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FROM THE UNION TO CATHOLIC
By Dr. J. H. BRIDGES
SOCIAL CONDITION OF IRELAND AT THE BEGINNING
OF THE CENTURY
ON January 22, 1801, Parliament met at Westminster, and in conformity with the Act of Union, a hundred Irish representatives took their seats. It was remarked by a foreign observer some years afterwards that, when the two divisions of the larger island were brought under a common legislature, a common name had been found for them. None such was found for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Whether the link between them was to be more than verbal events were now to show.
The first Irish measure of the united Parliament was one of sinister significance. On March 12, Lord Castlereagh moved the continuance of the Acts for the suppression of Irish rebellion, and for the suspension of Habeas Corpus. This was enacted at first for three months, and afterwards extended for a year. A Bill of indemnity was passed for all acts of martial law done since 1793.
For many years to come, similar proceedings, together with new loans, and new devices for increasing the productiveness of excise, formed the sum total of legislation for Ireland. The fires of rebellion had been quenched, and had left a desolation which was mistaken for peace.
1 De Beaumont.
From time to time, when the sullen murmur of discontent rose into a higher key, when famine came, or when arson and murder were unusually frequent, suggestions were made that the state of the country should be officially examined; but by one ministry after another these proposals were steadily set aside. That Ireland was an unknown country was not denied; that she laboured under weighty grievances was strongly suspected; but the dread of what might follow from stirring up the troubled waters always prevailed. The struggle with Napoleon absorbed men's thoughts and energies, and the result was that for nearly a quarter of a century England governed Ireland blindfold.
It will be well to take this occasion for attempting the survey that the English Government refused to make. What was the state of Ireland at the beginning of the century ?
Materials for an answer are not wanting. What English officialism refused was effected by the energy and public spirit of Mr. Edward Wakefield, an English landowner, a practical cultivator, a scholar, and an enlightened economist. His “Account of Ireland," the result of two years of personal observation carried out systematically in almost every county, is a singularly complete and comprehensive survey of the subject from the physical and from the social side.1
Ireland, at the beginning of the century, contained a population of about four and a half millions. The number cannot be precisely stated, for among the strange perversions of party spirit none was more significant than the unwillingness of Protestant and Catholic to submit their counter-statements to test of arithmetic. We are reduced, therefore, to depend on such data as the returns made of houses for the collection of hearth-money-returns which
1 Wakefield was the father of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the well-known colonial reformer. His work, in two quarto volumes, was published in 1812. The statistical surveys of Newenham, and those made for each county by the Dublin Society, are also of much value ; though the latter are coloured by the position of their authors, who, being usually land agents or Protestant clergymen, were hardly free to speak of the subjects of rent and tithe.
SOCIAL CONDITION OF IRELAND
have a special interest of their own, since they tell not only the number of the houses, but their quality.
From one of these returns, it appears 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 newly built, and of 15,052 the returns were imperfect. There remained 552, 628 houses. Of these 483,990 had only one hearth. Adding to these the pauper dwellings, it will be seen that eighty-five per cent. of the houses were of the poorest kind. Of houses with more than two hearths there were 36,437, or five per cent. of the total number. In Connaught there were only 2000 of such houses.
These figures are froni the return of 1791. later Catholics received the elective franchise. The multiplication, for electioneering purposes, of 4os. freeholders had not, therefore, as yet begun. There can be no doubt that a similar return made ten years later would have shown a larger increase in one-hearth houses.
The land tenure of Ireland at the beginning of the century was, in all essential features, similar to that which has become so familiar to us in recent years. It has sometimes been supposed that the Devon Commission of 1843-5 was the first recognition of the fact that between the English and the Irish landlord there was no similarity but in name.
Between the statement of this distinction by the Devon Commission and the legislation that followed from it, nearly thirty years were allowed to pass. But the contrast had been clearly stated by Wakefield more than thirty years before.
1 Wakefield (vol. ii. p. 687) gives this return as the latest extant in 1810. The author of the return, Mr. Wray, inspector-general of hearth-money, states that among occupants of one-hearth houses were to be found tenants occupying forty acres of arable land ; so that poverty is not necessarily implied. It is interesting to compare this with the state of house accommodation fifty years afterwards, reported by the Census Commissioners of 1841. The number of houses had nearly doubled. Of the four scales of accommodation which they distinguish, twenty-two per cent. were of the first and second class. But there were still 491,809 families living in mud hovels with one room (pp. xiv-xvi).
“In Ireland, landlords never erect buildings on their property, nor expend anything in repairs."1 Amidst very numerous differences of tenure, perpetual leases, leases for short or long periods, division into large or small farms, encumbrances or freedom from encumbrance, this was the one condition which Wakefield, travelling from county to county, found nearly constant, The landlord was not, as in England, a partner in agricultural production, investing capital in fencing, drainage, farmhouses, and cottages, and bound to the cultivator by social and prescriptive ties, but simply the receiver of a rent-charge. From time to time this increased, as the labour of others or the increase of population made occupation of the soil more valuable; but in respect of it, with few exceptions, no obligations were recognised beyond those of neighbourly feeling, where this might happen to exist. In fact, Irish landlords are to be compared, not with English squires, but with the ground landlords of London. This is the fundamental fact of Irish agricultural economics, which it has taken England, accustomed to a widely different system, three quarters of a century to learn.
The very towns, in many cases, were the property of landlords. “It is well known," Wakefield observes, “that houses are dearer in some of the most remote corners of Ireland than in the best parts of London." This, though partly accounted for by the enforced residence of the military, depended mainly on the monopoly of individual ownership. “The whole town of Belfast, every brick of it, belonged to one proprietor, who had it in his power to exact whatever rents he might think proper." ?
The relation between landlord and tenant in Ireland was explained with perfect clearness to Parliament, so soon as Parliament thought it worth while to inquire into it, by Mr. Frankland Lewis, who had acted on the Education Commission, and also on the Revenue Commission of 1823. “It is impossible,” he says, "for any person who
1 Wakefield, vol. i. p. 244.
? Ibid., p. 248. 3 “ Evidence taken by Select Committee of House of Lords, on the State of Ireland," 1825, p. 40.