Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter VI.: IRISH RESPONSIBILITY. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 3
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Chapter VI.: IRISH RESPONSIBILITY. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 3 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1832). Vol. 3.
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Mr. Tracey and his family returned from France about this time, in consequence of the passing of the Relief Bill. He had found, like many other gentlemen of station and fortune, that the disabilities under which he laboured on account of his religious belief, were too galling to be borne in the presence of those who were ready on all occasions to taunt him with his incapacity; and, like many other gentlemen, he returned, as soon as established in his civil rights, to discharge the offices which he had committed to others during his absence, or from which he had hitherto been excluded.
He was shocked and terrified at the aspect of his estate and of the neighbouring country. When he gave orders for the consolidation of the small farms, he imagined that he had done all that was necessary to secure the prosperity of his tenantry; and as Mr.Flanagan had not troubled him with any complaints from the ejected, he supposed all had gone right as far as he was concerned, and that the troubles in the neighbourhood, of which report spoke, had an origin for which he was in no way responsible. When he found that the disaffected were those from whose hands he had wrenched the means of subsistence, and that his remaining tenantry dared not for their lives enter upon the new farms,—when he heard of the acts of malice and depredation which had been committed, of the lives lost, of the prisoners taken, of the utter destruction of confidence between the upper class and the lower in his neighbourhood, and remembered how large a share he had had in doing all this mischief,—his first impulse was to go abroad again, and get out of sight of his own work: but his friend, Mr. Rosso, roused him to a better course.
The first thing to be done was to find subsistence for those who had been ejected. To settle them as before would have been mending the case but little. The great evil of over-population was to be guarded against, at all events. Mr. Tracey could not afford to give these people the means of emigrating with advantage; but it appeared to himself and his friend that if he afforded them the opportunity of earning these means, without taking work out of the hands of any already employed, he would be making the best atonement now possible for the errors of his management. This might be done by beginning some work which would improve the estate; and there was little difficulty in deciding what this work should be. A certain fishing village lay at a short distance from the southern extremity of Mr. Tracey's estate; but from the state of an intervening piece of land, little or no communication was held between this village and any of the places which lay to the north or east of it. This piece of ground was level, and almost perpetually overflowed, at some seasons by the tide, and at others by land springs. During a hot summer, the health of those who lived within a certain distance was affected by the taint the marsh gave to the atmosphere; and by reason of the manifold evils which might be referred to this slip of land, it had obtained the name of the Devil's Garden. It had long been settled that a sea wall of small extent, and a road and ditch would put an end to the fever, would establish an advantageous communication with the village, and probably convert this desert tract into good land: but the consent of a neighbour or two had not yet been obtained, because not asked in earnest.
Mr. Tracey now asked in earnest and obtained. In a short time his purpose was made known, and candidates for emigration (to whom the offer of employment was confined) dropped in from all quarters, and established their claim as old tenants or labourers on Mr. Tracey's estate. No questions were asked as to their mode of subsistence during their disappearance. The object was to win as many as possible from a life of violence to one of hopeful industry, and this object was gradually attained. Less was heard of crime and punishment, week by week; and at length Mr. Tracey had the satisfaction of knowing that several individuals among these labourers had resisted various inducements both of promises and threats to become whiteboys.
“What is the meaning of their tickets?” inquired Mr. Rosso, one evening, when the people went to the paymaster on leaving work, and Mr. Tracey and his friend stood by to observe the proceeding.
“These tickets are certificates of a day's work being done. The men carry them to the clerk yonder, who pays them what they absolutely want for present subsistence, and places the rest to their account in the emigration list. They are getting on in the world, I assure you, by this plan; and seem in a fair way to emigrate in a better condition than our poor countrymen usually do.”
“What, while earning only tenpence a day?”
“Yes; you must remember that if these wages are less than half what would be earned in England at the same employment, the people may live for as much less in proportion. A man who earns six shillings a week here is as well off, in his own opinion, as one who gains fifteen shillings a week in England. An English labourer would find it impossible to leave any part of his daily tenpence in his landlord's hands; but a friend of mine, who gave no more, was paid 4000l. of arrears by his tenants, when he set them to work on improvements of great magnitude on his estate. My project of enabling these people to emigrate, seems nothing in comparison to his.”
“What a pity it seems, Tracey, that our people should emigrate when there is so much to be done at home,—so many bogs to be drained,— so much fertile land to be tilled! But so it must be. We want capital; and though our capital is growing, we must limit the demands upon it before we can materially improve the condition of the people.”
“True,” replied Mr. Tracey; “some of them will do better abroad till we have learned to manage our resources more wisely. We may talk as we please about the fertility of our waste lands, and the facilities for draining our bogs; these cannot be made productive without capital; and we have not capital to spare for such purposes, while the present enormous demands are made upon the subsistence fund by our overgrown population.”
“If the deficiency be of capital, Tracey, what think you of those who carry Irish capital abroad? What think you of the patriotism of absentees? if one who has till now been an absentee will tolerate such a question.”
“I think that an Irishman who loves his country will do all he can to promote the increase and judicious application of capital in it: but this has nothing to do with the common question of absenteeism. Our absentees do not usually apply capital, but spend revenue in other countries; which alters the question entirely; it being perfectly immaterial in point of wealth to Ireland whether her landlords are supported by Irish produce abroad or at home.”
“Aye; I have heard that this was your plea for living abroad so long.”
“It was an opinion which satisfied my conscience in remaining abroad when I was driven there by evils which are now remedied. If I had not been satisfied that it is an error to suppose that a country is impoverished in proportion to the absence of its landlords, I would have borne my exclusion from all offices but that of subsheriff, and the obloquy with which our Protestant gentry are apt to treat us true Irish, rather than budge a step to the injury of the people. I am speaking now of a landlord's economical, not his moral influence, you are aware.”
“Certainly. The moral effect of a landlord's residence depends much on the man and his way of life. If he is a profligate, or brings down profligates in his service into the country, he may do a world of harm; and the contrary, if he and his household bear an opposite character. A really good agent, too, may exert as favourable a moral influence as a good landlord; and as for what a bad one can do, we need but look round and see what are the results of Flanagan's administration. But, in an economical point of view, do you suppose that the entire difference between doing harm and no harm by absenteeism consists in applying capital and spending revenue?”
“I do, as regards the whole of Ireland. See now. My agent collects my rents: shall we say in raw produce, or in money?”
“Both: raw produce first.”
“Very well. He sends me over to Paris five hundred head of cattle, which I exchange for French produce to be consumed within the year. Now, how does it matter to Ireland whether I exchange these cattle for something of the same value to be consumed there, or whether I consume the cattle at Paris?”
“It cannot matter at all. If Ireland kept the cattle, she would have the same amount less of something else.”
“To be sure. I am still living on Irish produce whether at Paris or in this glen. With a money-rent the case would be precisely the same. If I remained at home, Ireland would have more money and less of the money's worth.”
“That is clear enough. But how would it be if you fixed your revenue, instead of immediately consuming it?”
“If I consumed only a part of my revenue and employed the rest in setting up a manufactory, Ireland would remain in the same state as if I consumed the whole; and in a worse state than if I set up my manufactory within her borders. If I withdrew any of my capital from her to support my manufactory abroad, I should inflict on her a positive injury. But absentees never do this. When Irishmen invest capital abroad, it is as emigrants, not as absentees.”
“Suppose, instead of setting up a manufactory, you , built a mansion in France, how would the case stand then?”
“The mansion would be Irish property; erected with Irish funds, consumed (as long as it deteriorated) by an Irishman, and the remaining value to revert to Ireland at my death or at its sale.”
“But supposing it to be let to French tenants for ever.”
“Then it would be an investment of capital, and cease to bear any relation to the question of absenteeism.”
“True, true. But it seems to me that there must be a vast difference between using your resources to put in motion Irish and French industry. Have not the French been gainers all this time, and the Irish losers, by your having employed French workmen? Might not the profits of Irish work–people in your service have become substantial capital by this time, if you had staid at home?”
“Ireland has been as busy working for me all this time, Rosso, as if I had staid at home: not these my near neighbours, perhaps, but labourers of one kind or another. My revenue must first be spent here before my agent can get it for me to spend anywhere else. The only difference is that I myself might spend it in Irish bread, fish, milk, linen, &c., while he lays out exactly its equivalent in purchasing that which is to enable me to buy French bread, milk, fish, and linens; whether that which he purchases be labour and raw material united in a manufacture, or raw material which is the result of labour.”
“But the plain question is, after all, Tracey, whether you would have employed French labour if you had lived at home?”
“I should not, except in as far as I live on French wines; of which you know I am very fond; but at the same time, I supersede a portion of French labour by the produce of Irish labour which I introduce into France. Neither should I have employed more Irish labour at home than when abroad. The amount of Irish commodities which I should have consumed at home is exchanged against French commodities; that is all. It seems to me, Rosso, that since you feel perplexed about this, you must have the idea that this exchange is not an exchange of equivalents. Is not that what you are thinking of? You should remember that an exchange which is advantageous to individuals on account of convenience, &c. is a mere exchange of equivalents as regards the country at large. The baker gains by exchanging some of his loaves for broadcloth; but the same amount of wealth remains in the country as before. In like manner, it is a convenience to me to have my rents in money rather than cattle; but it is the same thing to Ireland whether I receive my revenue in the one form or the other.”
“True: give me a case. Show me the effect of sending your revenue to Paris through England.”
“Very well. Suppose the state of the exchange, or anything else, renders it undesirable to send me money; my agent sends cattle into England to be exchanged for something more convenient to me. Well; Ireland is minus my year's consumption, just as if I had been there during the year. The cattle is exchanged for Sheffield and Manchester goods, which are to be sent to France. Thus England is in the same state as if I had remained in London, using nothing but hardware and cottons. France gains nothing by me, for I consume precisely as much food, clothing and habitation as I give of knives and ginghams. And the case would be the same if my rents travelled round the world.”
“Is the outcry against absentees, then, so very senseless?”
“As far as regards the total wealth of a country, I certainly conceive it to be so, much as the residence of any one landlord may affect the locality where his capital resides. I may create a good deal of bustle about me by settling down here; but some other class of producers will have less to do than when I was abroad. Ireland is neither richer nor poorer for my return.”
“Yet it is a common remark that bare fields and broken fences on the one hand, or thriving estates on the other, show at a glance whether the proprietor is an absentee or a resident.”
“Aye: but we forget that the industry of the resident proprietor's tenantry may be called into action by the wants of the absentee. Their produce finds its way to him through the market in the shape of bills of exchange which represent his revenue.”
“Nothing can be clearer. I see it all now. The coin which the tenants pay purchases produce which is sent to the foreign country; and the bills of exchange drawn by the exporter, and made payable for the Irish produce exported, are the form in which the absentee receives his rent: so that Ireland sells one kind of produce to the foreign market instead of an equal value of other kinds to the absentee.”
“Exactly so. Now, how can it signify to Ireland where he eats his beef, as long as he derives it from his own country?”
“It cannot signify to the country at large, certainly. You have confirmed me in the opinion I have long held of the injustice of an absentee tax, for which so many are clamouring.”
“To be applied for the benefit of the poor, I suppose. It seems to me the last thing in the world likely to do any real good. You see the whole revenue of an absentee is first spent at home. Any part withdrawn as a tax would be so much diverted from its natural course, for the sake of being arbitrarily applied. It would only affect the distribution of capital, not its amount; and we all know that a natural distribution; more favourable to the welfare of a country than an arbitrary one.—As a stigma upon absentees, it would be unjust in a high degree; and as throwing an unequal burden upon them, intolerably oppressive.”
“One pretence is that absentees contribute nothing to our domestic taxes: but the objectors forget what taxes he is liable to as a proprietor of land and houses, and what he pays on the materials of manufactures.”
“And if he ought to be still further liable, Rosso, let it be done in any way but that which assumes to repair an injury done to his country by his leaving her. There are many ways of levying a tax on income or property which would affect him; and thus let him pay, if his own government is jealous of his assisting to support that of France or of Italy; and if, moreover, it overlooks the stimulus given by the absentee to exchanges and manufactures. Suppose an absentee should ere long be honoured as a benefactor to his country.”
“In Scotland the estates of absentees are considered in a better condition on the whole than those of residents; and the reverse is not always the case here, Tracey.”
“Well: we will not decide the question any further than to agree that the prosperity of an estate depends mainly on the qualities of the manager, be he landlord or be he agent. As for the prevailing prejudice respecting absenteeism, it may be trusted to go straight forward into the gulf of oblivion, if we all help to point out its way thither. Pity it is too late to atone to a host of absentees for the undeserved censure which has been cast upon them.”
“If undeserved: but, Tracey, do you suppose they have most of them thought much about their country's good before they left her?”
“God forbid that we should judge their motives!” said Tracey. “I answer for none but myself. I did thoroughly convince myself before I set out that I should not injure my country by going. Many, I doubt not, have been driven away by political wrongs, either directly inflicted on themselves, or inciting the peasantry to hostility against their landlords; and many more, probably, have hastened abroad to get out of sight of misery which they could not relieve. If I were to venture on judging my neighbour at all in these instances, it should not be the absentee, but the government; whose evil policy prompted to absenteeism.”
“Well: instead of judging, let us anticipate, since the past cannot be helped, and the future may be bettered.”
“That is what I try to comfort myself with saying,” replied Tracey, looking round with a sigh on his half–ruined estate and ragged corps of labourers. “Let others try, like me, to remember the past only as a warning; and let government do with the country as I am doing with my little corner of it. Let capital be well secured and well husbanded, in order that it may circulate with more confidence and become more abundant. Let the people be more wisely distributed over the surface, and let their surplus be carried where labour is wanted. Let all usurpers of unjust authority, all who make the law odious, and justice a mockery, be displaced from office as I have, displaced Flanagan. Above all, let education be abundantly given, so as to afford us hope that the people may in time understand that their interests are cared for; and that men who differ in religion and politics may find it possible to live in fellowship, like ourselves, friend Rosso.”
“Like ourselves, friend Tracey,” replied Rosso; “and then farewell to all Catholic oaths to wade knee-deep in Orange blood, and to all Protestant likenings of the pope and his flock to the devil and his crew.”