Front Page Titles (by Subject) Constitutional and Political Effect of the Union. - Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 1
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Constitutional and Political Effect of the Union. - Gustave de Beaumont, Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 1 
Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, ed. W.C. Taylor (London: Richard Bentley, 1839). Vol. 1.
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Constitutional and Political Effect of the Union.
Nothing is more common than to mistake the real effect of this measure, and the error arises from taking the word union sometimes in a moral sense, and sometimes in too extensive a political sense.
If by union we understand the concord and sympathy of two nations formerly divided, we must confess that this term is quite unsuited to the act under consideration; for England and Ireland were, perhaps, never more hostile to each other than after the union of 1800.
It would also be a great error to suppose that the act of 1800 identified England and Ireland, so as to make this latter a province, subject in all points to the same government, the same police, and the same laws.
Before the act of union, Ireland had its own institutions; it preserved them after the union, with the single exception of its parliament.
When England added Ireland to herself, she did not resolve that Ireland should for the future be governed by the laws and principles of the English constitution; she did not and could not do any such thing. The English constitution is not a charter in a hundred articles which may be granted hastily to a nation in urgent want of a government. It is especially composed of usages, traditions, habits, and a multitude of statutes, connected with the usages from which they cannot be separated, whether they annul or confirm them. Now, though the observance of a law may be prescribed to a people, a usage or custom cannot be so enjoined: a custom is a complex fact, the result of a thousand preceding facts; it is consecrated, not imposed; were it possible to remove its prescriptions to a people with whom it had not originated, it would be impossible to transfer its spirit. What, then, did England do, when she proclaimed the union with Ireland? She declared that for the future all laws necessary to the two countries should be made in a common parliament, to which each should send representatives; but whilst providing for the future, she left the past untouched; and Ireland, united to England, remained in possession of all her laws and usages, except that which assigned her a separate parliament.*
Thus, after the act of union, there was always an Ireland; in the terms of this act, the three kingdoms form a single empire, under the title of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. After the union with England, Scotland lost its name, but Ireland kept hers; and she will still longer keep her national habits and passions.
CATHOLIC EMANCIPATION IN 1829.
The convulsions in 1798, of which the union in 1800 was the last episode, were followed by a long repose, or at least order was re-established in Ireland, such as it had been before the nation made an effort to break its fetters. The Protestants resumed their habits of oppression, the Catholics submitted in silence: this sort of peace reigned twenty years in Ireland.
Nevertheless, at the moment when the act of union was formed between England and Ireland, the latter engaged to the former that all the political incapacities to which the Catholics were subject should be abolished. This abolition was promised as an alleviation of the rigours of the act of union. But when this act was accomplished, the measures of grace and generosity stipulated to accompany it were not realised. Mr. Pitt, then prime minister, evinced, it is true, some anxiety to keep his engagements, but his wishes were powerless before the obstinacy of George III., who believed that he would violate his coronation oath by consenting to Catholic emancipation. The minister behaved nobly: not being able to keep his promise, he resigned his office.* Ireland had not less reason to complain of a breach of faith; warned by past misfortunes, she had not recourse to violence and revolt, in order to obtain justice; for the assertion of her rights, she only employed the legal means offered to her by a free constitution. The press and the association were her two most potent instruments. About the year 1810, a Catholic committee was organised, and took in hand the direction of all the national efforts which tended to reform.† John Keogh directed this body until O’Connell appeared, and ruled over it as it ruled over Ireland. The Catholic association took for its object and motto the parliamentary emancipation of the Catholics: public opinion excited on this point grew warm by degrees; the press stimulated it incessantly; the people, convened in meetings, grew animated at the voice of the leaders; petitions were sent to parliament; they failed, but their rejection alimented the passions that had dictated them. O’Connell, who soon became powerful with the people, guided them with prudence and skill; thus, reform advanced with equal wisdom and boldness. England refused the emancipation demanded by the Irish Catholics; Ireland sent a Catholic to represent her in the English parliament; the representative was O’Connell, the county that elected him, Clare; and this act was accompanied by demonstrations too imposing to be despised. Ireland, cloven down and mutilated thirty years before, began to rise from her ruins; recourse to violence had destroyed her, adherence to right restored her power.
On the 13th of April, 1829, the English parliament adopted the bill by which every Catholic may, for the future, enter parliament without taking an oath repugnant to his conscience. Thus fell the last link of the chain of the penal laws by which persecution was supported. This is the term of the fourth epoch,—the close of the period which separates the past from the present.
IRELAND, SOCIAL, POLITICAL, AND RELIGIOUS.
EXTERNAL APPEARANCE OF IRELAND. MISERY OF ITS INHABITANTS.
Ireland, by a fatal destiny, has been thrown into the ocean near England, to which it seems linked by the same bonds that unite the slave to the master.
Its coasts are high; differing from England, the soil of which, elevated in the centre, gradually falls towards the shores; it exhibits in its midland a vast table-country, of which the surrounding peaks seem to form the borders.
This external conformation explains the short and rapid course of its rivers, which, issuing from the mountains, seem only born to perish instantly, and find their tomb in the depth of the seas by the very side of their source.
Nevertheless, there is one great river in Ireland, such as neither England nor Scotland possesses; this is the Shannon, which, by an extraordinary accident in Ireland, rises in the inner table-land of the country; and thus, placed on a level surface surrounded by eminences, it seems, as it were, imprisoned in a great vase, from which it could not escape save by overflowing. But its privileged waters find no obstacle to their passage; a gentle and almost insensible declivity offers to their course no asperities by which it might be precipitated or suspended. Abundant and flowing near its source, where more feeble streams are exhausted,—majestic and tranquil where other rivers are hurried onwards and lost in torrents, the Shannon, in a course of more than two hundred miles, distributes the benefit of its stream to half of Ireland, and gently advances to the ocean, into which it does not throw itself, but imperceptibly mingles with its waters.
Nature seems to have bestowed its most bounteous gifts on Ireland; she has enriched the bowels of its ground with the most precious metals, poured with lavish hand the most fertile soil in the world over the rock that serves as its base; she has bestowed on its maritime commerce the finest harbours, fourteen of which are fit to receive ships of war; and, as if she had destined the country to high fortunes, she has placed it on the west of our continent as an advanced outpost, the depository of the keys of ocean, charged to open to European vessels the highway to America, and to offer the American vessels the first European harbour.
Having made these rich presents, Nature further laboured to embellish the country; she has traced the forms of its mountains with infinite grace, interspersed its valleys with prairies and lakes, and, covering the whole with a brilliant robe of verdure, has desired that it should be called, in the language of the poet, “Green Erin, the lovely Emerald Isle,”
“First flower of the earth, and first gem of the sea.”
Still, in spite of the ornaments it bears, and the treasure that it contains, Ireland is neither a smiling country nor a prosperous land.
The most beautiful natural prospect wants life when it is not animated by the sun. These beautiful mountains, these immense lakes, these endless meadows, these hills as verdant as the vales, doubtless present the most charming landscapes when accidentally seen under a clear sky; but the atmosphere of Ireland is generally dark and clogged with mists and fogs. The west and south-west winds blow on it almost without intermission; they bring to it the storms1 and tempests of the Atlantic; the ocean masters Ireland, and has sovereign rule over its temperature: it is the tyrant of its climate.2
Formerly Ireland was a vast forest; so powerful was the vegetation there, that it was called “the island of wood.”3 It is now almost destitute of trees; and when, on a fine day in spring, it appears, though bare, full of sap and youth, it seems like a young and lovely girl deprived of her hair.
It is not exactly known at what time and by what process this great destruction was effected. We may, however, be assured that it was before the christian era, and probably at a much more distant date. Some attribute it to an extraordinary inundation, which uprooted the trees, levelled the forests, and buried them in the bosom of the earth. Others, whose opinion is better supported by scientific study, believe that the ruin of the forests was the result of violent storms. When the lofty forests that covered the country were compact and entire, they afforded each other mutual support against the violence of the tempests; but, in proportion as man requiring an open space for his house and field, effected clearances here and there, the trees near those that had been cut down were without support against the fury of the hurricane, and fell before blasts that were previously powerless; every ruin occasioned by a tempest produced a thousand others, rendered more easy as they were multiplied: the work of destruction went on, and all the fallen trunks, descending by the natural declivities to the lakes and the marshy parts of the soil, were stopped on this liquid base, where, heaped one above the other year after year, they were mingled together, some preserving their natural form, others decomposing into vegetable matter, until they formed that spongy, combustible substance, sometimes red and sometimes black, of which the vast turf-bogs of Ireland are composed.4
But the greatest convulsions and most terrible shock to Ireland came not from the ocean, from winds, or from tempests—they were the work of man.
We have seen in the foregoing historical introduction to what cruel sufferings Ireland was subject during the three centuries which followed the landing on her shores of the Anglo-Normans, so prompt to invade, so slow to effect a conquest,—how, whilst Ireland was still palpitating from the struggles of the invasion, she endured the terrible shocks and sanguinary trials of a civil and religious war;—finally, how, after having been mutilated and crushed by the arms of Protestant England, Catholic Ireland endured the tyranny of law. The struggles of the conquest have long ceased; the wars of religion are at an end; persecuting laws have disappeared; and, towards the close of the last century, Ireland commenced a new era of independence. Nevertheless, Ireland is unhappy and poor; all the sources of its misery have not been dried up; and amongst the causes of its misery there are some whose consequences still exist, and are destined to a long duration.
I do not believe that there is any country where a conquest of so distant a date has left impressions at once so old and so vivid. It seems that ages as they roll have not healed one of its scars. The soil is still bleeding with its wounds; everywhere war has left its devastations—everywhere confiscation has struck its blows. It is impossible to travel in Ireland without meeting a ruin which was the witness of some sanguinary struggle; it is scarce possible to stir a step without treading on land which, by the fortune of civil war, has not passed through the hands of three or four sets of possessors, the last of which, remaining master, represents the cause that triumphed. The vanquished may be seen beside the conquerors still full of the recollections of more prosperous times. These fields, they tell you, “belonged to our ancestors; Cromwell gave them to one of his soldiers, who has transmitted them to his children. That castle, now occupied by an English lord, whose nobility is of recent date, was confiscated by William III. from an Irishman of illustrious race and royal blood, whose descendants now till the soil over which their ancestors reigned.”
But the wounds made by the wars of religion are those which are still the deepest and most grievous in Ireland.
Everything in Ireland is mingled with religion; the recollections of its history from the time when it was called the Island of Saints, down to the last century, when it was persecuted for its faith,—the struggles of the conquest,—the revolutions that followed it,—the governments which succeeded it,—its social condition in our days,—the classes and political parties that divide it, the passions that animate it,—the character, the manners, and the intellectual developement of its inhabitants, even the geographical distribution of its territories,—all bear the stamp and impress of religion.
We cannot hope to learn the misfortunes of Ireland without thoroughly understanding Ireland in its religious aspect.
It is divided into two distinct zones, the northern Protestant, the southern and western Catholics; the former is limited to Ulster, the second extends over the other three provinces, Leinster, Munster, and Connaught.
Connaught is, in our days, the type of ancient Ireland. It would seem as if Nature had been anxious to distinguish it from the other provinces. The ocean bounds it on the west, the river Shannon girds it on the south and east, forming it into a peninsula separated from the rest of Ireland. It was thither, in the time of Cromwell, that the unfortunate persons were driven, who had to choose between death and that place of retreat. “To hell or Connaught,” said the tyrant to the proscribed. Those who sought shelter in that wretched land brought with them the ancient faith of their ancestors, their banished religion, their exiled country. Since that time, Connaught has not ceased to be the great focus of Catholic Ireland. Nowhere is the remembrance of the civil wars more vivid—nowhere are the Englishman and the Protestant detested with a hatred more religious and more national.5
The characteristic of the north is not merely that it is Protestant, but that it is puritan: Ulster is the Scotland of Ireland. This province has preserved, in all their bitterness, the old antipapal passions which the settlers of James brought with them, and which the soldiers of Cromwell and William III. revived. The inhabitant of Ulster is not merely separated by a river from the native of Connaught, religion has established a still more powerful barrier; and a great length of time must elapse ere the Scotch puritan of the North of Ireland will regard and treat as brethren the Catholics of Connaught. In Connaught, most of the people speak the primitive language of the country; in Ulster, English (or rather Scotch) is the only language. Ulster is the type of Protestant, and Connaught of Catholic Ireland.
In general, the primitive Irish are Catholics, the English Protestants, attached to the Anglican church, and the Scotch also Protestants, but adopting the Presbyterian ritual.
I have said, that in Ireland everything is mingled with religion, that parties and the state of society bear its imprint. Protestantism, which since the age of Elizabeth has been the creed of the conquerors of Ireland, is the religion of the upper classes. The Protestant is rich, the Catholic poor. In general, the former governs; the latter, consigned to an inferior condition, obeys the Protestant as a political master for whom he labours.
The Protestant religion is a sign both of fortune and of power. Not only is the Catholic poor and the Protestant rich, but each seems to think that such is the natural condition of both; the Catholic accepts his humble destiny, and the Protestant places implicit confidence in his pride of place. The latter, in his relations with the Catholics, displays some of that superiority which Europeans in the colonies exhibit to persons of colour who retain traces of their African descent.
The Protestant is not only a descendant of conquerors, the inheritor of their glory and of their power, established by seven centuries of domination, he believes himself of a race superior to that of the Irish; and as in Ireland religion marks the race, Protestantism is regarded as a species of nobility. This opinion, it is true, grows weaker every day, but sufficient traces of it remain in the mutual relations between Protestants and Catholics to allow of its escaping notice.
The Catholic of Ireland is in that dubious state in which a freedman finds himself when first delivered from servitude, and who makes his first essay of liberty—obliged suddenly to change the manners of a slave, that no longer suit him, for the deportment of a free man, which is as yet unknown. In spite of fact and right, he still regards as his master the person who has been so. Vainly does he protest, by external acts, against this inward sentiment: the cry of conscience, depraved by former servitude, gives him the lie within his own bosom; and sometimes the grossness and insolence which he displays in asserting his equality with the Protestant, serve in reality only to place him below the latter.
Nothing is more rare than to find, with the Irish Catholic, a just appreciation of his actual condition; in his intercourse with Protestants, you will always find him take his ground too high or too low; either, forgetting his emancipation, he offers himself in an humble and obsequious attitude to his former master, or, intoxicated by the victory over his oppressors, he is not contented to be their equal, but wishes to prove himself free by oppressing them in his turn.
There is another circumstance in the social condition of Ireland not less remarkable than this aristocracy of race and creed; that is, the feudal aspect which the country offers in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The government of the English in Ireland has been for the last hundred and fifty years a Protestant aristocracy, grafted on a feudal aristocracy. Great reforms have been made in the laws which established the Protestant ascendency, but the feudal base of the edifice has for the most part remained unshaken.
The country, after the religious confiscations, was divided amongst large proprietors, and has still remained in the possession of their descendants, who have received the large estates of their ancestors entire, under the protection of the laws of primogeniture and entail. These lands are cultivated by the Catholic population, theoretically free to detach itself from the soil, but bound to it as the only means of existence, and in reality in a condition worse than that of the serfs during the middle ages.
This state of things presents only a deceptive analogy with England. In the latter country, as in Ireland, the feudal law, doubtless, keeps the property of the soil in a small number of families, who receive and transmit it without the power of dividing estates; but, by the side of these fortunes derived from land, there have risen fortunes made by industry and commerce; whilst the feudal principle operates to maintain the rich in his wealth and the poor in his misery, the industrial and commercial principle is incessantly at work to displace fortune, to diminish the number of the poor, and to raise new men to wealth. These two rival powers are in a state of incessant war, which leaves no repose to the combatants. The industry which creates is superior to the feudal principle which preserves; the rich, armed with his fruitful land, is vanquished by the activity of an industrious producer; between the lord of the soil and the prolétaire, an infinity of new existence is constantly rising, which collectively forms the middle class. This class is almost unknown in Ireland.
Ireland presents an eternal contrast of riches and poverty, of which it is singularly difficult to form a correct idea.
When the traveller, approaching the Lakes of Killarney, halts near Mucruss Abbey, a double spectacle is offered to his view; on one side, uncultivated plains, barren marshes, monotonous flats on which meagre rushes and rickety firs miserably vegetate; extensive heaths, through which appear here and there some rocks of moderate elevation, whose uniform aspect, destitute even of savage beauty, attests only the poverty of nature; it is impossible to imagine a land more indigent or more desolate.
But on the opposite side a far different scene bursts upon the view; at the foot of a chain of mountains, gracefully divided and separated from each other by a series of lovely lakes, are extended rich and fertile plains, verdant and smiling meadows, forests full of sap and vegetation; here there are cool shades, secret grottos, mysterious shelter; there are open spaces, bold peaks, an horizon without bounds; by the side of silver streams are fields covered with yellow ears of corn; abundance, riches, and beauty everywhere;—everywhere the extraordinary of nature as graceful as she is fruitful. Thus, from the same point may be seen two landscapes absolutely opposite; on one side extreme wealth, on the other extreme wretchedness; it is the image of Ireland.
The traveller in Ireland meets only magnificent castles or miserable hovels; but no edifice holding a middle rank between the palace of the great and the cabins of the lowly; there are only the rich and the poor.
The Catholic of Ireland, or the man of the lower class, finds only one profession within his reach, the culture of the soil; and when he has not the capital necessary to become a farmer, he digs the ground as a day labourer.6 Two-thirds of the English population are industrial or commercial, only about a fourth part is agricultural. In Ireland, less than a fourth part is manufacturing or commercial, more than two-thirds are exclusively devoted to agriculture.7 He who has not a spot of ground to cultivate, dies of famine.
From what has been stated, it may be seen that the incredible variety of classes, ranks, and degrees, which infinitely divide the social scale in England, cannot be found in Ireland, where the limit which separates the aristocrat from the prolétaire is marked by a narrow line, on which no intermediate existence can be placed.
The Protestant in Ireland, who has the privilege of rank, of political power, and of wealth, has likewise the monopoly of education. Until very recent times there existed no primary schools, save for the Protestants; even at the present day, Catholics have not the same advantage as Protestants in the establishments consecrated to the higher branches of education. Thus, whilst everything is calculated to develope the intellectual faculties of the rich, the poor man is abandoned to himself, and left in his ignorance.
It may easily be conceived how these two opposite classes, each constituted on an immutable base, must have developed and extended themselves, the one in the sphere of its power, the other in the circle of its misery and sevitude.
It is necessary to reflect long on what has passed during several centuries; it is necessary to represent the rich and poor following invariably for ages two opposite roads, the one leading to extreme wealth, the other to extreme misery; it is necessary to estimate the logical and necessary results of these two principles, the first of perpetual increase, the second of progressive ruin, fortifying each other, and finding a new power of action in each of their consequences; it is necessary, I say, to meditate long on these causes, to comprehend the excess of luxury to which the Irish aristocracy has reached, and the inveterate leprosy of misery that covers poor Ireland.
The revenues of the rich in Ireland sometimes amount to sums that appear chimerical. In this country of misery, the rich man has made for himself a magnificent destiny: he possesses splendid castles, boundless domains, mountains, parks, forests, lakes, and he sometimes possesses them two or three times over.
Whilst millions of unhappy beings ask every day by what means they shall provide for their most imperious necessities, the rich man inquires by what art he can stimulate a passion in his cloyed soul, or awake the half-extinguished appetite of his pampered body. Does he wish to remove his person, wearied of itself, from one place to another? The finest roads, well able to rival those of England, are at his service. Luxury and riches travel, with all their comforts and all their ostentation, across the suffering and the misery of the country.
Such is Ireland, which was created rich! To see Ireland happy, you must carefully select your point of view, look for some narrow isolated spot, and shut your eyes to all the objects that surround it; but wretched Ireland, on the contrary, bursts upon your view everywhere.
Misery, naked and famishing, that misery which is vagrant, idle, and mendicant, covers the entire country; it shows itself everywhere, and at every hour of the day; it is the first thing you see when you land on the Irish coast, and from that moment it ceases not to be present to your view; sometimes under the aspect of the diseased displaying his sores, sometimes under the form of the pauper scarcely covered by his rags; it follows you everywhere, and besieges you incessantly; you hear its groans and cries in the distance; and if the voice does not excite profound pity, it importunes and terrifies you. This misery seems inherent to the soil, and one of its natural products; like some of those endemic scourges that pollute the atmosphere, it blights everything which approaches it, smites the rich man himself, who cannot, in the midst of his joys, separate himself from the miseries of the poor, and makes vain efforts to rid himself of the vermin which he has produced, and which cling to him.
The physical aspect of the country produces impressions not less saddening. Whilst the feudal castle, after seven centuries, shows itself more rich and brilliant than at its birth, you see here and there wretched habitations mouldering into ruin, destined never to rise again. The number of ruins encountered in travelling through Ireland is perfectly astounding. I speak not of the picturesque ruins produced by the lapse of ages, whose hoary antiquity adorns a country—such ruins still belong to rich Ireland, and are preserved with care as memorials of pride and monuments of antiquity—but I mean the premature ruins produced by misfortune, the wretched cabins abandoned by the miserable tenants, witnessing only to obscure misery, and generally exciting little interest or attention.
But I do not know which is the more sad to see—the abandoned dwelling, or that actually inhabited by the poor Irishman. Imagine four walls of dried mud, which the rain, as it falls, easily restores to its primitive condition; having for its roof a little straw or some sods, for its chimney a hole cut in the roof, or very frequently the door, through which alone the smoke finds an issue. One single apartment contains the father, mother, children, and sometimes a grandfather or grandmother; there is no furniture in this wretched hovel; a single bed of hay or straw serves for the entire family. Five or six half-naked children may be seen crouched near a miserable fire, the ashes of which cover a few potatoes, the sole nourishment of the family. In the midst of all lies a dirty pig, the only thriving inhabitant of the place, for he lives in filth. The presence of the pig in an Irish hovel may at first seem an indication of misery; on the contrary, it is a sign of comparative comfort. Indigence is still more extreme in the hovel where no pig is to be found.
Not far from the cottage extends a little field of an acre or half an acre; it is planted with potatoes; stones heaped on each other, with rushes growing through the interstices, serve it for a fence.
This dwelling is very miserable, still it is not that of the pauper, properly so called; I have just described the dwelling of the Irish farmer and agricultural labourer.
I have already said that there are no small proprietors under the great, and that below the opulent there are none but the poor: but these are wretched in various degrees, and with shades of difference, which I shall endeavour to indicate.
All being poor, the only food they use is the cheapest in the country—potatoes;7 but all do not consume the same quantity: some, and they are the privileged class, eat potatoes three times a day; others, less fortunate, twice; those in a state of indigence only once; there are some still more destitute, who remain one or even two days without receiving the slightest nourishment.8
This life of fasting is cruel, but nevertheless it must be endured under the penalty of still greater evils. He who eats a meal too much, or fasts once too little, is sure to have no clothes; and moreover, this prudence and resignation to suffering are often unavailing.9
Whatever may be the courage of the poor peasant to endure hunger in order to meet other demands, he is in general naked or covered with rags handed down in the family from generation to generation.10
In many poor hovels there is often only one complete suit between two individuals; and hence the priest of the parish is almost always compelled to say several masses on the Sunday. When one of the family has heard an early mass, he returns home, strips off his clothes, and gives them to the other, who goes then to hear the second mass.
I have seen the Indian in his forests, and the negro in his chains, and thought, as I contemplated their pitiable condition, that I saw the very extreme of human wretchedness; but I did not then know the condition of unfortunate Ireland. Like the Indian, the Irishman is poor and naked; but he lives in the midst of a society where luxury is eagerly sought, and where wealth is honoured. Like the Indian, he is destitute of the physical comforts which human industry and the commerce of nations procure; but he sees a part of his fellows enjoying the comforts to which he cannot aspire. In the midst of his greatest distress, the Indian preserves a certain independence, which has its dignity and its charms. Though indigent and famished, he is still free in his deserts, and the sense of this liberty alleviates many of his sufferings: the Irishman undergoes the same destitution without possessing the same liberty; he is subject to rules and restrictions of every sort: he is dying of hunger, and restrained by law; a sad condition, which unites all the vices of civilisation to all those of savage life. Without doubt, the Irishman who is about to break his chains, and has faith in futurity, is not quite so much to be bewailed as the Indian or the slave. Still, at the present day, he has neither the liberty of the savage nor the bread of servitude.
I will not undertake to describe all the circumstances and all the phases of Irish misery; from the condition of the poor farmer, who starves himself that his children may have something to eat, down to the labourer, who, less miserable but more degraded, has recourse to mendicancy—from resigned indigence, which is silent in the midst of its sufferings, and sacrifices to that which revolts, and in its violence proceeds to crime.
Irish poverty has a special and exceptional character, which renders its definition difficult, because it can be compared with no other indigence. Irish misery forms a type by itself, of which neither the model nor the imitation can be found anywhere else.
In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers is what never was seen until it was shown in Ireland. To explain the social condition of such a country, it would be only necessary to recount its miseries and its sufferings; the history of the poor is the history of Ireland.
It is necessary to renounce all the notions which in other countries serve to distinguish comfort from poverty, in order to comprehend Irish misery. We are accustomed to call those paupers, who are out of work and driven to beggary. There is not an Irish peasant that abstains from beggary, who is not in want of such a resource. It is impossible to compare the Irish pauper with the pauper of any other country. The independent labourer cannot even be compared with the pauper of England. There is no doubt that the most miserable of English paupers is better fed and clothed than the most prosperous of Irish labourers.
There are sad theories, according to which there is a pretty nearly equal sum of happiness and misery, of comfort and of suffering, in every country; whence it has been inferred, that it is idle to take any thought about evils which man can neither alleviate nor remove. Those who hold such discouraging language, have doubtless never seen the United States nor Ireland; they neither know the country where misery is the common rule, nor the land in which destitution is the exception.
The misery of Ireland descends to degrees unknown elsewhere. The condition which in that country is deemed superior to poverty, would in any other be regarded as a state of frightful distress; the miserable classes in France, whose lot we justly deplore, would in Ireland form a privileged class. And these miseries of the Irish population are not rare accidents; nearly all are permanent, and those which are not permanent are periodic.
Every year, nearly at the same season, the commencement of a famine is announced in Ireland, its progress, its ravages, its decline.
In the month of February, 1838, the French press registered this annual cry of Irish misery, and told the number of persons who, in a single month, had perished by famine. Whether through selfishness or humanity, many persons flattered themselves that the accounts of Irish indigence were exaggerated; and the word famine, employed to describe the misery of Ireland, appeared to them a metaphorical expression for great distress, and not the exact term to express the state of human beings really famishing and perishing from sheer want of food.
It was in England, especially, that persons were pleased to keep themselves in this state of doubt, from which, however, they could be relieved without much difficulty.
In 1727, that is, rather more than a hundred years ago, Primate Boulter, who was the principal agent of the English government, thus wrote from Ireland (to the Duke of Newcastle.)
“Since my arrival in this country (in 1725) famine has not ceased among the poor. There was such a dearth of grain last year, that thousands of families were obliged to quit their dwellings to look for support elsewhere; many hundreds perished.”11
When Bishop Doyle was asked, in 1832, what was the state of the population in the west, he replied, “The people are perishing as usual.”12
In 1817, fevers produced by indigence and famine attacked one million five hundred thousand individuals, of whom sixty-five thousand perished;13 and it was calculated in 1826, that twenty thousand persons were attacked by disease arising from the use of bad food.14
During the important inquiry into the social condition of Ireland, made by the British government in 1835, the following question was addressed by the commissioners to their correspondents in every parish.
“Have you known of any deaths in your parish, during the last three years, arising from urgent want?”
This inquiry established a multitude of deaths, occasioned solely by sheer destitution. Here were wretches manifestly killed by famine, there miserable beings whose end was hastened by misfortune. The former sank from long exhaustion, the latter were victims to famine and disease together.15
It would be a painful task to go through this immense report, which extends to ten folio volumes, some of which contain nine hundred pages, every page, line, and word of which establish Irish misery, but where, nevertheless, all the miseries of Ireland are not reported.
The commissioners entrusted with this inquiry calculate that there are in Ireland nearly three millions of individuals who are subject every year to the chances of absolute destitution. These three millions are not only poor, they are indigent.16 Besides the three millions of paupers, there are millions of unhappy beings, who, as they do not die of famine, are not counted.
The author of this book, to whom such evidence ought to have sufficed, still was anxious to see with his own eyes what his reason hesitated to believe. Twice, in 1835 and 1837, whilst travelling through Ireland, he visited the counties where famine is accustomed to rage with most violence, and he verified the facts. Shall he relate what he saw?—No. There are misfortunes so far beyond the pale of humanity, that human language has no words to represent them. Besides, were he to recal the scenes of sadness and desolation he has witnessed;—to repeat the howlings and yells of despair he has heard;—were he required to relate the anguishing tone of a mother’s voice refusing a portion of food to her famishing children;—and if, in the midst of such extreme misery, he were required to portray the insulting opulence which the rich ostentatiously displayed to all eyes;—the immensity of those demesnes where the hand of man has created artificial waters, vales, and hills;—the magnificence of the lordly palace sustained by columns of the finest marble from Greece or Italy, and which the gold of America, the silks of France, and the tissues of India, vie to decorate;—the splendid residence designed for servants, the still more superb building destined for horses;—all the wonders of art, all the inventions of industry, and all the caprices of vanity, accumulated on a spot where the owner does not even deign to reside, but makes his visits “few and far between;”—the sumptuous and indolent life of the wealthy landlord, who knows nothing of the misery of which he is the author;—never has glanced at it;—does not believe its existence;—draws from the sweat of the industrious poor his 20,000l. a year;—every one of whose senseless and superfluous luxuries represents the ruin or destitution of some unfortunate being;—who every day gives his dogs the food of a hundred families, and leaves those to perish by hunger who support him in this life of luxury and pride;—if the author of this book were required to recal the sinister impressions produced by such contrasts, and the terrible question which such appositions raised in his soul, he feels that the pen would fall from his hands, and that he would not have courage to complete the task which he has undertaken to accomplish.
A BAD ARISTOCRACY IS THE PRIMARY CAUSE OF ALL THE EVILS OF IRELAND.—THE FAULTS OF THIS ARISTOCRACY ARE, THAT IT IS ENGLISH AND PROTESTANT.
We have just seen how wretched is the condition of Ireland. The first anxiety felt at the aspect of such misery is to discover its cause; and this anxiety is the greater, because, in order to remedy an evil, it is necessary to know its origin and nature.
Let us begin, then, by declaring the cause of the ill; we shall afterwards seek the remedy.
It is impossible to observe Ireland attentively, to study its history and its revolutions, to consider its habits, and analyse its laws, without recognising that its misfortunes, to which so many sad accidents and fatal circumstances have contributed, had, and still have, one principal cause,—a cause primary, permanent, radical, which predominates over all others,—and this cause is a bad aristocracy.
All aristocracies founded on conquest and on inequality, doubtless contain many inherent vices, but all do not possess the same, nor in equal number.
Suppose conquerors, who, after the first convulsions of the conquest, were fast endeavouring to efface the memory of it, by mingling with the conquered people, assuming their language, adopting a portion of their habits, appropriating to themselves most of their laws, and practising the same forms of religious worship; suppose that these conquerors, formed into a feudal society, having to struggle against powerful and tyrannical kings, sought an auxiliary in the conquered population; and that afterwards, united by the bonds of mutual interest, the conquerors and conquered blended their cause in struggling against the common enemy; suppose that these struggles lasted during several centuries, and that the lords in their quarrels with the kings never failed to make stipulations in favour of the rights of the people whenever they conquered privileges for themselves; finally, suppose that these conquerors, after having thrown the violence of the conquest into oblivion by a rapid fusion with the vanquished, continually laboured to redeem the injustice of their privileges by the benefits of patronage; that, superior in rank, wealth, and political power, they incessantly showed themselves equally superior in talents and virtue; that taking in hand the affairs of the people, they mingled in all their assemblies, discussed all their interests, directed all their enterprises, sacrificed half their revenues to banish poverty from their domains, gave instruction to one, capital to another, enlightened, charitable, and benevolent support to all;—that, placed at the head of a commercial society, they admirably comprehended genius and its requirements, gave it, with the freedom of industry, all the civil and political liberties which are the soul of that freedom; and in order to procure for that society a magnificent destiny, they opened for it the markets of the entire world, established for it flourishing colonies, founded for it colossal empires in India, rendered its vessels sovereign on every sea, and made the nations of the earth its tributaries; and that, finally, after having opened all the paths of fortune to commercial industry, these same men, throwing down the barrier which separated them from the prolétaire, should say to the latter, “Get rich, and you may become a lord:” without doubt, such an aristocracy may conceal within itself many germs of oppression, and more than one principle of ruin; still it is easy to comprehend how such an aristocracy may for a long time maintain itself in strength and prosperity, and that even succeeding to a conquest, and charged with all the injustice of feudal privilege, it may give to the country it holds under its sway the illusion, if not the absolute reality, of a just and national government. It is easy to conceive the long and brilliant rule of the English aristocracy.
Suppose, on the contrary, conquerors who, instead of arresting the violent outrages of conquest, should lend all their efforts to the perpetuation of them—should open a hundred times the wounds of the conquered country—instead of uniting with the vanquished, should force them to keep separate—refuse to adopt their laws or impart their own—suppose this conquering race to preserve its language, its habits, and to erect an insurmountable barrier between itself and its subjects, by declaring it a kind of high treason to celebrate a marriage between the descendants of the victors and the offspring of the vanquished; suppose that having been thus constituted in the face of the conquered people, as a faction distinct by race and power, the conquerors are still further separated by a deeper cause, difference of religion; that not content with having deprived a people of national existence, they should endeavour to wrest from it its creed;—that having spent centuries in despoiling it of its political independence, they should pass a second series of centuries in disputing its religious faith; suppose that these conquerors, political tyrants, despising the conquered nation because of its race, hating it because of its creed, should be placed in such an extraordinary position that it has no interest in the protection of the people, and no peril in their oppression;—it may well be conceived, that an aristocracy composed of such elements could only produce selfishness, violence, and injustice on one side—hatred, resistance, degradation, and misery on the other. Such is the picture of the aristocracy of Ireland.
The English aristocracy, clever and national as it is, would not perhaps have been able to maintain itself, if, while it concealed its defects by splendid virtues, it had not been protected by fortunate accidents.
Subject like all aristocracies, whose principle is privilege to employ its strength for the promotion of selfish interests, it has carried to excess the resources by which it is supported, and disproportionately concentrated in its hands the property of the soil, which has become the monopoly of a very small number; the landed proprietors of England form so small a minority compared to the non-proprietors, that landed property might be placed in peril, if it were a desirable object in the eyes of the people.
But, by a fortunate event rather than any result of wise policy, the soil of England has not hitherto excited the envy of the lower classes; the English people leaves its aristocracy the monopoly of the land, so long as it resigns to them the monopoly of industry. The immense estates of a peer excite no unpleasant feeling in the mind of a merchant to whom the commerce of the whole world presents an unlimited arena, and who thinks that if he makes a great fortune, he may perhaps some day obtain the estates of a lord with the title and honours.
The English agriculturist cares little about a political system whose effect is to drive the peasantry from the country into the towns, when this labourer, removed from the soil, finds in the factory equally regular work, and much better pay. This, we must confess, is the great guarantee of the English aristocracy, a frail and feeble guarantee, which will only last so long as English industry will supply the world with its products.
The Irish aristocracy, full of defects from which that of England is free, far from being aided like it by favourable circumstances, has to struggle against pernicious accidents.
It is a fatal chance for the Irish aristocracy that has placed Ireland in such close proximity to England; for this aristocracy has never ceased to be English in heart and almost in interest. Here is the cause why the aristocracy has always resided, and at the present day resides, more in England than in Ireland; and this material fact, which most frequently divides it from the people subjected to its sway, is in its case the source of the evil most fatal to every aristocracy, which really exists only on the condition of governing. It is common to hear all the evils of Ireland attributed to absenteeism, but this is to mistake a consequence of the evil for the evil itself. The aristocracy of Ireland is not bad because it is absentee; it is absentee because it is bad, because nothing attaches it to the country, because it is retained there by no sympathy. Why should it, loving neither the country nor the people, remain in Ireland, when it has England near, inviting it by the charms of more elegant and refined society, which attract it back to its original country?
In general, every aristocracy contains within itself the corrective which tempers, if it does not arrest, its aberrations and its selfishness. It usually happens, that the very class which does not love the people fears them, or at least has need of them; it then performs from calculation what it would not do from sympathy, It does not oppress too far, through fear of revolt; it spares the national strength from which it derives profit; it may even happen that it appears generous when it is only clear-sighted and interested.
The Irish aristocracy has always had the misfortune of fearing nothing, and hoping nothing, from the people subject to its yoke; supported by England, whose soldiers have always been placed at its disposal, it has been enabled to give itself up to tyranny without reserve: the groans, the complaints, the menaces of the people have never tempered its oppressions, because popular clamour had for it no terrors. Did insurrections break forth in Ireland? The aristocracy of the country never stirred; it was English artillery that subdued the insurgents; and when everything was restored to order, the aristocracy continued to receive the revenue of its lands as before.
The Irish aristocracy has exercised an empire of which no other country furnishes an example; during six centuries it has reigned in Ireland, under the authority of England, which abandoned to that body half the advantages of its dominion, and spared it all the expense. Furnished with rights, privileges, and constitutional guarantees, it has employed all these instruments of freedom to practise oppression; Ireland has thus been constantly the prey of two tyrannies, the more dangerous as they mutually protected each other. The Irish aristocracy, regarding itself as the agent of England, for that reason granted itself absolution for all its excesses and all its personal injustice; and England, whose rights this aristocracy exercised, was contented to throw upon that body the blame of any abuse of its power.
There are few countries in which the governors have not an interest, greater or less, in inducing the people subject to their laws to cultivate the arts of industry and commerce. Of what use, in fact, would large revenues be to the rich man, unless they served to obtain the objects fit to render his life pleasant and comfortable? And how could he procure them if the people did not work? But it is an additional fatality of the Irish aristocracy that it is abundantly supplied with all the most precious productions of art and commerce, though no industrial employment exists in Ireland; it has ready to its hand the products of English industry to satisfy its wants and caprices, as well as armed regiments to ensure the payment of its rents. In order to possess comfort and elegance, it has no need of exciting the people to industrial labour. Commerce and industry are, nevertheless, the means by which the lower classes may escape from their misery. Thus, the people of Ireland, to whom the land is inaccessible, see in the hands of the aristocracy an immense privilege for which they possess no equivalent. Thus the asistocracy of Ireland, deficient in all the primary bases on which that of England rests, is also deprived of that condition of existence without which probably the English aristocracy could not sustain itself. It is immovable and closed. As a principle, its ranks are open to all, but, in fact, access to them is nearly impossible; to enter them, it is necessary to become rich; but what means are there of becoming rich in a country where commerce and industry are dead? So that this aristocracy, motionless in its wealth, living on the life of others, has for its support a population also motionless in its misery: in Ireland, poverty is a caste. Finally, this aristocracy, attached by no natural sentiment to the people, has the misfortune to be further removed from it by difference of creed.
Religious sympathy is, beyond contradiction, the most powerful tie that unites men together; it has not only the power of bringing nations together, but, what is still more difficult, of mingling classes and ranks, raising the most humble to the level of the most proud, mingling the rich and the poor; it is religion that invests alms with the dignity of christian charity, and which, stripping the benefit of its pride, renders the bestower and the recipient both equal. But, in the absence of religious sympathy, what is there to unite the rich and the poor, the Englishman and the Irishman, the race of the conquerors and that of the vanquished? What power shall bring them together when religion herself separates them? And in a country where all the laws are made against the poor for the profit of the rich, what will be the result if religion, instead of checking the powerful, actually fortifies it, and, instead of supporting the feeble, crushes him to the earth?
The Irish aristocracy has two inherent vices, which include all others; it is English by origin, and has never ceased to be thus alien: it became Protestant, and has had to govern a people that remained Catholic.
These two vices contain the principle of all the evils of Ireland; in them are the key to all its miseries, and all its embarrassments: if this starting point be attentively considered, all the extraordinary circumstances, whose causes will be vainly sought elsewhere, will be found to flow from it as natural consequences. These consequences are of three sorts; the first, which we may call civil, because they relate to habits and manners; the second political, because they concern institutions; the third religious, because they arise from difference of creeds. The first more especially affect the relations between rich and poor, between landlord and tenant; the second, the reciprocal relations between the governors and the governed; and the third, the mutual position of Catholics and Protestants.
[*]By the eighth Article of the Union, it is enacted, “That all laws in force at the time of the union, and all the courts of civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction within the respective kingdoms, shall remain now as by law established.”
[*]But he resumed it again without making any stipulation in favour of the Catholics.—Tr.
[†]The very interesting history of the struggles made by this body is now out of print, and a copy can scarcely be obtained. It is to be hoped that its amiable and highly-gifted author, Mr. Wyse, will favour the world with a second edition.—Tr.
[1.]Wakefield’s Ireland, i. 416.
[2.]Campion’s Irish Histories, 13.
[3.]Mason’s Survey, ii. 501.
[4.]Bogs are sometimes confounded with marshes; but the latter are always in low levels, while some of the Irish bogs have an elevation of more than five hundred feet above the sea.
[5.]The Irish language is also more generally spoken in Connaught than in the other provinces.
[6.]Surlly’s Penal Laws, 143.
[7.]Third Report of the Irish Poor Inquiry, 1836. The disadvantages of the potato as a staple food are, difficulty of transport, difficulty of preservation, and the small proportion of nutritive matter.
[8.]Selections from the evidence received by the Irish Poor Inquiry Commissioners, 220.
[11.]Baulter’s Letters, i. 181.
[12.]Tithes Inquiry, House of Lords, second report, 95.
[13.]Irish Poor Inquiry, 1836, p. 4.
[15.]Wakefield, i. 224.
[16.]Beaumont adopts the calculations of the first Commission for Inquiry into the State of the Irish Poor. He rejects the calculations of Mr. Nicholls, because he believes that gentleman to have been influenced by English prejudices.