"Surplus Population" - The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps)

John Mitchel
Author’s Edition (undated)

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of county Down tenants resolved that it would rob their class (in one province, Ulster, alone), of £1,500,000 sterling. The Nation commented upon it under the title of "Robbery of Tenants (Ireland) Bill." The opposition of the Tenant class, and of the Repeal newspapers, would have been of small avail, but for the resistance—upon other grounds—of the landlords. The bill was defeated; Sir Robert Peel had to devise some other method of getting rid of the "surplus population."

Reflect one moment on the established idea of there being a "surplus population" in Ireland;—an idea and phrase which were at that time unquestioned and axiomatic in political circles; while, at the same time, there were four millions of improvable waste-lands; and Ireland was still, this very year, exporting food enough to feed eight millions of people in England. Ireland, perhaps, was the only country in the world which had both surplus produce for export and surplus population for export;—too much food for her people, and too many people for her food.

It was with bitter disappointment and gloomy foreboding, that Davis and his friends witnessed the progress of disorganization and discomfiture in that Repeal movement which had so many elements of power at first. O'Brien, indeed, still laboured on the Committees, preparing Reports and the like, with the same calm and imperturbable cheerfulness. If he felt discouragement he did not show it, and the agitation proceeded much as usual, with occasional interruptions, discussions about Catholic faith and negro slavery.

But towards the close of this year, two events befell, which gave the enemy most material aid. One was the potato blight, which threatened to cut off almost the whole supply of food on which the great mass of the people had been reduced to subsist.

The other was the sudden death of Thomas Davis. Of him, his peerless character, his work, and his loss, never to be repaired, I shall endeavour to give a more specific idea in my next chapter. That of all the band of friends and comrades who used to be called "Young Ireland," Davis was the foremost and best, the gentlest and bravest—the most accomplished and the most devoted—there is not one amongst us who is not glad and proud to proclaim;—the more readily, perhaps, seeing that Davis is dead.

But the potato blight, and consequent famine, placed in the hands of the British government an engine of State by which ...continue reading »

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