Tenant Oppression in Ireland

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

I believe the majority of Englishmen have not the faintest idea of the way in which the Irish tenant is oppressed, not by individuals, for there are many landlords in Ireland devoted to their tenantry, but by a system. There are, however, it cannot be denied, cases of individual oppression, which, if they occurred in any part of Great Britain, and were publicly known, would raise a storm, from the Land's End to John o' Groat's House, that would take something more than revolvers to settle. As one of the great objects of studying the history of our own country, is to enable us to understand and to enact such regulations as shall be best suited to the genius of each race and their peculiar circumstances, I believe it to be my duty as an historian, on however humble a scale, not only to show how our present history is affected by the past, but also to give you such a knowledge of our present history as may enable you to judge how much the country is still suffering from present grievances, occasioned by past maladministration. Englishmen are quite aware that thousands of Irishmen leave their homes every year for a foreign country; but they have little idea of the cause of this emigration.

Englishmen are quite aware that from time to time insurrections break out in Ireland, which seem to them very absurd, if not very wicked; but they do not know how much grave cause there is for discontent in Ireland. The very able and valuable pamphlets which have been written on these subjects by Mr. Butt and Mr. Levey, and on the Church question by Mr. De Vere, do not reach the English middle classes, or probably even the upper classes, unless their attention is directed to them individually. The details of the sufferings and ejectments of the Irish peasantry, which are given from time to time in the Irish papers, and principally in the Irish local papers, are never even known across the Channel. How, then, can the condition of Ireland, or of the Irish people, be estimated as it should? I believe there is a love of fair play and manly justice in the English nation, which only needs to be excited in order to be brought to act.

But ignorance on this subject is not wholly confined to the English. I fear there are many persons, even in Ireland, who are but imperfectly acquainted with the working of their own land laws, if, indeed, what sanctions injustice deserves the name of law. To avoid prolixity, I shall state very briefly the position of an Irish tenant at the present day, and I shall show (1) how this position leads to misery, (2) how misery leads to emigration, and (3) how this injustice recoils upon the heads of the perpetrators by leading to rebellion. First, the position of an Irish tenant is simply this: he is rather worse off than a slave. I speak advisedly. In Russia, the proprietors of large estates worked by slaves, are obliged to feed and clothe their slaves; in Ireland, it quite depends on the will of the proprietor whether he will let his lands to his tenants on terms which will enable them to feed their families on the coarsest food, and to clothe them in the coarsest raiment. If a famine occurs—and in some parts of Ireland famines are of annual occurrence—the landlord is not obliged to do anything for his tenant, but the tenant must pay his rent.

I admit there are humane landlords in Ireland; but these are questions of fact, not of feeling. It is a most flagrant injustice that Irish landlords should have the power of dispossessing their tenants if they pay their rents. But this is not all; although the penal laws have been repealed, the power of the landlord over the conscience of his tenant is unlimited. It is true he cannot apply bodily torture, except, indeed, the torture of starvation, but he can apply mental torture. It is in the power of an Irish landlord to eject his tenant if he does not vote according to his wishes. A man who has no conscience, has no moral right to vote; a man who tyrannizes over the conscience of another, should have no legal right. But there is yet a deeper depth. I believe you will be lost in amazement at what is yet to come, and will say, as Mr. Young said of penal laws in the last century, that they were more "fitted for the meridian of Barbary."

You have heard, no doubt, of wholesale evictions; they are of frequent occurrence in Ireland—sometimes from political motives, because the poor man will not vote with his landlord; sometimes from religious motives, because the poor man will not worship God according to his landlord's conscience; sometimes from selfish motives, because his landlord wishes to enlarge his domain, or to graze more cattle. The motive does not matter much to the poor victim. He is flung out upon the roadside; if he is very poor, he may die there, or he may go to the workhouse, but he must not be taken in, even for a time, by any other family on the estate. The Irish Celt, with his warm heart and generous impulses, would, at all risks to himself, take in the poor outcasts, and share his poverty with them; but the landlord could not allow this. The commission of one evil deed necessitates the commission of another. An Irish gentleman, who has no personal interest in land, and is therefore able to look calmly on the question, has been at the pains to collect instances of this tyranny, in his Plea for the Celtic Race. I shall only mention one as a sample.

In the year 1851, on an estate which was at the time supposed to be one of the most fairly treated in Ireland, "the agent of the property had given public notice to the tenantry that expulsion from their farms would be the penalty inflicted on them, if they harboured any one not resident on the estate. The penalty was enforced against a widow, for giving food and shelter to a destitute grandson of twelve years old. The child's mother at one time held a little dwelling, from which she was expelled; his father was dead. He found a refuge with his grandmother, who was ejected from her farm for harbouring the poor boy." When such things can occur, we should not hear anything more about the Irish having only "sentimental grievances." The poor child was eventually driven from house to house. He stole a shilling and a hen—poor fellow!—what else could he be expected to do? He wandered about, looking in vain for shelter from those who dared not give it. He was expelled with circumstances of peculiar cruelty from one cabin. He was found next morning, cold, stiff, and dead, on the ground outside.

The poor people who had refused him shelter, were tried for their lives. They were found guilty of manslaughter only, in consideration of the agent's order. The agent was not found guilty of anything, nor even tried. The landlord was supposed to be a model landlord, and his estates were held up at the very time as models; yet evictions had been fearfully and constantly carried out on them. Mr. Butt has well observed: "The rules of the estate are often the most arbitrary and the most sternly enforced upon great estates, the property of men of the highest station, upon which rents are moderate, and no harshness practised to the tenantry, who implicitly submit." Such landlords generally consider emigration the great remedy for the evils of Ireland. They point to their own well-regulated and well-weeded estates; but they do not tell you all the human suffering it cost to exile those who were turned out to make room for large dairy farms, or all the quiet tyranny exercised over those who still remain. Neither does it occur to them that their successors may raise these moderate rents at a moment's notice; and if their demands are not complied with, he may eject these "comfortable farmers" without one farthing of compensation for all their improvements and their years of labour.