The Irish Land Question

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

It is generally admitted by all, except those who are specially interested in the denial, that the Land question and the Church question are the two great subjects which lie at the bottom of the Irish difficulty. The difficulties of the Land question commenced in the reign of Henry II.; the difficulties of the Church question commenced in the reign of Henry VIII. I shall request your attention briefly to the standpoints in Irish history from which we may take a clear view of these subjects. I shall commence with the Land question, because I believe it to be the more important of the two, and because I hope to show that the Church question is intimately connected with it.

In the reign of Henry II., certain Anglo-Norman nobles came to Ireland, and, partly by force and partly by intermarriages, obtained estates in that country. Their tenure was the tenure of the sword. By the sword they expelled persons whose families had possessed those lands for centuries; and by the sword they compelled these persons, through poverty, consequent on loss of property, to take the position of inferiors where they had been masters. You will observe that this first English settlement in Ireland was simply a colonization on a very small scale. Under such circumstances, if the native population are averse to the colonization, and if the new and the old races do not amalgamate, a settled feeling of aversion, more or less strong, is established on both sides. The natives hate the colonist, because he has done them a grievous injury by taking possession of their lands; the colonist hates the natives, because they are in his way; and, if he be possessed of "land hunger," they are an impediment to the gratification of his desires.

It should be observed that there is a wide difference between colonization and conquest. The Saxons conquered what we may presume to have been the aboriginal inhabitants of England; the Normans conquered the Saxon: the conquest in both cases was sufficiently complete to amalgamate the races—the interest of the different nationalities became one. The Norman lord scorned the Saxon churl quite as contemptuously as he scorned the Irish Celt; but there was this very' important difference—the interests of the noble and the churl soon became one; they worked for the prosperity of their common country. In Ireland, on the contrary, the interests were opposite. The Norman noble hated the Celt as a people whom he could not subdue, but desired most ardently to dispossess; the Celt hated the invader as a man most naturally will hate the individual who is just strong enough to keep a wound open by his struggles, and not strong enough to end the suffering by killing the victim.

The land question commenced when Strongbow set his foot on Irish soil; the land question will remain a disgrace to England, and a source of misery to Ireland, until the whole system inaugurated by Strongbow has been reversed. "At the commencement of the connexion between England and Ireland," says Mr. Goldwin Smith, "the foundation was inevitably laid for the fatal system of ascendency—a system under which the dominant party were paid for their services in keeping down rebels by a monopoly of power and emolument, and thereby strongly tempted to take care that there should always be rebels to keep down." There is a fallacy or two in this statement; but let it pass. The Irish were not rebels then, certainly, for they were not under English dominion; but it is something to find English writers expatiating on Irish wrongs; and if they would only act as generously and as boldly as they speak, the Irish question would receive an early and a most happy settlement.