Thoughts on Irish Industries (Alice Stopford Green, 1918)

.By Alice Stopford Green

Originally published in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Volume 7, Number 27, September, 1918.

IRELAND owing to its great fertility could, according to scientific students, maintain from 15 to 18 million people, or more than four times as many as now live there. Possibly so full a population would mean an over-industrialised country, with a loss of leisure and of beauty which we should justly deplore. There might be more real prosperity and happiness among a people of 9 millions. Eighty years ago the country supported 8 1/2 million inhabitants: in sixty years these numbers had shrunk to a half, and the population, still declining, is now little over 4 millions. The best of the people, the young and the strong, have been flying from their homes by hundreds of thousands a year. And in all Government Post Offices, even in the least hamlet, notices have been prominently hung to give every information that will best help the emigrants to choose the hour of their going. Everyone in England was willing to aid in the flight--the governing classes held the Irish to be unruly and ungrateful; the economists thought that there were too many of them; the philanthropists lamented their poverty and benevolently hastened their emigration. Thus all Englishmen, under one or other fatal error, were united to rid Ireland of the Irish. Such a story is without a parallel in any country in Europe.

Behind these errors lay a further reason of the decay of Ireland. With but one-tenth of her working population engaged in agriculture, England needed cheap food from abroad; especially she wanted meat, and Ireland was conveniently placed to supply it. The island became the great feeding farm of England. A coloured map would give the spectacle of a country such as could not be seen throughout the world in any long-settled land. It would show a vast grazing plain, with meadow and clover, pushing on steadily over strips of tilled land, which year by year shrank before the advance of the grass till they occupied but a narrow margin of the country. In 1891 these prairies covered more than two-thirds of the arable land in the island, and were still perpetually growing. Whole estates were ruthlessly cleared of people, to be occupied by cattle and sheep; and the exporting of meat and dairy produce to the factory workers of England became the main industry. Ireland in 1910 provided almost 30 per cent, of the meat supplies imported by England. She sends to Great Britain more than any other country of cattle, beef, poultry, and potatoes, and comes second in regard to butter and eggs. The importance of her agricultural exports may be seen in their value of 22 1/4 millions derived from cattle, butter, and eggs, as against the value of nearly 25 millions given to three other leading industries combined--ships, linen, and porter.

It might be supposed that so important a trade would support a prosperous and well-peopled Ireland. But the case is very different. In these last days the island has been described as "a practically undeveloped country," industrially and commercially in a "backward condition." In Ireland, about two-thirds the size of England, we now see a population about equal to that of Lancashire. A diminished people, what with emigration, late marriages, and a low number of them, the lowest birthrate in the British islands and the highest death-rate, not to speak of under-feeding and consequent disease, shows that agriculture under Irish conditions provides no sound economic basis for the national existence.

The story of disaster has its roots in a maze of false history, mistaken economics, and bad politics. The land system which for political and military reasons was imposed on Ireland is admitted to have been the worst in Europe. The tenants, driven to the land as their only subsistence, were crowded into tiny farms where they could scarcely live. They themselves fenced the land, built their cabins, trenched and drained the ground, and even with their own arms carried soil to the rocky places. But at best they held yearly leases, and too often had not even that security. The slightest improvement in the holding was followed by a rise in rent. The tenant paid for his new crop twice over--by his labour and by his heavier rent--and might at any time lose the whole by eviction without compensation. No advance in farming was possible under such conditions. Even as late as 1872, after the terrible "clearances" and evictions, small holdings valued at £8 a year made up more than half the tenancies--holdings in which progress in agriculture was impossible. Education was deplorable. England, who imported her food, was not interested in the question of its growth. If produce failed in one country she sent her ships to fetch it from another, and she felt it neither a need nor a duty to consider the true development of Irish resources. No serious effort was made by the rulers to train the people (who themselves had to pay for their useless education) in knowledge of the business which was their sole support. In 1862, when in some workhouses, paid for by Irish money, instruction was given the children to prepare them for earning their bread on the land, it was suppressed by an agitation in England against such teaching as having the taint of a State grant to agriculture. The Irish Societies founded by gentlemen farmers for improving the breed of cattle and the like, never touched the great mass of the small tenants or gave them any instruction.

The story of Irish agriculture for fifty years (1851 to 1901) is a picture of continual gloom. When oxen replaced the people of the land, the old manufactories fell into ruins, and the mill-wheels rotted away. It is possible that the new roller mills that in the process of mechanical progress have displaced some of the mill-wheels of the country have a capacity and output in excess of the old local mills, but they now grind for the most part a wheat that is not Irish.

The numbers employed on the land decreased by almost one-third--that is, from nearly a million and a half to 859,500. The agricultural labourers, farm servants, and cottagers fell from a million to 226,000, till they were hardly a fourth of the old number. The production of wheat almost ceased, oats declined to a half, and potatoes failed almost as much. Even flax production fell in thirty years (1879-1910) to one-third, from 22,600 tons to 7,179 tons.

The whole story is a strange comment on the final result of a government from across the sea, whose boasted mission for centuries has been to redeem Ireland from a supposed backward and unprogressive state, and give it a prosperous civilisation. It might well be argued that the Ireland of the Middle Ages was in a better position, commercial and industrial, than in the nineteenth century. On all sides are spread the signs of ancient industries and old commerce. In the Kilkenny of 1640 a merchant owned a building large enough to take in the whole of the famous Confederation of Kilkenny. It has disappeared, and the fine store-houses of later days stand empty and forlorn, as if, so a recent visitor troubled by his first sight of the decay described it to me, the Germans had passed over it.

The decay of Ireland had already in 1860 become so grave a scandal, and its situation so tragic, that the English Government was forced, after a series of neglected Commissions and Reports, to give it a late attention. Efforts to reform the land system were definitely begun in 1870, followed at intervals for the next forty years by attempted improvements in half a dozen successive Acts, culminating in the Purchase Act of 1903, which was last amended in 1909, and is now again to be revised. A real settlement has been delayed through half a century by fevered political theories, by the local economic traditions of England, by distrust of Irish counsels, and by an inveterate belief in compromise and half measures. Whenever Ireland asked anything, the Government invariably gave her something else. It was only after generations of terrible agitation that a solution of the land problem by purchase was at last accepted. Meanwhile other reforms had been started. A few Light Railways were laid down. The Congested Districts Board was created in 1891 to establish the forlorn cottiers of the west on economic holdings, A Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction was appointed in 1900, to give aid and instruction to the mass of peasant proprietors of the new era. Since these Acts Ireland has been called "the spoiled child of the Empire"--a phrase which can only reveal ignorance of her past tragedies and of her present dangers. English politicians have been shocked at their own generosity, forgetting that Ireland pays to the last penny for every boon, for the purchase of her land, for the dividing of new holdings, and for the Department to instruct her. They fail to remember that the way of restitution and of recovery from centuries of artificial ruin is slow and beset with troubles, and that justice leaves no room for generosity.

Take, for example, the lesson we learn from the northeastern corner of Ireland, which has been left out of this story of ruin. The "Black North" takes credit to itself for wonderful enterprise in subduing a harsh and obstinate soil to tillage, but the tale of the "howling wilderness" on which the model planters of fabulous history entered, bringing for the first time industry and civilisation into the waste, is in fact a "howling" fraud. The Lagan valley is equal in fertility to the Boyne valley. No area in Ireland had more corn and more windmills and greater export of grain than the land from the southern exit of Belfast, from Killyleagh across Down. There is no such country for apples as that between Portadown and Dungannon. The best Irish turf is in Antrim, the best fisheries on the Bann and the Erne, the most valuable woods in Antrim and Derry; all the iron ore is in Antrim. The northern harbours gave the cheapest transport for the coal and iron of Great Britain. Into this rich, well-tilled, and well-peopled land the planters entered, buccaneers trained in the wild warfare of the English border, who after their fashion cast out the old inhabitants into the bogs and waste crags, and settled themselves on the fertile tracts. As outposts and garrison of English settlement they were given by a favouring government special privileges, and ordered to secure to their fighting retainers advantages of tenure--a practical tenant-right which put them in a superior position for tillage to any other Irish farmers. It was not the only boon granted to them. The flax and linen mills of the north represent the only Irish industry ever encouraged by the Government, since there was no trade in England which feared its competition. To take a single instance, in 1805, at the prayer of the trade, Lord Castlereagh secured its exemption from the tax laid on all other manufactured goods. Belfast profited by a singular good luck. It owed its prosperity above all else to the financial confusion of the "gambling Marquis" of Donegal, descended from the great "planter" of Ulster, Sir Arthur Chichester, enriched with vast estates, and lord of the ground on which Belfast was built, and for miles round. To escape from bankruptcy through his gambling debts, he raised £100,000 in fines from his tenants by selling to them grants in perpetuity freely, evicting all who were unable to pay the fines. With the buying of most of these lands by the Belfast merchants the town escaped from tutelage and dependence on a landlord; and from that time its industrial development began. Equitable tenure for building allowed a successful middle class to grow up, of great independence of character, with opportunity and freedom to accumulate capital for manufacture and commerce. Belfast shows what might have been done in many a town and village in Ireland. A hundred years ago it was not in advance of Derry: its prospects indeed were inferior. But Belfast had been freed from bondage to the landlord's claim on its soil, and holding that one advantage it is now seven times the size of Derry, and free to make full use of its own harbour, so convenient for the cheap transport of all supplies to its shipping yards and factories.

By these singular chances of good luck the Adventurers of the north-east rounded off their fortunes, and the Ulster region has become an object lesson for Ireland. Their agriculturists, having secured the best lands, had secured also advantageous terms of land tenure. Their market was assured by two flourishing industries encouraged by the Government--industries which in fact help to support one another. While the men work at the ships, their women find employment in the linen factories. The trade of this corner of Ireland is safe on every side.

To return to the agricultural regions and their fate, we have seen that in our own generation, by a series of Acts since 1890, the great roads of progress have at last been slowly and painfully forced open. But this was only the first step. It must be recognised that, while other countries have been advancing by leaps and bounds, the foremost industry of Ireland remains at a standstill, and shows but little increase in the volume of trade from 1904 to 1914. Decrease in population has for a time been checked, not by an increase in food and industry, but merely by the refusal during the war to allow Irishmen to cross the Atlantic. The Irish, scarcely settled in security on their own land, have as yet little knowledge of the right fertilizers, or rotation of crops for modern farming. The Belgian acre, we are told, produced before the war four times as much as the British acre, and the difference with the Irish acre is probably greater. Germany consumes 18 lbs. of special fertilizers to every acre, but Great Britain and Ireland used little more than 2 1/2 lbs., with the result that if the British farmer (and Ireland is in a still worse state) can produce from a hundred acres food for 45 or 50 persons, the Germans, with a poorer soil and climate, can feed from 70 to 75, and can raise more than twice as much corn to the acre and five times as great a crop of potatoes.

The figures show how unfortunate it is for a country to become the mere farm of a neighbouring land, and subdued to its policy. We may judge that the English demand for Irish cattle has not served the real interests of Ireland: since we are now told that an acre of potatoes gives eight times the food value in one year that an acre of prime fattening land devoted to beef production gives in two years, and that wheat growing has five times the food value of cattle-growing. How injurious the replacing of men by cattle has been can be proved in many ways: a simple argument is that under this system those employed in agriculture in Ireland produce £46 a head in comparison with £113 in England and Wales, and £109 in Scotland. In fact the actual condition of Ireland, agricultural and industrial, is without parallel in Europe, and it must, until a change is made, remain a mockery for the nations.

This island, "spoilt child of the Empire," moreover remains the only case of a country which possesses none of the material profits of the industries that belong to its own agriculture. In every direction we see the failure of the natural activities of country life.

As the cattle trade pushed the work of tillage to one side, and the grass lands devoured the ploughed fields, one form of industry after another died. In 1914 no more than one-eleventh part of the flour needed for the people was grown in the country, and Ireland now seeks from abroad nearly all her flour, and more than twice as much meal as she exports. It is foreign workers who prepare the winter food and linseed cake for the cattle, and English ships that carry it over. For lack of tillage the profitable dairy trade of winter fails, so that if in 1914 Ireland sent away over 8,000 tons of butter, she imported over 1,000 tons, brought from foreign countries. The large imports of bacon from America are equally unsatisfactory. All garden produce is deficient. Out of her rich soil Ireland only exported 12 tons of onions in 1914, while she brought from abroad abroad over 2,800 tons. There is no better fruit growing country, and there are factories for jams and preserved fruits; but there is as yet not enough to supply the population without imports, and there is no export trade at all.

To sum up the story, while the trade of Ireland lies in the foreign sale of food and agricultural produce, amounting to £37,800,000, the people are at the same time buying from abroad, at the cost of 22 1/2 millions, foodstuffs and farm commodities which ought to be grown on their own soil; and in a land of great fertility the diminished population is in great part insufficiently fed. The low level of the labourer's subsistence is notorious. It is stated by the King's Professor of Physiology in Trinity College that the average Dublin worker in 1914 was only able to provide a diet sufficient for a man at rest and doing no work whatever, while in 1915 this had sunk to be a diet of mere subsistence. In later years we all know how great have been the privations of the Dublin worker, whose food has sunk almost to starvation point. The whole system is eminently wasteful of intelligence and labour, of health and wealth, and adds yearly to the desolating tale of emigration. We may ask how much of the profits of food fetched from Canada, Denmark, the Argentine, New Zealand, and Australia go to the English merchant ships which carry this rich freight.

There are other mischiefs in the economic disorder of Ireland. Grave loss occurs in the cattle trade when, at heavy and unnecessary cost of freightage, the beasts are sent away as live stock (in 1914 over 355,000 tons weight of live cattle as against 12,000 tons of coarse dead meat). Nor is this the only loss. Crossing the sea the cattle carry with them their hides, horns, bones, and hoofs, to provide English workers with a hundred industries, while Ireland buys back the manufactured goods made of her own raw materials--leather, boots, saddles, combs, knife handles, soap, tallow, candles, and the rest. Before the war Ireland imported over 1,800 tons of candles and exported 57 tons. Only one maker of horn combs still existed in Dublin some years ago. The Irish hides are tanned in England and are made into the boots, harness, and leather work used in Ireland. For all these industries, manufacturing, railway, and shipping profits, lie on the other side of the water.

All trades show the same blight. There is a great export of rags, while only a quarter of the paper used in the country is made at home. After continued and admirable efforts to revive her manufacture, Ireland still sells a vast quantity of raw wool, and imports as much woollen goods as she exports.

A melancholy instance of the failure of industries may be seen in the timber trade, which in many countries has proved the most profitable industry, as the Journal of Forestry reminds us, and the easiest to combine with agriculture. Professor Henry states that one million acres of woodland is deemed necessary for the agricultural and industrial needs of this country. But, as we know, the famous Irish forests have disappeared till it is now the poorest wooded country in the world, and still travelling saw-mills are hurried from valley to valley to aid the fixed machines in hastening the appalling destruction. A Government Commission in 1908 pointed out that in all Europe there was no example of such waste--no systematic business management, no commercial organisation, no Government direction, so that by the extraordinary improvidence of the State timber was treated almost as if it were mere waste, of no value. Landowners who sell land too often lay bare their woods. The small farmers themselves actively help to rid the land of trees, ignorant of the injury done to their own farms in this wind-swept country, where in exposed fields without shelter-belts cattle cannot fatten and cows may give even 20 per cent, less milk than those who graze under the protection of tree shelters; and where crops are lost by the late frosts that prevail round bog-lands which have not been planted with belts of wood. We can understand why Irish forests have no protectors. Exploited for centuries for the purposes of oversea trade, they have never been made an Irish interest. All minor industries of the forests have been lost to the people. Ninety per cent, of the trees arc shipped out of the country as round trunks and logs, Waterford, Cork, and Dublin leading the way in this disastrous trade. For each ton thus exported there was a loss before the war of 10s. for labour in Ireland on rough preparation. At what cost does Ireland finally buy back her raw material in sawn boards for building trades and railway works, or in boards, chairs, carts, coaches, spools, tool-handles? Entire woods are sold to mining companies oversea so that splendid Irish oak might be seen carted away for pit-props, while the cabinet maker, unable to buy a single log, was driven to seek for a chance of oak from Austria. It is true that Austrian oak is commended as being of closer grain for joinery work, but those who have seen the furniture of Irish oak made in the North one or two hundred years ago will not complain of its quality. In modern Ireland however furniture making, which would train the skill and taste of the workers, does not now exist, except for the assembling locally of parts already made abroad. What wonder that active and enterprising young men emigrate from such a scene of improvidence, waste, and misdirection.

The stone of Irish mountains serves her no better than the timber of her woods. Though the island is ringed round with mountains producing granite and stone of all kinds, a mighty and unnecessary freight is carried from England of paving stones and sets used in Ireland. So also there is abundant material at home for the making of Portland cement instead of carrying it over from London or the Isle of Wight--a journey which is of no advantage to any Irish interest. Belfast and Dublin, as well as other towns, have their own cement material at hand of the best kind for all their building, and even for export trade to Scotland; but Belfast is no more enterprising than Dublin in this respect, and imports its whole supply. Other manufactures, bricks, pipes, tiles, glass have poor vitality, as is shown by the fact that it was not until 1916 that a first and still imperfect effort was made, at the instance of the Institute of Architects, to organise in the National Museum an exhibition of Irish building materials.

The effort is an excellent one, and however belated it shows the new spirit of the country. But a further effort is needed--that is a full survey of the conditions of transport. The cheap water freight from Wales, and the excellent railway facilities there make the use of foreign building materials economically less of a crying shame in our East Coast towns. Here we are brought face to face with the problem of how to adjust relations between a country of abundant capital and highly organised, with one in a still undeveloped stage--especially when the rich island is in authority over one too long drained of capital. Excellent researches have been made and published on the Railway system, and as soon as they are read fall into neglect. The reason is obvious. As long as the British carrying companies are able to dominate Irish trade to their advantage and our loss, it is not their business to draw attention to the fact. They had rather let it lie in obscurity. On the other hand, Irishmen let the reports drop from their hands in despair. If they proposed reform, they would have to appeal to the British Parliament where the commercial and political influences against change are in complete control. A national enquiry may be permitted by the existing powers, because they know that a national remedy is so far impossible. But the question should never be absent from the minds of those who desire the industrial development of Ireland. The fact must impress all thinking Irishmen that it has needed the calamities of these last years to compel the Government even to look into the question of Irish coal supplies, and discuss the extension of railway communications to use these resources.

It is little wonder that in the fifty disastrous years from 1851 to 1901, when population was diminished by a half, the numbers employed in manufacturing industries sank by two-thirds, nor that any recovery has been slow and painful. The new industrial spirit shown in the "made in Ireland" movement was not welcomed in England. It was indeed regarded as "a most serious factor by all classes of trades and manufactures." "My experience all the time I was working in Ireland," wrote a commercial agent, "was that the preference for Irish made goods was something which I always had to be fighting against, and it was always cropping up in a fresh and more menacing form." The prejudice for home-made goods among Home Rulers and Nationalists was resented as having "a more or less political taint." "It arose," ran one report, "out of a growing belief that the salvation of Ireland was ultimately an economic rather than a political question, and this being so, one of the first steps was to re-create an industrial Ireland, and preference for Irish-made goods arose naturally out of this situation. With a sentimental people like the Irish, therefore, everything was ripe for an appeal to them on these grounds." "About thirty years ago," it was said, "Ireland was an important market for good classes of woollen cloths manufactured in Yorkshire, but at the time of Mr. Parnell's agitation for Home Rule a practical boycott of British goods was set on foot. Many large Irish cloth-merchants have since ceased to purchase British made cloth." Another complained of the marked preference shown all over Ireland for home-made goods: "In many instances the intrinsic value of the article is a secondary consideration, the purchasers being more interested in getting an assurance that it has been made in Ireland, and they are not to be put off by being merely told so." He noted that "English and Scotch manufacturers of hosiery and woollen goods have suffered more than any other departments. There are at least twenty hosiery factories and as many tweed mills in Ireland at present, and all doing fairly well, also numerous makers of scarfs, caps, ready-made clothing, shirts, boots, etc." An agent of a leading British paper-making firm was aggrieved that a Protestant and Unionist in Cork laid in Irish-made account books for his customers. He complained much of local bodies, such as County Councils and Boards of Guardians, asking for Irish goods, and of his firm being "hauled up by some Society for the Protection of Irish Industry" for displaying an imitation of "Ancient Irish" notepaper.

These testimonies from witnesses who look unfavourably on the growth of Irish industries give us good hope of a genuine Irish effort to take up the work of which a foreign government has not proved itself capable--the work of finding a just balance in the development of agriculture and industries. It would appear that the sum of manufacturing industries amounted before the war to about £5 per head in Ireland as against £17 in Great Britain --in other words, a total sum for Ireland of 22 million pounds standing against 690 million pounds for Great Britain. The war has not altered the situation, if we judge by the taxation of war profits, which in Great Britain amounted during last financial year to 283 million pounds as against 7 million pounds in Ireland.

We must not suppose that Ireland alone has suffered damage. Nearly the whole of Irish trade--52 1/2 millions out of a total of 63 1/2 millions -goes to England, and the value of the trade between the two countries was in 1910 calculated at about 120 millions. English merchants would have gained a richer profit, in buying and selling, if a contented population in Ireland had been increased to double or treble its present number. The Imperial government is discredited by the failure to create a better fellowship in common interests, and by loss of reputation before the world for high statesmanship and for the spirit of fraternity. It is as though a member of a firm had chained his partner to the desk and given him half rations to stimulate his loyalty and interest in the business.

It is probable that the true hope of Ireland lies in the improvement of agricultural life and industry. But the country must needs insist on being allowed a position in which she will have power to draw up a balance-sheet of her national expenses and profits. The dangerous confusion in which the whole matter has been plunged is shown by the admission of successive English Premiers that a responsible Government set up in Ireland would be unable, as things now stand, to know the true revenue of the country. For example, it has always been impossible to ascertain what is the exact trade of Ireland with foreign countries, or what remains in England, since all goods which pass through Great Britain are credited under that heading by the Customs authorities. In the last few years some European states have begun to keep accounts of certain Irish goods entering them, and it is to these foreign accounts alone that Irishmen have to look for information.

Errors flourish in the times of ignorance. False views of the Irish economic state circulate freely to the damage of the country and to the increased difficulty of reformers. The sum of the Irish contribution to the Imperial Government remains a matter to be arbitrarily fixed by the English Treasury which keeps the books. If those Treasury books were opened no Englishman could boast, as we hear them do now, that it is the English taxpayer who has bought the Irish peasant his land--or who in the past paid to keep him alive in the Famine. Ireland can only take her full responsibility for the welfare of her people, when she can keep her own accounts.