Front Page Titles (by Subject) 343.: THE CONDITION OF IRELAND  MORNING CHRONICLE, 16 DEC., 1846, P. 4 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III
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343.: THE CONDITION OF IRELAND  MORNING CHRONICLE, 16 DEC., 1846, P. 4 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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THE CONDITION OF IRELAND 
This article answers the advocacy of the addition of outdoor relief to the Irish Poor Law advanced in “The Irish Confiscation,” Spectator, 12 Dec., 1846, pp. 1187-8; the quotations are from p. 1187. For the context of the series, see No. 306. This unheaded first leader is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A thirty third leading article on Irish affairs, in the Morning Chronicle of 16th Dec. 1846”
(MacMinn, p. 65).
the spectator, a journal which we regret to perceive has of late joined the Poor-law agitators, attempts, in its last number, to convert the great experimental argument which the present state of Ireland affords against an extended Irish poor-law, into an argument for it. The Spectator’s line of reasoning has the recommendation of novelty. It argues that the mischief is done—that the poor already eat up the whole income of the land. The landlords were nearly insolvent before—they are now quite so. They are paupers themselves, enabled still to draw some rent from the land they call theirs only because England is, in fact, paying poor-rates for them. This result being the worst that could be expected from a permanent poor-law, the expectation of it can be no reason against having the law. The change could do no harm, and might do good; by bringing into evidence what, though unrecognized, is already the fact; by compelling the legal landlords to dispose of their nominal ownership for whatever it will bring; and supplying their place by people of more resources, and more enterprise, who, by means of better agriculture, will redeem the estates from their present condition of insolvency. It is just to ourselves, as well as to the Spectator, to give its own words:
The present state of Ireland stultifies the grand argument against a poor-law. It is said that Ireland is too poor for a poor-law; that it would eat up the rental and confiscate the landed property of the country. Now, that is the very result to which the country has come without a poor-law. . . . Landholders cannot carry on the work of cultivating the land, and they have induced the Government to advance, by way of loan, enormous sums to be expended on “reproductive works.”. . .
The mode in which this bounty is used is as extraordinary as its amount. There is not a particle of evidence to show that the landlords of Ireland generally have helped to secure any substantial return for the money so laid out, either in public works or in private “reproductive works:” on the contrary, there are many indications that the work done is but a make-believe. . . . It seems therefore only too probable that the present payment is regarded as temporary subsistence-money; that the land of the country is, at least to a considerable extent, allowed to lie fallow; that it will not be cultivated this year unless English money be furnished for the purpose; and that the whole charge of poor-rates, wages, and the general agriculture of the land, will be handed over to England in the lump. . . .
It follows, that without any poor-law, the landlords of Ireland are insolvent, and their estates confiscated; but that they have an expedient for extricating themselves, by inducing England to redeem their estates for them, and also to carry on their business while they are arranging a composition. The “confiscation” is complete, except that its consummation is staid by the bounty of England.
The argument that a poor-law would confiscate the rental, is one that admits the utter insolvency of the country: it presumes that the produce of the land is not really more than sufficient for the maintenance of the producing class, and that if they retained quite enough for their subsistence there would be no surplus for rent. Now, a great deal of produce is exported from Ireland, and if the above assumption is right, that exported produce is not “surplus,” but is part of what is necessary for the actual subsistence of the producers. According to this argument, Ireland is reduced to the state of Cholesbury,1 only the want of a poor-law disguises the fact, and enables the landowners to go on drawing income abstracted from the actual sustenance of the people. Now this would be a fact which it would be better not to disguise.
The Spectator possesses and deserves the character of an argumentative paper; and persons of its stamp of mind are seldom found on the side of the question which it now advocates. But the poor-law cause has the property of reducing all its champions to the same level. There is such an utter absence of decently presentable arguments for it, that in the rare cases in which thinking persons are led by their feelings to take that side, they are driven either to the mere declamation and assumption which are the substitutes for argument with the majority of its advocates, or, as in the present instance, to ingenious wire-drawn deductions quite wide of the mark. Who could have expected to find a writer of any pretensions to intellect discussing the idea of confiscation in connection with an Irish poor-law, without alluding to the reason why it is affirmed that a poor-law, on the principle of out-door relief, would be a confiscation of the land? The reason, as the Spectator must be well aware, is, that the people would not work; that their labour would be merely another name for idleness, and would not repay its own expenses.
If the consequences of a poor-law could be limited to those of which the Spectator’s argument takes cognizance; if the industry of the country would be as efficient, its produce as great, its population not greater, and there were no other change than giving plenty of food and clothing to people who at present have not enough, there are, we believe, but few persons who would have anything to say against it, even if it did swallow up the whole rent. There would be no question then between the landlords and the peasantry, but only between the landlords and the nation, as to the justice of making one small section of the community pay for all. The Spectator simply leaves out of consideration the whole question; for the only part of it ever disputed is in fact the whole. The objection made is not that the rates would eat up the present rent, but that they would eat up any amount of rent, and of taxes in addition; that they would outstrip every possible increase of production, while they would at the same time render increase of production impossible. That the work done by those in eleemosynary employment, by those quartered on the poor-rates, would in the long run, and under any superintendence which could be counted on as a permanency, be little more than nominal; and that when everybody could claim nominal work at good wages, from the parish or union, nobody would consent to do any other than nominal work for the small farmer, the capitalist, or the landlord. This is our argument, and the argument generally of those who agree with us. It rests upon the familiar laws of human nature, upon the particular character and habits of the Irish peasantry, and upon the fact of their present conduct. This is what the Spectator must answer, or do nothing. Nobody has attempted to answer it; nobody has met it face to face. Mr. Scrope, no doubt, has attempted to weaken the last branch of it, by bringing forward the palliations which the present state of the country suggests for the conduct of the peasantry, and the causes, other than unwillingness to accept other employment, which may account for their universal rush to the public works.2 There is no allowance which can be claimed by any body for this unfortunate people which we are not eager to concede; and it is true that there is far less of private employment to be had than in common years. The reason of this was stated, in an article of this journal on Monday last,3 as strongly and explicitly as it could possibly be stated by Mr. Scrope. The small farmers have been accustomed to pay their labourers not in money, but in patches of ready manured land, of which the rent is worked out in labour at a stipulated price, and this land the failure of the potatoes has rendered useless; and though the farmers themselves have considerably more money than usual, because all that part of their produce which is grown for sale has produced an unusually high price (not to mention the rent they withhold), they are under the unaccustomed necessity of buying their own food with a part of this money, instead of expending it on their farms. In such circumstances as these, it was inevitable that an extraordinary number of people should be thrown upon the Government for lack of any other available employment. But this does not account for all we hear and read of, on unquestionable authority. It does not explain the universal testimony to the almost entire abandonment of agriculture in whole districts. There are everywhere some wages to be had for cultivating the soil; there is everywhere, even now, a great amount. The people throng to the Government works in some cases because they cannot, but in others because they will not, work at their ordinary occupations. Read this extract from the Limerick Chronicle, which we printed on Tuesday, but which we reproduce on account of the importance and alarming nature of its announcements:
The farmers of the south are desirous, for obvious reasons, to put in the soil this month a greater quantity of seed wheat and oats than usual, in proportion to the much greater breadth of potato ground at their disposal, and which else is likely to remain waste after the second year’s failure of the staple crop of Ireland. . . . But unfortunately they are bereft of all facilities for this most essential purpose, by the evil operation of the public works system, which in every barony, parish, or townland cripples the farmer; for he has not the able and willing staff of labourers heretofore at his command, whose services are now diverted from field culture to the easier task of destroying a good road or making a bad one. . . . Spade husbandry, under the farmer’s eye, is a stiff and vigorous occupation, unlike the task of throwing a shovel of gravel, or tapping a stone hammer on the side of a boreheen, while the operators smoke and chat in concert. Universally, therefore, the labourers prefer this free and easy mode of work to the farmer’s engagement of 10d. and 1s. a day, reckless of future prospects, dismal as they are to themselves and others from the neglect of tillage. . . . An active member of a relief committee near this city writes—“In such high estimation is the system of road-making held by the peasantry, that they laugh at the idea of being sent to till the fields, nor will they do so while they have such work, more in prospect, and which they prefer to farmers’ employment.” A gentleman, near Ballingarry, on Monday last, offered 1s. a day to sixty labourers to till his land, but with one accord they preferred being employed on the roads.4
Does a picture like this afford no experience by which to judge of the effects of a poor-law grounded on the very principle of the present temporary relief—except in not being temporary but permanent, not partial but general, not contingent but certain? It is idle to dream that any mere improvement of the machinery would obviate evils arising not from the particular choice of means, but from the thing itself.
[1 ]An impoverished town in Buckinghamshire, noted by the Poor Law Commission of 1834 as a place where in 1832 the collection of the poor-rate had ceased, the landlords had given up their rents, the farmers their tenancies, and the clergymen their glebes and tithes.
[2 ]Scrope, “Letter to Lord John Russell,” Morning Chronicle, 7 Dec., 1846, p. 2.
[3 ]I.e., No. 337.
[4 ]“Deplorable Neglect of Tillage,” Limerick Chronicle, 12 Dec., 1846, p. 2, reprinted in Morning Chronicle, 15 Dec., 1846, p. 6.