'priests have a hard game to play,' their power is very great 'and is prized by them above everything.'
The Fenians, on the other hand, opined Bence Jones. 'positively hate priestly interference of any kind' and being 'eaten by an insatiable vanity of self' will never submit to the priests. Whether this was some weak attempt to drive a wedge between the Church and nationalist politicians or insurgents is of little consequence and through, with the later emergence of Sinn Fein, it was shown that the Catholic Church was principally a backer of constitutional means, there was no doubt of the very real friendships between priests of the Land League times and principal leaders such as Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell.
Up to the decline of Home Rule at any event, Catholic priests, many of whom went to jail, seemed solidly in support of nationalist leaders and in 1800, it was futile for Bence Jones to suggest problems of conscience for the Church.
Bence Jones, nonetheless, was, by his book undoubtedly hoping to undermine the authority and arguments of Father John O'Leary in particular and if his campaigning was, in Jones's words, 'wholly discreditable to the Roman Catholic clergy and Church' conceivably, this 'young priest of the Clonakilty parish' could be arraigned before his religious superiors.


The entire preface of the "Life's Work in Ireland" (sub-titled 'A Landlord Who tried to do His Duty') is devoted to an attack on Father O'Leary and Bence Jones eventually concluded, no doubt in hope, that he did not think 'his conduct will be approved by his Church.'
Jones, in his book, seeks to undermine the creditability of adversaries by means other than sticking to plan facts of the controversy. These are usually personal insults. Father O'Leary, for example, is 'an ignorant man' and some one 'so ashamed of his speech, discreditable to the Roman Catholic clergy and Church, that in two papers (the Cork Examiner and Cork Herald), the speaker was called Mr. O'Leary instead of Father O'Leary.
That this was a plain lie, doubtless unnoticed by many, is pointed out by Father O'Leary in his first major reply published in the July 1991, number of the 'Contemporary Review.' 'What is this fact?,' asks Father O'Leary and he goes on that 'my name was mentioned in several places in the issue of both papers referred to and I am invariably styled Father O'Leary or Rev. Mr. O'Leary, not once Mr. O'Leary.
Father O'Leary, also in the same reply, comments on his deviousness of Bence Jones and his peculiar convoluted style of writing. 'No one will deny.' wrote Father O'Leary, that 'Mr. Bence Jones is a good pleader.' 'When he wishes to be clean, no one is more clear. When he wishes to be obscure certain facts, he adroitly succeeds in doing so, without appearing to be obscure. He says harsh things and he says them in short plain Saxon words, as Swift might have said them, and without clothing them with the thin veil of Swift's sarcastic humour. One person is 'a schemer,' another 'a scamp' and a third 'a hopelessly lazy fellow,' a fourth 'a drunken rake' and a fifth 'as thorough a rougue and schemer as ever lived' and 'everything in Ireland is mixed up with scheming.'
In Ireland, Bence Jones further added, 'there is an atmosphere of untruth and 'the lowest depth of untruth is reached by some of the bishops and most of the clergy of the Disestablished Church under the Disestablishment Act' and the 'charges brought against myself are a tissue of misrepresentations and falsehoods' and 'the Roman Catholic priest, in a letter to the London papers, added a number of mere inventions, not having a shadow of truth in them.
Further, Father O'Leary alleges that Bence Jones, not content with having himself heard fully, and frequently, 'he coolly and as if proferring the most reasonable request, seeks to deprive every opponent of his a hearing. 'Like a certain Hempenstall, who, in another period, Father O'Leary says, was 'judge, jury, gallows, ropes and all,' Bence Jones would set himself up a veritable Hempenstall in this controversy.
If, by these allegations against Catholic bishops and priests, Bence Jones hoped that Father O'Leary's conduct 'would not be approved of by his Church,' the West Cork landlord was to be sorely disappointed.


One of the most outstanding Roman Catholic prelates in Britain and Ireland, in these times, was Cardinal Archbishop Henry Manning of Westminister, a convert to Catholicism and whose father, in fact, had been governor of the Bank of England. Once married and widowed, he was received into the Church and ordained by Cardinal Wiseman and was known for his social conscience and was active in the cause of the labour movement. In fact, his strenuous advocacy of the claims of working classes, led to his being denounced as a socialist.
Thus, if, as in the words of one biographer, Cardinal Manning 'loved righteousness and hated iniquity,' it was not surprising that his comments touched upon the Irish land controversy and so, at some point in the early summer of 1881, he issued a statement praising those clergymen who have been assisting the Irish Land League.
Such a stance hurt Bence Jones to the quick and immediately, he was again into print and had a letter published in the London Times attacking Cardinal Manning for, as he states, 'praising those clergymen, among them Father O'Leary and Father Mulcahy (P.P. of Timoleague) who, he alleges , 'deprived him of his labourers.' Jones added that the labourers 'will find that their best source of employment is cut off by the Land Bill' which, he says, will prevent the 'improving landlords' like myself, Mr. Mahony of Dromore, Lord Kenmare and others from 'laying out a penny in labour.'
If, as we have shown, Bence Jones lost out as regards wringing any support from the Catholic Church, it was even less likely that his unpopularity would have waned as a result of his racialist anti-Irish feelings, which could also be regarded as intertwined with class consciousness.
Two incidents, at least, one major and one somewhat minor, can be cited to illustrate his anti-Irish attitudes. Apart from hurling various insults at the Irish race in his book, such as their 'universal untruth' and 'unreliableness,' he had pronounced the Irish not to be industrious and hard work, however gainful, he said, was 'disliked.' All this name calling did not, however, adequately illustrate his own prejudices in regard to race.
What might be called a North of Ireland situation where Englishmen or non-Catholics would be preferred in jobs to the 'mere Irish' was undoubtedly prevalent in the Ireland of the times and while the peasant class was alright for unskilled labour and other menial jobs, particularly at slave wages then obtaining, sections of the landlord class would naturally, keep the best positions for their own co-religionists who were mostly also of English or Welsh extraction.
The first and more important incident, we wish to cite, relates to an 1881 controversy concerning the re-building of St. Finbarre's Church of Ireland Cathedral in Cork and contemporaneously, with another building going up in the city, a College Hall, being built by Rev. Dr. Webster, owner of the Webster Home for Young men, accommodating students of the Queen's College.

A 500 'BRIBE'

While the St. Finbarre's Cathedral controversy 'went public' in 1991, it appears to have originated much earlier, in 1863, in fact when and architect was appointed to the project. The Lord Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, at the time was Rev. John Gregg and while it is understood that there were 62 entrants for a competition to get the architectural work, of whom many were Irish, the prize went to an Englishman, one William Burgess, a native of London.
Nothing controversial emerged at the time and though unfinished, the Cathedral was consecrated in 1870 and up to the 1911 (when it was still unfinished), had according to Pike's 'Contemporary Biographies,' cost over
100,000. Eventually, when the roof of Sanctuary was completed to the Burgess design in 1935, it was considered to be finished.
The controversy of 1881 emerged because of a dispute which arose in the public press where it was alleged, originally, that Mr. Bence Jones had offered Dr. Webster
500 (a large sum in those days) towards the building of his College Hall on express condition that no Irishman be employed on the work.
The Trades Association in Cork (trade unions of those days) had also discovered that Dr. Webster was importing English materials such as timber for his College Hall and, as a result, a ship called 'The Wave' which arrived in Cork, with a cargo of building materials mostly timber, was subjected to a severe process of boycotting and which was also applied to Dr. Webster himself.
Police, and a company of Royal Engineers, had to protect the unloading and those involved were subjected to abuse and stone throwing. Significantly, according to a report in the Skibbereen Eagle, the carts employed in unloading the timber were rumoured to be the property of Mr. Bence Jones.
Just as significant was the fact that on the following week to the unloading, 10th September, 1881, the Skibbereen Eagle carried a strong editorial, condemning not only Bence Jones for his
500 'bribe' but Dr. Webster himself for importing foreign materials and apparently obeying Jones' instructions on the contract. Dr. Webster, the Eagle reports, had, due, to a boycotting and general public odium, now transferred the contract back to a 'Home Rule' builder, a Mr. Delany but that has not extricated him from trouble and he has to be guarded night and day by policemen in his home.
For the Skibbereen Eagle, despite its largely Protestant ownership, to come out against a Church of Ireland clergyman and a landlord was not unusual because Fred Potter, the editor, generally supported land reform and a particular affection for the theories of Henry George.
This particular Skibbereen Eagle editorial was, however, unusually hard-hitting and pronounced that Bence Jones, as one who subscribes
500 to an undertaking, on the express condition that no Irishman be employed 'deserves nothing better than a thorough Irish boycotting retribution.' Bence Jones, it said, 'had forsaken Ireland and her sons seem not to mourn his desertion (mentioning also his other 'unenviable attributes').


Bence Jones, it appears had left Ireland, but only temporarily, but Dr. Webster had also fled to London, a fate the Eagle considered to be deserved but the paper also condemned him for other activities, allowing it to be put abroad that the authors of threatening letters he received, were protestant clergymen, no less. The Eagle also condemned him for trying to transfer blame for importing cargo to timber merchants, Messrs James O'Connor and Sons, whose retort said the editorial was 'bold and pungent,' showing the 'luckless doctor' had in the present dilemma woven about his majestic person a threaded candour and web of wiles.'
Some of these allegations Dr. Webster denied in a letter send to the Eagle from Margaret Street, London, and through admitting that Bence Jones had promised
500 for his College Hall, he denied the stipulation that only English work would be used. But again, seeing as before a meeting of the Trades Association, he had also denied ordering the cargo of timber and subsequently found it impossible to shift the blame, what credence can one attach to his attempt to absolve Bence Jones?
Dr. Webster, in his Eagle letter, made matters worse for Bence Jones in that he referred to another report, published in a December issue of a paper called the Standard that Bence Jones had proffered a sum for the building of Cork Cathedral, or St. Finbarre's but according to Webster, 'what Jones did in this regard 'I know not.'
'I confess I heard,' says Dr. Webster, however that 'such was Mr. Bence Jones' regard for architect William Burgess that he insisted upon having his plans adopted.' This had happened he said in 1863-4, when he himself had opposed the Burgess appointment.

WAS IS 5,000?

This Standard report was much more damaging to the reputation of Bence Jones than the alleged 500 bride offered to Dr. Webster for his building, for it suggested that Jones had offered a sum of 5,000 (massive money in 1863) to the ten Protestant bishop provided no Irish architect was employed. If that was true, and the Eagle backed the story, it was easy to see why Bence Jones could insist on Burgess getting the contract!
The Eagle editor, in a note to Dr. Webster's letter, states, categorically that the
5,000 Bence Jones 'bribe' was proferred and contends that Webster in his letter, 'seems to imply the same for, he states, he heard of dealings of that description.'
Ironically, around the same time, a Catholic church builder, a Canon Hegarty, had also been boycotted for importing materials for alterations to St. Peter and Paul's Church but this was a minor and unconnected incident and had to racial undertones.
For Webster, however, the punishment of banishment was severe but as regard Bence Jones and the
5,000 for St. Finbarre's, chastisement was not confined to Ireland and even some sections of the London press, it was reported, were 'severely critical'.