Alfred Russell Wallace :
Its necessity and its aims (1882)
CHAPTER III –
A few illustrations of Irish landlordism.
Ireland affords examples of all the evils that arise from private property in land—origin of Irish landlordism—tenant-right—confiscation by landlords—condition of the Irish cottier—facts in possession of the legislature for thirty years; the Devon commission—government neglects its first duty—evictions after the famine—suggested remedies of Irish distress—continued blindness and incompetence of the legislature—tremendous power of agents over the tenants—the condition of the people under Irish landlordism.
No part of the British Isles offers such striking examples of every kind of evil that results from unrestricted private property in land as Ireland. In that unfortunate country we find some of the largest estates; the greatest number of absentee landlords; the most complex settlements, perpetual leases, and other incumbrances; middlemen and sub-tenants in every variety; the greatest uncertainty of tenure; the most reckless competition for land; the most extravagant rack-rents; and the most merciless appropriation by the landlords of the improvements and actual property of the tenants. Nowhere else in our country do we find the land so generally treated as mere rent-producing property; nowhere else do a considerable proportion of the landowners exhibit an almost complete disregard for the welfare, or even the existence, of the native agricultural population.
Origin of Irish Landlordism.—The history of this island as regards the ownership of its land is a most distressing one, the greater portion of the country having been confiscated since the reign of Henry VIII. Extensive grants of land were made to court favourites or to successful soldiers, reign after reign; and every fresh rebellion of the oppressed people led to fresh confiscations and other transfers of land. Many of the new owners, not wishing to reside in the country, leased the land in perpetuity or for a very long term, at a low rent. The first leaseholder often again leased or subdivided the land, and this was sometimes repeated several times before coming to the actual cultivator. As an example, a townland in the county of Roscommon containing about 600 acres is owned by an English nobleman, but is leased in perpetuity for £30 rent. This first leaseholder has again leased it in perpetuity at £200 per annum. This third landlord has divided it, one man paying £150 a year rent for about one-third of the whole; and this fourth holder has divided a portion of his part among sixteen families, who are the actual cultivators of the soil. The superior landlords and leaseholders of course care nothing about the tenants, and have no interest in their welfare or in the condition of the estate, since their rents are amply secured and can never be increased; while the last middleman, who is landlord to the actual tenants, has a high rent to pay himself, and is obliged to let his land to the highest bidders in order to secure a profit. This is an actual case brought before the Relief Committee of the Society of Friends at the time of the great famine, and it is stated that the same condition of things, variously modified, is to be met with in all parts of the country.[i] Still more prejudicial is the fact that most of the large estates are under strict settlement, so that the actual owners have only a life interest in them; and as the estates are often laden with mortgages and family charges, it is impossible for the landlord, even if so disposed, to improve the land or to be lenient to his tenants. To add to the evil, most estates are managed by agents in the absence of the proprietors; and as their reputation and continued employment depends upon their success in collecting rents and punctuality in sending remittances, they are compelled to use all the powers the law gives them against defaulting tenants.
[i] Pim's Condition and Prospects of Ireland, 1848, p. 44.
Tenant-Right.—The most fertile source of agrarian disturbances in Ireland has been the general practice of leaving the occupier of the land to do everything that is done in the way of improvement—everything that is required to render the land capable of cultivation at all. The landlord usually does nothing but take rent. The whole process of changing the land from stony mountain slopes or boggy pastures into cultivated fields has been done by successive tenants. The tenants have made the fences, the roads, and the gates, they have dug the ditches and drains, and have even erected the farm houses and buildings. Of course they could not do this at all without some security or belief that they should enjoy it for aftime, and thus arose a general custom, to consider the occupier as a co-partner with the landlord, who not only had a moral claim to the continued occupation of the land which he had reclaimed or improved, but who could also sell his share to a succeeding tenant or transmit it to his heirs. There have always, however, been some landowners who, either on account of their necessities or their greed, have refused to recognise this just claim, and have, at every opportunity, raised the rent to the full value of the tenants’ improvements. Instances of this were common at the beginning of the century and appear to have increased rather than diminished to the present day; and they have naturally led to a feeling of utter insecurity in the smaller class of occupiers, who would rather remain idle than labour at any improvements which would only lead to an increase of their rent. Let us give a few examples of this legalised oppression and robbery from Mr. Tuke’s moderate and trustworthy pamphlet, “Irish Distress and its Remedies” (1880).
Confiscation by Landlords.—At Glenties, in Donegal, a man took a piece of bog at a rent of £2 a year. This he fenced, drained, and cultivated, turning a wilderness into a tidy little farm, and was thereupon made to pay nearly four times the original rent for it. In another case, in Ulster, a man built a corn mill on land belonging to one of the London Companies. When the lease expired the rent was somewhat raised, but of this he did not complain, and again added to the value of the property by building a flax-mill. The rent was again raised and then the Company sold the land. The new purchaser still further raised the rent. This was too much to bear, so the occupier determined to sell his tenant-right; but the agent of the new owner declared at the sale that the rent would be still further raised to the purchaser, and this caused the tenant-right to bring far less than it would otherwise have done. This old man, thus robbed of what on every moral and equitable principle was his own property, then emigrated to America with his family, carrying with him the bitterest animosity against his oppressors and against the Government which allowed the oppression.
None cry out so loudly as landowners against any law which may possibly diminish the selling value of their property, however beneficial such law may be to the whole country. They exclaim against it as “confiscation.” Yet they have allowed (as legislators) such cruel confiscation as this, which brings endless evils in its train. For these are not exceptional cases; indeed, a Member of Parliament recently stated with truth that there are “tens of thousands of instances where tenants paying five shillings an acre were evicted by their landlords that the landlords might let their occupations at a pound an acre, the increased value being entirely due to the labour expended upon the land by the evicted tenants.” And then we wonder at the misery, and idleness, and deceit of the Irish peasantry! Why, it is forced upon them. They dare not become prosperous or look prosperous for fear of increased rent. Thus, they often live in filth. They come to the rent-audit in their worst clothes. They pay the rent in shillings and sixpences, to give the appearance of having collected it with the greatest difficulty. And they will be idle half the winter rather than improve their hovels, or mend their fences, or make any permanent improvement in their holdings. It is true that there are many good landlords who never commit such robbery; but good landlords do not live for ever, and are sometimes obliged to sell their property, and then the tenant’s security is gone. It is just as it was in the days of American slavery. The good master did not voluntarily sell his slaves or part husband and wife, parent and child; but there was no security that at any moment they might not be transferred to a new owner who would do both.
Condition of the Irish Cottier.—The modern Irish cottier really lives in a state of hopeless and helpless degradation, comparable to that of the least fortunate serfs of the Middle Ages, who were not only subject to the payment of hard dues to their lord, but upon any appearance of wealth or even comfort were subject to extortion by the lord’s followers or plunder by armed marauders. They were obliged to be poor and miserable to escape robbery. Ireland is a nation of small cultivators. There are 400,000 holdings under 30 acres, and 30,000 under 15 acres, while there are 156,000 mud cabins of only one room occupied by 228,000 families![ii] Probably nowhere in the whole world is there a people living in such a state of degradation and barbarism under a civilised or even a semi-civilised government; and this is the direct result of pure landlordism, making its own laws, and carrying them out in its own way. It is a universal law that security to enjoy the produce of a man’s labour is the only incentive to industry, and that incentive has been systematically denied to the Irish peasant. The injustice, the cruelty, the shortsightedness of this system had been urged again and again on our legislators, but wholly without effect, till the terrible calamity of the potato disease in 1846 and 1847, and the horrible events that ensued, forced them into action. But even then, so blind were they to the real cause of the evil, so convinced that landlordism was itself a perfect dispensation, that, instead of giving the occupier security for his labour, they established the Encumbered Estates Court as their great remedy, which, as is now universally admitted, only increased the evil, and gave the authority of an Act of Parliament to further confiscations of tenants’ property. Mr. Tuke says: “It is notorious that the rights of the tenants were disregarded, and that this disregard was the occasion of grievous wrong in numerous instances, sometimes when the tenants were evicted without compensation to make room for new comers, and sometimes when the rents were raised by the new purchasers, with entire disregard to the peculiar position of the Irish tenant. It has often been noticed that the rack-rented estates are generally not the estates of the old Irish proprietors, in which the rents are for the most part moderate in amount, but estates purchased under the Act by speculators, who have resold them, after increasing the rental enormously.” Can there be a more striking proof of the blindness and ignorance of those legislators who, against all evidence and repeated warnings, left the Irish peasantry to the tender mercies of new landlords armed with all the powers of the law, and were unable to see that the land of a country with the population dependent on it ought not to be subject to unrestricted sale and purchase, or to be allowed to minister to the reckless greed of capitalists and speculators.
[ii] Speech of Mr. Cowen, M.P., at Newcastle.
The Devon Commission, 1847.—The Legislature which passed the Encumbered Estates Act as a sufficient remedy for all the evils of the Irish land-system had before it the elaborate Report and Digest of Evidence of the Commission on the Occupation of Land in Ireland. This report, dated 1847, says: “It is admitted on all hands that, according to the general practice in Ireland, the landlord builds neither dwelling-house nor farm-offices, nor puts fences, gates, &c., into good order, before he lets the land to a tenant. The cases in which the landlord does any of these things are the exception.” And with regard to the custom of tenant-right in Ulster, where the improvements made by the occupier are allowed to be sold by him to the incoming tenant, the same Report says: “Anomalous as this custom is, if considered with reference to all the ordinary notions of property, it must be admitted that the district in which it prevails has thriven and improved, in comparison with other parts of the country.”
In the Digest of Evidence taken before the same Commission we find this weighty and important statement:—
“If a substantial security were offered to the occupying tenant for his judicious permanent improvements, a rapid change for the better would take place—a change calculated to increase the strength of the Empire and the tranquillity of this country; to improve the food, raiment, and house-accommodation of the population; to remove that paralysis of industry which the sworn evidence of nearly every tenant, and of numerous landlords, examined on the subject, has proved to exist; to call into operation the active exertions of every occupier of land upon his farm; to add about five months in each year to the reproductive occupation of farmers and labourers, which are now passed in idly consuming produce, accumulating debts, or, for want of better employment, perhaps, in fomenting disturbance.”
It is the want of this security that is the sole cause of those agrarian disturbances which for more than a century have been perennial in Ireland. This is authoritatively stated in the same Digest of Evidence, which tells us that “the great majority of outrages appear to have arisen from the endeavours of the peasantry to convert the possession of land into an indefeasible title,” and that “in the northern counties, the general recognition of the tenant-right has prevented the frequent recurrence of these crimes.” And again, the Report emphatically states: “The tenant’s equitable right to a remuneration for his judiciously-invested labour and capital is not likely to be disputed in the abstract. This property is, undoubtedly, his own.” And it adds:
“The importance and absolute necessity of securing to the occupying tenant in Ireland some distinct mode of remuneration for the judicious permanent improvements that he may effect upon his farm is sustained by a greater weight of concurrent evidence than any other subject which has been brought under the investigation of the Commissioners;” and “The want of some measure of remuneration for tenants’ improvements has been variously stated as productive, directly or indirectly, of most of the social evils of the country.” And again we have this important statement: “It has been shown that the master evil—poverty—proceeds from the fact of occupiers of land withholding the investment of labour and capital from the ample and profitable field for it which lies within their reach on the farms they occupy; that this hesitation is attributable to the reasonable disinclination to invest labour or capital on the property of others without a security that adequate remuneration shall be derived from the investment.”
The Report goes on to show that “the barbarous and unprofitable mode of tillage” is all due to this uncertainty that the tenants shall be allowed to reap the fruits of their labour; that many lucrative agricultural improvements may be made “without the investment of money capital, but merely by the judicious application of time and labour of his family, which are now wasted, whilst he is complaining that employment cannot be had;” that the larger farmers have the same ample opportunity of employing labourers on similar works, with a certainty of the most profitable results; but this is rarely done, “because they have no certainty of being permitted to reap the benefit of their expenditure,” while, if tenants-at-will, “they may be immediately removed from the improved lands, after having invested their labour and capital, without receiving any compensation, or their rent may be raised to the full value of the improvements thus effected.”
Yet with all these striking facts and authoritative statements before them—facts and statements, be it remembered, not of philanthropists or political economists, but of a Parliamentary Commission composed exclusively of landlords, who, with great labour, had collected this evidence for the express information of the Legislature—no provision whatever was made to secure the tenant’s right to the property created by himself, but his position was in many cases rendered far worse than before by the sale of thousands of estates to the highest bidders, who thereby obtained full legal power to seize and confiscate for their own use the wealth created by the life-long labours of Irish tenants! Is it possible to imagine a more cruel mockery than this? Can there be a more complete condemnation of government by landlords, and, as this is almost a necessary result of their existence, of landlordism itself?
Government Neglects its First Duty.—We see, then, from the authoritative evidence of a Parliamentary Commission, that the chronic poverty of the Irish peasantry and farmers, their barbarous mode of tillage, their idleness for many months in the year, and their consequent inability to bear up against any distress caused by bad seasons or epidemic disease, were all clearly and directly traceable to the absence of any security for the improvements due to their labour on the land they occupied. The first duty of a civilised Government—the protection of property—was in their case systematically ignored, and the absence of protection for the fruits of human labour involved, in its results, the absence of protection to life, as surely as if bands of armed robbers and murderers had been allowed to range undisturbed over the country. Ignorance that such consequences might ensue could not be pleaded, since on many previous occasions famines of the most distressing kind, and due to the same causes, had occurred, notably in 1817 and 1822; yet still nothing was done to remove the causes of this perennial misery, which inevitably led to famine. When, therefore, in 1847 and 1848 the potato disease destroyed a large part of the food of the country, and—the extreme poverty of the people leaving them absolutely without resources—millions died of starvation, we cannot avoid seeing in this terrible calamity the direct results of ignorant and prejudiced government by a body of alien legislators.
Evictions after the Famine.—But what followed was still more dreadful, and, one would think, should have opened the eyes of the most bigoted to their fatal error. During the four years succeeding the famine, the miserable remnant of the agricultural population were in many districts subject to wholesale eviction from their homes, often resulting in loss of life. Mr. T. P. O’Connor tells us that in the four years 1849-1852 there were 221,845 evictions; whole townlands being depopulated, and their human inhabitants driven out to make room for cattle and sheep, as being more profitable to the landlords.[iii] These poor people were often forced away from their homes, even though all rent due had been fully paid. The houses, which had been built by their own labour (or purchased from those who had built them), were pulled down; and when the houseless families, having nowhere to go, lighted fires in the ditches to cook some food, the fires were extinguished in order to drive them off the land. A Report to the Poor Law Commissioners states that many occupiers were forced out of their homes at night in winter, even sick women and children not being allowed to stay in the houses till morning!
[iii] These figures are approximate, but they are generally supported by those given in a Parliamentary Report issued in April 1881. This gives 35,061 families, consisting of 194,603 persons, evicted in two years (1849-50). And the same Report shows that again in 1880, during the height of the last famine, there were 2,110 evictions of 10,457 persons. It is to be noted that these are only the evictions that have come to the knowledge of the constabulary, and are doubtless considerably below the actual number, since many are carried into effect by persons employed by the agent.
And the power to do all this, be it remembered, is a necessary consequence of unrestricted private property in land. That such horrors do not occur more frequently is due to the good feeling and humanity of landlords, and to the absence of sufficient motive; but that they should have been ever possible, that they should have actually occurred in hundreds of cases, and that a Government which claims to rule over a free, prosperous, civilised, and Christian people was not only utterly powerless to prevent them, but was actually obliged to aid in carrying them into effect—for all was strictly legal, and the landlord was only enforcing his admitted rights—must, surely, make every one who is unfettered by prejudice see that the possession of land for any other purpose than personal occupation is incompatible with liberty, and therefore necessarily leads to evil results.
That fearful period of famine, and the emigration which succeeded it, reduced the population of Ireland from eight to five millions, and at the same time established in America a body of Irishmen imbued with the bitterest feelings of enmity against the British Government—an enmity whose natural fruit was that Fenian conspiracy which has been more really injurious to England than a great and unsuccessful war. For a time, however, all was thought to be going well. Many landlords had changed their once thickly-populated land into great grazing farms, supporting cattle and sheep instead of peasants, but returning a more secure if not a higher rent. The general prosperity caused by the gold discoveries and the great epoch of railway-making was felt by the diminished population of Ireland, and the landlords were for a time satisfied that their two great panaceas, emigration and large farms, would cure all the alleged evils. But the increased wealth of landowners in general, as well as of merchants and speculators, led to a more expensive style of living, and this could only be met by higher rents wherever they could be obtained. In Ireland, where to large numbers of the people a piece of land offers the sole means of subsistence, there is so much competition for land that rents may be raised to any amount the landlord or the agent chooses to demand; and, as a matter of fact, rents have been continually raised over a large part of the country so as to leave the tenants the barest possible subsistence.
Suggested Remedies for Irish Distress.—Before the great famine of 1847, European politicians and economists who visited Ireland were amazed at the spectacle of a country one-third of whose population lived perpetually on the very verge of starvation. The causes and the remedy for this disgraceful state of things were clear to them, and were pointed out in the plainest language by one of our greatest authorities on Political Economy—John Stuart Mill—in 1856. He demonstrated that a system of Cottier tenure such as prevailed in Ireland, in which a large agricultural population without capital, and with a low standard of living, have their rents determined by competition, must inevitably lead to all those social and physical evils which perennially exist there. He says:—”The rents which they promise they are almost invariably incapable of paying; and consequently they become indebted to those under whom they hold, almost as soon as they take possession. They give up in the shape of rent the whole produce of the land, with the exception of a sufficiency of potatoes for a subsistence; but as this is rarely equal to the promised rent, they constantly have against them an increasing balance… Should the produce of the holding in any year be more than usually abundant, or should the peasant by any accident become possessed of any property, his comforts cannot be increased; he cannot indulge in better food nor in a greater quantity of it. His furniture cannot be increased, neither can his wife or children be better clothed. The acquisition must go to the person under whom he holds.” And he goes on to show that such tenants have nothing to gain by industry and prudence, nothing to lose by any recklessness. If they doubled the produce of their farms by extra exertion, the only gainer would be their landlord. “Almost alone among mankind the Irish Cottier is in this condition, that he can scarcely be any better or worse off by any act of his own. If he were industrious or prudent, nobody but his landlord would gain; if he is lazy or intemperate, it is at his landlord’s expense. A situation more devoid of motives to either labour or self-command imagination itself cannot conceive. The inducements of free human beings are taken away, and those of a slave not substituted. He has nothing to hope, and nothing to fear, except being dispossessed of his holding, and against this he protects himself by the ultima ratio of a defensive civil war.”[iv]
[iv] Political Economy, Book II, Chap. IX.
In the succeeding discussion on the “Means of Abolishing a Cottier Tenancy,” Mill goes to the root of the question in the following passages:—”Rent paid by a capitalist, who farms for profit and not for bread, may safely be abandoned to competition; rent paid by labourers cannot, unless the labourers were in a state of civilisation and improvement which labourers have nowhere yet reached, and cannot easily reach, under such a tenure. Peasant rents ought never to be arbitrary—never at the discretion of the landlord; either by custom or law it is imperatively necessary that they should be fixed; and where no mutually advantageous custom has established itself, reason and experience recommend that they should be fixed by authority, thus changing the rent into a quit-rent, and the farmer into a peasant proprietor. For carrying this change into effect on a sufficiently large scale to accomplish the complete abolition of cottier tenancy, the mode which most obviously suggests itself is the direct one of doing the thing outright by Act of Parliament; making the whole land of Ireland the property of the tenants, subject to the rents now really paid (not the nominal rents) as a fixed rent-charge. This, under the name of ‘fixity of tenure,’ was one of the demands of the Repeal Association during the most successful period of their agitation, and was better expressed by Mr. Connor, its earliest, most enthusiastic, and most indefatigable apostle, by the words, ‘A valuation and a perpetuity.’ … To enlightened foreigners writing on Ireland, Von Raumer and Gustave de Beaumont, a remedy of this sort seemed so exactly and obviously what the disease required that they had some difficulty in comprehending how it was that the thing was not yet done.”
As a milder and less radical, but still very efficacious, measure, if carried out to the fullest extent of which it is capable, Mill suggested an enactment “that whoever reclaims waste land becomes the owner of it, at a fixed quit-rent equal to a moderate interest on its mere value as waste;” and the proof that this measure would be successful is afforded by evidence given before Lord Devon’s Commission, in 1847, by Colonel Robinson, the manager of the Waste Land Improvement Society. He states that “two hundred and forty-five tenants and their families have, by spade husbandry, reclaimed and brought under cultivation 1,032 plantation acres of land, previously unproductive mountain waste, upon which they grew last year crops valued at £3,896; and their live stock, consisting of cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs, now actually upon the estates, is valued at £4,162; and by the statistical tables and returns obtained annually by the Society, it is proved that the tenants, in general, improve their little farms, and increase their cultivation and crops, in nearly direct proportion to the number of available working persons of whom their family consist.”
Continued Blindness and Incompetence of the Legislature.—Yet with all this mass of consentaneous evidence as to the law-made misery of the Irish people and its only effectual remedy, for another twenty-four long years the Legislature did nothing to give them that ownership of the soil which, wherever it exists, is the cause of untiring industry, thrift, peace, and contentment, till in the year 1880 famine again appeared, and again charity alone has saved thousands from death by starvation. To the landlord Government which has shut its ears to every word of truth and warning, even when coming from a Commission appointed by itself, the burning condemnation of Carlyle, written forty years ago, is surely applicable:—”Was change and reformation needed in Ireland? Has Ireland been governed in a wise and loving manner? A Government and guidance of white European men which has issued in perennial hunger of potatoes to the third man extant ought to drop a veil over its face, and walk out of Court under conduct of proper officers; saying no word; expecting now of a surety sentence either to change or die.”[v]
[v] Mr. Tuke in his Irish Distress and its Remedies, gives 72,864 as the number of persons who received relief in the County of Donegal, the whole population of which, in 1871, was 218,000. This was one of the ten distressed counties, and if taken as an average one, here, too, every third man had been living in "perennial hunger of potatoes."
In 1870, it is true, a Land Act was passed, which it was thought would settle the question; but it really settled nothing, because it did not go the root of the matter. As the late Mr. Charles Buxton, M.P., said in 1869: “It is security of tenure the Irish people want; and it is security of tenure the Irish people must and will have. It is no sort of good to put them off with talk about mere compensation for improvements, or other schemes for giving them what they do not ask for and do not want, instead of that which they do ask for, and do want.” John Stuart Mill had said exactly the same thing a year before in his striking pamphlet, “England and Ireland,” and all the evidence that had been collected for the previous twenty-five years demonstrated the same fact; yet our landlord Legislature, in its usual peddling and patchwork spirit, passed a most elaborate Act to secure compensation for a tenant’s improvements in case he was ejected for any other cause than non-payment of rent, but guarded and modified by all kinds of stipulations and reservations, involving the employment of valuers and lawyers, and an indefinite amount of trouble and expense, but not securing the tenant either against arbitrary increase of rent or eviction at the will of his landlord, the two most important things the Irish tenants asked for, and without which the proposed compensation was a delusion and a snare. For, instead of evicting, the landlord simply raised the rent on a tenant who had made improvements, and thus confiscated these improvements in spite of the Act! And thus even the Ulster tenant-right has been made valueless by the very Act which was intended to extend some of its benefits over a wider area.[vi]
[vi] See numerous examples of this in Mr. Charles Russell's New Views of Ireland, as well as in the daily press.
Tenant-Right Often Confiscated Even in Ulster.—Even before this Act, however, tenant-right was only a custom, not a law, and was not unfrequently disregarded. Mr. Charles Wilson, writing in The Statesman (Feb., 1881), gives the following example:—”See the position of the tenants on a small estate in Ulster, which was bought some twenty years since, and the rents were doubled on the tenants. One had to pay £64 instead of £23, another £57 instead of £29; another lost his lease by accident, and though the landlord had the counterpart, instead of producing it, he raised the rent 50 per cent. Another, who holds in perpetuity, was charged £15 per annum for some years as a drainage rate; but, suspecting wrong, he applied to the Board of Works, and found that the landlord was paying only £5 19s., and pocketing the difference. The tenant got this put right and recovered the surcharge.”
One of the tenants of Sir Richard Wallace stated at a recent meeting that the farm he now held at 25s. per acre was held by his grandfather at 2s. 6d. per acre, and that all the improvements which had so largely increased the rental value were made at the cost of the tenants. At another meeting of the tenants of the same estate resolutions were passed stating that, owing to the system which had been adopted by the late Marquis of Hertford, many reductions of rent had been purchased by the payment of a sum down, and that, owing to this system of “fining down leases,” any reference to present rents as being low was fallacious; that tenants’ improvements and agricultural property have been made a basis for continual rises of rent; that tenants’ improvements are included in the Government valuation; and that, therefore, this forms no true basis for estimating the landlord’s rent; that several vexatious “office rules,” unknown formerly, have lately been instituted; that the tenants are charged five per cent. on the amount of the rent under the name of receiver’s fees; that the ground rent of public roads and rivers is charged on the tenant; and many other complaints of a like nature.
Tremendous Power of Agents over the Tenants.—Against these and similar exactions of agents the tenants are powerless. As Mr. Godkin well puts it, “Armed with the ‘rules of the estate,’ and with a notice to quit, the agent may have almost anything he demands, short of possession of the farm and home of the tenant. The notice to quit is like a death warrant to the family. It makes every member of it tremble and agonise, from the grey-headed grandfather and grandmother to the bright little children, who read the advent of some impending calamity in the gloomy countenances and bitter words of their parents. The passion for the possession of land is the chord on which the agent plays, and at his touch it vibrates with the ‘deepest notes of woe.'”[vii]
[vii] It will hardly be credited what kind of "rules" prevail on some estates. Mr. Thomas Crosbie, of Cork, an agent himself, published in 1858 an account of "The Lansdowne Estates." He declares that the "rules of the estate," which were rigidly enforced, forbid tenants to build houses for their labourers; forbid marriage without the agent's permission, so that a young couple having transgressed the rule were chased away to America, and the two fathers-in-law were punished for harbouring their son and daughter by a fine of a gale of rent. Another rule was that no stranger be lodged or harboured in any house on the estate, lest he should become sick or idle, or in some way chargeable on the poor-rates. A tenant, who sheltered his sister-in-law while her husband was seeking work, was so afraid of the agent that, at the woman's approaching confinement, he removed her to a shed on a relative's land, where her child was born. This man was fined a gale of rent, and was made to pull down the shed. Then the poor sick woman went to a cavern in the mountain, and for this two other fines were levied from the tenants who jointly grazed the land. A still worse case is given; but these are sufficient to show that Irish tenants live under a system of penal laws, unknown to the Legislature, and are punished by fines enforced by the dread of eviction. (Godkin's Land War in Ireland, p. 412.)
Eviction is what the Irish peasant dreads as a sentence of misery or death, and it is well that my readers should realise what an Irish eviction really is. The following account of an eyewitness is taken from a published Pastoral Letter of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Meath:—
“It was a cruel, an inhuman eviction, which even still makes our hearts bleed as often as we allow ourselves to think of it. Seven hundred human beings were driven from their homes in one day, and sent adrift upon the world to gratify the caprice of one who, before God and man, probably deserved less consideration than the last and least of them. And we remember well that there was not a single shilling of rent due on the estate at the time except by one man; and the character and acts of that man made it perfectly clear that the agent and himself quite understood each other. The crowbar brigade, employed on the occasion to extinguish the hearths and demolish the homes of honest, industrious men, worked away with a will at their awful calling until evening. At length an incident occurred that varied the monotony of the grim, ghastly ruin which they were spreading all around. They stopped suddenly, and recoiled, panic-stricken with terror, from two dwellings which they were directed to destroy with the rest. They had just heard that a frightful typhus fever held those houses in its grasp, and had already brought pestilence and death to their inmates. They therefore supplicated the agent to spare these houses a little longer; but the agent was inexorable, and insisted that the houses should come down. He ordered a large winnowing sheet to be secured over the beds in which the fever victims lay—fortunately they happened to be perfectly delirious at the time—and then directed the houses to be uprooted cautiously and slowly, because, he said, ‘He very much disliked the bother and discomfort of a coroner’s inquest.’ I administered the last sacrament of the Church to four of these fever victims next day; and, save the above-mentioned winnowing sheet, there was not then a roof nearer to me than the canopy of heaven.
“The horrid scenes that I then witnessed I must remember all my life long. The wailing of women; the screams, the terror, the consternation of children; the speechless agony of honest, industrious men, wrung tears of grief from all who saw them. I saw the officers and men of a large police force, who were obliged to attend on the occasion, cry like children at beholding the cruel sufferings of the very people whom they would be obliged to butcher, had they offered the least resistance. The heavy rains that usually attend the autumnal equinoxes descended in cold, copious torrents throughout the night, and at once revealed to those houseless sufferers the awful realities of their condition. I visited them next morning, and rode from place to place administering to them all the comfort and consolation I could. The appearance of men, women and children, as they emerged from the ruins of their former homes—saturated with rain, blackened and besmeared with soot, shivering in every member from cold and misery—presented positively the most appalling spectacle I ever looked at. The landed proprietors in a circle all round—and for many miles in every direction—warned their tenantry, with threats of direct vengeance, against the humanity of extending to any of them the hospitality of a single night’s shelter. Many of these poor people were unable to emigrate with their families; while at home the hand of every man was thus raised against them. They were driven from the land on which Providence had placed them; and, in the state of society surrounding them, every other walk of life was rigidly closed against them. What was the result? After battling in vain with privation and pestilence, they at last graduated from the workhouse to the tomb, and in little more than three years nearly a fourth of them lay quietly in their graves.”[viii]
[viii] Quoted from Mr. T. Walter's pamphlet—Irish Wrongs and How to Mend Them-1881, p. 39.
The Condition of the People under Irish Landlordism.—When we remember that a plot of land is the sole means of subsistence to the mass of the rural population of Ireland, that there are “at least 500,000 families, amounting to about 3,000,000 persons, competing for the land as the sole stay between themselves and starvation,” how absurd is it to talk of “freedom of contract,” or to wonder that the Irish peasants submit to any rent and any conditions that the landlords or their agents choose to impose, rather than suffer the barbarous punishment of eviction.
The natural, the inevitable result of such a state of things is thus described by recent observers. Mr. Charles Russell says:—”In a country whose fruitfulness would suffice to feed and maintain a greatly increased population in decent condition, there exists at this moment in a population which famine and emigration have reduced from eight millions to about five millions, a more intense degree of wretchedness and poverty, and that more general, than in any known country in the world.” And Mr. De Courcy Atkins, in his “Case of Ireland Stated,” after describing what he saw in Cork and Kerry, concludes thus:—”There have been many countries, both ancient and modern, in which slavery was part of the acknowledged law, but I submit to all men who have studied the question of slavery, whether in any such country the producing slave has been so limited in the enjoyment of the produce as the nominally free Irish labourer or cottier tenant is in Ireland.”It may perhaps be said, “All this is now at an end. The Government has done justice to Ireland by the new Land Act. Why tell old tales?” But no law, even if far more efficient and more beneficial than the recent Act, can recall the past, or undo the misery and degradation brought upon the bulk of the Irish people by the action of landlordism and landlord-made law, such as still exists in England and Scotland. Some of their worst effects have no doubt now been locally remedied, but the root of the evil still remains; and it is important to show the natural and inevitable results of a system which requires to be held in check by exceptional legislation in order to prevent horrors and catastrophes like those it has produced in Ireland.