Commercial Disabilities (2)

Eleanor Hull
Commercial Disabilities | start of chapter

It was in the year 1776 that Arthur Young, a trained and intelligent agriculturist, began his celebrated tour in Ireland for the purpose of enquiring into the condition of farming in the country. He travelled throughout the provinces with introductions to all the principal gentlemen residing on their properties, and he has left a detailed and valuable record of his observations. He shows that the “baleful monopolizing spirit of commerce” still governed the commercial relations between England and her Dependencies, whether in the East or in Ireland.

It required the War of American Independence (which was raging when Young wrote) to awaken England to the results of her narrow trading policy towards her colonies, and under which America, the Indies, and Ireland were equally suffering.

“Trade is an admirable thing, but a trading government a most pernicious one.”

Young speaks much of the grinding poverty of the cottiers struggling under heavy rents, and of the system of “rundale” or sub-division of farms; of the oppressive custom of “conacre,” by which a scrap of land was rented for a season by a cottier to raise potatoes and paid for in labour, only the balance being settled in money, if settled at all.

The poor population was content to feed on potatoes and sour milk, with now and then a herring, meat being eaten only twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. Where all transactions were paid for in labour there was little money to purchase food or necessaries.

The cottages were of the most wretched description, filthy, crowded and unhealthy. A series of famines showed the low level at which the people were existing; they culminated in the “hunger-fever” of 1741, in which 400,000 persons perished.

The scathing pamphlets poured out by Swift, and the incisive questions suggested by Bishop Berkeley in The Querist indicate the feeling of the more humane observers at the condition of the country; but little was attempted by way of relief.

The peasant began to eke out his scanty means of livelihood by crossing to England to take part in harvesting or to Newfoundland to take part in the fisheries, often walking great distances to and from the ports.

The Devon Commission of 1843–45 gives the most harrowing accounts of the extreme poverty and extreme patience of the Irish agricultural labourer in the years immediately preceding the great famine, and this verdict is echoed by every independent traveller in Ireland during that and the preceding century.

The lack of any stimulus to exertion and the want of employment were, no doubt, one cause of the universal indolence and slovenliness in work and habits which is noticed and commented upon by every traveller passing through Ireland during the eighteenth century. The numerous holidays and the love of sport also contributed to foster this tendency.

Drunkenness and beggary abounded, and the quantity of spirits consumed rose steadily towards the close of the century. “Every seventh house in the City of Dublin and its suburbs is occupied in the sale of spirituous liquors,” writes an observer signing himself “Agricola” in 1791; and another tract of the same period would place the drinking houses even higher. “One-third of the shops of Dublin are vendors of spirits,” it declares in 1780.[9]

Another writer in 1795 speaks of the “vast number of public houses in the suburbs, which perpetually resounded with the noise of riot and intemperance.” Attempts were made to suppress some of them, but the magistrates were too corrupt to refuse licences.[10]

The average annual manufacture of spirits for the four years ending March, 1780, was 1,768,042 gallons; but in the year ending January, 1808, it had risen to 5,704,158 gallons, illicit stills being greatly on the increase.[11]

Arthur Young is one of the few visitors who give a more encouraging report. He thinks that drunkenness ought no longer to be a reproach to the poor, and that “though drinking and duelling have long been alleged against the gentlemen of Ireland,” things had changed for the better.

The result of all this misery was the outbreak of a series of outrages, organised by secret associations, which spread terror in the country districts, especially in the North, where these associations were most active.

The Oak Boy movement of 1761 and the following years was formed to protest against forced work on the roads, which every householder was bound to give, and was succeeded by similar organizations of discontented labourers, known as Oak Boys and Steel Boys, the latter directed against the oppressive exactions of some of the landlords, who demanded exorbitant fines for the renewal of leases.

But the most formidable of these bands of roving peasants were composed of men known as Whiteboys, because they disguised themselves at night in a white shirt when they paid their nocturnal visits. In addition to the general causes of discontent which they shared with the other bodies, their special province was to give resistance to the collection of tithes taken up by proctors for the clergy of the Established Church.

In many cases a tithe-farmer rented the tithe from the incumbent, who seldom cared to collect his own tithe, and these men mercilessly oppressed the peasants. Both Catholics and Presbyterians had to pay tithe, and it fell heaviest on the very poor, being levied on corn, potatoes, flax, and meadow-land, while the wealthy graziers contributed nothing; yet the incumbent often got not more than one-third or one-fifth of the tithe due to him, so large a part was usually absorbed by the proctor or tithe-farmer for his own share.

The outbursts of fury on the part of the peasants frequently ended in a regular siege or warfare. The whole country was in a disturbed condition and evictions were followed either by emigration or by the crowding of the dispossessed labourers into the towns.

At the same time there were in many parts of the country enterprising and patriotic landlords who were making extensive experiments in husbandry or in establishing spinning and weaving industries for the benefit of their tenants. Large sums of money were being laid out by such men as Robert French near Tuam, in reclaiming bog-land and erecting spinning mills, or by S. J. Jeffreys, whose mills at Blarney were giving employment to large numbers of hands, or in Armagh, where the town had been rebuilt in the course of a few years by the Protestant Primate Robinson. These are only examples of the improvements which were being undertaken by spirited landowners all over the country.

At Cullen House, County Meath, Chief Baron Foster had turned a waste of furze land into soil capable of cultivation; at Westport, Lord Altramont had built houses and introduced looms, setting on foot an extensive linen manufacture and breeding improved types of cattle by introducing the best breeds from England; on Lough Swilly, Robert Alexander had enlarged the fisheries in a few years to an almost incredible extent.

Wherever an enlightened landlord lived on his property the condition of the cottiers improved rapidly and the general opinion of their probity and honesty seems to have been high.

An interesting experiment made by Sir William Osborne near Clonmel, who settled some begging Whiteboys on his land and had no reason to regret his act,[12] shows that many of the youths who were “out” in the risings could, with a little encouragement, have been reclaimed.

There have always been in Ireland good proprietors spending their lives among their own people and laying out money in improvements whose beneficial work has been often overlooked in the condemnation passed on men of another type. Arthur Young was struck by the number of these improving properties that he met with in his journeys through the country.

Unfortunately, there were also a considerable number of absentee landlords who not only drew wealth out of the country to be spent in England and abroad, but whose absence threw the whole management of estates into the hands of agents and stewards, who had little interest in the condition of the tenants beyond the extraction of as large a rent as was possible for the owner. Absenteeism had developed to a surprising extent, and many of the highest offices in the land were occupied by men who lived always out of the country.[13]

At the beginning of the reign of George II in 1727, the list of absentees included not only landed gentry, but many of the chief officers of the Crown, who drew large salaries but devolved their duties on others. Among these were the Lord Treasurer and two Vice-Treasurers, the Commissioners of Revenue, the Master of the Rolls, the Master of Ordnance, the Chief Remembrancer, the Secretary of State, the Comptroller of the Port of Dublin and many governors of cities.

Some of them “would not be at so much trouble as to pay one visit to Ireland” to take over their appointments; those who did made a hasty passage over, took the oath and were seen no more, except as names in the civil lists. In one case a newly appointed Crown official landed in Dublin on Saturday evening, received the test Sacrament on Sunday, took the oaths in the courts on Monday morning, and returned to England the same afternoon, never more to set foot in Ireland. In such circumstances good government was impossible.

The absentee proprietors not only drew from £600,000 to £700,000 annually out of the country, but they escaped the Irish taxes; and though Acts restraining Irish gentry from living out of Ireland had been passed from the time of Richard II, and large estates had been forfeited to the Crown in punishment of delinquents, nothing availed to check the tendency. It decreased to a certain extent during the years of independence, when many of the nobility and gentry who were in the habit of spending their winters in London took houses in Dublin; but after the Union, these officials relapsed into their old ways.

In 1804 it was estimated that nearly £2,000,000 was being annually drawn out of Ireland in gold with no return made towards defraying the national expenses. The Irish pension list had always been a scandal. From the time of Charles II pensions to favourites, male and female, often too disgraceful to place on the English pension list, had been paid out of Irish resources. In 1761 these pensions amounted to over £64,000; in 1779 they had increased to over £84,000 per annum.[14]

The scandal of Wood’s halfpence was only the worst of a series of gross jobs which depleted the Irish Treasury while they deeply humiliated the country. Nevertheless, at the end of the reign of Queen Anne (1713), the charge and debt of Ireland amounted to £1,318,263, while its credit was £1,576,686; there was thus a surplus of over £200,000, which was voted for public works, such as internal navigation, bridges, piers, hospitals, schools, etc.[15]

Money was lavished on undertakings that often proved useless. Among the most ambitious of these schemes was the construction of the Grand Canal to unite by water Dublin and the Shannon, and the Royal Canal between Dublin and Lough Allen. The former of these schemes cost the country over £1,281,000, its only use being to carry turf and small quantities of coal. It connected no towns and fed no industries. It was generally believed, like some other schemes of the period, to be a job, and the joke ran in Dublin that “it was not to be considered as a canal for trade but as a canal for public money.” The fourteen miles which Young found completed, with locks, quays, and bridges were, he says, “only for the benefit of eels and skaters,” and a large part of the money expended was never accounted for.

All writers of the day speak of the prevailing spirit of public fraud, “that endless and diversified multitude of jobs for which Ireland has ever been notorious.”[16] Young says that in his time “a history of public works in Ireland would be a history of jobs.”[17]

The Grand Canal was not finished until 1800, the year of the Union. Large bounties were also granted to industries of various kinds, and the Dublin Society, which had been founded in 1731, chiefly through the exertions of Dr. Samuel Madden, offered premiums for the development of manufactures and agriculture. Yet these did not compensate for the rapid improvements in machinery and methods which in England had doubled the wealth of the nation in the course of a century.

Division of labour in Ireland was hardly yet known; the peasant worked his field of potatoes at one part of the year and his loom during another, but it was not till the last twenty years of the century, under free trade and legislative independence that any marked change for the better was witnessed in the general prosperity of the country.