Front Page Titles (by Subject) Sect. V.: The Middle Classes. - Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 2
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Sect. V.: The Middle Classes. - Gustave de Beaumont, Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 2 
Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, ed. W.C. Taylor (London: Richard Bentley, 1839). Vol. 2.
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The Middle Classes.
There exists in Ireland another principle of democracy, and in which the two last noticed seem to be contained, that is, the growth of middle classes. To this middle class belong all the remarkable men of the great national association that has been formed against the aristocracy and against the government. O’Connell is a lawyer who derived his first power from the bar; the Catholic clergy recruits its members among the farmers and tradesmen, and that part of the Presbyterians of Ulster which we find at the head of the intellectual and liberal movement in their sect, is composed for the most part of small landholders and fundholders, recently enriched by commerce.
The absence of a middle class in Ireland has been, and is still, one of the greatest misfortunes of the country. When a people has the misfortune to be subjected to an aristocracy anti-national and radically vicious, what chance has it of escaping, or at least of alleviating oppression, if it remains motionless in its ignorance and its misery; and if men do not arise from its own proper bosom, who, superior by their education, their talent, or their fortune, are capable of taking its cause in hand, and guiding the popular efforts for deliverance?
Whence comes it, that during nearly the whole of the eighteenth century Ireland, sinking under the most oppressive tyranny, presents only a long succession of individual rebellions and partial insurrections, destitute of plan, union, or morality? It is because the people, in the midst of its sufferings, was abandoned to itself, and that, having no friendly superior class to enlighten and lead it, in its wrath it committed outrages which could not but entail new rigours.
The impossibility of a people, however oppressed, raising itself when it has not the support of a superior class, was never shown more clearly than during the insurrection of 1798, when there were as many revolts as there were villages,—soldiers in abundance, but no officers. Everything aristocratic that then existed in Ireland was hostile to this national movement; the people could find no assistance but in a middle class, and such a class did not exist in Ireland. There were some individuals fit to make a part of this class, but not enough to constitute it. We may say, that there was no middle class in Ireland so long as the penal laws were in force, which, striking the Catholics even in civil life, forbade them the possession of estates, injured them in trade, and excluded them from the bar.
There were, it is true, at the same time in Ireland, lawyers, merchants, bankers, and tradesmen; but we should be strangely deceived, were we to believe that the members of these several professions formed necessarily, and wherever they were met, a middle class. In a country where no privileged aristocracy existed, they would naturally be the upper class, and we should have to search for a middle class in a social state, intermediate between them and the mass of the people. And even in a society whose summit was occupied by an hereditary aristocracy, they might, by closely uniting to it, so identify themselves with that body, that in order to find a middle class, we should still go a step below them. Look at England, where the titled and untitled aristocracy are confounded and blended in one upper class, to which every person that is rich and powerful may aspire: in that country, commerce and banking, on account of their large fortunes,—law and medicine, in consequence of their privileges, connect themselves so intimately with the aristocracy, that they are absorbed in it, and, aided by its malleable nature, form with it but one and the same body. Thus, perhaps, the middle class in England begins only with the farmers, the shopkeepers, the moderate fundholders, and ends with the ten-pound householders. Such was not the middle class in France before 1789. Then, all that was not noble, being inferior in right to the nobility, of which there were manifest proofs, the most eminent in commerce, manufactures, and the liberal professions, belonged by force to the middle class, that is to say, to that which, not being the vulgar herd, is just as little the superior class.
The condition of the middle classes in Ireland is neither what it was in France before 1789, nor what it is in our days in England. In truth, during all the time that the civil incapacities of the Catholics lasted, the higher industrial and liberal professions, being almost a monopoly of the Protestants, were in Ireland, still more than in England, associated with the aristocracy, towards which they were inevitably attracted by the sympathy of the same creed, the source of their common privileges. It was, then, truly impossible that everything which was Protestant in Ireland, the great lords, the merchants, or the lawyers, should not form a close and single phalanx against the Catholics, who were equally enemies to the Protestant monopoly of wealth, and the Protestant monopoly of power. There might be various ranks amongst the Protestants, but when opposed to the Catholics, that is to say, to the people, they seemed to form one single upper class, between which and the people there was no intermediate.
But when the industrial and liberal professions became equally accessible to Protestants and Catholics, the scene changed, and presented two different aspects, of which we must not lose sight. When the professions were filled by Protestants, these professions continued to furnish their tribute to the Protestant aristocracy, with which they allied themselves the more closely, as they found their enemies, the Catholics, becoming their rivals in industry, when they became free citizens. On the contrary, when occupied by Catholics, they stood aloof from the aristocracy, from which they were separated both by political interest and religious passion. So that from the same social element there issued as it were two streams running in opposite directions, one of which flowed into the aristocracy, with which it mingled and disappeared; whilst the other held its own proper course, and maintained itself between the people from which it issued, and the aristocracy with which it could not be blended. The second is the real source of the middle class in Ireland; it is that which, when there was no middle class in Ireland, contained its germs, and laboured for their development.
It was only in 1776 that agricultural industry was rendered free to Catholics, by the law which permitted them to become proprietors: the bar was not opened to them until 1793, and the end of the commercial monopoly of the Protestants must be dated from the same epoch. Still it would be an error to suppose that in Ireland before this time there existed absolutely no element of a middle class.
I have said that the Catholics were then trammelled in commerce and industry, but commerce and industry were not prohibited. We have already seen, in the account of the penal laws, how the Protestants, being masters of the municipal and commercial corporations, paralysed the industry of Catholics. Still, though they injured, they did not wholly destroy it; they alone occupied the summits of commerce from which they excluded the Catholics, but in the more humble regions the latter still made way. In case of rivalry, the Catholic, loaded with taxes from which the Protestant was exempt, sustained an unequal struggle; but still he did struggle; he worked with ardour; and this labour, the only refuge of a people to whom civil and political life was forbidden, could not be altogether fruitless. In this was really the future of enslaved Ireland; for in the long run labour creates wealth; wealth, strength; and strength, liberty.
It is manifest, that in a country where Protestant commerce was itself restrained, Catholic industry, loaded with such chains, could not easily produce a middle class. It, however, laboured to do so. And it is a very remarkable fact, that when, about the year 1757, three illustrious patriots, Dr. Curry, O’Connor, and Wyse of Waterford, undertook to regenerate enslaved Ireland,1 and conceived the first plan of a national association, they made an appeal to all Catholics which found an echo nowhere but in trade. The Catholic clergy, then timid and humbled, remained mute; the small remnant of the Irish Catholic aristocracy was equally silent;2 the merchants and traders alone responded to the summons. It was thus from trade that the first germ was derived of the great national association which embraces all Ireland: it was thus that trade produced a man too little known, who, for twenty years, alone managed Catholic Ireland; John Keogh, the predecessor of O’Connell, and who would be renowned if he had not been eclipsed by O’Connell, was a tradesman. And when the law opened the bar to Catholics, it was still industry which, raising them above poverty, enabled them to defray the great expenses that precede the exercise of the privileged profession. Thus, at the worst of the social and political oppression of Ireland, there already issued from the industry of the Catholics, though half enchained, a principle of independence and emancipation. At present this principle is developed in all its freedom. Catholic industry is liberated from every trammel, and the merchant of that religion has not only acquired wealth, but he has also gained all the rights which belong to fortune. In 1793 he obtained the elective franchise; in 1829 admission to parliament. Before these concessions were made, the Catholic merchants of Ireland might have formed a rich class, but they could not form a powerful class. Now, delivered from its fetters, strong in its rights, this class incessantly adds both to its power and its wealth; and it cannot be too watchful of its fortune, for everything unites to promise it in Ireland a glorious destiny.
In England, where the aristocracy is national, the middle class, in whatever rank it may be taken, can only play a secondary part, whether it unites itself to the higher class, and is eclipsed, or separates itself from it, and, in the attempt to balance its power, risks the destruction of its own. In Ireland, on the contrary, where the aristocracy is at open war with the people, the middle class, from the very moment of its existence, is quite naturally the first and only national power.
It is a great advantage for it to be the only superior class accepted by the people without being an aristocracy. It would have a far less favourable position, if there were no aristocracy in Ireland: for then it might, perhaps, aspire to become an aristocracy itself; and though it might not have such a pretension, it would be open to the accusation. But the existing aristocracy saves it from all peril; it would seem as if that aristocracy had resolved to oppose the perpetual contrast of a hostile power to the national power of the middle class, in order that the people should love the one as much as it detests the other; and in order that the middle class, incessantly beholding what it is that excites the hate of the country, should the better avoid the passions and errors that would deprive it of popular confidence and favour.
A vast and magnificent career is offered to the middle class in Ireland. There is one rock only in its course; it may, in spite of all that keeps it on the side of the people, sometimes incline towards the aristocracy, whether in an endeavour to approximate towards it, or merely to imitate it. The mere possibility of such a deviation from its natural course appears at first sight absolutely irrational; still one should be unacquainted with the English element that exists in Ireland, even amongst the people, and ignorant also of the germs of inequality in that element, not to feel that the middle class in Ireland will have to sustain a struggle in order to remain democratic;—a struggle against its prejudices and its instincts;—a struggle against the habits of the country itself, which is accustomed to see power only in the midst of aristocratic privileges, and which nevertheless, when it sees them there, prepares to combat, and aspires to destroy it.
We must not be astonished if aristocratic inclinations display themselves in the middling properties which are gradually being formed in Ireland;3 there is not a middling proprietor who, at the sight of the privileges attached to the possession of land, is not tempted to enjoy them himself: he is delighted at possessing in his condition some analogy to a noble lord, his country neighbour, whom he hates as his political and religious enemy, but from whom, to convert his hate into love, he probably waits only for a kind smile, or a complimentary recognition. The old soil of Ireland, like that of England, is impregnated with a sort of feudal contagion from which every possessor finds it difficult to escape. Up to this day, however, the middling Catholic properties have remained on the popular side, but perhaps more from accidental and transitory circumstances than from principle. When, in 1776, the Catholics obtained the right of acquiring real estate, they still continued subject to civil and political incapacities, the last of which, exclusion from parliament, only terminated in 1829; so that whilst they acquired lands, they obtained none of the rights derived from the possession of land; and this contradiction necessarily maintained in full force their hatred against the aristocracy, which derived from its estates benefits from which their estates were excluded. Will they persist in their hostile feelings to the privileged, now that their property gives them, besides all political rights, the chance of being named justices of the peace, being summoned on grand juries, sitting on the bench with the aristocracy in petty and quarter sessions? It is a question that cannot be solved. Besides, the obstacles that impede the transfer of land in Ireland, which will be discussed elsewhere, prevent real estate, at least for the present, from being a considerable element of the middle class; and this checks their aristocratic tendencies.
The bar has also its aristocratic tendencies, which are not without danger in the future destinies of the middle class. It is a privileged corporation, and has already shown the tastes and passions proper to its origin; and when, in 1793, the bar became free, the first Catholics who became lawyers associated themselves with the Protestant aristocracy. But the spirit of social privilege could not long resist the spirit of political party and religious passion. Barristers at present are the natural combatants in a constitutional and legal strife; and whilst the war lasts, which offers them peaceful and brilliant reputation, it cannot be doubted, that in their intermediate position between the aristocracy and the people they will adhere to the latter.
But of all the sources of a middle class existing in Ireland, that whose principle agrees best with the democratic movement working in the country, and that which is least likely to display aristocratic sympathies, is Catholic commerce; the primary source of a middle class in Ireland; a fruitful source which remained for centuries compressed as it were in the bosom of the earth, under the feet of the Protestant aristocracy, which at present may flow freely, supplied by the labours of several millions of men. A drop from its waves may be tainted, but the current will always remain pure. Party interests, sectarian feelings, present passions, vindictive remembrance of the past, all conspire to animate Catholic commerce against the aristocracy. Still we are sure, that in its resentments it will never pass certain bounds; the constitutional war which satisfies the others is a necessity to the middle class, for it cannot do without peace. “I begin to see,” says Tone in 1793, at a time when he endeavoured to bring the commercial class over to his projects of republican independence,“—I begin to see that merchants are bad instruments of revolution. Commerce is adverse to violent revolutions, and yet it contains an eternal principle of movement; the principle of labour always creating by the side of the principle of indolence, which leaves property to decay: it is the principle of progress without privilege, of the perpetual increase of some without the fixed inequality of others. Here, especially, is the future of Ireland. I say the future, for a middle class in Ireland is as yet little beyond infancy.
It is not that it does not already possess great wealth; on the contrary, its advances have been singularly rapid. In 1778 there were only eighty Catholics in Ireland recognised as landed proprietors;4 at present, Catholic landed property may be taken as at least one-tenth; and many Catholics who do not possess land have heavy claims on it by mortgage.5 Forty years ago Catholics were excluded from the bar, where they are now the majority. Catholic commerce flourishing in all Ireland, but especially in the large towns, such as Belfast, Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and Galway, has already produced immense capitals. One single fact may suffice to show its importance and prosperity, namely, that in 1829 nine-tenths of the funds of the bank of Ireland belonged to Catholic proprietors.6 Here, assuredly, are prosperous condtiions for a rising middle class. Still it is a strange phenomenon in Ireland, and peculiar to the country, that whilst new fortunes are created, the number of new rich men is not increased in the same proportion. The reason is, that after the fortune is created, the rich man departs, and this is explained by the social and political state of Ireland.
The manufacturer, the merchant, and the banker, enriched by their industry in Ireland, would be doubtless tempted to choose that country as their resting place; but, besides the difficulty of obtaining land in Ireland, and finding a secure investment, there are in this country numberless obstacles to quiet possession. The state of Ireland is such that complete security over the land belongs only to the petty occupant, who covers his entire property with his person, and from his cabin extends his hands over all the wealth of which his field is the repository.
And it is not merely the country that is agitated; in the cities and towns, which indeed are less so, parties are so violent, contentions so fierce, the spectacle of the miseries of the people so terrific, that a dwelling in them cannot satisfy the man who, after having laboured, wishes to enjoy the fruits of his labours. It often happens, then, that finding no secure asylum in in Ireland, those who have acquired wealth, go to seek it in some of the towns of England. We see, then, how it is, that while many make their fortune in Ireland, an equal number does not reside there; and nevertheless, it is the residence, not the fortune made, that must be taken into account. We have not, in fact, to consider whether Catholics gain more or less at the bar or in trade, and purchase estates or rent-charges in Ireland with the fruit of their labours; but whether they live on these estates in Ireland, or spend their income in an Irish town: and if, after having issued from the people by their industry and talents, they take an intermediate place between the aristocracy and the people, and maintain their station.
This evil, which retards the progress of the middle class in Ireland, diminishes every day. It decreases in proportion as large gaps made in the aristocracy open new social positions to the people. Thus, for example, the new poor law will help to detain many members of the middle class in Ireland, for it may be presumed, that from their body the greater number of guardians will be chosen.
It is not merely number that is wanting to the middle class in Ireland; it also wants, what it does not yet possess, knowledge, experience, and education. Issuing suddenly from the most profound obscurity to open day; raised from the general incapacity which sometimes excluded it from the management of its own private affairs, to be suddenly summoned to the direction of public affairs, the middle class of Ireland seems almost dazzled by its own splendour. It scarcely believes in so magnificent an elevation succeeding so rapidly to so great degradation; and in the intoxication of its sudden fortune, it with difficulty holds a proper position between the aristocracy, its enemy, which it does not always combat with dignity, and the people, which it does not always estimate sufficiently. It has a remnant of the vices belonging to the slave, who always desires to act the tyrant when he becomes free. To confirm its power, of which it still doubts, it might easily be led to extend it to abuse. But the middle class must watch its own conduct with very great care, for on its present wisdom or folly, its future destiny mainly depends.
If we are allowed to regret the obstacles that retard the increase of the elements of which it is composed, we may perhaps also regard it as a piece of good fortune, that this middle class has not been at once put into possession of all its powers. Before it can govern well, it must learn the science of government. It is in this respect that the labours of the national association are still of such immense importance: it is a school of government where instruction is every day afforded to the class that is destined to govern.
This class, which is beyond contradiction the most fertile in producing democracy, is also the most precious. Take away the middle class from Ireland, and you will at once have a country, the best possibly prepared for the reception of an absolute government. Every tyranny would be easy, and, I might almost say, agreeable to the people, provided it declared and waged war against the aristocracy. From this, indeed, democracy might result, but of the kind which despotism produces. There is in Ireland one chance for absolute power, which the rising middle class may dispute with it, and on the success or failure of this class depends the question, whether Ireland shall have the equality of despotism, or of a free democracy.
[1.][Note text has been omitted from the English translation. Please see the French version of the book for the content of this note.]
[2.][Note text has been omitted from the English translation. Please see the French version of the book for the content of this note.]
[3.][Note text has been omitted from the English translation. Please see the French version of the book for the content of this note.]
[4.][Note text has been omitted from the English translation. Please see the French version of the book for the content of this note.]
[5.][Note text has been omitted from the English translation. Please see the French version of the book for the content of this note.]
[6.][Note text has been omitted from the English translation. Please see the French version of the book for the content of this note.]