Nolan versus Trench
A famous Galway election in 1872
From the memoirs of Fr Eugene Nevin CP
Galway Election 1872
The one time famous and now almost forgotten Galway election Nolan versus Trench took place in 1872. It made a great stir in the country generally, its repercussions in the evil effects it foreboded for many a poor farmer in the country were felt for several years afterwards. Stories of the encounters, wicked on the one part, heroic on the other, were current for the next generation. It was a contest between Landlordism and the Protestant Ascendancy, and the national demand of the people for justice, fair play and the right to live on and own the holdings they cultivated.
The candidates were Captain John Philip Nolan, a Catholic and a landlord, but one who stood for fair rent. The other was Captain Le Poer Trench, son of Lord Clancarty, a bigoted Protestant who stood for extermination, landlordism and shameless proselytism. A matter of history – the Orange flag gloated over Garbally Mansion during the contest. The issues were clearly, unmistakably knit, yet the Catholic landlords of County Galway, numerous in those days, were strongest in support of Trench and Ascendancy. The Catholic descendants of the Tribes – the Burkes, the Blakes, the Bodkins, the Kirwans – made common cause with the Trenches, the Perses and the Soupers in opposing everything Catholic and National. It is the fashion with some to sometimes mawkishly regret their passing, with their lordly mansions – the Big Houses – in ruins, but few with any of the most rudimentary knowledge of their history will give anything but a sigh of relief and of thankfulness. Whether Catholic or Protestant, landlordism was a curse. There was a Catholic landlord in Tipperary named Scully, who out-Heroded Pollock in the clearances he made of his tenantry, having invented a special apparatus for the rapid demolition of their poor homesteads. The departed and departing landlords might well repeat the distich of the Botany Bay transported convicts: ‘True patriots all, for be it understood, we left our country, for our country’s good’.
Directions to Catholics
Dr Duggan was consecrated Bishop of Clonfert 14th January 1872, and he with His Grace, Dr McHale of Tuam gave clear indication and direction as to what was the Catholic duty in the coming contest. The following is a copy of a letter written by Fr Sellars, then Administrator of Loughrea, later PP of Leitrim:
‘Loughrea – 18 January 1872.
I am instructed by Most Rev Dr Duggan to enclose resolutions adopted at the meeting of the Clergy here on yesterday. The unanimous desire of the Clergy also was that His Lordship would request all priests of the Diocese to explain to their flocks on next Sunday the rights and responsibilities of the electors in exercising the franchise in the coming election; that it is a trust invested in them for the benefit of the people at large, and not to be used for private or personal purposes, but without fear of favour according to the dictates of each man’s conscience. His Lordship therefore expects that in this crisis where the ‘intention is explicitly avowed ‘to crush priestly dictation’ – the parrot-cry of the advocates of revolution and communism – no clergyman will be found apathetic or indifferent. His Lordship is fully confident that the people will fearlessly sustain the united prelacy and priesthood of this great Catholic country.
I am Reverend Sir, your obedient servant.
John Sellars, CA’.
Selecting a Representative
Notwithstanding that the wish of the Bishops and priests was well known to all, ‘an important meeting’ was convened at Loughrea for the purpose of selecting a representative for the county in Parliament. It was presided over by Sir Thomas Burke of Marble Hill, who had boasted that he could return his gray horse to Parliament if he so wished. He had been eighteen years in Parliament for Galway, through the good offices of Bishops and priests, yet he now sounded the Protestant, the exterminator, the proselytising tocsin, “down with priestly interference”.
The challenge was immediately taken up by priests and people, meetings being held all over the constituency during the winter months of 1871 and January 1872. It comprised a large area of the county, but Loughrea with the surrounding parishes was its focal point and centre of great activity. Canvassing? Yes, it was carried on vigorously, not by the popular party because unnecessary; the people knew their plain duty as Catholics and Irishmen, and were determined to assert their rights; but by a combination of the hereditary enemies of everything Catholic and National. Their canvassing consisted chiefly, if not wholly in threats.
Mr Gladstone introduced his Land Act in 1870, the first in a long series of his land reforms, but as he himself said before the Act became law, the following year, notices to quit fell like snowflakes over the country. Notice to quit was then called and meant for many a poor man – the death sentence. To avoid or incur it was now used as the strongest inducement to vote for Trench; intimidation surely of the basest kind, for the dread of eviction (and the landlord knew it) was the nightmare that troubled the dreams of every tenant-at-will in Ireland.
The election was fought under the old open voting system, of which Justin McCarthy in his ‘History of our own times’ writes:
“In a vast number of times the voter could not safely vote according to his conscience and convictions. If he was a tenant he was in terror of his landlord; if he was a workman he was afraid of his employers; if he was a small shopkeeper in a country town he was afraid of offending some wealthy customer … in many cases a man giving a conscientious vote would have had to do so with the certainty that he was bringing ruin upon himself and his family …. In Ireland the power of the landlord made the vote a mere sham. In many places a man did not vote, but as the landlord bade him. Voters were dragged to the poll like slaves or prisoners by the landlord and his agents”.
There are stories innumerable of Irish elections prior to the ballot of July 1872 in which voters were rounded up like cattle in the early morning, herded closely together, guarded by bailiffs, and driven like dumb oxen to the polling booth, where in presence of their landlord they had to pronounce clearly the name of the man he had instructed them to vote for. Men and women of 1955, remember! And be grateful!