State of the Nation, 18th Century

26. The war of polity against polity seemed concluded with the Plantations. The war of nation against nation seemed concluded with the Penal Code. The Statutes of Kilkenny had outlawed the Irish language and every sign that there was such a thing as an individual and distinctive Irish nation. The Plantations and Confiscations had stripped that nation from the land on which, in free possession, it had built its National Polity; and so had broken that polity. The Penal Code outlawed the people of that nation from any right to its faith, or from any civil existence on the earth. It might well seem that the long war between nation and nation had now finally ended. Any thought of a nation so bound and so reduced as being sovereign and free would, without doubt, have seemed to the jailer ascendancy as a foolish jest.

Throughout the eighteenth century the state of that nation was inconceivably wretched. It was rack-rented mercilessly, without let or hindrance or prospect of remedy. An alien and hostile church took tithes of all its produce. It had furtively to maintain the clergy of its own faith. The commercial and industrial restrictions imposed on Ireland by England, while intended to harass the ascendancy into whose hands the trade of the country had passed, re-acted on the suppressed nation. Its people lived in a state of unimaginable squalor and misery.

One of the fiercest and bitterest haters of the Irish race at that time, Archbishop King, thus described their estate: "The misery of the people here is very great, the beggars innumerable and increasing every day by the restraint on their industry by your English laws and the tyranny of landlords .... one-half of the people of Ireland eat neither bread nor flesh for one half of the year, nor wear shoes or stockings; your hogs in England and Essex calves lie and live better than they." Those that were housed at all, and were not driven forth to beggary, lived in mud hovels. If they built anything more substantial, it was accepted as a sign of prosperity that at once caused their rent to be doubled. For food they bled the cattle, and boiled the blood with sorrel gathered in the fields; for their crops went to the landlord and the tithe-gatherer, aliens and enemies both of them. "The poor are sunk," wrote Sheridan, "to the lowest degrees of misery and poverty--their houses dunghills, their victuals the blood of their cattle, or the herbs of the field." In bitter irony Swift wrote: "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick." This proposal was that all children should be taken at a year old, a certain percentage kept for breeding purposes, and the rest "offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune throughout the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. .... a child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone the fore or hind quarters will make a reasonable dish; and, seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter." "I grant," he adds, "this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children."

Yet even at those depths, incredible as it may seen, the nation regarded its past with clear and intelligent eyes, treasured its books, and found scholars to teach their children furtively on the hills and along the hedgerows. At such schools Latin was taught as a spoken tongue, and its classics read in broken fragments of texts. The people told one another of the splendour of their past as a nation, and prophecies ran current that that splendour would yet be revived. Out of their miseries and memories a literature was created even during these terrible years. The Poet and the Scholar still held their honoured places in the nation, and were maintained by its people, even though that people lived in stricken hovels and ate the blood of cattle and sorrel boiled together. And where, in remote ends of Connacht, the people lived unmolested in a wild country, they built again the nearest approximation they could to their old polity. Suppressed the nation might be, and reduced to a squalor and misery hardly to be equalled, but it was not defeated. The thought of a nation fallen to such a depth, though fallen from such a height, as a nation sovereign and free, might have seemed only a theme for mockery to its jailers, but it was no strange thought to the nation itself.