Front Page Titles (by Subject) Sect. II.—: Emigration. - Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 2
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Sect. II.—: Emigration. - 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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If it is impossible to find employment in Ireland for all those who are wholly or partly unoccupied, we must, say some, diminish the number of labourers, and what better means is there of attaining this end than emigration?
Of all the systems which during the last twenty years have been proposed for the safety of Ireland, there is not perhaps one which has met more favour in England than emigration conducted on a large scale. It is a violent remedy, it is true, but it is one which rests on a fact apparently simple, and suited to catch the imagination. There are some millions of people whose situation in Ireland is truly deplorable; let them be transported to another country, less crowded with inhabitants; they will there find a happy lot, and those who remain, delivered from a superabundant population, will be comfortable and prosperous. This theory is supported by the authority of economists; it has several times received the sanction of parliament itself, and many would believe the wounds of Ireland incurable if emigration could not heal them.
Are not the political doctrines by which nations are governed subject to strange variations? We are still close to a period when the theories of statesmen and the science of government had in view no object more constant or more dear than the increase of population.1 Severe on celibacy, the laws favoured early marriages, and public rewards were decreed to prolific mothers,2 and the emigration of children from their country was forbidden as a public curse. Now, amongst one of the most civilised nations of the earth, an opinion is established that the increase of population is the greatest danger with which a nation can be menaced; we are taught that to avert this peril, it is necessary not only to check the tendency to increase, but also to diminish the existing number: and emigration is not only permitted, but solemnly encouraged as a means of safety, both for those who emigrate, and for the country relieved from the surplus population.
It was down to our days a doctrine universally consecrated, that a dense population is the source of strength and national wealth to a country, and that though it may injure it from being badly directed, yet it is always capable of being converted into an instrument of power and prosperity; a very different theory from that which now prevails, when the population seems excessive, and one-half must be banished to ensure the prosperity of the other.
What must Ireland think of her governors? The time is not very distant when her inhabitants were rigorously prohibited from emigrating by the very English government which now offers every encouragement to emigration.3
Without dwelling further on the contradictions between these different systems, and without examining to what extent the successive employment of each was justified by a difference of circumstances, let us inquire if emigration could at this moment be of any benefit to Ireland.
And in the first place, is it true, that if the population of Ireland was diminished by a third, or even by a half, the miseries of the country would cease? This is a first point which I may be permitted to doubt. The population of Ireland is, in truth, reduced to miserable expedients for subsistence. It imposes on itself the most cruel privations, which do not save it every year from enduring a famine more or less severe. It is fed on the worst of food, in spite of which it is exposed to periodical starvation. It has adopted the system best adapted to sustain the greatest number of inhabitants on the smallest possible territory. For it is a well-established economic truth, that the same extent of land which planted with potatoes would support twenty persons, would not grow corn sufficient for more than four or five, and would, if employed as pasturage for cattle, not feed more than one individual. Ireland has absolutely renounced the use of bread and meat, to live entirely on potatoes. She has done more; as amongst potatoes there are some which multiply faster than others, she has taken as her food the lumpers, the least agreeable to the taste, but which are redeemed in the eyes of the Irishman by their prodigious abundance.
It seems, at the first glance, that for a population which derives subsistence from the soil with so much difficulty, every diminution of number would be an immense benefit; still if the question be investigated, it will be found that the emigration of four or five millions of Irishmen would not necessarily produce for the four or five remaining millions better or more certain means of subsistence. In fact, whence does it arise, that the agricultural produce of Ireland does not appear sufficient for the support of the population? It is not because the country does not supply sufficient food for eight millions of men; everybody knows that this fertile country could easily support twenty-five millions of inhabitants. Why then does the third of that number live so wretchedly? Because, before asking from the land and its produce what is necessary for his subsistence, the Irishman must first take what is necessary to pay the rent to his landlord. This explains why, in a land capable of giving bread to twenty-five millions of persons, eight millions with difficulty find support from the cultivation of the worst kind of potatoes. If these eight millions of Irishmen wished to feed on corn, nothing would be more easy, for the land furnishes far more than their necessities require, but then they could not pay their rents to the lords of the soil. Now see how the Irish cultivator is obliged to act; he sows a part of his land in corn to sell the harvest, and he plants a small spot in potatoes, on the produce of which he lives. In the first case he hopes to derive from the land the best kind of harvest, with the price of which he will pay his rent; and in the second, to obtain the more abundant produce capable of supplying his more imperious wants; and as the rent which the landlord requires from him is constantly raised, he constantly enlarges the space on which he raises the articles that he sells, whilst he as constantly narrows the space on which he produces the potatoes that support him. Now suppose that the landlords of Ireland see nothing but what is natural and regular in this distress of the agricultural population; suppose it one of their familiar principles that the tenant should derive no profit from the culture of the soil, but just so much as is absolutely necessary to his support; finally, suppose that this principle should be so rigorously applied by Irish landlords, that every more economical mode of life discovered by the tenants necessarily leads to the augmentation of their rents. In this hypothesis, which to everybody who knows Ireland is a sad reality, what would be the consequence of a diminution of population?
The soil of Ireland having to feed a less number of inhabitants, would they hereafter be maintained in a better position? Not at all. For if, instead of continuing to eat potatoes, they began to feed on bread, the landlord would see in this change an increase of prosperity and a sign of fortune which would at once induce him to raise the rent. In order to pay this larger sum, the poor tenant should at once revert to his former system; if he delayed, he would be soon ejected for non-payment of rent, and his miseries would begin again as before. Thus, after millions of Irishmen were removed from Ireland, the condition of the remaining population would not, perhaps, be at all changed, but would remain equally miserable. Hence we can understand why Ireland a century ago, with only a third of the present inhabitants, was just as indigent as she is now, and subject to the same causes of misery, independent of number.
Now, if it were true that the Irish population might be considerably diminished without any amelioration of its condition, it would follow that a system of emigration which rests entirely on the efficacy of this diminution must vanish completely.
Still, suppose that the primary basis of the system has not been overthrown; that the utility of diminishing the population of Ireland were, on the contrary, well established, and that the emigration of some millions offered an efficacious and undisputed remedy for the evils of Ireland. We may admit this hypothesis, because, though the depopulation of Ireland might not produce the expected advantages, it might lead to other salutary effects which would give it value. Would it not, in the first place, be profitable to the emigrants? It seems that to whatever other part of the world they were transferred, they would be more comfortable, at least less miserable, than in Ireland. Would not the remaining population, at least in the first instance, be reduced by the departure of some millions of labourers, its competitors? Delivered at once from its most idle and turbulent population, the country would become more calm; this repose would profit England herself, who always feels the rebound of the agitation in Ireland; and if it were true that the absence of three or four millions of Irishmen from Ireland, only for a few years, would spare her the trouble caused by that country, would not this be sufficient inducement to adopt a system of emigration?
Admitting, then, that the emigration of a portion of the Irish people would be sufficiently profitable to Ireland and to England to merit examination, let us inquire if it would be possible. This examination will not appear unprofitable, if we reflect on the multitude of persons in England prejudiced in favour of a vast system of emigration.
And let us first remark, that this emigration must be on an immense scale, or it will be absolutely fruitless, at least in an economical point of view. To judge what it must be in order to be efficacious, let us consider what takes place at present in Ireland. There is not, perhaps, one county in Ireland from which thousands of the inhabitants do not emigrate every year. Nevertheless, it has been established by official inquiries, that this emigration, more or less advantageous to those who depart, produces no sensible effect on the condition of those who remain. It has been found that in the parishes from whence there was the greatest emigration, the wages of day labourers have not been raised one farthing, and the employment of the labourers who remained in the country has not been increased by a single day’s work.4 In certain counties it would be necessary to remove ninetenths before the inhabitants would derive any sensible benefit from emigration.5 It is astonishing to see how quickly the void created by emigration is filled, and it is not easy to discover by what enchantment the paupers who depart have their places supplied by other paupers. Millions of Irishmen must, therefore, be removed from Ireland, or the effects of emigration will be imperceptible. But such an emigration is at once singularly difficult and expensive.
Whither are three millions of emigrants to be conveyed? Aasuredly, of all countries England is that to which this difficulty would be the slightest, for she has colonial establishments in all parts of the globe, and her navies give her free access to the countries which she does not possess. But all vacant territories would not be equally suited to Irish emigration.
The largest and most fertile would be Australia. But how could the poor population of Ireland be sent to a place designed to receive the criminals of England? Ireland, perhaps not without reason, would regard the proceeding as an insult; and this impression, right or wrong, would render the enterprise impossible. Would the United States of America be their destination? This country would certainly be the best and most prosperous for the emigrants that could be chosen; but is it to be believed, if the United States were menaced with the invasion of three or four millions of Irishmen, that the government of the country would leave the American ports open to these swarms of paupers? I may be allowed to doubt it. Ireland sends some thousands of poor emigrants every year already to the United States, and this moderate current of emigration has already raised so much clamour in the country, that it has been several times debated, whether the ports of the United States ought not to be closed against Irish emigrants, either by a formal interdiction, or a tax sufficiently high to serve as a prohibition.5
Canada remains. It is, in truth, the natural asylum of Irish emigrants. Canada is of all the British colonies the least distant from Ireland; it is a country that has become English, thanks to the cowardice of Louis XV. and his court. Many Irish are settled there already who would receive the new-comers; and though the best lands of this colony are already occupied, a sufficiently large extent still remains to receive for a long time the surplus of English population. Still it is matter for inquiry, whether, when the English power is tottering in Canada, it would be prudent to reinforce that country with some millions of men, who, as Irishmen, instinctively detest the English yoke, and as Catholics would be the natural allies of that part of the Canadian population most hostile to England.
Still let us further suppose, that these different objections against Australia, Canada, and the United States, have been obviated—suppose that a place for emigrants has been found, the first difficulty is overcome; but how many others instantly present themselves!
It is by no means a trifling enterprise to transport several millions of men eight or ten thousand miles across the ocean. Experience shows us, that for a long voyage a vessel ought, in general, to carry less than a thousand passengers; let us, however, take a thousand as the average. Adopting this base, a hundred voyages out and home would be required to the emigration of one hundred thousand persons, that is to say, only a small fraction of the population that it would be necessary to remove. How many years would be necessary for such transport, even if England were to devote all her navy to it, though her fleets have plenty of occupation elsewhere? Nevertheless, to obtain the proposed end, a sudden and complete emigration of all the population deemed superabundant is required; every slow and partial emigration would afford no remedy for an evil so prompt to renew itself as fast as it is cured.
But let us go further: suppose that the transport of the emigrants, which appears impossible, could be effected, the expenses of this transport would be so great as to present a new obstacle. In fact, it has never entered into the heads of the warmest advocates of Irish emigration to limit themselves to shipping off some hundreds of the poor Irish, and setting them ashore, naked or covered with rags, in a new country. To treat the poor Irish thus, would be to serve them worse than the malefactors transported to Australia, and settled there at great expense. Even if this course of conduct were adopted at the request of the emigrants themselves, it would still be without excuse. No one is ignorant of the extreme distress to which poor families are consigned, who, flying from misery in their own country, and destitute of capital, go in search of better fortunes to a distant land, where they only find trials still more frightful. We can understand why a government may leave such acts of imprudence free; but, assuredly, it should never become an agent in them. In England it has been always considered an essential feature in every system of emigration, that the government should make provision for the passage and all the expenses of the emigrant from his first starting to his arrival at his destination, and all the expenses of his first establishment. Now the total amount of these expenses is enormous. In 1826, they were estimated at 60l. for every family of five, or 12l. a head.6 But if we turn from estimates to actual experiments, we shall see that the expenses absolutely necessary exceed this amount, and that the emigration of a family of five involves an outlay of 100l., or 20l. a head.7 Consequently, the emigration of four millions of persons would cost 80,000,000l.! Taking the smaller amount, 12l. a head, it would come to 48,000,000l. And supposing that only two millions emigrated, the expense would be 40,000,000l., according to the estimate derived from direct experiment. However interested England may be in removing the evils of Ireland, it is very doubtful whether she will ever have recourse to such an expensive remedy.8
Let us further admit, for a moment, that all the preceding objections and improbabilities have been obviated; another obstacle would remain, more difficult to be overcome than all the others. It would not be sufficient that three or four millions should have the physical possibility of leaving Ireland; it would be further necessary that they should be willing to do so. “It would be their interest to emigrate, and they would be wrong to refuse the means;”—such is our feeling. But would their judgment be in accordance with ours? Their refusal to emigrate would render the system impossible, for forced emigration is a penal exile. And on what would be founded the right of treating the poor Irish as malefactors? It would be first necessary to proclaim poverty a crime. Now, though in English habits poverty is, doubtless, a great misfortune, and sometimes almost a misdemeanour, it has not yet become a crime.
If voluntary emigration is the only possible system, we must conclude, that a system on such a scale as that which we have examined, can never be executed.
There exists in Ireland, as has been already stated, a free and spontaneous current of emigration. But we must remark, that in general it is not the poorest who emigrate. The emigrants belong chiefly to the middle classes; they are comfortable tradesmen, or small farmers, who, though already possessing some comforts, are anxious to better their condition; who, possessing small capital, are anxious to find a country where a capital may be more safely invested than in Ireland.9 They are in a large proportion Protestants; that is to say, persons of a condition above the common. In a word, all those who depart, are the persons whom the country is most interested to keep. And if the poor Irishman does not emigrate as well as the rich, it is not merely because he has physical means inferior to the rich, but because he has not the same inclination. In spite of all his miseries, the Irishman passionately loves his country, and seems attached to her by closer ties the more miserable he is. Perhaps it would be just to say, that attachment to country is in the inverse proportion of the comforts enjoyed in it. The English, whose physical comforts surpass those of any other people, understand less than any the links that bind man to his natal soil. He has tasted certain comforts which are absolutely necessary to him, and without which he cannot exist; when these comforts begin to fail in his native land, he seeks them elsewhere; and even when not deprived of them, he constantly seeks their increase; his country is the land where he can obtain the greatest amount of happiness. The poor Irishman, on the contrary, does not seek after enjoyments of which he has never formed a notion; having never known of anything but a miserable existence, he does not suspect that any other is possible in this world; a great enterprise, undertaken to procure happiness of which he is incredulous, has no charms for him. He remains on the spot of his present misery, little anxious to search for fresh misfortune at a distance; and it is some consolation for him to bear the load of life in the country where he was born, where his father and mother lived and died, and where his children will have to live and die.
If, then, emigration were offered to those millions of Irishmen whose absence is so desired, the greater number would not accept it. We may add, that many who are desirous to emigrate would cease to have the wish, if the plan of emigration should be formed and executed by the English government. The Irishman with difficulty believes that he can derive any benefit from such a source: and in this case, are not his fears natural? Setting aside every cause of political distrust what terrible risks must the unfortunate beings run, whose emigration becomes an official function of the government? Who is to guarantee to the poor emigrants that they will receive the care and attention designed for them? Are not they justified in fearing everything? Are they very sure that once embarked, and the ocean interposed between them and their country, they will not be cast on some unknown and desolate shore, to die of famine, cold; and misery?6 A terrible responsibility weighs on the head of a family who engages his wife and children in this perilous path. People may persist in believing that he is wrong not to emigrate, if the means are afforded him, but everything shows that, guided by his own judgment, interests, and passions, the poor Irishman will not emigrate.
These difficulties are so great and obvious, that the most ardent partisans of emigration cannot mistake them. Still they do not abandon their favourite theme, they modify it, and, restricting their system in the hope of rendering it more easy, they still believe it the best means of safety for Ireland. Let us, then, examine their subsidiary plan.
The reader has already seen the extreme division of the soil: its being portioned into small farms of one, two, or three acres, has infinitely multiplied the number of agriculturists in Ireland. This multitude of occupants, surcharging the land, is, as some people say, one of the principal causes of Irish misery: and the natural remedy, they say, would be to destroy small, and establish large farms. But, in the first place, in order to abolish the small farms, you must remove the small farmers; and how can these expulsions be effected in a country where those who are ejected wreak the most terrible reprisals, and the most cruel revenge? To this the Englishman will answer, “The dispossessed tenants must emigrate.” Let us examine, attentively, the different systems of emigration proposed for Ireland, and we shall find that, at the bottom of all, the predominant idea is the diminution of the agricultural population.
But, within such restricted limits, would a system of emigration be more practicable than that we have just examined? . . . No. It may be said that it would be less so. In fact, out of the five millions of agriculturists existing in Ireland, there are certainly more than two millions who, in the system of the English economists, must be regarded as superabundant, and who consequently should emigrate. Now we have already seen what enterprise and expense the emigration of such a number would involve; and if it be true that such obstacles are sufficiently grave to prevent England from effecting the emigration of millions of poor Irishmen, whose misery is to her a source of alarm; how are we to believe that she would be tempted to surmount the same difficulties for the mere purpose of diminishing the agricultural population of Ireland? It is evident, that if the emigration of the Irish farmers were possible, England would not undertake it, because their lot, compared with that of others infinitely more wretched, could only excite a secondary interest.
It may well be conceived, that a landlord would be more interested in the removal of an agriculturist who surcharges his estate, and whose weight is felt by him alone, than to clear Ireland of a pauper whose burthen is borne by the entire country. But what follows from this, except that the emigration of small farmers would be profitable to the rich? Another consequence would result, the Irish landlords, being the only persons interested in emigration, ought to bear the entire expense. Now, supposing that the Irish landlords had the power to effect this emigration, have they the will? . . Not they truly. . . It would be first necessary that they should feel that a diminution of the number of farmers would be useful to their interests; now, on the contrary, it is certain that the excessive number of cultivators, so far from being regarded as an absolute evil by the greater part of Irish landlords, is considered by them, in some respects, as a real advantage.7 We have seen above, that the emigration of 2,000,000 of souls would cost 40,000,000l.; now the entire rental of Ireland is estimated at about 6,000,000l.; so that the expenses of such an emigration would consume seven years of their revenues. We may then, without rashness, affirm that such sacrifices will not be made by an aristocracy that not only lives up to its income, but almost, as we may say, “from hand to mouth.”
We must add, that the execution of a task so delicate and so extensive, would not only require the stimulus of private interest, but also the incentive of generous sentiment. The idea of emigration should be enforced with ardour and charity by the Irish landlords, as a means of relieving great sufferings, and establishing comforts on their estates. Now, how are we to believe that they, who, by their carelessness or selfishness, have allowed immense miseries to accumulate in Ireland, will display extraordinary zeal in their diminution? How are we to believe that they will do from remorse what they have not done from conscience? Is it reasonable to expect from them lively sympathies for those whom emigration will remove six thousand miles from Ireland, when they are so often found without pity for the frightful distress of which they are the witnesses? If the Irish landlords were capable of the sacrifices demanded of them, emigration would not now be necessary. The remedy would be useless, because the evil would not exist.
As the emigration of the agricultural population can neither be obtained from the English government, nor from the interests or sympathies of Irish landlords, a third system has been recently tried, under the authority of the law.8 The counties are permitted to tax themselves for the purpose of facilitating emigration, and we may see, from the discussions on this enactment, that its principal object was to provide for the emigration of small tenants ejected from their farms.
It would be easy here to demonstrate the perils of such a system, fitted to encourage the selfishness of the rich, who, seeing for the future, in the gratuitous emigration of the ejected tenantry, a means of escape from the vengeance of the poor, will no longer be restrained by any check in their oppression of the agricultural population; and on the faith of this emigration, which, perhaps, will not take place, they will show themselves more severe than before, so as to provoke reprisals, the more formidable as they will be suspended over their heads, at the very moment that they believe them most distant. But, salutary or fatal, emigration restricted by such limits can only have a very partial effect. Reduced to these terms, it may protect or compromise some private interests; but the plan is not sufficiently extensive to produce a sensible influence on the social and political condition of Ireland.
Thus, everything in these various systems of emigration is defective: an efficacious emigration is impossible; that which is practicable would be vain and incomplete. One set of difficulties only gives birth to another: the discovery of a proper country for the emigrants, the length of the voyage, the vast amount of expense, the complication of the enterprise, all prevent it; and when these objections are removed, a thousand others instantly appear. Emigration being rendered possible, it is not determined who are to emigrate; and the choice of emigrants being made, they will reject emigration. Finally, passing from one obstacle to another, from one impossibility to another, we at last lose sight of the point from which we started, and having in vain sought the means of clearing away the wretched and demoralised portion of the population, we at last come to applaud the discovery of a plan for exiling those who, in the present state of the country, are the most valuable to preserve. Even if all these impossible plans of emigration could be effected, would the slightest good result to Ireland? Consult the annals of the country, and see what little influence all the violent enterprises and extraordinary accidents of depopulation have had on its social and political condition. Calculate all who perished in Ireland during the wars of religion;—count the thousands slaughtered by Cromwell, and the thousands he transported to the colonies;—consider the hundreds of thousands carried off by famine, whose number in one year (1740) surpassed forty thousand;—forget not the thousands destroyed by the plague and national wars at various times;—take into account those who are constantly wasted away by disease and misery;—omit not the estimate, formerly very large, of those who perished by the hand of the executioner;—finally, attend to the twenty-five or thirty thousand Irishmen taken away every year by the natural course of emigration: and when these facts have been verified, investigate the consequences: when, in the midst of these various changes, you will find Ireland the same at all epochs, always miserable in the same degree, always overstocked with paupers, displaying the same deep and hideous wounds; you will then confess that the evils of Ireland do not arise from a surplus population; you will see that it is the nature of its social state to produce profound indigence and infinite distress; that if, by some magic spell, millions of paupers could be at once transported from Ireland, their place would soon be filled by the overflowing of that well-spring of misery which is never dried up; consequently, our attention must be bestowed, not upon the amount of the population, but upon the institutions of the country.
Here, again, we are brought back to the first cause of the evil, and to the question of determining what reforms should be made in institutions whose vices continually reappear as the source of all evils; but the time is not yet come for discussing that question. At present, it is sufficient to have shown that a remedy for the evils of Ireland would be vainly sought in emigration.
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