Absentee Landlords in Ireland

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Preface to First Edition continued

More than twenty years ago Mr. Disraeli said: "He wished to see a public man come forward and say what the Irish question was. Let them consider Ireland as they would any other country similarly circumstanced. They had a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, an alien Church, and, in addition, the weakest executive in the world. This was the Irish question. What would gentlemen say on hearing of a country in such a position? They would say at once, in such case, the remedy is revolution—not the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. But the connexion with England prevented it: therefore England was logically in the active position of being the cause of all the misery of Ireland. What, then, was the duty of an English minister? To effect by policy all the changes which a revolution would do by force." If these words had been acted upon in 1848, we should not have had a Fenian insurrection in 1867. If a peaceful revolution is to be accomplished a few persons must suffer, though, in truth, it is difficult to see what Irish landlords could lose by a fair land law, except the power to exercise a tyrannical control over their tenants.

I believe, if many English absentee landlords had even the slightest idea of the evil deeds done in their names by their agents, that they would not tolerate it for a day. If a complaint is made to the landlord, he refers it to his agent. It is pretty much as if you required the man who inflicted the injury to be the judge of his own conduct. The agent easily excuses himself to the landlord; but the unfortunate man who had presumed to lift up his voice, is henceforth a marked object of vengeance; and he is made an example to his fellows, that they may not dare to imitate him. The truth is, that the real state of Ireland, and the real feelings of the Irish people, can only be known by personal intercourse with the lower orders. Gentlemen making a hurried tour through the country, may see a good deal of misery, if they have not come for the purpose of not seeing it; but they can never know the real wretchedness of the Irish poor unless they remain stationary in some district long enough to win the confidence of the people, and to let them feel that they can tell their sorrows and their wrongs without fear that they shall be increased by the disclosure.

Third, one brief word of how this injustice recoils upon the heads of the perpetrators, and I shall have ended. It recoils upon them indirectly, by causing a feeling of hostility between the governors and the governed. A man cannot be expected to revere and love his landlord, when he finds that his only object is to get all he can from him—when he finds him utterly reckless of his misery, and still more indifferent to his feelings. A gentleman considers himself a model of humanity if he pays the emigration expenses of the family whom he wishes to eject from the holding which their ancestors have possessed for centuries. He is amazed at the fearful ingratitude of the poor man, who cannot feel overwhelmed with joy at his benevolent offer. But the gentleman considers he has done his duty, and consoles himself with the reflection that the Irish are an ungrateful race. Of all the peoples on the face of the globe, the Irish Celts are the most attached to their families and to their lands. God only knows the broken hearts that go over the ocean strangers to a strange land.

The young girls who leave their aged mothers, the noble, brave young fellows who leave their old fathers, act not from a selfish wish to better themselves, but from the hope, soon to be realized, that they may be able to earn in another land what they cannot earn in their own. I saw a lad once parting from his aged father. I wish I had not seen it. I heard the agonized cries of the old man: "My God! he's gone! he's gone!" I wish I had not heard it. I heard the wild wailing cry with which the Celt mourns for his dead, and glanced impulsively to the window. It was not death, but departure that prompts that' agony of grief. A car was driving off rapidly on the mountain road which led to the nearest port. The car was soon out of sight. The father and the son had looked their last look into each other's eyes—had clasped the last clasp of each other's hands. An hour had passed, and still the old man lay upon the ground, where he had flung himself in his heart's bitter anguish; and still the wail rung out from time to time: "My God! he's gone! he's gone!"

Those who have seen the departure of emigrants at the Irish seaports, are not surprised at Irish disaffection—are not surprised that the expatriated youth joins the first wild scheme which promises to release his country from such cruel scenes, and shares his money equally between his starving relatives at home, and the men who, sometimes as deceivers, and sometimes with a patriotism like his own, live only for one object—to obtain for Ireland by the sword, the justice which is denied to her by the law.