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History of the Commercial and Financial Relations between England and Ireland from the Period of the Restoration (Author: Alice Effie Murray)

Chapter 16

The Economic Condition of Ireland during the Nineteenth Century

General Survey — Irish Commerce and Industry — Economic Condition of the Irish People from the Union to the Famine — Their Condition since the Famine.

The economic history of Ireland during the nineteenth century divides itself naturally into two periods, the famine of 1846 and 1847 forming the dividing line. Prior to the famine the population steadily increased and the conditions of life among the mass of the people grew from bad to worse. Just when the poverty and misery of the Irish people had reached the height so graphically described to us in the report of the Devon Commission, the failure of the potato crop, on which the majority of the population entirely depended for their mere existence, led to thousands of deaths by starvation and the commencement of the period of emigration which is still continuing. The net result of this process of emigration combined with the ravages during the famine has been a decrease in the population from eight millions to under four and a half. The greatest diminution took place from the famine to the middle of the sixties; the rate of decrease then diminished, and in 1877 there was even a slight rise in the numbers of the people. But the decade 1881–91 showed a large increase of diminution, which, however, has fallen in the last decade 1891–1901.760 For a long time after the famine


the condition of the Irish peasants did not improve, but by 1885 the earnings of agricultural labourers, which forty years before had averaged from 2s. 6d. to 3s. a week, had increased to 6s. or 7s. a week, this increase taking place almost entirely during the last part of the period. Since 1885 the rates of labour have slightly risen and now average from 7s. to 9s. a week. The last twenty years have also witnessed the interference of the State between landlord and tenant in Ireland in order to secure to the Irish peasant safety of tenure, security from an unfair increase of rent, and better conditions of living. On one side there has been a legislative regulation of rent and restriction of the landlord's power, on the other an effort on the part of the State to replace the relation of landlord and tenant by the establishment of an occupying ownership. The result of this action of the State has on the whole been to improve the economic position of the mass of the Irish people through the reduction of rents and the opportunity of undivided ownership, although the policy of regulating rents has been attended with certain undesirable consequences. But though something has been accomplished since 1880, material improvement has only been comparative, and at present the condition of the labourers and smaller occupiers constitutes the most serious problem in Ireland.

The last twenty years of the nineteenth century have been for Ireland years of economic strain, for the pressure of foreign competition has necessitated a transformation in the most important Irish industries and has deprived them of the old advantages in the English market which they used to possess. The whole effects of free trade in widening the English market took many years to work themselves out, and did not fully appear until about 1880, when the pressure of competition greatly increased the fall of wholesale prices which had been going on for some time, and led to much distress among Irish farmers. Events during the last half of the nineteenth century have resulted in a great increase of pasture lands and a decrease of arable,


so that Irish agriculture has in this respect been drifting back to the position it occupied before Foster's Corn Laws of 1782 and the transformation in the English corn trade. The repeal of the English Corn Laws in 1846 gave the first check to the growth of Irish grain and the export trade in cereals, but the full effects of the new policy did not appear until in later years the cultivation of the vast corn fields of America and Eastern Europe, combined with the increasing expenses of transportation, led to such a fall in prices that the Irish corn-grower found it more and more impossible to compete with foreign grain merchants in the English market. At the present day oats and barley are the only two arable crops grown to a large extent in Ireland, and the stability of the acreage under barley is no doubt due to the brewing industry. The breeding of live stock, the bacon-curing industry, and the various dairy industries are the most important occupations of the Irish people; their recent reorganisation is leading to splendid developments, so that in course of time it is possible that Irish provisions will take their old place in the English market. Side by side with this change in the staple industry of agriculture there has been a transformation in the manufacturing industry of the country. Industrial life is not so widely distributed now in Ireland as it was at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Industrial Revolution produced the same changes in Ireland as in England by depriving the people of their domestic industries and concentrating manufacturing industry in the towns. Only in Ireland the change has not been so thorough, for the Irish peasant women have continued to spin and weave a great part of their own clothing, and there has not been a marked tendency to leave the rural districts for the towns within Ireland. On the other hand, free trade, which has resulted in developing to such a great extent the manufactures of Britain, has done much to decrease the industrial life of Ireland. No doubt the exports of linen, porter, and whiskey at the present day are worth more in money


value than the whole amount of manufactures exported prior to the Union, but industrial life is spread over a much smaller area now than it was then, a smaller percentage of the population is employed in industrial pursuits, the many minor industries which flourished before the Union disappeared in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the smaller towns sank into decay, and Irish manufacturing industry became confined within strict limits. Quite recently there has been a reaction, and the industrial revival which is now taking place in Ireland and which bids fair to be successful, tends to re-establish industrial life among the Irish peasants in their own homes rather than to follow the example of England, and still further emphasise the division between town and country.

There is little material for estimating the industrial condition of Ireland in the period subsequent to the Union, more especially after 1826, when the British and Irish customs were amalgamated and separate accounts of trade between the two countries ceased to be kept. The Imperial Parliament seems to have felt little interest in the infant manufactures of Ireland, and the new policy of laissez faire held State interference in industry to be foolish and even dangerous. We miss the discussions concerning Irish industries which used to take place so frequently in the Irish Parliament and the brief accounts of their progress which were entered in the Commons Journals. Fortunately for the first twenty-three years of the century we have official figures of Irish exports and imports,761 and these figures show that the trade of the country was on the whole progressing, although the rate of progress was very much slower than in the years preceding the Union. Also the progress that was made was not uniform; there was advance in some directions and decline in others. The most noticeable decline in


exports was that of manufactured woollens. We have seen that there had been a decrease in the exportation of these articles just before the Union, but that this must be partly accounted for by the general disturbed condition of the country. After the Union, however, the export trade instead of reviving continued to decrease and was at all times very fluctuating.762 At the same time the importation of woollen cloth into the country increased considerably, and this seems to have been due partly to the large growth in the population of Ireland, partly to the further decay in the Irish manufacture of all but the coarsest stuffs. The mass of the Irish people continued, however, for some time to supply most of their own wants in the way of frieze, flannels, and other coarse materials, but from 1820, when the protective duties were withdrawn, a further decline took place in the Irish woollen industry, due to the inability of the small manufacturers to compete with English capitalists and also to the application of machinery to spinning and weaving. We are told that during the first years of the century twelve fairs used to be held every year at Rathdrum, in County Wicklow, and 1,200 pieces of flannel on an average offered for sale at a single fair. But after 1820 the trade began to decline, and in 1830 the Flannel Hall had to be closed and the fairs stopped.763 A weaver from County Roscommon stated before the Poor Enquiry Commission of 1835 that eighteen years before he could earn 2s. or 2s. 6d. every day in the year by weaving woollens or linens. For five or six years these wages had continued, but about 1822 or 1823 they had begun to drop. All the weavers in his neighbourhood who were able to turn their hands to something else had done so, only the old men who were fit for no other work keeping to the trade. Now 8d. a day was the most that could be earned. No friezes or flannels had been made at


all during the last two years.764 In Roscrea, County Tipperary, the Commission found that the woollen weavers had been without employment for the last four or five years. The manufacture of serges and coarse flannels and stuffs had all declined since the removal of the 10 per cent protective duties, for the small local industry could not withstand British competition now its slight advantage had been taken away. One manufacturer stated that at one time he used to employ 1,000 persons, the women spinning worsted and the men carding and weaving the wool. The men had earned 1s. 8d. a day at weaving and 1s. 4d. at carding and the women 1 1/2d. at spinning. But now one-third of his weavers had been forced to emigrate to England and he could give no work to those who remained behind.765 It was difficult, if not impossible, for a small Irish manufacturer with little capital to erect the new expensive machinery which British capitalists were beginning to use and which was resulting in such a cheapening of production. As the era of the development in mechanism advanced, Irish manufacturers, more especially the woollen manufacturers, found that they had not the material resources necessary to meet it, and the ruin of the woollen industry was more complete than that which had resulted from the repressive legislation of nearly a century and a half before. This ruin, however, was the indirect result of that very legislation, for the period of freedom from 1780 to the Union was too brief to allow of an accumulation of capital and increase of skill without which it was impossible for Irish manufacturers to compete with British. After the Union conditions were, from various causes, less favourable to the development of those Irish industries which were not already firmly established, and when the removal of the 10 per cent protective duties took place Irish manufacturers lost the trifling advantage


which this duty had given them in the home market. But the erection of new machinery put the finishing touch to the ruin of the Irish woollen industry by rendering it impossible to carry on the manufacture without a considerable amount of capital. It is only since about 1870 that the industry has shown some signs of recuperative power. From 1874 to 1889 the number of power looms employed in the industry increased from 307 to 925.766 Since 1889 the factory industry has held its own, the total number of hands employed being at the present day 3,323.767 Irish tweeds are famous for their durability and good workmanship, and the demand for them is increasing. The home-weaving industry is, however, much more important than the factory industry, and since 1893 a considerable quantity of home-spun cloth has been exported from County Donegal to foreign markets.

The application of machinery naturally led to a temporary decline in other Irish trades. From the Union to 1823 the exports of linen did not increase. In the article of plain linen cloth the export was fairly well maintained, but the quantities of coloured linen, cambric, and lawns sent abroad decreased.768 This is the first period in the history of the Irish linen industry in which the exportation of linens did not increase, and this fact must be attributed to some extent to the rivalry of the cotton manufacture. In 1800 it appeared in evidence before Parliament that the cotton industry employed 27,000 persons within a circuit of ten miles, comprehending Belfast and Lisburn.769 The progress that was being made was chiefly due to the introduction of water mills for spinning twist. Very much higher wages were paid than in the linen manufacture, and much more advanced


methods were used. Instead of the weaver buying his yarn and selling it in a manufactured state, the yarn was given to the weaver by the master manufacturer, who paid him so much the piece for his labour, or it was woven on looms erected within buildings belonging to the manufacturer. While linen yarn was still being spun by hand, cotton yarn was being spun by machinery. In Antrim linen looms were rapidly exchanging for cotton looms. As early as 1801 the cotton industry was also flourishing in the counties of Louth and Wicklow. At Stratford, in Wicklow, the wages of the cotton operatives were particularly high; male weavers of fancy cottons could earn as much as two guineas a week, ordinary weavers about 30s.; while women could earn 6s. or 7s. a week by weaving, wages being paid by the piece.770 Besides calicoes and cottons a large amount of muslin was manufactured, sufficient indeed to meet all the home demand and yet to afford some surplus for exportation.771 A good muslin weaver could earn 18s. to 20s. a week, or double the wage of a linen weaver,772 and as any linen weaver could easily learn to weave muslin it is not surprising that many persons left the linen industry to work at the cotton. Velveteens and corduroys were also made in large quantities, and for the first quarter of the nineteenth century the cotton manufacture bid fair to become the staple industry of Ireland. There was a slight decline in the manufacture about 1816, when the system of bounties and import duties began to cease, but the industry revived and enjoyed a further period of prosperity until the years directly following 1825, when the firm establishment of the system of spinning flax by machinery led to a revival in the linen industry. This new wet spinning process,


which was introduced into Ulster between 1825 and 1830, enabled much finer linen to be made. In 1825 Scotch and English machine-spun yarns imported into Ireland began to supersede the Irish hand-spun article, and thus the Irish were forced to adapt themselves to the new conditions, and began to adopt the system of spinning linen yarn by machinery. The adoption of machinery had been hindered by the cheapness of hand spinning in Ireland, for a woman would spin from morning to night for 2d. a day, and the yarn she spun was finer than the yarn spun by the older machines. Now, however, it way found that the new machinery could spin even finer yarn than the most skilful hand spinner, while the output could be enormously increased. The linen manufacturers of Ulster were always men possessed of a certain amount of capital, in spite of the depression in the trade due to the rivalry of the cotton manufacture, and so they were able to reorganise their industry on modern lines. From this time also efforts to promote the growth of flax in Ireland ceased, as the Irish manufacturers found it more profitable to import the cheap foreign flax. Side by side with the new development in the linen industry due to the application of machinery, there proceeded a rapid decline in the cotton manufacture. This decline is very puzzling. It has generally been attributed to the cessation of the large protective duties, but these duties ceased nearly ten years before the decline commenced. The decay of the industry coincides with the new development of the linen manufacture, just as its growth at the beginning of the century seemed to lead to a decline in that manufacture. The sewed muslin trade of Ulster alone continued to progress, and until 1865 it gave employment to 300,000 persons.773 From that time, however, it rapidly declined, the decline being seemingly due to changes of fashion.


Now the cotton manufacture has practically ceased to exist in Ireland.

The only other export trade of much importance was that in manufactured glass. This industry had progressed almost more than any other after the repeal of the commercial restrictions, and after the Union the exports of different kinds of glass continued to increase.774 There are, however, few notices of the trade during the nineteenth century, and after 1823, when the accounts of exports cease, we have no means of estimating its importance, nor have we any record of the causes which eventually brought about its decay. The repeal of the excise on glass in Great Britain in 1845775 may have done something to bring about a decline in the Irish glass industry by removing the special disadvantages under which British glass manufacturers had laboured for over half a century, and placing the manufacture in the two countries on terms of equality. The industrial history of Ireland during the nineteenth century shows how impossible it was for Irish manufacturers to compete with British once the two countries were commercially united, and all custom duties on articles going from one country to the other gradually abolished. It also shows the advisability of a country possessed of little industrial development fostering and protecting its infant manufactures until they are firmly established in order to prevent them being crushed out of existence by the competition of other countries. But union with Great Britain necessitated the application of the new free trade principles to Ireland just at the time when Irish industries should have met with encouragement and protection.

The Irish silk manufacture had never been large or particularly prosperous, and it had been completely paralysed during the Rebellion. After the Union the


revival of the industry was hindered by trade combinations of the weavers, who demanded higher wages than the master manufacturers could possibly give. In 1809 the Berlin Decrees, by raising the price of raw silk to an enormous height, threw many of the Dublin silk weavers out of employment. The 10 per cent import duty on foreign and British silks never benefited the Irish industry on account of the heavy import duties levied on raw silk for revenue purposes, only portions of which were drawn back on the exportation of the finished article;776 and the result of the depression in the trade was the emigration of many Irish weavers to Macclesfield and Manchester, where higher wages could be obtained.777 In 1821, when the protective duties expired and the drawback on the exportation of home-manufactured goods was taken off, Ireland was inundated with cheap English silks. The establishment of steam communication between Great Britain and Ireland enabled English manufacturers to export their goods at less cost to Ireland, and the ruin of the Irish silk industry was completed. The Dublin silk weavers seem to have been a turbulent set of men, and always refused to meet their employers half-way. They appear to have been skilled workmen, and were welcomed as weavers at Macclesfield and Manchester. We are told that in 1840 there were more Irish than English weavers in the former place.778

The poplin manufacture of Dublin continued, however, to enjoy a certain amount of prosperity at various times. It was at its best at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but for a long time after it was subject to much fluctuation on account of changes in fashion. But in the early sixties fashion seems to have veered round again in


favour of the material, for from that year the poplin trade increased. In 1862 there were two factories in Dublin employing only 134 persons, but in 1868 as many as 440 were employed.779 Poplin was exported to the United States and to the Continent,780 and at the present day considerable amounts are sent to England and the Continent, as well as to Asia, America, and Australia.781 The industry, however, cannot be said to be thriving. Poplin is everlasting in wear, but in these days of rapid changes of fashion ladies do not want stuffs that never wear out, and the poplin industry also suffers from the fact that the material cannot be so variously treated in the matter of pattern and ornament as silk. Poplin making, however, is a manufacture in which Ireland leads the world, for the peculiar beauty of colouring and texture of the Dublin fabrics has never been approached in any other country.

As regards all those other minor industries about which we hear so much before the Union, they seem to have rapidly disappeared, crushed out of existence by British and foreign competition, and handicapped, as all Irish industries are in this era of coal and steam, by the absence of any large available supply of minerals in the country. The numerous country towns which before the Union and for some years after had employed many people in their various local industries, had dwindled and decayed by the middle of the nineteenth century, and the report of the Devon Commission just before the famine shows us that the mass of the Irish people were more dependent upon the land than they had ever been before, even in the days of repressive commercial legislation.

An enquiry into the economic condition of the Irish agricultural population during the first half of the nineteenth century shows a gradual deterioration in their standard of comfort. It is probable that just before and


just after the Union the poorer class of Irish agriculturists were better provided with the necessaries for subsistence than they have ever been until the last twenty years. It is easy for us to get a rough idea of their material condition at the beginning of the century. The statistical surveys of twenty Irish counties, written by order of the Dublin Society, Newenham's statistical surveys, and Wakefield's comprehensive Account of Ireland, written in 1812, give us a detailed account of the life of the Irish peasants, their relations with their landlords, their manner of living, and the way in which they were able to eke out their scanty wage in order to obtain the necessary means of subsistence for themselves and their families. The accounts show that the majority of the Irish people were still miserably poor, but if we compare their condition at the time of the Union with their later condition, as shown to us in the Reports of the Poor Enquiry Commission of 1835 and the Devon Commission of 1845, just before the potato famine, we have to acknowledge that, materially speaking, they retrogressed rather than progressed during the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1845 we notice one great change in the diet of the ordinary labourer; he can no longer afford much milk with his potatoes. The family earnings had dwindled through the decay of the ancient cottage industries of spinning and weaving due to the application of machinery, the population had grown enormously, the earlier system of subdividing farms had increased the number of very small holdings, while the later policy of consolidation on the part of the landlords had led to the dispossession of numbers of small holders and converted them into mere agricultural labourers, renting a cabin and a potato garden from their employers. Then came the famine, changing the face of Ireland and rendering necessary a reconstitution of the whole social order. Since then the country has been depleted of the strongest and most spirited of its young men and women, once fertile lands


have gone out of cultivation, and only since about 1880 has there been any marked improvement in the condition of the Irish people who have remained in Ireland.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the population of Ireland seems to have numbered about four-and-a-half millions. There are, of course, no absolutely reliable returns; the estimates depend on data such as the returns made of houses for the collection of hearth money. Wakefield tells us that in 1791 there were 701,102 houses in Ireland. Of these, 112,556 were exempt from the hearth tax of 2s. as being inhabited by paupers; 21,866 were exempt as being newly built, and for 15,052 houses the returns were imperfect. Of the remaining 552,628 houses, 483,990 had only one hearth, while there were only 36,437 possessed of more than two hearths.782 If we add together the houses inhabited by paupers and those with only one hearth, we see that 85 per cent of the houses in Ireland were of the poorest description. Such a statement, however, does not imply the same amount or degree of poverty as it would at the present day. House accommodation in Ireland among all classes was very much worse a century ago in proportion to their wealth, and occupants of one-hearth houses were not necessarily very poor, for they sometimes occupied as much as forty acres of arable land. But making all allowances of this kind, there must have been a great amount of acute poverty in Ireland, and probably ten years later, just after the Union, a period for which no returns are extant, the number of one-hearth houses had increased owing to the operation of the Catholic 40s. elective franchise.

There were three classes of labourers in Ireland — the cottier, the bound labourer, and the out labourer. The cottier was the most fortunate. He was bound to work for his employer all the year round, and his employer was supposed to give him work when he wanted it. His


wages were generally 5d. a day in winter and 7d. a day in summer, but in the better parts of the northern counties they were often 6d. in winter and 8d. in summer. The cottier would get a cabin and half an acre of potato ground for a rent of about 30s., and grass and hay for a cow for about 2 l. He had generally the run of a pig and calf, and sometimes of a lamb. Sometimes more land would be given and less wages. The potato was the chief means of subsistence for the cottier and his family. In fact, his comfort was more or less in proportion to the value of his potato garden, for on its produce he and his family lived. The potatoes also supported the pig, and the pig was the chief means of paying the rent. The cow provided milk for the family and a certain amount of butter, which was sold to help to meet the rent. If a cottier received his proper wages, if his potato garden produced a plentiful crop, and if he had a wife who could eke out the family earnings by spinning and weaving, as was generally the case, he was able to exist in some degree of comfort, for there would always be a sufficiency of food and clothing for himself and his family. Of course, in those years when the potato crop was bad or actually failed, the result was practical starvation for a cottier family; and if a cottier had a cruel or dishonest employer, who cut down his wages and allotted him a plot of bad grass for his cow, his life would be a hard one.783 But in general the cottier could get along fairly well. The bound labourer was less well off. He had to work every day for his employer, but had not a house or other advantages from him, and so had to buy everything himself at market price, which seems to have been generally more expensive. His wages, however, were higher — 8d. a day for the winter half year and 10d. for the summer. The condition of the out labourer was bad. He was bound to no master, but simply obtained work where he could get it. His wages, indeed, were


high — in spring and summer 10d. to 1s. a day, and for the harvest week he sometimes obtained as much as 15s. or 18s.; but his employment was precarious, and he seldom got any work at all during the winter months. Of course, the condition of the labouring classes differed in various parts of the country. In Ulster the cottagers' cabins were better, and the diet of the people was more varied than in the other provinces. Besides the usual potatoes and milk, they had oatmeal, with perhaps a little butter in the summer, and an occasional bit of bacon.784 In Leinster conditions were not so good. Potatoes and milk were the universal food, and bacon only appeared on Gregory Days and at Christmas and Easter. Going down to the South, we find conditions slightly worse, for milk was less plentiful. On the coast, however, the people were able to eke out their supplies with fish and seaweed. In Connaught the poverty was great in certain districts, and here milk was often an unattainable luxury. Roughly speaking, wages were much the same all over Ireland, the average for the whole year being 6d. a day for the cottier class. Employment was fairly continuous except for the out labourer, with his higher wages; but rents had risen, for a wretched cabin and an acre of ground in which to plant potatoes was held from 50s. to 55s. a year.785

Fortunately the labourer's wife and daughters could generally help to meet this increased rent by dressing and spinning flax in some parts of the country, and by knitting and weaving woollen stuffs in other parts, all this, of course, being in addition to the ordinary clothing of the family. A large amount of flax was now grown by small occupiers — Wakefield estimates it at 20,000 acres786 — who rented an acre of flax land, and grew and spun their own flax, selling it in the form of yarn.


The relations which existed between landlord and tenant are too familiar to need much discussion. The landlords never expended anything on buildings or repairs; they recognised no obligations on their part towards their tenants, and it was this fact which made the rents they demanded really higher than their actual money amounts. There was no security of tenure, nor any means by which the extortionate demands of the landlords might be resisted. All this naturally prevented the Irish peasant from exerting himself to better his condition; but, on the other hand, actual subsistence cost the people little. Except in bad seasons, potatoes and milk, and often oatmeal, could always be had; all the clothing was made at home, and it was rare for a man to be without either a cow or a pig.

Above the labourers were the farmers, and the more well-to-do seem to have been prosperous enough. Their housing, indeed, was wretched, but they were making large profits from the war prices for their corn and other provisions. But at the close of the war, when prices fell, there was great distress in Ireland. The extension of the 40s. franchise to Catholics, combined with the new conditions affecting agriculture, had gradually been producing evil results. Landlords realised the importance of procuring a numerous following of tenantry, and the tendency towards subdivision and subletting was emphasised. Under the influence of war prices agriculture progressed, and there was a great demand for labour. Land rose in value, and as the prices for provisions raised the profits of the occupier, he was able to pay a higher rent to the mesne lessee. In consequence lessees made large profits by subletting, and a new class of intermediate proprietors sprang up. In this way many small holdings came into existence. Methods of cultivation became worse and worse, and the soil deteriorated through bad tillage. When peace came the fall in the prices of agricultural produce prevented people from paying their inflated rents. The


sub-tenants could not pay the middlemen, and the middlemen were just as incapable as their tenants from meeting their engagements. All became impoverished. The middleman parted with his interest, or underlet the little land which he had hitherto kept in his own hands; he and his family were soon ruined. In many cases the landlords were obliged to look to the actual occupiers for their rents. They grew afraid lest they should have a pauper population on their hands, and began to consolidate their farms. It was supposed that consolidation would lead to better methods of cultivation, to a greater certainty of crops, to better buildings, and an improvement in agricultural produce. Unfortunately it had to be combined with what is known as the clearance system. Numbers of tenants were evicted, and the distress was terrible. In 1829 the Act destroying the political status of the 40s. freeholder gave a further impetus to the consolidation of farms, and the consequent eviction of tenants. It was the increase of mendicancy and want of employment due to this new policy that led to so many parliamentary enquiries into the state of the poorer classes in Ireland. In 1823 the Select Committee appointed to make an enquiry into the condition of the Irish labouring poor described the condition of the people in the distressed districts as ‘wretched and calamitous to the greatest degree.’787 This distress they attributed to want of employment, and another Select Committee appointed the following year stated that even those labourers who were tolerably well employed would not earn more than 4d. or 5d. a day, one day with another.788 In 1830 a Select Committee appointed to make a similar enquiry stated that one-fourth to one-fifth of the Irish population were without employment. They spoke of the ‘misery and


suffering which no language can possibly describe, and which it is necessary to witness in order fully to estimate.’789

From this time the distress of the agricultural population of Ireland increased so greatly that Government began to meditate upon the advisability of extending the Poor Law to that country. In 1833 Commissioners were appointed to make an extensive enquiry into the condition of the Irish poor, the causes of the existing distress, and the means by which it might be remedied. The Commissioners reported in July, 1835, and from their report and the evidence taken by them we get a vivid idea of the condition of Ireland.

The Commissioners give an amusing account of the way in which they were assailed by the theories of persons who had ‘no means of forming a sound judgment’ concerning the poverty of Ireland. Some people attributed the state of the country to the use of ardent spirits, others to trade combinations, others still put down all evils to the existing connection between landlord and tenant, while pawnbroking, a redundant population, absence of capital, peculiar religious tenets, political excitement, want of education, maladministration of justice, state of prison discipline, want of manufactures and inland navigation, were all mentioned as the primary causes of the present poverty. Loan funds, emigration, the repression of political excitement, the introduction of manufactures, the extension of inland navigation, and the reclamation of waste lands, were accordingly proposed as the principal means by which the improvement of Ireland might be effected.790 The Commissioners themselves made few practical suggestions, but the evidence they took shows us how greatly the condition of the Irish cottier had deteriorated during the last twenty years.


The agricultural families in Ireland numbered two-thirds of the total number of families in the population, while in Great Britain they only numbered one-fourth. At the same time there were in Ireland five agricultural labourers for every two that there were for the same quantity of land in Great Britain. ‘In whole districts,’ we are told, ‘scarcely one of that class of substantial capitalist farmers so universal in England can be found. The small resident gentry are but few, and the substantial tradesman is not to be met at intervals of two or three miles, as in England; for there are but few towns of sufficient trade to create such a class.’791 So the Commissioners practically confined themselves to obtaining evidence as to the condition of the agricultural labouring class. Everywhere it was agreed that the wages of the poor ‘do not afford half-provision for their youth, much less a support for their old age.’792 Even in Ulster, which was by far the most prosperous of the four provinces, on account of a better system of land tenure and the employment given by the linen manufacture, comfort was only comparative. The agricultural labourer earned his 1s. to 1s. 4d. a day on an average only three days in the week. From December to March hardly any employment could be obtained at all, but this was the time when the potato crops were dug up, and the labourer and his family could subsist on these potatoes till the spring. The hardest time in the year was from May or June till August, when the labourer was again out of work and his stock of potatoes exhausted. During these months he was often forced to go harvesting in England, leaving his wife and children to support themselves as best they could. Throughout the rural districts of Ulster the people were suffering from the withdrawal of the linen manufacture to the towns. The County of Donegal seems to have suffered most from this new


concentration of the manufacture in the towns.793 Hitherto the Donegal peasants had chiefly supported themselves by spinning flax and weaving linen cloth in their own homes, for they were able to get but a scanty living from the soil. Now they were sunk in the utmost distress, and the Commissioners bore witness to the universal destitution. In Leinster labourers could only get employment during the six months of spring and autumn, and 10d. a day was the most that was earned in the best season. In the summer, when there were no potatoes and no work could be obtained, the labourers and their families existed on weeds. In Munster conditions were much the same, only slightly worse. The agricultural population was larger, and the demand for land was keener and the rents higher. The rent for an acre of con-acre for potatoes would sometimes be as much as £10 if the ground was prepared, and it generally took a man 250 days of the year to work out the rent of his cabin and potato ground. But often the landlord demanded the rent in cash, and the labourer was forced to raise the necessary sum by the sale of his pig and the wages he obtained harvesting in England. If the labourer failed to obtain work in England, as was often the case, his condition was pitiable in the extreme, and the Commissioners reported that death by starvation was common. The Kerry landlords were the worst in the country, and they rack-rented the farmers to such an extent that the latter were little better off than the labourers. Tenants of from one to ten acres were only nominally superior in their material position to labourers, and they were continually sinking to the status of labourers through being dispossessed of their holdings. But in Connaught the prevailing misery was terrible. Nearly all the farms were held by men too poor to employ any outside help, and labourers only got work about one day in four, and for this work the wages were 4d. or 5d. a day, except during


the harvest week, when a man could earn 1s. 3d. a day. The Connaught labourers sometimes hired land for potatoes from their neighbours, or sometimes they took possession of a portion of the waste ground, which they were allowed to hold rent free until they had reclaimed it, and so made it fit to bear rent. When their potatoes were planted they were often forced to leave their homes and beg in some neighbouring district. Even in Connaught, however, there was a great dislike to begging, and the peasantry were ashamed to be seen by their neighbours supporting themselves in this way. It was rare for any of them to go harvesting in England, for they could not manage to raise the few shillings necessary for the journey. The small occupiers were nearly as destitute, and when their neighbours did not assist them they often died of starvation, as nothing would induce them to beg. There was no season of the year in which the Connaught peasants were sufficiently supplied with food. Their diet was simply inferior potatoes called ‘lumpers’ eaten dry, and the small farmers were often forced to bleed the one cow they possessed when their stock of potatoes was exhausted.

Thus wages of labour and conditions of living varied slightly in different parts of Ireland, the poverty of the people getting more extreme as the southern and western districts were approached. Taking the country as a whole, the average daily wage was 8d. in summer and 6d. in winter, and the Commissioners agreed that, keeping in view the scarcity of employment, 5d. a day all the year round, or 2s. 6d. a week, was as much as the average man could expect.794 With his miserable income of 2s. 6d. a week at the most a man would generally have to pay a rent of £2 for a small cabin, with no ground, and another £4 for half an acre of potato ground. The produce of the potato patch maintained the labourer, his family, and his


pig for most of the year, and the sale of his pig helped to pay the rent. It was unusual for a labourer to possess a cow or a calf, as he had done thirty years before, and so he lost the profit from the sale of his butter, while he could no longer give his children milk. Rents had gone up enormously since the beginning of the century. Then £2 to £2 10s. had been the average rent for an acre of ground; now it averaged from £6 to £8, according to whether the land had been prepared or not, and sometimes, as in Kerry, it touched £10. For the small farmer, as well as for the labourer, dry potatoes was the ordinary diet, for if he kept a cow he was compelled to sell the milk as the only way of making up his rent. We are told that it was a good Sunday's dinner for one of these small holders if he could get himself a salt herring on Saturday night,795 and, with all this poverty, grown-up married children managed to support their old parents when past work, and, as it was everywhere testified, invariably treated them with kindness and consideration.796 The decay of subsidiary employment by domestic manufactures had caused much of the distress which existed. At the beginning of the century an agricultural family could earn a considerable addition to its income by spinning woollen or linen yarn, and even making the yarn into cloth. Now the decline of the woollen industry, and the revolution in the manufacture of linen, had hit these small spinners and weavers severely. Flax ceased to be grown much except for home use, and men who had supported themselves partly by weaving were forced to depend entirely on their wages as agricultural labourers. The towns in Ulster, especially Belfast, were the only places where the people had some sort of comfort. In Belfast there were twenty mills for spinning linen yarn, employing 7,000 persons, and several factories for weaving linen cloth, employing 1,000 persons. There were also


various manufactures of minor importance. Spinners earned £1 a week, and linen weavers 8s. to 12s., these wages being nearly as high as those earned by linen workers in England.797 But the once flourishing Dublin manufactures had decayed, and in Cork and Limerick there was little employment, and fearful destitution. We are told that the people in these towns were worse off than the occupants of the famous cellars in Liverpool, and the census of 1841 stated that one million families, or not much less than five-sixths of the total Irish population, were living in mud huts or in single rooms of large houses.798

The chief result of the Report of the Poor Enquiry Commissioners of 1835 was the extension, three years later, of the Poor Law to Ireland. The immediate consequence was to cause great distress among the landlord class. In some places the rates were 20s. in the pound, and for two years no rents could be paid, as the poor rates absorbed the whole of the farmer's surplus produce.799 Numbers of evictions took place, and even before the famine emigration to America had begun. It was because of this dreadful condition of things that the Commission, generally known as the Devon Commission, was appointed to enquire into ‘the State and Practice in respect to the Occupation of Land in Ireland,’ and to suggest remedies to mitigate the present suffering. The Commissioners made their final report in 1845, and this report is our chief evidence for the condition of the Irish people just before the famine. The statements of the Devon Commission regarding the economic condition of the Irish agricultural population show that the agricultural labourer was substantially in the same position as he had been ten years before, according to the Report of the Commissioners of 1835, but that the larger occupiers and the landlords were in a more


distressed situation on account of the operation of the poor rates. The Commissioners reported ‘that the agricultural labourer of Ireland continues to suffer the greatest privations and hardships; that he continues to depend upon casual and precarious employment for subsistence; that he is still badly fed, badly clothed, and badly paid for his labour.’800 In many districts his only food was the potato, his only drink water; his cabin seldom afforded any protection against the weather, a bed or blanket was a rare luxury, and in nearly all cases the pig was his only property. ‘When we consider this state of things, and the large proportion of the population which comes under the designation of agricultural labourers, we have to repeat that the patient endurance which they exhibit is deserving of high recommendation, and entitles them to the best attention of Government and of Parliament.
Up to this period any improvement that may have taken place is attributable almost entirely to the habits of temperance in which they have so generally persevered, and not, we grieve to say, to any increased demand for their labour.’801 The average rate of wages had slightly gone up, and was now 8d. a day in winter and 10d. in summer,802 but employment was even more precarious, and the average weekly income of 2s. 6d. of ten years ago was probably not exceeded. There were increasing numbers of people with very small farms, sometimes only consisting of one acre, but three or four being the usual amount. A man with three or four acres worked his own ground, and sold the produce to meet his rent. He took a rood or half a rood of con-acre from his neighbours, for which he paid £5 or £6 if unprepared, and £8 if prepared. On that ground he


planted the potatoes on which he and his family and pig lived. The sale of the pig went towards the rent, and occasionally another piece of ground was rented, on which flax was grown for the market.803The condition of the whole class of farmers seemed to be deteriorating, and they were continually in the hands of the local money lenders, who charged 4s. or 5s. in the pound for a loan of fifteen months.804

Just as the pauperism in Ireland had reached a height at which all attempts to grapple with it seemed unavailing, the famine came, to solve in its terrible fashion the problem which confronted the kingdom by sweeping away thousands by starvation, and commencing a rapid depopulation of the country by emigration. Since the famine the possible failure of the potato crops has haunted the Irish people, and it was the awful fear of starvation that led to the enormous emigration in the decade succeeding the famine. Since then the numbers of Irish emigrants have fluctuated, being partly determined by conditions in Ireland and partly by conditions in the United States; but, fortunately, at the present day the mass of the people have ceased to be entirely dependent on the potato, for in some districts Indian meal is now the staple food. The institution of the system of "spraying" potatoes by the Congested Districts Board is doing much to secure greater stability of the potato crops, and this, combined with the reorganisation of agriculture by means of the system of co-operation, and the revival of the old domestic industries, may do something to check the flow of emigration, which all acknowledge has long since passed the point of advantage.

It was a long time before the rural population of Ireland made any advance in material progress. It was inevitable that the depression of agriculture which followed the repeal of the Corn Laws, but which became more severe


in the seventies, should fall with greater severity upon Ireland than it did upon Great Britain. It has, of course, produced the same effect in both countries, that is to say, it has drained the population from the rural districts to the towns. Only in England the drain has been merely to the English towns, whereas in Ireland the rural population have emigrated to the towns in America and the colonies. It was always open to the English or Scotch agriculturist to take up some industrial pursuit in his own country, but few Irishmen could hope to find employment as artisans in Irish towns, and the alternative to starvation was emigration. Thus in England there has been an enormous and unprecedented increase in the urban population all over the country, while in Ireland, with the exception of Belfast, the increase, when it has taken place, has been very small.805 But taking Ireland as a whole, there has been a rise in the standard of living of the people, more especially in recent years. House accommodation has improved, and mud cabins are no longer a usual sight even in the poorest districts; the clothing of the people is better; the wages of agricultural labourers have more than doubled during the last sixty years; employment is less precarious; methods of agriculture have improved; there is a growing spirit of self-help among all sections of the population. Among the upper classes there has been a decided growth of wealth, and the amount of income assessed to income tax in Ireland increased 25 per cent between 1853 and 1890, even though during that period incomes between £100 and £150 ceased to be assessed. During the last few years further abatements and exemptions in the income tax, together with the purchase of small holdings by their occupiers, have probably been reasons why the net assessment to the tax in Ireland has not shown a further increase. Statistics of railway and banking returns, the activity of the building trades, and


the profits of companies are not absolute proofs of the increasing prosperity of Ireland, but they are at least definite indications of a certain material improvement, and other less definite indications point in the same direction. At present what is wanted more than anything else is the development of transit facilities; for excessive railway rates are doing much to hamper the industrial progress of the country, and an improvement of Ireland's magnificent waterways would greatly benefit agriculture by giving the small farmer a cheap route for his produce.

There are various signs that the agricultural depression which has produced such distress in Ireland during the nineteenth century has reached its lowest point, and that in the near future we may look for some return of prosperity. For some time after the famine Irish provisions, such as meat, bacon, and butter, obtained high prices in the British market. But in the seventies a great expansion took place in the importation of foreign agricultural produce into Great Britain, and the Irish trade in meat and dairy produce began to suffer no less than the trade in cereals, which for some time had been declining. About 1880 the pressure on Irish agriculture reached a serious point. Irish meat was displaced in England by American meat, Irish butter by Danish butter, Irish poultry by French poultry, and Irish flour by flour from various countries, and all these foreign articles even found their way into the Irish market. Ulster, too, soon ceased to grow its own flax, as foreign flax could be obtained so cheaply. To meet all this foreign competition Irish industries have been transformed. The bacon-curing industry has become a capitalist one, mainly carried on in a few large seaport towns, and the system of co-operation has been applied to the manufacture of dairy produce with notable effect. Under the system of co-operative agriculture it may be possible to establish a prosperous peasant proprietary able to hold its own against foreign competition. Side by side with the success of the


co-operative movement there have been parliamentary enactments giving facilities for land purchase or the creation of peasant proprietors. For the first time in his history the material prospects of the Irish peasant are hopeful, although serious problems await solution, and past conditions make future progress necessarily slow.