The Famine (2)

Eleanor Hull
The Famine | start of chapter

The landlords were by no means all rackrenters nor were the absentee owners always the worst. The conditions varied greatly on different estates. Some of the Galway estates were miserably grazed, while those of Lord Fitzwilliam in Wicklow were far better managed “preference being always given to the old tenants if they were desirous of renewal.”

Some of the largest southern properties, again, were badly managed and cultivated, but on others, like those belonging to Lord Shannon and Colonel FitzGerald, the tenants were living in a state of comparative affluence. But, at the worst, as one of the witnesses before the Select Committee of 1825 stated in his evidence, there was “no check on the landlord’s power; … under cover of law, he may convert that power to any purposes he pleases. The consequence is that when he wishes he can extract from the peasant every shilling, beyond bare existence, which can be produced from the land.”[11]

The evil system percolated downward from class to class. As the owner or large farmer ground down his tenants so the tenants imposed upon the cottiers beneath them. In some cases, they charged such high rents to the wretched cottier that they themselves escaped almost scot-free. “It is not too much to say,” a farmer in Tanderagee reported, “that for one tenant in a state of misery there are twenty cottiers in destitution.”

Besides the heavy rent, the tenant had power to exact a certain number of days’ labour, without pay, usually at the time of year when it was most needful that the labourer should be at work on his own holding. On one property in the North of Ireland, where the tenants only paid on an average £1 2s. 2d. per acre, the cottiers paid £4 16s. 5d. per acre to the tenants. In other townlands the difference was as much as £1 6s. 6d. against the labourer’s £12 8s. an acre.

The cottier was necessarily always in arrears and had to take advances at an exorbitant rate of interest. He was completely at the mercy of the man above him and practically his slave.[12] Thus it was not, in a large number of cases, the large proprietor who exacted these high rents; he let on long leases, usually at a moderate rental. It was the class beneath him, the poor but extravagant gentry and the wealthy farmers, who oppressed the labourers and reaped the profit.

As many as six or seven middlemen often stood between the owner and the small holder or occupier, all deriving their profit from the soil, of which the price had been forced up far beyond its genuine value. If the owner were also an absentee, the hardship became heavier, for the small holder had no protector, and the money provided by so much hardship was spent out of the country.

The general result of the bad system practised was the absolute demoralization and degradation of the peasantry. The cottier lived from hand to mouth, having no property in his holding and therefore no interest in improving it. The pig, if he had one, was usually sold “to pay the rint,” not to feed the family; the cow, or bed, or potatoes might be seized and disposed of if the rent were in arrears. A witness before the Select Committee of 1825, Mr. Nimmo, adds:

“I conceive the peasantry of Ireland to be, in general, in the lowest possible state of existence. Their cabins are in a most miserable condition and their food potatoes, with water, without even salt.”

Even the potatoes were of the worst sort. The good potato was being replaced over a large part of the country by an inferior tuber, used elsewhere only to feed cattle and pigs. The Select Committees sitting at the time give pitiable accounts of the usual conditions; they amply explain the terrible toll of human life taken among the underfed people by the recurrent famines of the nineteenth century, culminating in the Great Famine of 1846.

If the Irish peasant is improvident, idle, and thriftless, it is to be remembered that the bad customs of centuries into which he was born and which he had no power to remedy, have helped to make him so. Yet the man (and there were thousands of these) who lived upon a miserable plot of often barren ground at home with his family and who walked annually to the nearest port for Liverpool, often right across Ireland, in order to lay by sufficient out of an English or Scottish season’s harvesting to pay his landlord’s rent and keep his cottage, can hardly be accused of idleness. He was worthy of some better chance of existence and of more nourishing food than he ever got. If he were a man of spirit and tried to improve his holding, the landlord and the tithe-proctor were both at hand to come down upon him at the end of the quarter for increased rent; under such circumstances, industry was not a quality to be encouraged.

The tithe was an ever-present and natural source of discontent: the final pressure which forbade the poor man to rise. When his landlord, his tithe, and his own church dues were all paid, there was little enough left to support his family. The tithe-proctor was even more dreaded than the agent, for his demands were less well defined and his methods more exacting. Very bad cases sometimes occurred, and with the gradual rise in the status of the Catholic population, impatience grew more pronounced, while the years of famine aggravated the evil.

Grattan began to debate the matter in 1787, but for nearly forty years nothing was done to deal satisfactorily with the problem. Some relief was rendered urgent by the outbreak of the tithe war, which arose partly from an attempt to force the Catholic priests to pay tithe as well as the people. Terrible scenes were enacted and sanguinary contests took place between the military sent down to enforce the law and the populace; nor did the attempt of the Government to collect the tithe themselves tend to ameliorate the situation.

During the year 1832 nearly nine thousand agrarian crimes were committed in Ireland, many of them in Leinster, the chief centre of the tithe war. Of these two hundred were murders. The improvement in these frightful conditions will ever be associated with the name of Thomas Drummond, a Scotsman who came over as Under-Secretary to Lord Morpeth in 1835, and set himself resolutely to enforce the law impartially on behalf of all classes alike.[13] The firmness, wisdom, and moderation of the administration for which he was mainly responsible brought about a short period of quiet in Ireland without resort to any coercive measures. Drummond put down lawlessness with a firm hand; he did not hesitate to rebuke the extravagances of O’Connell on the one side or the violence of the Orangemen on the other.

The creation of the metropolitan police in 1829 and the improvements introduced in the discipline of the Irish constabulary in Drummond’s day did much to enforce order, but agents of secret societies continued to foster agrarian crime and to terrorize the country. A chronic state of lawlessness seemed to have taken hold on the people, and secret societies were joined by thousands of young men. Whiteboyism revived and Blackfeet, Whitefeet, Terry Alts, Rockites, and Ribbonmen, all had their troops of followers, many of whom joined in self-defence.

Though ultimately it was misery that stirred them to violent courses it was not the poorest that usually took part in them. “There is no danger in poverty,” said O’Connell; “it is the smug, saucy, and venturous youth of the farmer class that plot and perpetrate all the predial mischief.” “Whiteboy acts,” we hear again, “are for the most part perpetrated by sturdy, lazy fellows who are unwilling to work.”[14] But it must be allowed that O’Connell’s continual agitation and appeal to popular passions played their part in the work, heartily as he disapproved of the exhibitions of discontent he had done so much to stir up.

The condition of the country was such as to alarm the most optimistic mind. The Irish Poor Law enquiry of 1837 had witnessed to “the painful certainty that there is in all parts of Ireland much and deep-seated distress.” The lack of industries threw the large majority of the population on the land for support but with wages averaging about 8½d. a day or, for all the year round, 2s. or 2s. 6d. a week, it was impossible to support a decent existence or to attempt to save for sickness or old age.

In bad harvests there was no choice but to starve, for the people had no money in their hands and no means of livelihood to turn to. During thirty weeks of each year, it was computed that not less than 585,000 labourers, not reckoning their families, were out of work, for the planting and cultivation of potatoes in no way filled a man’s time and there was nothing else to do.

The Government attempt to introduce the workhouse system into Ireland, though undoubtedly it proved a palliative during the famine years, was disliked even more in Ireland than in England and was denounced especially by O’Connell. The Report says that “the able-bodied out-of-works would endure any misery rather than live in a workhouse,” and adds that “we see the labouring class eager for work.”[15]

The Commissioners recommended State-aided emigration, drainage, the destruction of unwholesome cabins, and improvements on the farms, with the founding of agricultural schools, all which expedients were resorted to on a large scale during the famine with both good and evil results. One direct benefit from the establishment of the Poor Law, which was laid on the landlords for part payment, was an increased interest shown by them in the condition of their estates. It was better for them to keep their tenants in decency than that they should go on the rates and have to be maintained largely out of the landlords’ pockets. In many cases they pulled down the insanitary cabins and assisted the cottiers to emigrate, introducing a better system on their properties. The one thousand properties held under the Courts of Chancery and Exchequer were noted for neglect, no attempt to improve them ever being made. The severity of the famine was the direct result of the mismanagement of the estates.

Famines were becoming chronic, but those of the years 1846–47 were the worst ever experienced. The potato disease passed over westwards from the Continent and was felt in a lesser degree in parts of England and Scotland. It spread with appalling rapidity. In one week in August the apparently abundant crop was stricken. Captain Mann of Clare writes:

“In July, I had passed over thirty-two miles thickly studded with potato-fields in full bloom. The next time the face of the whole country was changed; the stalk remained a bright green but the leaves were all scorched black. It was the work of a night. Distress and fear were pictured on every countenance, and there was a general rush to dig or sell.”[16]

The accounts by eye-witnesses of the horrors of the famine are too terrible to repeat. “It is as if a destroying angel had swept over the country,” exclaimed a Member in the House of Commons; “the whole population struck down; the air a pestilence; the fields a solitude; the chapel deserted; the priest and the pauper famishing together; no inquest, no rites, no record even of the dead: … death, desolation, despair, reigning through the land.”[17]

Before such a calamity the ordinary methods of relief were helpless. In similar extremities the usual trade regulations had been occasionally suspended and special means taken to preserve the food grown in the country for the famishing inhabitants.[18]

The wheat crop in Ireland was hardly up to the average,[19] and the barley and oats were deficient; yet it is undoubted that if the corn had been kept in the country a multitude of lives might have been saved. The English Parliament was at the moment immersed in the struggle for the repeal of the Corn Laws, and Peel was driven from power to make room for the party of Lord John Russell just when what Russell truly described as a thirteenth century famine in a nineteenth century population was at its height.

The case of Ireland was used in debate as an example of the necessity of a free ingress of corn; but in this instance the prevention of corn leaving the country would have been a more effective means of preserving life. But a host of objections from merchants and ship-owners put a stop to all hope of such direct measures of relief and the removal of impediments to import took their place. For the moment this made the provision of outside supplies cheaper and easier, but its permanent effect was to encourage competition which brought down prices and ruined Ireland as a corn-producing country with a sure market close at hand. It encouraged the tendency to turn arable land into pasture, producing cattle for meat instead of wheat and barley.