Front Page Titles (by Subject) 344.: THE CONDITION OF IRELAND  MORNING CHRONICLE, 17 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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344.: THE CONDITION OF IRELAND  MORNING CHRONICLE, 17 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 
Mill’s Morning Chronicle leaders on Irish problems were attacked by “B.F.,” in “The Irish Land Question,” a letter to the editor (28 Nov., 1846), Spectator, 12 Dec., pp. 1189-90, reprinted in Morning Chronicle, 17 Dec., p. 2. The quotations (except that from Young) are all from this letter. For the context of the series, see No. 306. This unheaded first leader is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A thirty fourth leading article on Irish affairs, in the Morning Chronicle of 17th December 1846”
(MacMinn, p. 65).
we copy from last week’s Spectator a letter on the Irish Waste Lands, for the sake of the novelty of having to deal on this question with an avowed opponent. Considering how little the subject had been discussed when we undertook to call public attention to it, and the very small portion of study which has generally been bestowed on the fundamental principles of landed tenure by English politicians, we have ample reason to be satisfied with the amount of response which we have met with. But one of the evidences we shall wait longest for, of having made an impression on the public, and one of the surest harbingers of approaching success, will be to compel our adversaries to speak out. When they do, it will be a sign of their having been forced to reflect on the subject; and the real obstacle the question has to contend with is, that they never have. The cause of their opposition is not, generally speaking, anything which they have to say on the subject, but that it is a new subject to them, and they are ignorant of it. The idea of peasant proprietors awakens in their minds no distinct objection, only a vague general impression unfavourable to it. The battle is half won if they can be induced to think long enough on the matter to make their objection distinct. Meanwhile, it is hard work for us to do their part in addition to our own—to find arguments for them, and reply to the arguments we have found; and we are delighted when we find an opponent who has the use of speech, and tries to give a reason for his non-concurrence, and lets us know what we must satisfy him about before he will give us his support.
The Spectator’s correspondent, who signs himself “B.F.,” and does us the honour to allude particularly to us, has favoured us with two arguments—if indeed that appellation can be given to more than one of them, for the other is the mere cuckoo cry of “spoliation,” “interference with the rights of landed property,” “shaking the whole framework of society,” and the rest of it. We should be very glad to think that this arose from a misapprehension of our meaning, and not from a supposition pre-occupying all the approaches to the subject. If he supposes that we have recommended anything bearing the smallest resemblance to spoliation, we can only tell him that he is in error. If he alludes to “fixity of tenure” in the sense he attaches to it, namely, to make the present tenants perpetual lessees at a fixed rent, our readers know that we have never recommended anything of the sort, unless with the free assent of the landlords, and have never even suggested anything beyond making that assent a condition of advancing money to any landlord from the treasury of the State. We fear, however, the fault is not that B.F. misunderstands what we have said, but that, like many other people, he has a turn for seeing spoliation in everything. His ideas of what constitutes it appear to be of a kind which we hardly know how to characterise, so remote are they from any which we could have supposed, a priori, to be capable of being held by a rational being. “What,” he asks, “does all this mean? Is it, frankly, that Government should, or can interfere with the rights of landed property, so as to dispose of the waste or the cultivated lands of any man, embarrassed or not, with or without his own consent? Surely that can hardly be intended.” Has B.F. dwelt in the cave of Trophonius, or kept company with the Seven Sleepers,1 from some old time when nobody had heard of a railroad bill, or a turnpike road bill, or a bill for a new street? With a charity which does infinite credit to the kindness of his disposition, he is unwilling to accuse any body of principles so monstrous as those which are declared and acted upon by Parliament every day of every session, and embodied in a goodly array of statutes in each year, every one of which disposes both of the waste and the cultivated lands of scores, or hundreds of proprietors, often against their strongest opposition, for some partial and secondary motive of public convenience, which B.F. himself would not for a moment put into comparison with relieving the destitution of a people. Does B.F. think all this wrong, or are the rights of Irish landlords to land which is of no value to them, and which they have neither made useful nor ornamental, endowed with a sacredness not accorded to the parks and pleasure-grounds of the English gentry? Is B.F. yet to learn that there is no violation of property when there is adequate compensation? He talks of pretium affectionis: who ever heard of a pretium affectionis in an Irish bog? As for “the value of his position—his feudal rights,” if any man has a satisfaction in calling himself lord of so many thousand barren acres, he has a sufficient equivalent if he receives their money value, together with the relief afforded to the productive portion of his estate by drafting off some of the superfluous mouths which prevent him from improving the cultivation and from realising his rent.
We should apologise for making any answer to stuff so destitute of any glimmering of sense, or even of plausibility, if it were not, as we said before, connected with a superstition. It is well known that we ought not to estimate the general good sense or talents of men by the nonsense which they talk on matters in which their superstitions are interested; and the idea of property, especially landed property, calls up associations in many minds which partake of the solemnity of a religious feeling, and quite come up to the most superstitious forms of religion in the incapacity of reasoning which they generate. It is, therefore, very possible that B.F. may be a fair specimen of an intelligent man, as men go, and that there may be no lack of other intelligent men, as men go, who may be ready to subscribe to all he has said. This is the excuse we make for treating it seriously; and if the excuse is not complimentary to human intellect, it is no fault of ours.
The other argument of B.F. is something more deserving of the name, and joins issue with us on the point on which we have from the first desired that the discussion should be engaged. He denies that settlement on the waste land would improve the people. That is grappling with the real question. Their habits, he says, are too inveterate:
Habits of wild idleness, generated by hopeless despondency, unfit multitudes for that labour which, now offered, would support them in comfort; and who not only stand out themselves against any system of improvement, but hinder others from availing themselves of it. . . . In most parts where gratuitous, or too easy tenure of land has been tried, it has proved a signal failure. A certain amount of responsibility has been found favourable to industrious habits, and a certain amount of rent has excited to diligence; but those indolent, ignorant, and turbulent cottiers of Ireland (as we find them, taken as a class), are to spring, per saltum, into a race of quiet, industrious, improving, and thriving farmers, by being put into possession of a few acres of land! Let those who dream this dream be assured that it is a delusion fraught with danger. Such improvement, when it comes, must be gradual, and very slow.
This objection differs from the other in having a tinge of reason in it; but its main strength lies in the appeal it makes to men’s natural reluctance to admit a plan to be worth anything which promises great good by simple means; for the credulity which people are apt to show in things relating to their individual interests and objects is seldom called forth by prospects addressed to so feeble a passion as that of the public good. The objection does not admit of being completely answered, for nobody can guarantee the full success even of the most skilfully devised measures of moral and social reform. One thing, however, one might almost venture to guarantee, for we do not believe there is a single example, any where in Europe, of a class of peasant proprietors who are not eminently industrious. To elevate the Irish peasantry into proprietors would, we believe, be a sovereign remedy for their “habits of wild idleness;” habits which B.F. himself describes as “generated by hopeless despondency,” and which we propose to remove by changing their despondency into hope and confidence. Does he think that because they “stand out against any system of improvement” which presupposes their removal from the soil, they would stand out against being made landed proprietors? As for the unfavourable verdict which he pretends has been given by experience, he only shows that he has not mastered the very elements of the scheme proposed. He has overlooked the feature on which the whole efficacy depends—the perpetuity. It is not “gratuitous or too easy tenure of land” that is wanted. The charm does not lie there. It is not paying no rent that makes the peasant proprietor industrious; it is that the land is his own. Give a man the secure possession of a bleak “rock,” as Arthur Young says, “and he will turn it into a garden; give him a nine years’ lease of a garden,” and, even though you give it him rent free, “he will convert it into a desert.”2 Until the plan of “secure possession” has been tried in Ireland, let us hear no more of its “signal failure.” Whoever chooses to study the subject may learn that it has been tried largely in almost every country of the Continent, and, as a source of unremitting industry, never known to fail; and but rarely as an incentive to prudence.
We never thought otherwise than that a great improvement in the habits of the Irish peasantry “must be gradual and very slow.” We allow them an entire generation—a term which, under similar circumstances to those we propose, has been sufficient to work a complete revolution in the French peasantry, Celts like themselves, once the most wretched people in Europe, now beyond all comparison the happiest. We know not why an Irish peasantry should take longer to reclaim than a French. It is the grossest exaggeration to pretend that the Irish are incurably indolent: their indolence is the result of a social condition in which they can seldom benefit themselves by exertion; and no people on earth are found capable of more persevering industry under far less encouragement to it than our plan would hold out. But our reliance is not on the existing generation, it is on their children. The faults of the Irish peasantry are the result of their circumstances; and it would be found in Ireland, as it has been found in France, that the generation born and brought up in the new circumstances would be a new people.
[1 ]For the cave of Trophonius, see Plutarch, “A Discourse Concerning Socrates’s Daemon,” in Moralia (Greek and English), trans. Frank Cole Babbitt, et al., 15 vols. (London: Heinemann, 1927-59), Vol. VII, p. 460 (590B). For the Seven Sleepers, see St. Gregory of Tours, Historia septem dormientum, in Opera omnia, Vol. LXXXI of Patrologiae cursus completus, series latina, ed. Jacques Paul Migne (Paris: Garnier, 1879), cols. 1106-18.
[2 ]Young, Travels, Vol. I, p. 52.