The Savage Shore: Three Englishmen in Ireland
Late on a September afternoon in 1845, when the sky was low and the wind close, a horseman with a rooster’s plume of red hair and an indefinable air of Englishness about him stood on a road in Donegal, surveying the empty landscape. Near Lough Derg, the rider had passed two dirty peasant children selling “rudely carved wooden crucifixes” and a peeling window poster proclaiming “the Sacred beauty of Jesus,” and near Ballyshannon, a knot of half clad, shoeless peasant women lifting panniers of turf onto the back of an ancient ass. Then, the wind died, the ubiquitous castle ruins—palimpsests of conquest and loss—vanished from the landscape and the rider passed from human to geological time. Savage rock and cold mountain surrounded him now, and the only sound to be heard in the perfect stillness of the afternoon was the gravel crunching under the weight of his horse.
Out over the Atlantic, silos of angry black storm clouds were billowing skyward over a white-capped sea. By the time the rider arrived in Gweedore, it would be raining again. Even for Ireland, the weather had been unusually mutinous of late. “Heat, rain, cold and sunshine succeed each other at a confusing rate,” the Dublin Evening Post had complained the other day. “Monday last was extremely wet, Tuesday was beautifully dry; yesterday ... both wet and dry, and to-day again is equally variable.” During harvest season, the weather was always a major preoccupation in Ireland, but this season the news from Europe had made the preoccupation all-consuming. In June, a mysterious potato disease had appeared in Flanders; by the end of July, scarcely a sound potato was left between Silesia and Normandy; then, in early August, the Channel Islands and England were infected. Now there were rumors that the disease had appeared here.
In a country where two thirds of the population lived by the aphorism
Potatoes in the morning
Potatoes at night
And if I got up at midnight
It would still be potatoes.
the appearance of the new disease could be catastrophic. The rider was unworried, though. In Dungloe, he had passed fields “heavy” with healthy-looking potatoes, and last week, in County Fermanagh, the “luxuriant” potato fields had stretched all the way to the horizon. The Irish were an excitable people. The news from Europe, and the weather, had them on edge.
• • •
Mr. Thomas Campbell Foster’s journey to Ireland had begun with a summons. Earlier in the year, he had been called to Printing House Square, home of his former employer, The Times of London, and offered a challenging assignment. In the forty-four years since the formation of the Anglo-Irish Union, Britain had grown steadily wealthier and mightier, while her partner, Ireland, had grown steadily poorer and more disorderly. The editors of The Times wanted Mr. Thomas Campbell Foster to cross the Irish Sea and answer a question that had eluded the best efforts of one hundred and fourteen government commissions, sixty-one special committees, and fifty years of study by almost every leading political economist of the age:
Why was Ireland collapsing?
It was now several months later, and as Mr. Foster made his way northwest to Donegal, he found himself thinking what a sad, poor country Ireland was. Every road crowded with paupers entombed in rags and filth; every field crowded with slatternly little farms, undrained bogs, roofless barns, broken fences, and mud cabins that defied every architectural principle Mr. Foster was aware of: smoke poured out through a hole in the front of the cabin where the door ought to be, rain poured in through the roof, and wind whistled through cracks in the mud walls. In front of almost every dwelling sat a pig in a puddle and a pile of dung, and behind many dwellings, a line of somber, untreed hills. The Irish hill was one of the most forlorn things Mr. Foster had ever seen.
• • •
In the 1830s and early 1840s, Ireland occupied the same place in the western mind that Haiti, the Congo, and Somalia occupy today. The very long parade of Irish experts that Mr. Foster joined the morning he accepted the Times assignment included not only government commissioners, members of Parliament, and political economists, but also some of the most famously enlightened personalities of the Victorian age, among them Alexis de Tocqueville, Sir Walter Scott, William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Carlyle, and the well-known German travel writer Johann Kohl. On visits to Ireland, the celebrity experts would poke and probe every facet of the Irish economy, the Irish mind, the Irish family, the Irish work ethic, the Irish agricultural system, the Irish procreation rate, then return home in despair and write a book explaining why Ireland was the worst place in the world. “I used to pity the poor Letts of Livonia,” declared the German Kohl. “Well, pardon my ignorance, now, I have seen Ireland.” The Scot Carlyle came back to London proclaiming that he had seen hell: “The earth disowns it. Heaven is against it. Ireland should be burnt into a black unpeopled field rather than this should last.”
Most contemporary analysis of Irish poverty began with Irish demography. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, population growth accelerated everywhere in Europe but nowhere so sharply as in Ireland. Between about 1745 and 1800, the population doubled, from two and a half million to five million; then, between 1800 and 1845, it almost doubled again, from five million to nearly 8.2 million. During the French Wars—1793 to 1815—British demand for Irish foodstuffs and manufactures provided enough revenue to support the expanding population. In the early 1800s, the better sort of Irish farmer often lived nearly as well as his English counterpart. There was a sturdy two-story stone house, a wife and daughters dressed in imported clothes, and a cupboard full of tea, tobacco, and other luxury items. For a few decades, the smooth glide of history even made the life of the eternally poor Irish peasant more tolerable. With the country awash in British money, the peasant could afford to supplement his traditional bowl of potatoes with “extras” like buttermilk, meat, and herring. The official who called Napoleon the best friend the Irish farmer ever had exaggerated—but not greatly.
Waterloo brought an end to the happy time. In the postwar years, British demand for Irish goods weakened, agricultural prices fell, and the domestic economy contracted. In the 1820s, when tariffs between the Union partners were lifted, the contraction intensified. An influx of cheap machine-made goods from the mills of Lancaster devastated the Irish textile industry outside Ulster. Thousands were thrown out of work, and, in the pockets of southern Ireland where the industry survived, wages fell precipitously. In 1800, at the height of the wartime boom, a weaver in Drogheda, a town north of Dublin, earned between 14 shillings and 21 shillings (£1.1) per week. A generation later, a Drogheda weaver earned a quarter to a half of what his father had: 4 shillings per week for plain goods and 8 shillings for fancy goods. In Limerick, John Geary, a physician, told a visiting English commission about his recent encounter with a former textile worker; the man was lying in bed next to his wife, who had typhus. “I begged him to get up,” said Geary, “and I shall never forget so long as I live his answer to me, ‘Ah sir, if I get up and breathe the air and walk about I will get an appetite ... and I have nothing to eat and not a penny to buy anything.’”
Between 1821 and 1841, shipbuilding, glass making, and other domestic industries followed textile manufacture into oblivion, and the portion of the Irish workforce employed in manufacturing plummeted from 43 percent to 28 percent. At a trade show in Dublin in the early 1850s, almost all the machinery on exhibit was British. “A net for confining sheep on pasture” was one of the few examples of Irish technology.
The industrial collapse pushed people onto the already crowded land. In the 1820s and 1830s, Irish agriculture went where Irish agriculture had never gone before—up mountainsides, down to the thin sandy soils of the seashore, out onto wild, windswept cliffs. For a time, Irish rents also went where Irish rents had never gone before, and although they stablilized in the years before 1845, the Irish farmer was slow to feel the stabilization. “People are forced from want to promise any rent,” a land agent in Galway observed. “I know a man named Laughlin, who outbid his own brother and took a farm for more than it ever was or ever will be worth.”
The intense land hunger produced a granular subdivision of the Irish countryside. Unable to make the rent, the four-acre farmer would sublet two acres to another farmer, who would rent half an acre of potato ground to an agricultural laborer. By 1841, 45 percent of the agricultural holdings in Ireland were under five acres, and as subsistence farming grew, living standards fell. Milk disappeared from the peasant diet or became bull’s milk—unsifted oats fermented in water. Meat, eggs, butter, herring also vanished. And the cow that had formerly attended the peasant’s cabin was replaced by the pig, less expensive and easier to convert into rent money. Asked why he allowed his pig to sleep in the family cabin, one peasant replied, “It’s him that pays the rent, ain’t it.”
Peasant dress also grew meaner; clothing was mended, remended, then mended a third, fourth, and fifth time. The kaleidoscope of patched elbows, knees, and bottoms in peasant Ireland astonished the German traveler Kohl. The Irish look like a nation of “broken down dance masters,” he declared. As living standards fell, the potato became an even more irresistible economic proposition for the small subsistence farmer and for the agricultural laborer, who was often unemployed half the year.
A single acre of potato ground produced up to six tons of food, enough to feed a family of six for up to a year, and the potato’s high nutritional content ensured that every member of the family enjoyed rude good health.
The robust appearance of the Irish peasantry gave much of the contemporary writing about prefamine Ireland a slightly schizophrenic quality. In one sentence the author would be decrying the wretched state of Irish dress, in the next, praising the athleticism of the men and the beauty of the women. Adam Smith, of all people, was among the first to notice this Irish paradox and he was quick to credit the potato for it. In London, noted the economist, the strongest men and most beautiful women were largely drawn from the “lowest rank of people in Ireland, who are fed on this root.” The Halls, an English couple, who visited Ireland in the early 1840s went even further than Smith, crediting the potato with producing the hardiest peasantry in the world. And, indeed, on metrics of physical well-being like height and strength, the early-nineteenth-century Irishman was a wonder. Half an inch taller than the Englishman and an inch taller than the Belgian, the Irishman was stronger than both. On a Victorian contraption called a dynamometer, the average physical strength of the Irishman was 432 lb. compared to 403 lb. for the Englishman and 339 lb. for the Belgian.
Nonetheless, the fact remained, the profound nature of Irish poverty made the Irish peasant acutely vulnerable to the potato’s failure, and, in the years following the French Wars, the potato had become almost reliably unreliable. In the 1830s, scarcely a year passed without a regional crop failure somewhere in Ireland. A general failure would deprive as many as five million people of their dietary mainstay, and, too poor to purchase an alternate food, most of them would immediately plunge into starvation. Thomas Malthus’s work on poverty, rapid population growth, and demographic disaster suggested what would happen next. There would be death, and death not in the thousands or tens of thousands, but in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions.
In 1841, when new census data indicated a slowing in the growth of the Irish birth rate, the Malthusian threat seemed to recede, but the data were misleading. The subsistence farmers and landless agricultural laborers, who accounted for 70 percent of the population of rural Ireland, were still having six or seven children, and those children were growing up to become laborers and subsistence farmers who led lives at least as brutal and desperate as their parents’. In 1837, when residents of Tullaghobegly, Donegal, submitted a memorial—a petition for assistance—to the lord lieutenant, the chief British official in Ireland, the introductory page included a description of life in Tullaghobegly by the local teacher, Patrick M’Kye:
I have traveled a part of England and Scotland, together with part of British America...., I have likewise perambulated 2,253 miles in seven United States and never witnessed [a] tenth of such hunger, hardships and nakedness [as here].... More than one half of both men and women cannot afford shoes to their feet, nor can many of them afford a second bed,... whole families of sons and daughters of mature age [lie] indiscriminately together with their parents in the bare buff.... None of the women can afford more than one shift ... [and the] children are crying and fainting with hunger.
Donegal was one of the poorest counties in the poorest region of Ireland. When British officials had nightmares about all the things that could go wrong in Ireland, the nightmares were usually set in the west, in Donegal, Kerry, Mayo, and Galway. The region had the highest rate of population growth and the largest number of subsistence farms; 64 percent of the agricultural holdings in the west were under five acres (the national average was 45 percent). However, by 1845, immiseration, the deepest form of poverty, had spread to parts of the (relatively) prosperous east and north. At the end of the national cattle show in Dublin, the Scottish writer Henry Inglis was astonished to see paupers slip into the exhibition ring and fill their pockets with the half-eaten turnips discarded by the animal contestants. In Londonderry, an Ulster “boomtown” of six thousand, “people regularly [pawned] their Sunday clothes on Monday morning and release[d] them on ... Saturday night,” after Friday payday. In County Wicklow, another “prosperous” region, a traveler saw a young mother pick up a gooseberry seed spat out by a passerby, lick it clean with her tongue, and feed it to her baby. Asenath Nicholson, an American visitor, described the Irish pauper as “a hunger-armed assassin.”
• • •
Visiting Cavan, an Ulster market town, Mr. Foster encountered another aspect of Irish life that troubled British officials as much as the poverty. In high summer, Cavan usually bustled with traders and tinkers and broad-shouldered countrymen in from the surrounding farms, but the day Mr. Foster passed through on his way to Donegal, Cavan had the look of an armed camp. Thick metal locks hung from the doors of the public houses and municipal buildings, and notices covered the walls near the town square. Some offered rewards “for private information relative to the secret society commonly called ... [the] Molly Maguires”; others ordered the arrest “of all vagrants and suspicious persons.” Except for a contingent of red-jacketed Royal Dragoons and a handful of Irish Constabulary officers, almost as glamorous looking in olive-green coatees and white duck trousers, the streets were empty. Upon inquiry, Mr. Foster learned that Cavan had been “proclaimed”—put under martial law—in late June, after the assassination of a local magistrate, a Mr. Bell-Booth, who had been murdered one Sunday morning while driving his children home from church. As the magistrate lay slumped across the carriage seat, dying, an old man, himself too feeble to assist, had shouted to the crowd around the carriage: “For God’s sake, someone help the man!” No one moved.
The economic malaise of the 1820s and 1830s had also inflamed Ireland’s bitter class and sectarian divisions. Public officials, landowners, land agents, large farmers—almost every member of the gentry, Protestant or Catholic—lived in fear of the “midnight legislators,” the Molly Maguires, the Whiteboys, and the other secret societies that defended the interests of the subsistence farmer and agricultural laborer. The proprietor, or large farmer—the fifty- to hundred-acre man—who rack-rented (charged an exorbitant rent) or evicted a tenant could find his cattle “cliffed” (driven over the edge of a cliff), his hunting dogs clubbed to death, or his horses immolated in a fire. In Galway, the “midnight legislators” dug up the corpse of a landlord who had evicted 108 families and placed a gallows over his body. The bitter historic emnity between the Catholic majority—eighty percent of the population—and the Protestant Anglo-Irish ruling class both exacerbated and made the violence hard to control. The day Mr. Foster visited Cavan, the municipal authorities were grappling with a problem familiar to Irish officials. All the Catholic witnesses to the Bell-Booth murder refused to come forward because the assailant was a Catholic, and the one Protestant witness, the magistrate’s sister-in-law, was afraid to testify for fear of assassination. Visiting Ireland in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville wondered how long Britain could maintain order in a nation where the disaffected majority refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the legal system.
In 1843, the Devon Commission was established to examine what most experts believed to be the principal source of Irish poverty and violence, the Irish landholding system. In testimony, commission witnesses described the Irish landowner as often indebted and improvident, frequently exploitative and only occasionally interested in agricultural investment, while the small Irish tenant farmer was depicted as living on the edge of immiseration and unwilling to make even minimal agricultural improvements as he held his land “at will,” without a lease, and could be evicted “at will” by the landlord.
“Are the small tenantry improving in their condition or otherwise?” the Commission asked John Duke, a County Leitrim surgeon.
Duke: ”They are fifty percent worse than they were twenty years ago.”
Commission: “What is the cause of their being so wretched?”
Duke: “They are not able to pay their rents and are lying naked in such a state, it would hardly be believed.”
• • •
Very little of surgeon Duke’s testimony or that of his fellow witnesses ended up in the Commission’s policy recommendations. The Earl of Devon, the chairman, was a political ally of the current prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, and Peel wanted a report that appeared to do something without actually doing anything. Eager to oblige, Devon and his colleagues produced a set of policy recommendations most notable for an octopuslike ability to embrace every side of every question. Thus, the Commission saw “unequivocal symptoms of improvement” in Ireland except when it did not see them: “We regret ... that the agricultural laborer ... continues to suffer the greatest deprivations and hardships.” The Commission likewise expressed a fervent desire to bring an end to the inhumane practice of mass evictions, except in instances where mass evictions were useful. “When it is seen ... how minute ... holdings are frequently found to be, it cannot be denied that such a step is, in many cases, absolutely necessary.” The commission also supported tenant leases, except when it opposed tenant leases as an infringement on the property rights of the proprietor. “We cannot recommend any direct interference by the Legislature.” The Devon Commission’s report was published in February 1845 and concluded with a rousing defense of the Irish landlord. “There has been much exaggeration and misstatement in the sweeping charges which have been directed against Irish landlords,” declared the commissioners, all Irish landlords themselves.
A uniformly “unreadable,” unfailingly “ponderous” “cartload of cross examinations,” erupted The Times. John Delane, the paper’s ambitious young editor, decided the moment had come for The Times to send its own man to Ireland. A Times commissioner would be appointed to conduct an inquiry into “the mischief which prevails” in that country, “lay out the simple, basic facts” of the Irish situation, and suggest remedies. “Whatever the success of our present inquiry,” The Times told its readers, “... we have this consolation ... every other method has failed.”
A Leeds man and a journalist’s son, Mr. Thomas Campbell Foster was not the most obvious choice for the post. Only thirty-two, he possessed no special knowledge of Ireland, and had left journalism to study for the bar at Middle Temple. If his name sounded familiar to Times readers, it was because Foster had done some enterprising reporting during the Rebecca Riots, a worker uprising in Wales. Entrusting the prestige of the most influential newspaper in the world to a young man of such thin experience was not without risk; but Mr. Foster was intelligent, intrepid, resourceful, a fast, facile writer, possessed of all the unearned confidence of youth, and had a big personality—an important asset in a small island full of big personalities.
In Whitehall and Westminster, the Foster appointment was greeted with loud harrumphs: The Times was engaging in another publicity stunt. And so it was. Still, there was historical precedent for the Foster mission. Twice before at a critical moment in Irish history, a man with a plan had appeared, and, like Mr. Foster, he was English.
One day in 1582, in a hillside cottage heavy with the smell of men who had walked a distance in the morning sun, a group of literary-minded friends gathered to hear Lodowick Bryskett, a retired civil servant, read from his current work in progress, Discourse of Civill Life. The guests were mostly military men, though a few of Bryskett’s fellow civil servants were also present, among them a young man whose physical glamour put a colleague in mind of an “Italianate signor.” Edmund Spenser was an aide to Lord Grey de Wilton, the British governor in Ireland, and an aspiring poet. He was in Ireland for the same reason as the other guests. In the 1580s, Ireland was one of the few places in the Elizabethan world where a young man of humble origins and large ambitions could hope to make a mark, and Spenser was both humbly born and hugely ambitious. Within fifteen years, the cloth-maker’s son would change the course of English literature with a poem, The Faerie Queene, and the course of Irish history with a book, A View of the Present State of Ireland.
In 1582, Spenser had been in the country for only two years—not long, but long enough to come to one conclusion: Ireland was in a state of savage primitiveness. Even on the most rudimentary measure of “civilized” development, a knowledge of the national geography, the Irish were lacking. While the country’s four provinces—Connaught in the west, Munster in the south, Ulster in the north, and Leinster in the east—had been delineated, within each province many regions remained unshired (that is, they had not been divided into counties) and unmapped. A century after Columbus sailed to the Americas, exactly where the coast of Donegal began and ended remained a mystery. This inattention to marking and ordering extended into the Irish agricultural system. The lack of hedges and fences made it difficult to tell where an Irish farm or pasture began or ended, and the lack of common measurements like the acre made it difficult to determine the farm’s size. Ask an Irish farmer how much land he held and he would reply, “A cow’s grass,” meaning the amount of land required to feed a cow. Except for coastal settlements like Galway and Dublin, the country had nothing an Englishman would call a town, and except for fortified redoubts and churches, it had few stone buildings. About the Irish national character, Spenser was in accord with the medieval Welsh monk Giraldus Cambrensis, who declared the natives to be “a race of savages, I say again, a race of utter savages.”
For Irish backwardness, the poet blamed the “Old English,” the country’s nominal rulers. Instead of anglicizing the natives, the natives had celticized the conquerors. Beyond the pale of settlement, a thin strip of land around Dublin, England barely existed, even as an idea. Celtic law, language, manners, and customs dominated the rhythms and activities of daily life for both the “Old English,” descendants of the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman conquerors, and the Irish. As Spenser contemplated these facts, he reached a second momentous conclusion: Ireland would have to be reconquered and forcibly anglicized and modernized. Irish and Old English lords who resisted the reestablishment of English rule, law, and culture would be summarily executed; those suspected of resisting, imprisoned. The bearers of Celtic culture—the bards and storytellers—would also be physically eliminated. In the final stages of the reconquest, the lands of the domestic aristocracy would be seized and transferred to Protestant settlers from England and Scotland, who would anglicize the Irish and the Old English remnant through personal example.
In the early 1580s, a war with Spain loomed, and Queen Elizabeth was loath to provoke her Irish subjects with talk of reconquest and plantation, but a decade later, when Ulster rose in rebellion, the Spanish Armada was at the bottom of the English Channel, and royal patience with the tumultuous Irish was at a nadir. For Old English and Celtic chieftains, rebellion was almost a form of sport; the Ulster uprising was at least the fourth in as many decades but it possessed two particularly menacing characteristics. It spread quickly to the rest of the island and the leaders, the enigmatic Earl of Tyrone and that wickedly handsome Braveheart, Red Hugh O’Donnell, had Spanish backing. Having failed to batter down England’s front door, Spain was now using the Ulster warlords to pick the lock on her back door. Upon defeat of the rebellion, the Crown ordered the lands of Tyrone, O’Donnell, and their lieutenants seized and transferred to English settlers. Within a few generations, Ulster, formerly the most Celtic of the four Irish provinces, became the most British region of the country. A rebellion by Old English and native Irish in the 1640s set the stage for the reconquest of the rest of the country. On August 15, 1649, Oliver Cromwell arrived in Ireland with an army of eight thousand foot and four thousand on horse, and “lightening passed through the land.” Three years later, as many as 400,000 people out of a population of a little over a million were dead, and British settlers—“planters”—were pouring into the country.
In 1600, a year after Spenser’s death, Ireland was 2 percent British; in 1700, after the Cromwellian reconquest and the victory of the Protestant armies of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, Ireland was 27 percent British. By 1750, English and Scottish settlers controlled 95 percent of the land and held all social, political, and economic power. After the Penal Laws stripped Catholics of the right to practice their religion freely, to own firearms, to purchase or inherit estates, to own a horse, or to lease land beyond a certain value, some of the Celtic and Old English elite fled abroad, some converted to Protestantism, and some became tenant farmers. The Irish language and Irish culture went into exile in the cabins of the peasantry.
The Protestant Ascendancy had begun.
On a late June morning in 1776, a Suffolk man with flaring black eyebrows, a lively expression, and the callused hands of a farmer sat in a harbor station on the eastern shore of the Irish Sea, awaiting his packet, the Claremont. For millennia, Holyhead in Wales had been the departure point for the Ireland-bound, but the eighteenth-century traveler remained as much at the mercy of wind, tide, and the vagaries of the Welsh weather as his prehistoric counterpart.
Here I sit in Holyhead
With muddy ale and moldy bread.
For want of matter swears and frets
Are forced to read the old gazettes
wrote one long-suffering traveler, the Irish cleric Jonathan Swift.
This morning wind and tide favored the Dublin-bound. Twenty-two uneventful but tedious hours later, the traveler, Arthur Young, was surprised to find himself in a handsome Anglo-Irish city of broad streets, well-tended parks, sun-dappled squares, gracious Georgian homes, and “magnificent” public buildings. On the banks of the River Liffey, the sons and daughters of the Ascendancy had torn down Spenser’s dark, savage Ireland and erected a sparkling monument of cut stone and brick to themselves. Dublin has “much exceeded my expectations,” declared Young, author of two renowned books on agriculture, A Six Weeks Tour Through the Southern Counties of England and Wales and A Six Months Tour Through the North of England.
Dublin’s resemblance to a national capital was not a matter of happenstance. In the generations after the plantations, the descendants of the colonists, like their counterparts in North America, had grown restive under English rule, and for many of the same reasons: unfair imperial tax and trade policies, and a colonial nationalism born of economic achievement. Between the 1720s and the 1770s, Irish per capita income may have doubled. The morning Young arrived—June 20, 1776—in Dublin, as in Philadelphia, the talk was all of independence. In the corridors of the “spacious, elegant” new Parliament building, there were discussions about an Irish navy, Irish ambassadors, and the proper accent for the new Irish nation. Spenser’s vision of an anglicized Ireland was dead; the new vision was of a semi-autonomous Anglo-Irish state. Ireland and England would remain linked together under the Crown, but an independent Irish legislature would be free to act in Irish interests.
Young’s role in the formation of the new state, though more indirect than Spenser’s, was, nonetheless, foundational. In A Tour in Ireland, he provided the first comprehensive look at the agricultural system that had evolved out of the plantation period and that would still be in place seventy years later when Mr. Foster visited. For the patriots in Dublin who were relying on the agricultural economy to support the new Anglo-Irish state, Tour made sober reading.
• • •
On the surface, the Irish landholding system resembled the English. At the top was a small elite of eight thousand to ten thousand landowning families, almost all descendants of the Protestant planters; below the landowners was a large group of tenant farmers with holdings of various sizes, and below the farmers, an even larger group of landless laborers. However, the peculiarities of Irish history had produced singularities at every point in the system, beginning at the top. Almost every foreign expert who visited Ireland, from Young in 1776 to the Frenchman Gustave de Beaumont in 1835, believed Irish poverty was rooted in the unproductive use of the land. The experts also agreed that the low quality of Irish agriculture was rooted in the peculiar character of the Irish landowning class. Between 20 percent and 30 percent of the land was held by absentee owners, men whose families had acquired Irish land during the plantations, and who lived in England or elsewhere in Ireland and rarely visited their nonresidential properties. “My father saw [the estate] but once, when he drove along the mail coach road that skirts it,” recalled William Bence Jones, an English absentee. With notable exceptions, the goal of the absentee landowner was to extract the maximum amount of wealth from his holdings with the minimum investment of time and money.
Resident landowners had their own singularity: a preference for conspicuous consumption over agricultural investment. Memorable examples of the Irish landowners’ tropism for unnecessary fabulousness included Lord Baltimore’s touring entourage of eight mistresses and a black eunuch; the £20,000 Lord Muskerry spent on a home he never bothered to finish; and the almost million acres of Irish deer parks and gardens. “Our great farming Landlords ... are lost in admiration [for] the wonderful effects of their abilities on 100 acres ... altogether neglecting the ten, fifty or hundred thousand acres ... beyond the little boundary enclosing themselves.” John Pitt Kennedy, a leading Irish agriculturalist, was right. Often, the landlord’s hundred acres of lawn and garden was surrounded by miles of broken fences, slouching cabins, rudely cultivated fields, and treeless hills. In Spenser’s time, woodland had covered an eighth of the Irish land surface; by Young’s time, ruthless commercial deforestation had reduced the tree cover to a scattered series of redoubts. If “you would hang all the landlords ... who destroy trees without planting, you would lay your axe to the root of the evil,” Young declared.
The power the Irish proprietor exercised over his tenants was, with the exception of the American South, also singular. “A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invent an order which a servant laborer ... refuses to execute,” noted Young. “Nothing satisfies him but an unlimited submissiveness. Disrespect or anything tending toward sauciness he may punish with his cane or his horsewhip.” On some estates, proprietors also demanded sexual services. When one “landlord of consequence” defended the practice, asserting that many “cottars [poor laborers] ... think themselves honored to have their wives and daughters sent to the bed of their master,” Young was outraged. Sexual exploitation is “a mark of slavery,” he declared.
Tour also included examples of humane, wakeful-minded proprietors, but about the middleman, another singularity of the Irish landholding system, Young found nothing good to say. Typically, a middleman leased several hundred acres from a proprietor and divided the land into rental plots. The members of this class were famous largely for “screwing up the rent to the highest farthing,” for commandeering their tenants’ horses and carts at harvest time to take in their crops, and for a love of strong drink and fast hounds. “These men, very generally [are] the masters of packs of hounds, with which they waste their time and money and ... are the hardest drinkers in Ireland.”
Below the middlemen were the tenants. Large farmers, some descendants of old Catholic gentry, typically held fifty to a hundred acres; middling farmers, between ten and forty acres; and small farmers, four, five or six acres. The bottom of the landholding system was home to two types of laborers: the cottier, who bartered his labor in return for a cabin and a potato plot, and the spalpeen, the itinerant laborer, who survived on day work and rented a conacre, a small plot of potato ground from a local farmer, usually on an eleven-month lease. Demographically, the largest segment of the population, the agricultural peasantry, was also the class most resistant to anglicization. In the cabins of the small farmer and laborer, ancient Celtic culture continued to dominate the rhythms of life. In this “Hidden Ireland,” Irish remained the first language; myth and legend attached itself to every feature of the landscape; the storyteller and the poet remained revered figures; and the great old Irish families—the dispossessed “ancient race”—were remembered and honored. “Oh sir,” joked a nervous Ulsterman about a rumored list of confiscated Catholic estates, “there is a map ... [that] would singe your eyebrows but to smell the fiery fragment...; you would bless yourself to peruse the hideous, barbaric names with which it abounds.... Published sir ... for the sole purpose of reminding herdsmen and ditchers of what great folks their grandmas were.”
For all the hardships of peasant life, Young believed contemporary accounts of Irish poverty were somewhat overstated. True, the roadside cabins of the spalpeens—“a few sticks, furze, and fern” propped up against a rise—had the ephemeral look of a Bedouin encampment, the townland, the closest thing Hidden Ireland had to a village, contained no shops, no paved roads, no church steeples, and no monetary economy to speak of; in Hidden Ireland the primary unit of exchange remained the barter of land and labor for goods. Still, the shoeless feet, the straw bedding, the meanness of the economic system, had to be set against the livestock that often attended even the lowest hovels and against the superb physical condition of the peasantry, which Young, like Smith, attributed to the potato. Observing the cottages swarming with pink-cheeked children, the great black eyebrows flared, and England’s leading agriculturalist exclaimed, “Vive la pomme de Terre.”
Except for the robust condition of the peasantry, however, Young’s Tour in Ireland, published in 1780, contained little good news for the Anglo-Irish patriots in Dublin. Irish barns and fences were in short supply; farmers bound the feet of their turkeys and chickens to keep them out of the cow pastures; crops were improperly rotated, which kept yields low; the lack of agricultural tools reduced productivity; and inadequate capital investment by landowners allowed tens of thousands of acres of potentially valuable farmland to go to waste. On almost every metric associated with national prosperity, Irish agriculture failed.
Young could think of only one solution: a massive influx of English investment capital. No one including, probably, Young, expected the recommendation to be adopted.
• • •
A few years after Tour was published, the dream of an Anglo-Irish state died in the hills of Wexford and Mayo. Upon the outbreak of the French Wars in 1793, the French began to dream the old Spanish dream: an attack on England through disaffected Ireland. In November 1796, a French invasion fleet appeared off Bantry Bay. A “Protestant wind” drove the invasion force away, but ambitious Frenchmen and disaffected Irishmen continued to conspire. In May 1798, the Catholic peasantry of Wexford rose and slaughtered the local Protestant gentry, and in August a French invasion force of a thousand and a band of Mayo peasants, whose martial ardor exceeded their military skills, attacked the market town of Castlebar. A British army of twenty thousand took the field and the glen hollows, and what remained of the “goodly woods” filled with “anatomies of death.” As many as thirty thousand rebels and loyalists may have died.
In a postmortem on the uprising, London concluded that a semi-autonomous Irish state was economically untenable and strategically dangerous. On January 1, 1801, Great Britain and Ireland were joined in Union. “Yesterday morning,” the Belfast News Letter declared on the second, “the Union flag was hoisted at the Market House, and at one o’clock a Royal salute was fired by the Royal Artillery.”
The Irish Parliament building, constructed at a cost of £95,000, almost enough to fund Young’s investment scheme, became a bank.
The Times Commissioner
On the morning of September 3, 1845, a homesick Mr. Foster sat at a window in the Gweedore Inn. Except for the mountains off toward the sea, he might have been in England. Four days later, The Times published the commissioner’s first column from Gweedore. “I date my letter from the center of the hills in the north of Donegal, where ten years ago, there was not a road—where scarcely anything but bogs and heather and rock were to be seen for miles—where the people held the land in rundale [a form of communal farming], paid no rent and lived on potatoes.... Yet I now write from an inn as comfortable as any in England.... Luxuriant crops surround the inn; industry; industriousness and cleanliness begin to mark the people; each man has ... a decent cottage and there are good roads.” All this is to be attributed to “the ... individual and personal exertions of the present noble owner.”
The “noble owner,” Lord George Hill, was “a gravely handsome” former army major with a national reputation as a wakeful-minded agriculturalist. In the 1830s, when Hill purchased a 23,000-acre estate in Gweedore, the local people were still tail plowing (attaching the horse to the plow by tying it to the animal’s tail), measuring land by the cow’s grass, and practiced rundale farming, an ancient and unproductive form of communal agriculture in a which a group of small farmers worked a jointly held field. By 1845, Hill’s modernization efforts, recounted in an influential pamphlet, “Facts from Gweedore,” had made him a symbol of the latest scheme to modernize Ireland: English-style commercial farming.
Early in the nineteenth century, Malthus, the first man to propose the idea, argued that commercial farming would restrain Irish population growth because the wage-earning laborer on a commercial farm would have to purchase his food: that necessity would make him more alive to the consequences of unrestrained procreation. In the 1830s and early 1840s, with the British permanent garrison numbering between 15,000 and 25,000, advocates of commercial farming advanced a new rationale: anglicizing the landholding system would help reduce Irish poverty and violence and undermine the assault on the Anglo-Irish Union by the Catholic leader Daniel O’Connell.
• • •
One day, not long after the American Revolution, nine-year-old Daniel O’Connell turned to his uncle, “Hunting Cap,” and announced, “I’ll make a stir in the world yet.” And so the boy would. Kerry handsome and honey voiced, O’Connell’s personality was large enough to encompass all manner of contradictions—statesman and ward pol, idealist and rogue, charmer and deceiver. In the 1820s, during the campaign for Catholic Emancipation, O’Connell acted upon Catholic Ireland as a lit match acts upon an oil slick. When the emancipation campaign ended in 1829, Catholics had won the right to sit in Parliament and serve in the military (rights promised thirty years earlier when the Union was formed), O’Connell had a new name, the Liberator, and Ireland had two power centers: Dublin Castle, the ancient seat of British rule in Ireland—and the man from Kerry.
In the 1830s, London introduced a series of reforms in an attempt to weaken O’Connell’s hold on Catholic Ireland, including an Education Act, which created the first national school system, and a Poor Law, which created the first national welfare system, a network of 130 workhouses dedicated to the care of the indigent poor. But the reforms were overshadowed by an ever lengthening litany of peasant miseries. In the decade before the famine, the potato grew more unreliable, plots smaller, landlords meaner, and shoes and leases rarer. “Worse than we are, we cannot be,” an Irish countryman told a group of visiting English commissioners.
England has given us rags and misery, declared O’Connell. Repeal the Union! By August 1843, the Liberator’s Repeal Association had grown into the most powerful political organization in Ireland and his almost weekly anti-Union rallies were the talk of Europe. No one could remember the last politician who was able to routinely turn out crowds of a hundred thousand or more. By September 1843, anxious British politicians were consulting their calendars. O’Connell’s next “monster” rally was scheduled for October 8 in Clontarf, a Dublin suburb. At 3:30 on the afternoon of October 7, Dublin Castle issued a proclamation banning the meeting. Fearing a bloody clash with the army, O’Connell, dedicated to non-violent resistance, observed the ban. The next morning, the rally field was empty except for a detachment of the 60th Rifles and 5th Dragoons. A few days later, London ordered the flotilla of warships stationed in Dublin harbor back to Britain.
The anti-Union agitation led to the creation of the Devon Commission, and the witness testimony it collected—as opposed to its recommendations—led many British officials to conclude that the Irish peasantry would never reconcile themselves to the Union or forswear violence until they were released from an agricultural system that provided only a subsistence living and not always even that. By the time the Devon Commission published its report in February 1845, there was a consensus that the Irish landholding system, unchanged since Young’s time, would have to be restructured. But in what way?
Prime Minister Peel and Lord John Russell, leader of the opposition Whig party, eminent political economists like Nassau Senior and Robert Torrens, and the Times commissioner believed that the best answer to the question was Malthus’s old answer. The modern English commercial farm, structured around an owner, a few large tenant farmers, and a proletariat of wage-earning laborers, would extract far more wealth from the soil than would improvident and absentee landowners and three- and four-acre farmers who were about half as productive as their English counterparts.
Theories about the origins of the Irish peasant’s low productivity abounded. The potato’s ease of cultivation had fostered a culture of laziness, said some critics. Others blamed Irish history. Two centuries of oppression had deprived the peasant of ambition and a sense of agency. “It is because the poor Celt is content to put up with bad fare and worse clothing ... that he is made to put up with them,” wrote a visiting Englishman. Peasant culture, which put a high premium on leisure activities, also came in for blame. “If there be a market to attend, a fair or funeral, a horse race or fight, the peasant forgets all else,” complained George Nicholls, a British official. More thoughtful critics recognized that the Irish landowning class also played a role in the productivity gap; the typical proprietor was far more interested in prompt rent payment than in providing tenants with modern farm implements or schooling them in the techniques of modern agriculture. Nonetheless, the fact remained that the Irish peasant was poor because he was unproductive and he was unproductive because his work ethic was wanting.
In the 1830s, a canny Scot textile magnate named Buchanan demonstrated one way to improve the Irish work ethic: hire children “almost naked ... off the streets” and put them into the structured environment of a factory where they could be taught industriousness, self-discipline, initiative, and personal responsibility. Advocates of commercial farming believed that the modern agricultural enterprise, which operated not unlike the modern factory, could also be used to inculcate the values of the new industrial age into the “aboriginal” Irish—to use a favorite term of the period.
Proponents also pointed to other ancillary benefits of the new agricultural system. During the transition to commercial farming, weak landowners—those who lacked sufficient capital and technical expertise—would fall or be pushed to the wayside, making room for a new class of solvent, industrious, business-minded proprietors like Lord Hill. In addition, the new system would promote commercial development. The wage-earning laborer would need to purchase food, and that would give rise to a network of provision shops in rural Ireland; as commercial food proliferated, dependency on the increasingly undependable potato would decline—and with it, the traditional barter economy of the countryside, which would be replaced by a modern economy.
However, before the plan could be implemented, a way had to be found to dispose of the hundreds of thousands of small farms and potato plots that presently cluttered the countryside, and to remove the incompetent landlords who had allowed the proliferation to occur. No one, including the most enthusiastic proponents of commercial farming, expected that to be easy. The Irish landowner was protected by history and by tightly written deeds, and the Irish peasant was unlikely to give up his two or three acres on the vague promise of a better life at some distant date in the future. Lord Hill’s first attempts at modernization in Gweedore had been met with uprooted fences, damaged barns, and other acts of vandalism. Like Spenser’s plantation scheme, the transition to commercial farming could best be accomplished in the plastic atmosphere of a crisis—a rebellion or natural disaster that destabilized the established order.
On September 9, 1845, two days after Mr. Foster’s Gweedore column appeared in The Times, the Dublin Evening Post carried an interview with David Moore, the chief curator at the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin. Mr. Moore, who had recently examined several samples from the new potato crop, told the Post that the samples contained “only too convincing proof of the rapid progress this alarming disease is making.”
“This alarming disease” was Phytophthora infestans, the mysterious ailment that had destroyed the continental potato crop earlier in the summer.
Copyright © 2012 by John Kelly