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The Famine in Clare from The Illustrated London News, 1849-50:
Condition of Ireland - Illustrations of the New Poor-Law.

Issue of January 19, 1850

Jan. 19, 1850. The Illustrated London News.

[p 35]


It is not my intention, in these concluding remarks, to advert to large or small areas of rating, to a maximum rate, to a rate in aid, and whether it should be imperial or confined to Ireland; to the mode of electing guardians; to the powers of the commissioners and inspectors, or to any other of the many subordinate questions of administrative detail which have much engaged the attention of legislators, landowners, and public writers. All these are susceptible of almost infinite modifications, and might be altered according to fancy, without touching the principle of the Poor-Law. My remarks will be confined to the principle; and, if that be erroneous, the more complete the system of administration, the more disastrous will be the consequences.

Do not suppose that, in questioning the principle of the law, I advocate the misrule of the landowners, who demand the repeal of this law, and the restoration of the Corn-Law. I have seen enough to be thoroughly convinced, speaking of them as a body, and admitting many exceptions, that they are extremely selfish, ignorant, negligent, profligate, and reckless. To the serf-like people they have always been more oppressors than protectors; and have thought of them only as sponges out of which they were to squeeze the utmost possible amount of rent, to squander on their own pleasures. No men, freed, like these, from responsibility by their power to make laws, ever acted otherwise. But all the facts I have brought under your notice, and the great fact, attested by numerous authorities, that large districts have been driven out of cultivation and are lying waste, because the demands of the Poor-Law far exceed their value, prove distinctly that the Poor-Law is not the proper way of re-establishing their responsibility. A first wrong is not redressed by committing a second wrong on another party. For the landlords, as a body, I have no respect, and cannot feel any pity. At the same time, it is folly, if not crime, to punish them by transferring their estates to paupers. I bear no hostility to them, like many of the priests and people; though I cannot, like the Legislature, which, being composed chiefly of them, looks at society through their eyes, expect from them, or from any legislative improvement in their tenures, the regeneration of the country. In the interest of the people, and especially with a view to their elevation, only to be brought about by an increase of wealth, and not in the interest of the landlords, I look at the Poor-Law. If it weaken the springs of industry, lessen production and accumulation and continue the criminal invasion by the Legislature of the right of private property - the great wrong perpetually done to Ireland, and the great source, undoubtedly, of the peculiar poverty and distress of the Irish, a wrong tantamount to violating the sanctity of life, “for you take my life when you take that whereon I live,” though it be now directed in anger against the property of the landlord for the behoof of the pauper - it must be a most unsuitable law.

This is not an occasion for discussing the general principle of a Poor-Law, which must always be considered in relation to the appropriation of the soil; and the applicability of the law to Ireland must be determined by the condition of the people. We may condemn the manner in which the land was appropriated - we may trace to that many present evils; but what has been done cannot now be undone, nor its consequences averted. We must take it as it exists; and, though to alter it may be necessary, I shall not at present inquire into the just means of dealing with a wrong first perpetrated long ago and continued to our time.

The soil of Ireland belongs in fee to fewer owners than any equal area in Western Europe, except Spain. It has been demised in many cases to tenants for life, who share the property with the owners in fee; and neither class can do with it what they like. The whole land has long been bound in legal fetters and complicated interests. Besides this, most of the proprietors have long been pecuniarily embarrassed; their estates were mortgaged, and, according to their rank and condition, they required all the rent they could possibly exact. To this end they had not prevented, if they had not encouraged, the division of their properties into a great number of small holdings. Almost destitute of manufactures and commerce, the bulk of the Irish relied exclusively on the land for their subsistence; they competed for it in the fiercest manner; and, in order to obtain it, promised and paid the most exorbitant rent, being contented to live on the smallest possible quantity of the coarsest food. In 1847, the number of holdings, according to Captain Larcom’s report, after many thousands had been merged in others or left altogether waste, was 729,971. I am not acquainted with the exact number when the law was enacted; but, in 1841, the holdings of more than one acre and less than five acres exceeded those of 1847 by 184,510. From that fact, I infer that the total number of holdings in 1838 could not have been much less than 1,000,000. At the period, then, of enacting the Poor-Law, the land was owned by a few embarrassed proprietors; and it was divided into an immense number of small holdings, the great majority of which were tilled by men in the very lowest condition of civilisation. Of a population of 8,000,000, it was estimated that 2,000,000 were in such a state of destitution as partly to subsist by mendicancy and to require relief. The applicability of the Poor-Law to that condition of society is the point to be considered. At that time an opinion prevailed that small holdings were inconsistent with good agriculture, and that a greater net produce and higher rents would be obtained from large than from small farms. From all persons possessing authority, the landlords had continually been advised to diminish the number and enlarge the size of the holdings, to treat the land on the commercial principle, and the process of eviction and agglomeration had in many cases commenced. The number of vagrants was before fearful: to prevent vagrancy, and guard against its increase by evictions, the law was partly justified; by taking away the pretext for vagrancy, eviction was encouraged.

I have already shown you, by the immense number of evictions in the last few years, that the law in fact gave a terrific impulse to the process. Clearing estates of the people has latterly been the great object of the landowners, and the chief recommendation of statesmen and public writers of authority. The landlords may have been misled; they may, in this case, as in many others, have misunderstood their own interest; but there cannot be a doubt that, since the Poor-Law was passed, the condition both of the mass of the people and of the landowners has been much deteriorated. The latter have been impoverished; the former, when spared, have been famished down to hopeless degradation, and, in many cases, actually starved to death. It is my business especially to show how the law contributed to this disastrous result.

It is usually described as a law to make property, and, particularly the property of the landlords, support poverty. But the heart of man - particularly the heart of a legislator, who can by no means divest himself of our natural selfishness - is wonderfully deceitful; and the law, which is nominally said to be for the support of the poor, at the expense of property, is found, when examined, to be really for their extirpation, at the expense of industry. Its principle is to make those who have anything share it with those who have nothing. It is avowedly intended to make property support poverty. Following the law of Elizabeth, or rather the amended Poor-Law of 1834 - which in 1838 had not developed all its sinister effects, and was supposed, at least by its authors, to be an admirable law - the Legislature adopted a workhouse test, and levied rates on the occupiers as well as on the landowners; it taxed industry as well as land; it levied rates on profit as well as rent, for the support of the destitution that already existed, and that might be created by the clearing process; it enacted that half of the rate should be paid by the tenant. By nominally providing an asylum for the evicted - which was wholly inadequate, and which the poor wretches, from custom and feeling, were slow to enter - it satisfied the consciences of the evicting landlords; and, by throwing half the burden on the occupiers, it really made the unevicted, industrious tenantry pay a large part of the expense of clearing the landlords’ estates. That arrested the progress of industry in Ireland. The law fell cruelly on the class of occupiers, particularly on the small occupiers struggling out of the mire of general poverty, and thrust them back to be smothered.

It is perfectly clear that the very smallest occupiers could pay no rates, and the landowners, having been made responsible for their rates, eviction was further encouraged by a desire to get rid of non-ratepaying tenants, and to acquire tenants, who, occupying larger holdings, would pay rates. The law, therefore, said to be for the protection of the people, was really a scourge to them. With accelerated activity eviction went on before the famine, and as it went on the burdens on the industrious occupiers increased. Every increased rate occasioned by an increase of paupers diminished their means; till many of those who paid rates lost the ability to pay, and added to the burdens of those who continued to pay. Thus the law insured a continual increase of pauperism, and lessened the means of supporting it. Complaints of that were rife long before the famine of 1846. All the numerous occupiers of small holdings who found it difficult to live before they were subjected to a poor-rate, then found it impossible. In many cases their property was sold off for the rates, and a consequence of that, found all energy paralysed; and when the hand of the State, full of wealth, was held out to relieve them, dispirited by the gradual increase of the terrible demands of the collectors, they one and all nearly gave up the unprofitable pursuit of farming, and threw themselves on the State for help. We hear in our time a great deal of judgements; but if ever there were a judgement, the utter prostration of the Irish, consequent on the failure of a harvest greater than usual, was a judgement for the law which deprived the industrious occupiers of their property, stopped their exertions, and almost rooted hope out of their hearts.

Our want of space compels us to postpone the remainder of the communication till next week; but we must subjoin our Correspondent’s brief Postscript.


P.S. - I must correct a mistake committed in my last communication. There are two Clifdens in Ireland, and the one in Galway was the property of the D’Arcy family, and not of the Clifden family, as I stated. I am also informed that the Messrs. Eastwood are not English, but Irish-English.

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