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A Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland [...] (Author: Thomas Campbell)

Letter 32


I had been taught to believe that the state of the Irish parochial clergy had been universally comfortable, if not affluent. But the case in Munster is mostly otherwise. It is indeed scarcely to be conceived, that in a country so uncultivated, a parish of moderate extent, should yield sufficient for the liberal support of a parson. Accordingly, unions of large districts are here common; which after all give but a scanty subsistence. In the north, which is said to be very populous, and in the parts of Leinster, which are cultivated, the case is different. There a small parish affords a decent maintenance. But in the south and west, where industry, and consequent population, is by every means discouraged, the situation of these gentlemen is rather to be pitied than envied. It requires a large income indeed, to compensate for the want of houses, and markets, and those other comforts which the English clergy everywhere enjoy.


The original cause of the rising of the White-Boys was this: ‘Some landlords in Munster set their lands to cottiers far above their value; and, to lighten their burden, allowed commonage to their tenants, by way of recompence: afterwards, in despite of all equity, contrary to all compacts, the landlords inclosed these commons, and precluded their unhappy tenants from the only means of making their bargains tolerable37 Too ignorant to know the law, and too poor to bear the expence of it, they betook themselves to violence, as their only resource. As mobs seldom rise without suffering some grievance, and never


subside without doing some injury; so these insurgents, having no prospect of redress, began to direct their vengeance against the clergy. The deluded rabble, smarting under the galling load of oppression, fled every where for relief, but where they ought. And, in order to divert their attention from themselves, it became the policy of the landlord and grazier to cherish, or at last connive at, the spirit of curtailing the church of its pittance.’

In some places they will not suffer the parson to have any assistant in letting his tithes. And if any one be so hardy as to lend his aid, he risques the loss of his ears, or his nose, or both. In other places, they refuse absolutely to pay those dues the law specifies. And in all, they pay with grudging and ill blood. So that the case of the clergy in this province is deplorable. For how can a man of liberal sentiment submit to the low drudgery of chaffering and dodging with each parishioner, most of whom would use every art chicane can devise, to outwit and deceive him? If the parson gives up to each demand, his income is frittered down to nothing; and if he


does not, he must study all the little tricks of bargain-making, and so degrade himself to the level of a tithe-dealer. And sunk so low, he inevitably loses all that influence wherewith the fanctity of his character had invested him, and which a propriety of conduct would have infallibly secured.

There is another cause which immediately tends to distress the clergy, and remotely to stop the progress of agriculture. The House of Commons in one of those frantic fits, to which all popular assemblies are incident, passed a vote, some twenty or thirty years ago, whereby, any lawyer was declared an enemy to his country, who should appear as council for the recovery of a due called Agistment or Herbage, which had ever been payed in lieu of the tithe of grass. But as this vote had the sanction of only one branch of the legislature, it could neither assume the form of a law, nor be binding upon those who passed it, but during their political existence as a parliament. It has, nevertheless, to all intents and purposes, acquired the force of a law; for the claim is totally relinquished.


Now if the parson alone had suffered by this most iniquitous decision, one might be brought to believe that no great harm had been done by it. But this very vote contributes to repress industry, and to waste the country. Whereas, if the parson had been allowed to receive that herbage to which he was intitled, agriculture might have been revived, and depopulation restrained. Herbage would have aded as a premium upon tillage, by being a tax upon pasturage.

Thus you may observe, that a rich grazier, who pays perhaps ten thousand pounds a year rent, may not be subject to as much tithe, as a wretched cottier, who holds but ten acres of land. No wonder then, that both the clergy and the poor should be equally distressed. And as little wonder, that insurrection should rear its head in this ill-fated country; the first landlords of which are absentees, the second either forestallers or graziers, and where the only tiller of the ground stands in a third, and sometimes in a fourth degree from the original proprietor. Something should be thought of, something done, to restore the rights of


human nature, in a country almost usurped by bullocks and sheep.

Ought not an Agrarian law to be passed, which would effectually prevent one man from occupying more than a certain number of acres, unless one half, or a third, or even a fourth were under the plough? England was once in a similar situation, and had lis Levellers, who, aggrieved by the monopoly of farms, rebelliously asked.

    1. When Adam delved, and Eve span.
      Where was then your Gentleman?

As they have the example of England before them, ought they not to apply like remedies to like evils. ‘The device of Henry VII. says Lord Bacon, was profound and admirable, in making farms and houses of a standard; that is, maintained by such a proportion of land to them, as may breed a subject in convenient plenty and no servile condition.’ And in the preceding reign it was enacted, ‘That no person should keep above 2000 sheep, nor hold more than two farms.’

As the several risings of Oak Boys, Steel Boys, and White Boys, have made some


noise on our side of the water, it may not be amiss to give you a distinct view of them; for they are, in general, so little understood, that they are frequently confounded together.

The high-ways in Ireland were formerly made and repaired by the labour of the housekeepers. He who had a horse, was obliged to work six days in the year, himself and horse: he who had none, was to give six days labour. It had been long complained, that the poor alone were compelled to work; that the rich had been exempted; that instead of mending the public roads, the sweat of their brows had been wasted on private roads, useful only to the overseers. At length, in the year 1764, in the most populous, manufacturing, and consequently civilized part of the province of Ulster, the inhabitants of one parish refused to make more, of what they called job roads. They rose almost to a man, and from the oaken branches which they wore in their hats were denominated Oak Boys. The discontent being as general as the grievance, the contagion seized the neighbouring parishes. From parishes it flew to baronies, and from baronies to counties,


till at length the greater part of the province was engaged.

The many-headed monster being now roused, did not know where to stop, but began a general redress of grievances, whether real or imaginary. Their first object was the overseers of roads; the second the clergy, whom they resolved to curtail of their personal and mixed tithes; the third was the landlords, the price of whose lands, particularly of turf bogs, they set about regulating. They had several inferior objects, all which only discovered the frenzy of insurrection.

In the mean time, the army was collected from the other provinces; for till then, the province of Ulster was deemed so peaceful, that scarcely any troops were quartered in it. The rabble fled as soon as fired upon; and thus was this tumult quelled for the time, in five or fix weeks after its commencement, with the loss of only two or three lives. In the next session, parliament took the matter into consideration, and very wisely repealed the old Road Act and provided for the future repair of the roads by levying an equal tax off the lands of both


poor and rich. The cause of discontent being thus happily removed, peace and quiet have returned to their old channels.

The rising of the Steel Boys was not so general, but it was more violent, as proceeding from a more particularly interesting cause. The source of it was this. An absentee nobleman, who enjoys one of the largest estates in this kingdom, instead of letting it, when out of lease,--which it happened to be altogether about five or six years ago,--for the highest rent, which is the usual way in Ireland, adopted a new mode, of taking large fines and small rents. It is asserted, that those fines amounted to such a sum, that the want of the usual circulating cash, carried away to England, severely affected the linen markets of that country. But, be this as it may, the occupier of the ground, though willing to give the highest rent, was unable to pay the fines, and therefore dispossessed by the wealthy undertaker, who, not contented with moderate interest for his money, racked the rents to a pitch above the reach of the old tenant.

Upon this, the people rose against the forestallers, destroying their houses, and


maiming their cattle, which now occupied their quondam farms. When thus driven to acts of desperation, they knew not how to confine themselves to their original object, but became, like the Hearts of Oak, general reformers. The army however easily dispersed them, and two or three, who were made prisoners, having suffered by the hands of the executioner, the country was soon restored to its pristine tranquillity.

Both these insurrections, being in the North, the most opulent, populous, and civilized part of the kingdom, we may observe, have no similitude to that of the White Boys, in the South, either in their causes or effects, except in the general idea of oppression. The cause which generated the one being removed, and the cause of the other being only temporary, the duration of neither was long. The rise and fall of each was like that of a mountain river, which, swelled by a broken cloud, at once overwhelms all around, and then shrinks down as suddenly into its accustomed bed.

Whereas in the South, where the cause is permanent, without any appearance of redress, the effect remains. The poor, deprived


of their right of commonage, driven from the good grounds, obliged to pay five or six guineas for an acre to set their potatoes in, and having no resources from manufactures, as in the North, they become constant enemies to the state; the state not being their friend, nor the state's law.

It is in vain to urge, that fanaticism and superstition were the original sources of these evils. If the majority, engaged in the North, were Presbyterians, and in the South Papists, it is, because the body of the poor are of those persuasions in those places. And, it should be attended to, that the oppression of the poor in the South, proceeds very much from the Papists themselves, as the graziers who engross the farms, are mostly Romanists; which incontestibly proves the necessity of an Agrarian law. Till some step is taken in favour of tillage and the poor, Whiteboyism will probably remain, in defiance of all the severities which the legislative power can devise, or the executive inflict.

But you may possibly ask, why may not these people make as much of the ground by tillage, as the grazier by pasturage?


The reason is this, their poverty is so extreme, and their ignorance of tillage so great, that they could not occupy it to the greatest advantage. Farming is an art which requires much experience, and much expence. And, though perhaps they might make as much of it, yet the grazier pays his rent with less trouble to the landlord, who is generally an absentee. The grazier cannot make so much of a few acres as the farmer; but, by a light profit from thousands, he amasses a fortune, without adding to the improvement of the country. Whereas, if an Agrarian law were to take place, the present grazier would be obliged to use the plough, to make the most of a small farm or two. He would be forced to cultivate with artificial grasses, peas, beans, turnips, &c. to make from a less quantity of land with labour, as much as he formerly made from a greater without it. Thus you may perceive, that the same farms would feed as many sheep and bullocks as at present, and of human creatures, five times the number.

In the north and some other parts like it, the tenant makes his rent, not by his


land, but his industry, and the spinning of his wife and family. He must have some land for his potatoes and his cow, for which he gives whatever the landlord asks. But sometimes the landlord is not at the trouble of asking; he sets up his land to the best bidder, and receives written proposals. And thus it frequently happens, that the wretched tenant, to whom long possession gives no preference, is driven from his little dwelling, unless he outbids every other proposer. Upon such hard conditions, you may see it is morally impossible that this country can be improved successfully; for the tenant is persuaded, that every improvement he makes, will but enhance the difficulty of renewing his lease.

This may explain to you what an Englishman can scarcely conceive. We, in general, imagine that a twenty-one years lease is a very good one, and so it is with us, where the present occupier is supposed to have a tenant-right; and where the tenant is allowed to make three times what he pays for his land, — one share for his rent, another for the support of his family, and a third for contingencies. But here there


is no such allowance made, for if the tenant can pay his rent, and exist upon potatoes and butter-milk, his landlord thinks he has a good enough bargain. And though in some places, rents are as high in Ireland, as in England, yet they do not yield half the produce, —the tenant starves, and the landlord has almost the whole value.

When I speak thus, I would not be understood to comprehend all Irish landlords, under the above description. There are many good landlords; if there were not, this nation would soon cease to exist as a people; for till the breaking out of the present troubles in America, they migrated in such numbers from this kingdom, that the price of lands fell one-third of their former rate; but this spirit being now checked, lands begin to rise again.

When upon this topick, it would be injustice to pass over in silence, the conduct of that excellent person, Sir George Savile; which I have so often heared extolled in this city; the only part of the kingdom I have seen, indeed, where the rights of human nature seem in the least attended to. That exemplary landlord has, it seems,


an estate in one of the northern counties of this kingdom. A few years ago, when the leases were expired, he paid a visit to it, that he might learn all its local circumstances. He found the majority of the occupiers groaning under the most piteous oppression. The tenantry, who held large tracts immediately from him, had under them a numerous set of cottagers, who paid exorbitant rents. Sir George resolved at once to emancipate them. He announced, that every cottier might become his tenant, —and desired them to make, each man, his proposal for what he then possessed. This was not received, as he expected, with joy and gladness, but with gloom and dejection of spirit. Unaccustomed to acts of mercy, they doubted whether such a principle existed in the human heart. The character of Sir George was unknown to them. It was infused into their minds, that, like other landlords, he only wanted to raise his estate, and they like the Helots, were afraid of the lash of their accustomed masters. It was some time before they could be prevailed upon to make any proposals. At length, they proposed to pay him what they then payed the undertakers:


they thought it would be in vain to offer less. The issue of the whole was, that Sir George gave these poor vassals leases at a much less rent than they proposed, yet doubled at the same time, the income of his estate. This you'll say was a sufficient sacrifice; but you will agree with me, that the favour of it must ascend to heaven, when you hear, that he might have had, without any trouble, from a single undertaker,—and with as good security as the Bank of England,—even more than he would accept from his tenants.