A Change of Direction
All this activity, though often unpleasant, came as a relief to some of our men. Not a few could have been heard complaining about the daily routine of army life in peacetime. Everything from the drills to the monotony of the diet formed the principal discourse among the lower ranks whilst we were stationed at our North of England base. Conditions in our Irish barracks were no different. Had we been permitted to spend much time there I have no doubt that similar complaints would have been voiced. But we were now constantly on the move, marching from one settlement to another. Camping in fields, our food cooked on fires in the open air.
For the officers, too, life had changed for the worse. No longer having ready access to the comforts of the mess or the frequent days away from army routine, able to pursue the normal activities of a country gentleman – hunting, shooting and riding in the daytime, cards, billiards and the theatre, in the evenings – we now found ourselves in demand by the local gentry, not to attend dance parties, but to accompany agents collecting rent.
Such duties, though necessary, were distressing, especially so for those of the men whose own families found themselves in straightened circumstances. A single example from among many will suffice. A small company was detailed to accompany a particularly obnoxious individual on a mission to secure overdue rent from the occupier of a small holding. The poor fellow had no money with which to meet the landlord's demands. The agent therefore determined to remove livestock to the supposed value. The agent and his accomplices set about rounding up 3 skinny cows, their bones clearly visible beneath their hides, which were in turn liberally covered with scabs and lesions. The farmer, his woman and 4 children, all dressed in rags, stood by, wringing their hands.
The ages of the children were difficult to discern, their faces so pinched by hunger they looked like old men and women. They were plainly unable to comprehend what they were witnessing.
The woman's sobs would have plucked the heart strings of any man possessed of one. I could not help but notice the mutterings of my men. I ought to have castigated them, for it is against regulations for an ordinary soldier to engage in any political discourse. I had not the heart to do so. How the agent and his henchmen could be so cold was beyond my understanding. It must have been obvious to them, as it was to me, that, as lacking of meat as the beasts were, they represented the only food that family would have to sustain them for the coming winter. What were they to do? It seemed their only recourse would be the workhouse for the woman and her offspring, and, should he be so fortunate, a public works scheme for the man.
I now believe it was this and other similar incidents that sowed the seeds of my own political enlightenment. The landlord needed the rent in order to pay his dues to the poor law guardians. Those dues, in turn, enabled the guardians to support the family in the workhouse and pay the man his meagre wage on the public works. How much more sensible it would have been to do as my father had done and permit the family to live rent free until next harvest.
As the fourth son I always knew there was little chance of inheriting my father's estate. And in our culture the notion of splitting the estate between siblings was anathema, the preference being for expansion. With yet more brothers younger than me, my father being, or so it sometimes seemed, endeavouring to increase the population of Antrim singlehandedly – not satisfied with the 6 boys and 5 girls he had sired by the time my mother died when I was 13, he went on to procreate a further 2 boys and 5 girls to his second wife, Sarah – it was imperative that we make our own way in the world, seeking our own fortunes. My last tutor, a man enamoured of great literature and no little interest in the sciences, encouraged me to take up a place at Trinity college in Dublin. I found the place to be quite insufferable, full of people with far too high an opinion of their own worth. I determined, therefore, to join the army.
I confess it may have crossed my mind that another fourth son of an aristocratic Irish family had lately become commander in chief after a successful venture into politics, demonstrating that the army offered a man an opportunity for advancement the equal of any other profession. That, however, was by no means the only, or even the principal, reason for my decision. After the studied informality, the detachment from reality, that manifested itself in academia, the discipline of army life and the opportunity to see real life as it is lived in the more exotic and even dangerous place...