Irish Distress

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

I have shown how the serfdom of the Irish tenant leads to misery. But the subject is one which would require a volume. No one can understand the depth of Irish misery who has not lived in Ireland, and taken pains to become acquainted with the habits and manner of life of the lower orders. The tenant who is kept at starvation point to pay his landlord's rent, has no means of providing for his family. He cannot encourage trade; his sons cannot get work to do, if they are taught trades. Emigration or the workhouse is the only resource. I think the efforts which are made by the poor in Ireland to get work are absolutely unexampled, and it is a cruel thing that a man who is willing to work should not be able to get it. I know an instance in which a girl belonging to a comparatively respectable family was taken into service, and it was discovered that for years her only food, and the only food of her family, was dry bread, and, as an occasional luxury, weak tea. So accustomed had she become to this wretched fare, that she actually could not even eat an egg. She and her family have gone to America; and I have no doubt, after a few years, that the weakened organs will recover their proper tone, with the gradual use of proper food.

There is another ingredient in Irish misery which has not met with the consideration it deserves. If the landlord happens to be humane, he may interest himself in the welfare of the families of his tenantry. He may also send a few pounds to them for coals at Christmas, or for clothing; but such instances are unhappily rare, and the alms given is comparatively nothing. In England the case is precisely the reverse. On this subject I speak from personal knowledge. There is scarcely a little village in England, however poor, where there is not a committee of ladies, assisted by the neighbouring gentry, who distribute coals, blankets, and clothing in winter; and at all times, where there is distress, give bread, tea, and meat.

Well may the poor Irish come home discontented after they have been to work in England, and see how differently the poor are treated there. I admit, and I repeat it again, that there are instances in which the landlord takes an interest in his tenantry, but those instances are exceptions. Many of these gentlemen, who possess the largest tracts of land in Ireland, have also large estates in England, and they seldom, sometimes never, visit their Irish estates. They leave it to their agent. Every application for relief is referred to the agent. The agent, however humane, cannot be expected to have the same interest in the people as a landlord ought to have. The agent is the instrument used to draw out the last farthing from the poor; he is constantly in collision with them. They naturally dislike him; and he, not unnaturally, dislikes them.