Ulster and its Danger

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

By 'An Ulsterman'

There is a mischievous delusion in existence with regard to Irish disagreements on the Land question, which deserves notice at the present time. It has been asserted that in Ulster, the Protestant north as it is sometimes called, the fundamental land theories of the population are totally dissimilar from what they are in the other provinces. This province, it is added, is peopled by a Scottish race, who have no sympathy whatever with the people of the rest of Ireland, and who especially disdain their views on the subject of tenant-right.

It would be difficult to find a specimen of fallacious reasoning which includes so many blunders in so small a compass. The argument as formed in the minds of those who propose the theory must stand somewhat in this fashion:—Scottish (Lothian) farming is conducted on the high-culture system, with large capital, costly implements, extensive acreage, and certain leases. Ulster was colonized by immigrants from Scotland. Therefore, the tenant farmers of Ulster, disdaining small farms and the system of petty culture, occupy the same position as their kindred in the parent country, and have no points of contact or grounds of sympathy with the rest of the inhabitants of Ireland. In any one who aspires to legislate for Ireland such a theory evinces a deplorable ignorance of the condition of the country. Mr. Goldwin Smith could hardly find a stronger argument in favor of his proposal to hold a session of Parliament in Dublin than the publication of such opinions. For, as a matter of fact, large farms are far more common in the level grazing lands south of Ulster than amongst its undulating vales, hillocks, and mountains. The Ulster man is accustomed from his infancy to see the white cottages of the tenant-farmers enlivening the varied landscape at no distant intervals; and when he visits the southern provinces, it seems strange to him to look round and see so little sign of life over the level country. Here and there, at wide intervals, the house of some gentleman farmer may be observed, and perhaps the smoke drifting up from the cabins of his labourers.

"Nothing here but gentlemen and beggars!" exclaimed one traveller from Ulster. In his disappointment he was not altogether just; but the aspect of the country brought home to him the view put forward by Hugh Miller with respect to large and small farming in Scotland. It was impossible, urged the Scottish geologist, that the farm servant, with his fixed wages of meagre amount, could be made as thoughtful and provident a person as the small farmer who, thrown on his own resources, had to cultivate his fields, and drive his bargains, with the settlements between him and his landlord full before him; and who often succeeded in saving money, and in giving a classical education to some promising son or nephew, which enabled the young man to rise to a higher sphere of life. It is with this class of tenant-farmers precisely that we have to deal in Ulster. So far as they came from Scotland, they were transplanted before the large farm system was adopted there. Their sympathies, even as Scots, would not be with those "lairds sae gair on gear" who drove out small farmers to make room for larger ones, or "set ane mailin to anither." On the contrary, they would be as ready as the Scottish poet of the last century to exclaim:—

A burning curse licht on the heads
O' worthless lairds colleagued thegither
To drive auld Scotland's hardy clans
Frae their native hills and blooming heather.

The population of Ulster is the densest in Ireland. According to the last census there were, six years ago, 133 persons to the square mile in Connaught, 160 in Munster, 191 in Leinster, and 224 in Ulster. This has been attributed to the greater number of manufactories in the northern province ; but if we exclude all towns having a population of 2,000 persons and upwards, the fact remains essentially the same. In that case, Connaught will have 124 persons to the square mile ; Munster, 126 ; Leinster, 129 ; and Ulster, 191. But perhaps the northern province is more generally fertile than the others ? Taking the number of persons to the square mile of arable land, the contrast is even plainer. Then Leinster is found to have only 154 persons, Munster 168, and Connaught 195; whilst Ulster has 258. Again, however, it may be argued that the average density is a bad test; and that the remnants of the old Celtic inhabitants have increased and multiplied recklessly in out of the way corners and counties, and thus by their squalid numbers mask the position really occupied by the Scottish element. The differences of religious belief may be said roughly to limn out the differences of race in Ulster; sufficiently so, at all events, for the present purpose. The Census Commissioners give us the numbers belonging to each religion respectively, although they have not taken note of race-distinctions. What religion therefore—that is, what race—prevails in that part of Ulster which is most densely populated?

The county of Armagh is the most thickly peopled county of Ulster, and of Ireland. It numbers 331 persons to the square mile of the total area, exclusive of towns having a population of 2,000 and upwards ; and it reckons 381 persons to every square mile of arable land. Its population is composed of 92,760 Catholics to 97,326 Protestants. The foreign element, to use a vicious term, is in the ascendant here. The Catholics form but 48.8 per cent. of the population ; and it must be borne in mind that they form 50.5 per cent. of the whole population of Ulster. The county next in populousness to Armagh is the county of Down, which alike in Ulster and in Ireland takes the second place. Excluding the towns of a stated size, as before, we have a population of 273 to the square mile, or of 317 persons to the square mile of arable land. In this county there are 97,409 Catholics to 202,718 Protestants, of whom 133,796 are Presbyterians, or, as it would be said, of the Scottish race. On the other hand, the least densely populated county of Ulster is Fermanagh, which reckons 185 persons to the square mile of arable land ; that is to say, it is not quite half so thickly peopled as Armagh. In this county, however, the Catholics form 56.5 per cent. of the population. In Cavan they form 80.5, and in Donegal 75.1 per cent ; but both these counties are considerably inferior in density of population to those in which the Protestants are the more numerous.

Thus, the Protestant or, if it is preferred, the Scottish, element in Ulster has even a deeper interest in the settlement of the Land question than the Catholic or Irish element, if degrees of comparison can be mentioned with regard to a question vital to both, or terms used presupposing an antagonism of races where all are Irish. But of the population of Ulster a large proportion, an absolute majority in fact, profess the Catholic religion ; these, it cannot be denied, represent the same race and sympathize with the same aspirations as are to be found prevailing in the other provinces. The Catholics of Ulster are in number more than the whole population of the province of Connaught; whilst in the northern province they stand related to the other chief persuasions in this fashion : 966,613 Catholics; 503,835 Presbyterians; 391,315 members of the Established Church; 32,030 Methodists. They form 50.5 of the population of the province, whilst the Presbyterians form 26.3 per cent, and the members of the Established Church, 20.4 per cent. It is desirable next to ascertain whether, against the pressure of adverse circumstances, they have been able to occupy a relatively fair position in the scale of society, or lie at the bottom as a serfish residuum.

An analysis of the census tables of occupation, arranged according to religious profession, would certainly surprise a number of persons who cherish the latter theory. It would prove that the question is well worth attention, and that there are few Irish topics on which English opinion is led more astray than on the relations of Ulster to Ireland and of the different religious persuasions in Ulster to each other. A complete survey of the grades occupied by the respective parties we do not propose to give here, but some idea of the subject may be obtained by a glance at the following table. According to the Census Commissioners the members of the three chief persuasions were, in 1861, represented, in the several classes specified in the following table by the numbers appended to each :—

Established Church Presbyterians Catholics
Landed Proprietors 835 521 944
Land Agents 90 28 9
Farmers 30,733 51,054 94,876
Land-surveyors 51 40 83
Land-stewards 190 235 107
Agricultural Implement
31 21 100
Ploughmen 2,786 5,129 7,321
Millers 317 461 574
Bakers 395 646 1,437
Grocers 832 1,715 1,297
Tobacconists 33 16 210
Cattle-dealers 55 94 534
Fishermen 305 301 1,016
Brewers, Distillers, and
18 28 27
Vintners 285 535 1,103
Hotel and Innkeepers 197 231 308
Wool-spinners 297 321 2,864
Wool-weavers 49 78 343
Cloth-manufacturers 1 0 3
Tailors and Clothiers 922 1,295 4,075
Woollen-drapers 128 246 117
Bootmakers, Binders, & 3,104 3,005 6,722
Hatters 58 46 97
Carpenters 2,167 3,339 3,707
Blacksmiths 991 1,631 2,880

In what has been called the staple trade of Ulster, the flax trade, we find in the class of flax merchants and dealers 25 members of the Established Church, 53 Presbyterians, and 200 Catholics; whilst in the class of flax-yarn manufacturers they stand at 4 members of the Established Church, 4 Presbyterians, and 2 Catholics. Linen manufacturers are found to be 88 of the first denomination, 162 of the second, and 56 of the third. In the class beneath this, that of flax-dressers, spinners, &c., there are 1,448 members of the Established Church, 1,733 Presbyterians, and 4,451 Catholics; whilst the linen and damask weavers are reckoned at 16,759, 19,811, and 18,318 respectively. Of cotton merchants, 3 are members of the Church of England, 3 are Presbyterians, and 10 are Catholics. In the class of cotton manufacturers, 5 are members of the Established Church, and 2 are Presbyterians. There are no Catholics set down in this class, and they are inferior in number to the others as cotton-spinners and weavers; but in the class of embroiderers, sewed muslin and tambour workers, there are 34,433 Catholics to 10,143 Presbyterians, and 6,839 members of the Established Church, In the soldier class there are 907 members of the Established Church, 257 Presbyterians, and 1,083 Catholics; and in the constabulary the numbers stand at 831; 338 ; and 1,602 respectively. But whilst the number of Catholic barristers is over a third of the number of barristers belonging to the Established Church, and that of the Catholic physicians between a third and a half of that of physicians belonging to the Established Church, there are only 4 Catholic magistrates on the Bench with the 48 of the favoured Church. The Presbyterians are even worse treated; for though they come still closer in number in these two classes, they likewise furnish but one-twelfth of the magistrates. This disparity in a province where the Presbyterian population outnumbers that of the Established Church, and where the Catholic population exceeds both, is properly regarded as a grievance.

From these statistics it will be seen how thorough has been the mingling of races in Ulster, and how effectually prejudices and penal restrictions have been broken down, and the older race, surging up through the breach, has won its way to a fair position in every rank and class. Wherever its members might go, by their own efforts they have gone; where they are unseen, or where, being visible, they are in seriously disproportionate numbers, there the hand of authority, which should have dealt equal and impartial justice, has been used to depress or exclude them. The barrier thus raised must also give way; and it will give way all the sooner when a more intimate knowledge of the subject is obtained, and Ulster is regarded as in truth and fact a part of Ireland. At no time is it more important to bear this in mind than when the settlement of the land tenure is in question. Ulster demands an equitable arrangement with exceeding urgency; for, whilst heretofore it has been preserved from the fate, and restrained from the passions, of the other provinces, by possessing in its "custom" a traditional tenant-right, there are symptoms of a resolve to destroy this custom.

The Ulster tenants, sturdy and resolute men, accustomed to party-warfare, and sullen rather than subservient, are not likely to see this done without a determined struggle. Before 1798 there were agrarian insurrections amongst them; and those who emigrated in consequence to America, became marked as the fiercest enemies of the British flag in the War of Independence. In 1798 they were organized again, and with more general effect. And the troubles which we may expect if landlords persist in using them as their more southern neighbours have been used may be judged both from the example of the latter and from the testimony of experienced men. The lesson of the evidence given, some twenty-two years ago, before the Land Commissioners, by men intimately conversant with the state of the North, may be summed up in the words of Mr. Handcock, agent to Lord Lurgan in the counties of Armagh, Down, and Antrim. Pointing out the benefits of the "custom" of tenant-right, he says "much of our Ulster prosperity has been the result of it;" "and no measure," he adds, "would have a greater effect in improving the state of the South and West than the introduction of the tenant-right as it exists in Ulster." "It is very conducive to the peace of the country; for almost every man has a stake in the community, and is therefore opposed to agrarian outrages as well as riots." And then we have this remarkable and important passage : "The landlords are compelled to recognize tenant-right, as in several instances in this neighbourhood, where they have refused to allow tenant-right, the in-coming tenant's house has been burned, his cattle houghed, or his crops trodden down by night. The disallowance of tenant-right, so far as I know, is always attended with outrage.

A landlord cannot even resume possession to himself without paying for it" (buying out the tenant's right). "In fact, it is one of the sacred rights of the country, which cannot be touched with impunity; and if systematic efforts were made amongst the proprietors of Ulster to invade tenant-right, I do not believe there is a force at the disposal of the Horse Guards sufficient to keep the peace of the province ; and when we consider that all the improvements have been effected at the expense of the tenant, it is perfectly right that this tenant-right should exist; his money has been laid out on the faith of compensation in that shape."

Some efforts to invade the Ulster tenant-right are now being made, and have been in process of execution during the past few years. The consequence is, not that the Ulster population has yet broken out into local outrages, but that it is being kneaded to revolution or Fenianism. If the systematized Fenian Society were not in existence, it is possible that particular outrages would have occurred. A tourist through some of the most peaceable and industrious parts of Ulster has informed us that on his saying last year to some tenant farmers that he supposed Fenianism was in disfavour there, he received the reply that the people were not Fenians, but had no abhorrence of those who were so; that they fancied they might be better off if the Fenians should succeed; and that they could not be worse, for that the agent sent round a valuator every fourth year to raise their rents for every improvement effected, and thus made their "custom" a mockery. If this is the state of feeling where no ejectments have taken place, what is it likely to be where evictions and acts such as those which convulsed Munster have commenced?

The Londonderry Standard, the sober and respectable organ of the Presbyterians of the North-West, in its number of the 27th of Nov., 1867, declares Fenianism to have "its root and source in Ireland's monstrous land-economy;" and adds : "Will it be believed that in Ulster there are landlords so demented as to pursue, in relation to their tenantry at this very moment, a policy calculated to drive the latter into Fenianism or any other scheme of political madness which may present itself in the shape of a remedial alternative?" And it gives this as an example:—A landlord in a populous Ulster county lately wanted a supply of ready money, "and having discovered that some of his tenants had, by hard frugality and self-denial, economized small sums, he gave them notice that he would give them leases of 21 years at rents (amounting in reality to the full letting value of the land even without leases), on condition of their paying him fines of ten pounds per acre, or very nearly half the ordinary average value of the fee-simple in the public land market! They were informed that if they did not accept these terms, their rents would be raised to an enormous figure, far above their means of payment.

Negotiations were tried and found useless. The poor men had eventually to hand over to their landlord the total savings of their lives, in order to purchase leave to toil for a bare subsistence during twenty-one years to come. One of these tenants, the industrious cultivator of a patch of ground containing eleven acres, had saved £110 by severe economy, as our agricultural readers may suppose, and this poor man was compelled to hand over to his feudal lord and master every penny of his little store in return for one of the rackrent leases above described." "These," it adds, "are no solitary instances; and when British law permits and sanctions in Ireland this kind of privileged extortion, can any reasonable man wonder that popular exasperation is the consequence, and that emissaries of revolution should take advantage of it?" Thus whilst baseless theories are confidently put forward touching the condition of Ulster, this province, which organized revolt in 1763, 1772, and 1798, and which was the foremost in supporting the Tenant League agitation of some years ago, is now made to ripen into Fenianism by the supineness of the Legislature. Mr. Goldwin Smith has truly said that the Orangemen and Ulstermen will be the most earnest of revolutionists, for their interests are most closely bound up with the land ; and whilst the traditions of the educated make many of them incline to Republicanism, the spirit of the masses is far more intensely stubborn and democratic than in any of the other provinces.