Decrease of Population in Ireland

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

The diminution of the Irish population has recently made itself felt in England. Farmers who hitherto have been accustomed to depend on the annual migration of reapers from Ireland have been disappointed in the numbers that now arrive. In Ireland also letters appeared in some of the papers complaining that in certain districts harvest-work was at a stand-still for want of labourers. For this the Government are blamed. Assuming office with words of regret for the hemorrhage which, in emigration, they conceived was wasting away the strength of the country, and with a promise that they would seek for and apply a styptic, they are found, when the session is over, to have done nothing of the kind. Such promises followed by such performance, if they were designed to increase disaffection, to make the people distrust British statesmen, and, despairing of redress from Imperial legislation, fix their hopes elsewhere, were admirably calculated to effect their object.

The Government are seen on the one hand compelled to continue the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and on the other refusing to adopt measures which would make its further suspension needless. While opposing, mutilating, or delaying all measures of serious reform for the people at large, they are observed to spare no pains and to lose neither time nor opportunity in rewarding and recruiting their own peculiar faction. Vacancies have been made or created with indecent haste, and posts multiplied and filled up with such rapidity and partiality that the dregs of the party have had to be drawn up to the surface, and high offices given to men whose incapacity is a matter of public notoriety and of public scandal.

Considering that in Ireland Conservatism is almost everywhere synonymous with Orangeism, it is easy to see what ill effects must be produced by even a brief reign of the party when this is the policy they pursue. Shoals of petty obstructives are raised into official position all over the island; and the rewards they get and the favour they enjoy and extend to others of their kind beneath them, serve as ever present texts and lessons to increase the popular discontent. The general interests are sacrificed to the advantage of a small faction; and that is given up to party which of right belongs to the nation. The masses, finding themselves addressed in fair words and deceived by foul practice, cherish a sullen resentment, and either conspire at home or go to swell the ranks of the enemies of England abroad. Such a policy has proved in its results gravely injurious to the Empire before now.

The emigrants who after the wars of William were forced to fly to the Continent had opportunities given them to avenge their expatriation on the allies. The legislation directed against the Irish woollen trade, although it was then almost wholly in the hands of Protestants of English descent, drove numbers of these to France, where they helped to secure the success of her trade, and to enable it to rival that of England. Swift, commenting on the "causes of the wretched condition of Ireland" in his day, said, "another cause of this nation's misery is that Egyptian bondage of cruel, oppressing, and covetous landlords, expecting all who live under them should make bricks without straw; who grieve and envy when they see a tenant of their own in a whole coat, or able to afford one comfortable meal in a month, by which the spirits of the people are broken, and made fit for slavery. . . . And these cruel landlords are every day unpeopling the kingdom by forbidding their miserable tenants to till the earth, against common reason and justice, and contrary to the practice and prudence of all other nations, by which numberless families have been forced either to leave the kingdom or stroll about and increase the numbers of our thieves and beggars." But, in the words of Grattan, those who were trampled on in Ireland stung us in America.

Here we have some of the fruits of enforced emigration from Ireland; and in considering the annual outflow now going on, it is proper to bear them in mind. Is there any reason to suppose that those who are departing now are less likely than those who went before them to bear a grudge against the Government which stirs no finger to protect their interests? In the face of a large and organized confederacy in the United States no intelligent observer can entertain such a belief. Neither can it be denied that circumstances which they may use for purposes of retaliation are as likely to present themselves now as they were at any former period. Very soon there will probably be thousands of miles of railway to be made in Canada. Whence will the great majority of the navvies be drawn? From Ireland, and from the Irish of the United States, who have been the principal workers on the railways there. Of such an opportunity it is more than possible that the Fenians may avail themselves, with the tacit encouragement of high-placed Republicans looking to their own ends. Troops no doubt can be sent out in considerable numbers ; but with parties as they are in America, who can say what our relations with the Republic will be? Elated by the downfall of the Mexican Empire, and with appetites whetted for more territory by the acquisition of Russian America, Mr. Seward aims at a settlement of the Alabama claims, based on a cession of British Columbia. In furtherance of his plans, papers published in that province are now declaring the disaffection of the people to the British Government; and it might only require some internal crisis, which would make a high bid for the Irish vote necessary, to precipitate a rupture between the two nations.

It is in connection with its influence on the policy of foreign Governments, not less than its home results, that true statesmen must contemplate the Irish emigration. If the diminution of the Irish population at home and its increase abroad were merely a transfer of labour from one country to another, it would still deserve to be considered from both points of view; but it is more than that. It may mean a transfer, to some extent, of political power, and may foreshadow a change in the character of our international relations. The practical solution of the problem will only be accomplished by a reformed Parliament; but no time or opportunity is to be lost in showing that the subject will receive the earnest attention it demands. In this way future complications may possibly be avoided; the people may still bear up patiently, hopeful of better things; and the sting of the emigration may be drawn.

How greatly that emigration has affected, and yet steadily continues to affect the population, may be judged by the following official computations. In 1861, the census gave the population at 5,788,415; every year since, in spite of increase by births, it has been declining according to the estimates of the Registrar-General. In 1862, it was 5,784,527; in 1863, 5,739,569; in 1864, 5,675,307: in 1865, 5,641,086; in 1866, 5,582,625; in 1867, 5,557,196. Twenty-one years ago the population of Ireland was over eight millions and a quarter; sixty-one years ago it was nearly at its present figure, being computed at 5,574,105. But the relative proportion of the sexes is not the same for 1806 and for 1867; the difference is noteworthy, for it indicates the distinction between a small population increasing under natural circumstances, and a large one diminishing by the emigration of its virile youth. In 1806, with a total population of 5,574,105, there was an excess of females over males by 50,469; whilst in 1867, with a total population of 5,557,196, there is an excess of females over males by 184,756!

One of the saddest facts which the statistics reveal is the increase, not merely relative but absolute, of deaf-mutes, blind, insane, idiotic, and decrepit inhabitants. Contrasting 1851 with 1861, it will be found that whilst the population had decreased enormously, the number of deaf-mutes had increased by 473, on their former total of 5,180; the blind by 1,092, on their former total of 5,787; the lame and decrepit by 225, on their former total of 4,375; and the lunatic and idiotic by the immense number of 4,118, on their former total of 9,980; mounting up in 1861, notwithstanding a great decrease in the population, to 14,098. To France alone, after the scourging conscriptions of Napoleon, could Ireland be compared with any hope of finding a parallel for facts so lamentable.