The Secret of Emigration

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

By 'An Ulsterman'

In an elaborate plea for Irish landlordism, the noble author aimed, among other things, at showing that the number of ejectment processes issued was not sufficient to account for the immense annual outflow of the people. From this he argued that, to a great extent, the system has been held responsible for what it was guiltless of. In this argument there were several flaws serious enough to invalidate its force as a reason for allowing things to remain as they are. The rent might be raised so much that the tenant would surrender his holding without eviction, and the avoidance of legal difficulties has frequently been secured by promising the tenant a certain sum for his interest, which he was told would be refused him if he made the slightest demur. Again, a certain number of evictions on any property would, in most cases, have a tendency to unsettle the minds of the remaining tenants, to make them feel insecure and alarm them with the prospect of their turn coming next, and thus to make them sit loose and, on the first tempting opportunity, flit to some other country.

But there is another point which appears to have been generally overlooked, although it is not the least important nor the least pertinent to the matter at issue. The single eviction of a middleman, whose holding has been sublet, might easily cause the clearance of a number of under-tenants, whose only title came from him, A pamphlet has recently been published in Dublin which purports to give the history of a small western watering-place called Kilkee, with especial reference to the question of tenure. Of its main facts we have had corroboration from other sources, and the light they reflect on the whole subject of Irish land-tenure makes them worth studying. Fifty years ago this maritime village can scarcely be said to have had any existence, for on its site only a paltry smithy and one or two huts were to be seen. The latter were of the usual construction of the poorer class of cabins of the time, which generally consisted of only one thatched apartment, with a clay floor, in the centre of which was placed a flag-stone. The fire was piled on this, and the smoke streamed up through a hole in the middle of the roof: the whole plan being no doubt as ancient as the hunting booths of the primitive Fenians. The situation, however, was a picturesque and good one, on the margin of a pleasant bay; and in process of time the place became a favourite resort for a month at the sea-side in summer.

In the rural districts of Ireland it was not unusual to see people in humble circumstances wending their way from the inland farms to such places, the men in frieze coats trudging along on foot, whilst their mothers, wives, and children were carried in the farm cart, together with a sufficient quantity of potatos to last during their presence at the sea-side. Accordingly, very meagre accommodation was at first sufficient. But as the place rose in repute, new cabins were built to accommodate the annually increasing number of visitors; and as the younger generation got more refined tastes, and visitors from a neighbouring city began to come in, improvements had to be made in the cottages and in the style of accommodation afforded. To effect this the owners had to labour steadily, both in winter and summer, and to live with a parsimony and asceticism which those who are not intimately acquainted with the Irish Celts could scarcely realize. The soil was wretched, covered with sand for nearly half a mile shoreward, and bleak and boggy farther inland. The middleman sublet portions of his holding to destitute under-tenants or squatters; and they, as they cut the peat for fuel, rudely drained the bog and reclaimed the soil. The men worked with clumsy spades and shovels at delving and draining; the women brought baskets of sand and of sea-weed to mix with the peaty soil, that it might become friable and fertile.

The gathering of sea-weed is an occupation onerous in the extreme. It calls the gatherer to the beach in the stormiest weather, when, the tide being high and the sea agitated to its depths, the long laminaria is flung upon the rocks, and must be seized at once in order that it may not be withdrawn again by the retiring billow and perhaps lost. Hence, not only by day but by night also, the rough tides were watched and their spoil taken from them by the vigilant owner of an acre or a half acre of the needy soil. Of course when the prospect of eking out their livelihood by letting lodgings to the sea-bathers was opened to these people, they did not neglect the opportunity. Their potatos were planted before the summer influx came, and did not require to be delved out until the visitors went away again. Thus there was a profitable occupation for the slack season, which otherwise would have pressed hardly enough upon men whose stock of provisions generally became very scanty before the harvest crop was quite ripe. But what they gained by letting lodgings was to a large extent expended on the improvement of old, and the erection of new buildings, so that the hamlet began to assume quite a neat appearance, and became accordingly more attractive. It is stated that during the lifetime of the middleman the tenants had expended a sum which for them was very large on buildings in the village. In order to erect a "lodge," the people thought no privation or labour too hard. In one instance it is related that whilst the father of a family took upon himself the mason's work, his daughter acted as his assistant, carrying on her back the stones from the quarry, bringing sand, and mixing the mortar. In the famine years the work had to be suspended ; but the girl having married a non-commissioned officer, she and her husband saved money and remitted enough, during his service abroad, to have the house completed and cleared of debt. When they returned it was ready for them, the father having died in the interval. It is now in ruins.

The middleman, as leases fell in, raised the rent on a valuation, which was fair enough, considering that the advantages of the situation as a bathing-place, had become so much more appreciated than formerly. But he did not commit the injustice of raising the rent on a valuation of the improvements on house property effected by the tenants, which would have been to impose a grievous tax upon their industry. However, it appears that the people were not quite satisfied with the middleman, nor with holding under him; they looked forward to a more secure and happier state of things when the head owner and absentee would become directly their landlord, at the middleman's death. For this reason the declining health of the latter did not deter them from expending as much as they could spare in new buildings and new improvements, but rather encouraged them to do so.

No hint seems to have been given them that the intentions of the landlord were not such as they reckoned on. The middleman died in the autumn of 1859; and it is stated that the tenants were first made aware of the difference of masters by seeing an advertisement in the newspapers declaring that an unreserved auction of their holdings would take place at a certain date! In Ireland the law as it stands permits this, and custom does not forbid it. Forms of proposal, however, were sent to all the tenants, that they might have an opportunity of bidding for their tenements; and, naturally enough, in alarm at the prospect of losing everything, they did offer a considerable sum. Irish tenants more frequently bid too high than too low; and, where the "Ulster custom" exists, an outgoing tenant's interest has been sold for as many years' purchase as would acquire the fee-simple of the land. But it would appear that the bidding was not satisfactory to the mind of the proprietor or his agent. November came, and possession was demanded. The tenants were only allowed to re-enter their holdings on condition of signing proposals of rent higher still than they had offered when under fear of seeing their property going to strangers. In cases where the middleman's rental had been thirty-five shillings, the landlord's was £8, £9, and £10. In one instance, a fifteen-shilling rent was raised to £7; and in another, a ten-shilling rent to £24. Those tenants who had been most industrious, and who had made the greatest improvements, under this system were mulcted the most severely. The new rent not only surpassed the middleman's, which was a ground-rent, but greatly exceeded the Government valuation under the Ordnance survey. In November, 1860, the inhabitants were unsettled again by a demand for possession, and a number of them were re-admitted on a promise to pay the same high rent as on the preceding year.

They were admitted, however, as "care-takers" only ; and it is not difficult to imagine what results this new kind of tenure would produce amongst an industrious and a provident population. Some departed; those who remained had to suffer discontentedly many new privations. In the following summer an address was presented to the landlord by the Catholic and Protestant clergymen on behalf of the tenants. In this document it was stated that about £30,000 had been expended by the tenantry on his property during the life-time of the middleman; that after his death they had been promised compensation for their improvements wherever increased rents should be imposed or the houses cleared away; and that rents had been put on which, if continued, would be the utter ruin of many of them, though, as the letting was only for six months, it had been generally submitted to, because the tenants had been told that money was temporarily required for effecting improvements in the town, and that the rent would be taken as a basis for calculating the value of the compensation to be awarded them.

The memorial urged also that the temporary nature of the letting and the insecurity of the tenure prevented the outlay of capital, and had put a stop to all improvements, whilst in that part of the town which was situated on another estate thousands of pounds had been expended in the course of the preceding year. From what occured during the interview with the landlord the deputation believed that the prayer of the memorial had been granted, and so informed the tenantry to their great joy. But in November, 1861, the agent, in accordance with his instructions, issued an order to the bailiff to demand possession of houses and lands again, and to re-admit occupiers of the former as "care-takers," but not to re-admit the latter as such. A reduction of rent was only held out as certain in the case of recently-erected houses, and in every instance the full rack-rent of the former year was to be paid up on the day appointed. The difference between the temporary and permanent rent would, it was promised, be returned to the tenant wherever a reduction should be made. Besides the vexatious circumstances attendant on the letting of houses and acre-patches, the tenants had to pay an increased rent for the peat bogs where they cut their turf for fuel—a rent which is set down as being at the enormous rate of £24 per acre. In cutting turf only a portion of the bog is delved away; the sods are scattered on another portion to dry : the rent, however, was not calculated on the mere cut portion, but on the whole surface used To make matters worse, it is asserted that the whole of the poor-rates was imposed upon the tenantry; the landlord thus ridding himself of his legal share of the tax.

We need not pursue the history further, but two facts resulting from the circumstances we have noted are especially instructive. During the seven years which preceded the middleman's death the number of paupers had steadily decreased to almost one-tenth; in the four years which followed it they trebled in number, and last year were more than double what they had been for the year in which he died. If we suppose the population to have remained stationary, this would be sufficiently significant; but when it is stated that, in the seven years since the middleman's death, the number of inhabitants has decreased by one half, the matter acquires a double importance.

That no trait might be absent which should characterize a dispute between landlord and tenant in Ireland, it is asserted that the doom of the little town fell on it because the landlord's son fancied he had received an insult from the inhabitants on political grounds. He had been returned for the county shortly before the middleman died, but on driving through this town some of his travelling companions were hissed, as obnoxious to the people, for their supposed connection with proselytism. The reception was misunderstood. But whether this had anything to do with the events winch followed or not, the supposition has had too many well-grounded parallels in Ireland to prevent its seeming either unreasonable or improbable.