The court room was crowded, the viewing gallery at the back a jostling mass of humanity. I had been surprised by the size of the multitude outside the court upon my arrival. Surprised, and my heart gladdened, by the considerable number that wished me good luck as I passed. There had even been a cry of “three cheers for the Captain” as I dismounted and handed the reins to a stable lad. Now the cacophony of voices was silenced at the command of the judge.
An usher administered the swearing in. I responded to the charge by repeating that I had spoken only the truth at all times. Vandeleur's counsel then proceeded to recite a long list of my supposed offences. Offences not against any laws of the Queen and Parliament, he was at pains to point out, but a series of actions that undoubtedly gave offence to certain members of the Kilrush Board of Guardians.
I had no need to listen to the words. The counsel, in his powdered wig and with his gestures that were every bit as extravagant as his language, reminded me of nothing so much as an actor upon the stage in some theatre, such I have seen many times in Dublin. I was by now as familiar with the substance, if not the present flowery presentation, of the allegations. It struck me that there was more than a little irony in the fact that so many carefully weighed and chosen words were being deployed in response to what had begun as an unfortunate misapplication of a few poorly chosen words.
Those words, though few in number, contained such an unjustified calumny upon my character that I had no choice but to respond in kind. If only I had taken the trouble to ascertain for certain which of the members of that benighted collection of men had uttered the words. Instead I had supposed that they were the words of the chairman. So, when he received my response, he was, with some justification I now realised, riled in his turn. And so it came to this: a trial by our peers to ascertain which of us had most suffered damage to his character in consequence of the exchange.
I had spent many days contemplating the nature of truth and the manner in which each of us sees what he sees and believes it to be true. And yet two people seeing the same circumstance are so frequently unable to agree upon precisely what it was that each saw. The problem is, I contend, one of interpretation. I see a man beating another and interpret it as the perpetration of a crime of violence. Another man seeing the same thing and, perforce, aware of the circumstance in which the supposed beating began, sees two friends sparring with each other as men are often wont to do. Woe betide me if I am so foolish as to attempt to intervene in such a match, for a real crime may well occur; a crime, moreover, in which I am the unfortunate victim.
The particular circumstance which brought me to the County Court in the city of Cork was the consequence of a crime of infinitely greater purport; a crime of such magnitude as has perhaps never been seen and, it is fervently to be hoped, will never again be seen. A crime perpetrated by a government upon the lowliest of its subjects and to which I was both a witness and a servant of that same government. It began some five years ago, although my involvement did not begin until two or more years had passed.
I first observed the pestilence that destroyed whole fields of potatoes whilst serving with Her Majesty's Army. My regiment had been back in the North of England about a year and a half. Late in the summer of 1845 I was in command of a platoon on battle practice when we passed by a field. The dreadful stench stung my nose as I rode past. I called a halt and, whilst the men rested and took refreshment, I made a close inspection of the field. The crop appeared as if consumed by some unearthly conflagration, the stems collapsed into a mess of putrefaction.
I described the phenomenon in a letter to my father and expressed my considered view that, were this disease to reach Ireland, the consequence for the poorest of my fellow countrymen did not bear thinking about, for many depended upon the potato for their only form of nourishment.
My heart sank upon receiving his reply, for he informed me that the same terrible visitation had afflicted the crop in Ireland. I could imagine all too easily the devastation that would be wreaked upon a great part of the population by the withdrawal of their only significant food from the diet of the mass of rural...