The Famine

Eleanor Hull
The Famine

The seventeen years during which Ireland had possessed its own Parliament had undoubtedly been a time of advance in trade and industry. Rents rose, the value of property doubled or even trebled in some parts of the country; and the population increased sixty per cent. in the twenty years between 1780 and 1800. The increase of tillage which followed upon Foster’s Act is calculated by Newenham in 1805 at over six times the amount raised in 1785.

There was a revival in the woollen and cotton manufactures and that of linen was making steady progress. The provision trade expanded, and brewing and distilling were re-established. The old glass industry took new developments. The removal of several disabilities in 1781 gave Catholics power to deal with land, and a pamphleteer writing in 1799 remarks that “our agriculture begins to improve from the moment that an intermission in the frenzy of our religious prejudice allowed us to follow our own interests by taking off those restraints which clogged the industry and damped the spirit of the nation.”[1]

Even Castlereagh, the chief mover in the project of the Union, declared that “no power in Europe has made more rapid strides in wealth and general happiness in the last fifteen years than Ireland.”[2] On all hands, by the foes as well as by the friends of Irish independence, it was admitted that activity and energy had followed a period of great depression, and that there were signs of growing prosperity among the mercantile and industrial classes. But the poorer classes benefited little, for rents and the price of provisions rose out of all proportion to the rise in wages. Both in Dublin and in the agricultural districts the same wretched poverty existed, and in 1789 Arthur O’Connor thought the poor worse housed, worse clothed, and worse fed than the people of any nation in Europe.

Dublin itself had a short period of splendour, the relics of which still remain in the handsome and highly adorned Georgian houses which surprise the visitor in various parts of the city.[3] There had always been fine mansions in or close to the metropolis, such as Leinster House and Charlemont House,[4] but now that the gentry came up to Dublin regularly to attend the sittings of Parliament the whole city took on a new aspect of dignity.

From 1783 onward each year saw some new public building in course of construction. A National Bank was opened in 1783 and the fine Custom House built. The Order of St. Patrick was instituted in 1783. New squares added to the convenience of the citizens. Fine pictures and statuary adorned the houses of the aristocracy and their beautiful seats were scattered about the provinces. Carriages and entertainments made Dublin life an imitation of that of London. On a Sunday the North Circular Road, now so changed, was a parade for sumptuous equipages, and the populace turned out to watch the line of carriages which drove by with their postillions, that of the Chancellor, Lord Clare, being the most conspicuous.

The Royal Irish Academy, founded to encourage Irish and scientific studies, awakened a fresh interest in the antiquities and history of the country and formed a centre where men of intelligence could meet. The Dublin Society pursued steadily its encouragement given to agriculture and the breeding of horses and cattle, and bestowed bounties and rewards for improvements. But speculation was rife, and favouritism made away with vast sums of money; in 1784 Irish finance had changed from a substantial credit account into a public debt of £2,000,000.

This was within two years of the establishment of legislative independence.

But after this plunge into extravagance the country seemed to be recovering itself. On July 20, 1799, Cornwallis wrote to the Duke of Portland, commenting on the decrease of rebellion:

“Since I last addressed your Grace the tranquillity of the country has been uninterrupted, and there is every appearance at present of its continuing so. The late seasonable rains afford a prospect of an abundant crop, and the people are universally industrious. There is the greatest activity in all money transactions, and every species of business is carried on with energy. The accounts I receive from the North, in respect of the linen trade, are particularly flattering. … The revenue continues to rise and promises to exceed the produce of 1798 in the same proportion as the produce of 1798 did that of 1797.”[5]

This favourable condition of things did not long survive the Union. The transference of the hundred Members who went to sit in the English House of Commons did far more to disintegrate the life of the Irish metropolis than the actual numbers would show. The centre of attraction changed from Dublin to London, and with the intellectual, political, and social activities removed to a distance, and the leading gentry drawn away during the larger part of the year, Dublin ceased to hold its natural place as the capital of the country.

The fine houses were vacated and fell into decay; many whole streets of what were the fashionable quarters of the city slowly degenerated into tenements of the lowest class, and money which might have been spent in Dublin was expended in London.

The attention of the upper classes was no longer concentrated on their own country, and education, culture, and wealth alike tended to become thoroughly English in outlook and ambition.

It became increasingly difficult to find men of position to take posts in their own country. Even in 1880 Bright, speaking in the House of Commons, quoted the complaint of a magistrate in one of the central towns in Ireland as to the difficulty of getting suitable men to put on the Bench. He said:

“If a man has a few thousands a year he resides in London; if he has a thousand a year, he lives in Dublin.”[6]

Absenteeism was one of the oldest ills of Ireland, but the Union did more than any other single event to stimulate it. The general unrest, the land and tithe wars, the want of social and intellectual intercourse, and the gap in ordinary life between the interests of the different classes, all helped to increase the numbers who made England their home for a considerable part of each year.

The main trouble of this period was the long and bitter land war, arising out of conditions of old standing between owners and tenants. The system of land tenure was so different over the larger part of the country from that in force in England that it was found difficult to make it understood in the House of Commons. In England the landlords were accustomed to erect buildings on their properties, to fence and drain, and generally to help the farmer to improve his land, besides giving some compensation for the farmer’s improvements at the end of a lease. There was also a disposition, if a farmer had been successful in his farm, to renew the lease to him if he required it, in preference to seeking a new tenant elsewhere.

In Ulster, also, under the “Ulster custom” introduced by the Scottish settlers, reasonable arrangements prevailed; a tenant who had paid his rent could not be put out of his farm without due cause, nor could the rent be raised on account of the tenant’s own improvements. It gave permissive fixity of tenure and it enabled the tenant to sell the goodwill of his farm, if he desired to do so, provided that he obtained the approbation of his landlord. The arrangement between the two was of mutual advantage, and as a rule it worked well, land troubles being infrequent in Ulster.

Over the rest of the country, however, no such reasonable terms of land-tenure prevailed. A most irritating and unsatisfactory system left the tenant at the mercy of his landlord, discouraged industry in the holder of land, and prevented any sense of security such as would encourage the improvement of the farm by the tenant. “The landlords never erect buildings on their property or expend anything in repairs.”[7]

The landlord was not a partner in the production of his land; he was simply a receiver of rent. Six months’ credit was usually given for rent in arrears, after which, if the rent was not paid, the cattle were distrained and driven off to the pound, to be sold after a certain number of day’s confinement. The peasants called this “the hanging gale.”

The agent was often the real master and the tenants were powerless in his hands. Wakefield tells us that he had often seen distraint made after the tenant had paid his rent to the middleman, who had failed to pay it over to the head-landlord; he ascribes to this “illegal severity, which anyone who has resided any time in Ireland must have witnessed,” the frequent risings of the people and the atrocities, “shocking to humanity and disgraceful to the Empire,” committed.

The tenant was required to give bodily service free to his landlord at certain seasons of the year and the rent was often far out of proportion to that which would have been demanded for similar land in England. An agent writes:

“the tenants are too frightened to make an offer for land, and they agree to any terms imposed by the middlemen; they will accede to any conditions rather than quit the land.”

The length of the leases differed on different estates and the tenants subdivided the holding among “an indefinite number of holders,” which Wakefield says is “an old established practice, handed down from father to son”; each taking “a man’s share” of that which originally belonged to one name in the lease; that is, they “gavelled” out the land after the manner of their forefathers, the pasture land being held in common. It seems clear that the owners simply carried on a system which they found in existence when they settled in the country and which was much to their advantage.

The loose and indefinite tie between owner and cottier, the part-payment in kind or labour, the impounding of cattle, the subdivision or “gavelling” of the farms into small holdings, were all parts of the old native system which in earlier times subsisted between the Irish chief and his people. It was a thoroughly bad system, placing in the hands of the owner indefinite powers of oppression, of which, in frequent cases, he was all too ready to take advantage.

When a man improved his farm at his own expense, so far was he from receiving compensation or encouragement, that his rent was often raised because of his own improvements. When his lease came to an end he had no claim to its renewal. “Many landed proprietors,” Mr. Townsend tells us, “advertise to let to the highest bidder, without any consideration for the claim of the occupying tenant.”[8]

The tenant’s sole means of livelihood being usually his plot of land, rather than be turned out he would submit to terms which in many cases he was unable to meet, and thus he lived in hourly terror of eviction. He settled on a small holding and, having no inducement to improve it, or any animating hope of its renewal upon reasonable terms, he would usually, as the time for the expiry of his lease drew near, “rack and impoverish the land he had so little chance of retaining.”[9]

It was a condition of things equally disastrous to the country, to the landlord, and to the cottier; the latter was, in fact, little better than a serf, disposable at the will of his owner; it was only the middlemen who reaped a certain profit. Wakefield shows that the agent frequently had a far larger income than the proprietor. The owner of Muckross in Wakefield’s day gained £7,000 a year from his estate, but his agent possessed himself of £17,000.[10]