!! The Times; Dec 11, 1866 "Irish Emigration"
- The Times
London, Middlesex, England
Dec 11, 1866
TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES
Sir, - "If Ireland were a thousand miles away from us all would be changed,
or the landlord would be exterminated by the vengeance of the people."
Such are the words to which one of England's leading politicians has
thought it advisable to give utterance at a time when the most reckless portion
of the Irish lower classes are supposed to be on the eve of insurrection. They
are pregnant and comprehensive words. They envelope in the same stern
condemnation both the cultivators and the owners of the soil of Ireland. Their
meaning cannot be mistaken. The term "vengeance" presupposes injury, - injury of
as deep a dye as the revenge it has evoked.
To some persons the picture thus set forth will appear but as an
exaggerated description of a patent fact; by others it will be considered an
Now, Sir, I do not presume to pronounce dogmatically between these two
conclusions. No one man can hope, by so simple an expedient as a letter to The
Times, materially to influence the opinion of his fellow countrymen on so vital
a question. But as one of those held up to the execration of the civilized
world, and to the special hatred of those in the midst of whom I live, it will
not appear unreasonable that I should suggest the propriety of a patient
examination of the grounds which are supposed to justify these denunciations.
Perhaps the simplest method of conducting such an inquiry will be - first,
to specify the several counts in the indictment against the landlords of
Ireland, as set forth in the public manifestos of such man as may be supposed to
speak with the greatest authority on the subject, and then to examine, one by
one, the truth or falsehood of each.
With this view I propose to take two remarkable speeches upon Ireland - the
one delivered in the House of Commons on the 2d of August by Mr. Maguire, the
member for Cork; the other spoken by Mr. Bright at a banquet in Dublin on the
30th of October. Both these gentlemen are grave and responsible persons, and
enjoy the confidence of large sections of their fellow-countrymen. For the
talents of the one I entertain great admiration, to the other I am united by
tries of personal esteem, while on many questions of the day I probably agree
with both. These considerations justify me in regarding their utterances as
representative expressions of opinion, and at the same time they are a guarantee
that I shall conduct the discussion in a conscientious and temperate spirit.
As the speeches referred to are within the ready reach of all your readers,
I will not occupy your space with unnecessary quotations, but will content
myself with condensing their substance into the remarkable series of
propositions they allege- namely,
1. That the emigration from Ireland has been a curse to that country.
2. That this emigration has been occasioned by the eviction of the rural
population by their landlords.
3. That acts of eviction in Ireland are to be attributed rather to the
cruelty and injustice of the landlords than to any failure on the part of those
evicted to fulfill their legitimate obligations.
4. That the present discontent in Ireland has been chiefly occasioned by
the iniquity of the laws affecting the tenure of the land.
5. That a change in those laws in a specified direction would pacify
discontent and create agricultural prosperity.
A few references will show that I have not misrepresented the gist of the
speeches referred to:-
"The emigration is a disgrace to this country and a calamity to Ireland."
"The landlords are the cause of emigration." " A million victims have borne
testimony to the unwillingness of Parliament to do justice to the occupiers of
the soil." " The landlords must be rigorously dealt with." "Pass a Tenant's
Compensation Bill, and you will have loyalty and peace," - says Mr. Maguire.
Mr. Bright's language is almost identical: - "The Irish landlord is a
creature of the conquest; Ireland is a land of evictions." "The law has been
made by the landowners for their own behoof, and, as a result, you have a
population fleeing from their country." " Ireland is a country from which
thousands of families have been driven by the force of the landowners and the
power of the law."
Now, Sir, are these things true? That is the inquiry I propose to
First, Has the Irish exodus, as it has been termed a calamity or the
We have to consider this question from two points of view, inasmuch as it
has affected the condition of two classes of persons, namely, those who went
away and those who stayed at home.
There is one single fact which will probably be accepted as a safe
indication of the effects of emigration on the destinies of those who took part
in it. To their immortal honour, within 16 years after their departure, they had
sent back to Ireland upwards of 12,000,000l. of money, chiefly for the purpose
of enabling their friends to follow their example. Now, unless they had
prospered, these savings could not have accumulated; unless their new existence
had been full of promise they would not have tempted their brethren to join
them. But what if, instead of setting forth to reap the golden harvests of the
West, these forlorn multitudes had remained pent up with their rainy valleys,
would the existing population, those that have clung to the old country in spite
of everything, - would they be now the better or the worse? Two obvious
consequences must have followed - wages would have been lower, rents higher than
they are now, while a very large proportion of the peasantry would be occupying
farms half the size of those they are presently cultivating. Now, low wages and
high rents may be advantageous in a certain sense to the manufacturer, to the
landlord, and to the recruiting sergeant; but how do they affect the masses -
the tenant, the labourer, and the mechanic? When I was in the west of Ireland
some 15 years ago the rate of agricultural wages varied from half-a-crown to 5s.
a week. Ever since it has gradually advanced, ranging in the south and west of
Ireland from 10s. to 12s., or even 14s. a week; while in the north the labourer
is almost absolutely master of the market, and can dictate what he pleases.
To those who closely watch the transitional phases of our national life
indications are perceptible of a similar emancipatory process beginning to
affect the position of the farming classes. In proportion as the peasant
cultivator has become aware of the existence of a more hopeful theatre for the
exercise of his energies than that presented to him and his children by the
miserable seven or eight acres he now miserably cultivate, hat morbid hunger for
a bit of land which has been the bane of Ireland is gradually subsiding;
competition has relaxed something of its suicidal energy, and there is reason to
hope that in the same way as the Irish labourer has already risen from the
condition of a mere serf to be his employer's equal, in process of time the
tenant farmer will be able to treat with his landlord on more independent terms.
But it may be objected by those who deplore emigration, that had those
vanished thousands remained among us production would have been stimulated, and
the well being of the whole community proportionately increased. Let us see how
far this would be a reasonable expectation.
Had no emigration taken place from Ireland, and had the population
continued to multiply at its normal rate, the additional increase to our present
numbers would by this time have amounted to three millions of souls, and as
there is not reason to suppose that such a circumstance would have materially
expanded the restricted manufacturing operations of the country, the larger
proportion of these three millions would have had to depend upon the land for
their support. Now, it appears from an official Report, drawn up on the conjoint
authority of Archbishop Whately, Archbishop Murray and Mr. Moore O'Farrell, that
in 1846 five persons were employed in the cultivation of the soil in Ireland for
every two that cultivated the same quantity of land in Great Britain, while the
agricultural produce of Great Britain was four times the agricultural produce of
Ireland. As a matter of fact, therefore, and so far as the past is concerned,
the addition to the agricultural produce of Ireland has not been proportionate
to the excess of the agricultural population.
It may, however, be pretended that so unsatisfactory a result is to be
accounted for by the unintelligent method in which this redundancy of labour has
been applied to the soil. But in the Lothians of Scotland and in certain parts
of England, the art of agriculture is neither unintelligently nor unsuccessfully
practised, and probably a given space is there made to produce as large a crop
as the united efforts of man and nature are destined to accomplish; yet in those
localities it has been found that about 18 men, with a small proportion of
women, are sufficient to cultivate in the most efficient manner 500 acres of
If we apply this proportion to the 15,832,892 acres of land under cattle
and crops in Ireland we shall see that about 500,000 persons would be able to
cultivate the entire area. But by the Census returns of 1861, the number of
those engaged in agricultural pursuits in that country amounts to upwards of
800,000 persons - that is to say, to 300,000 more than are necessary to the most
consummate cultivation of the soil. Consequently, there is still in Ireland a
considerable section of the inhabitants with their wives and children dependent
for their support upon the land, whose misapplied industry is as unproductive as
if it were devoted to the grinding of a treadmill or the lifting of shot; but
though contributing nothing to the producing power of the class with which they
are incorporated, they have to be supported out of its profits, of which,
consequently, they diminish by so much the share to the remainder. To deny this
is to assert- first, that you make a vessel sail faster by doubling the
complement of her crew, and, second, that the supernumerary hands will have made
no impression on the ship's rations by the end of the voyage.
But if, instead of the 300,000 persons at present left in this false
position, the hundreds of thousands who have emigrated had remained at home to
breed and stagnate on the overburdened soil, is it not evident that a state of
things would now exist in Ireland such as no man can think of without a shudder?
The increase of every nation must be limited by the extent and capabilities
of the area it occupies, and the mount of capital it possesses.
This law of universal application, though one race from its more sordid
habits, or lower civilization, may be more compressible than another. But, the
appointed limits once reached, either the procreative energies of the people
will relax, as they have done in France, or the surplus population will
emigrate, as has been the case in Germany, in Ireland, and to a lesser degree in
Up to the year 1846 the soil of Ireland retained the capacity of the
producing, to an almost unlimited extent, a certain root, containing all the
elements necessary for the support of human life. The expansion of the
population was proportionate to the facilities it enjoyed for obtaining
sustenance. Suddenly, by the visitation of God, those facilities were withdrawn;
the potato failed; no other product of the soil existed to take its place; corn
crops neither supplied the same amount of nutriment, nor could they be grown in
successive years on the same spot. The life-sustaining power of the soil, in
fact, had become restricted; as an inevitable consequence the population of the
island has become proportionately restricted, and exactly in the same way as the
working classes of Manchester would have been obliged to remove to other centres
of industry, had the cotton famine continued, has the surplus population of
Ireland been compelled to emigrate to a more fertile soil.
When, therefore, Mr. Bright speaks of Ireland as being the only country
from which an extensive emigration has taken place, he misrepresents facts which
ought to be within his knowledge. The average of emigration from Ireland has
amounted to less than 100,000 a year during the last ten years, but from Germany
alone, and principally from North Germany, as many as 250,000 persons have
emigrated in a single year, while between 1851 and 1861 the emigration from
Great Britain has averaged about 74,000 a year; and when he describes those whom
he invariably terms "the ruling classes" as standing alone in their opinion - an
opinion which, according to him is inspired by their own selfishness and
stupidity - that emigration has been no calamity to Ireland, he states what is
both ungenerous and untrue. Plans for the express purpose of stimulating
emigration have been devised and advocated from time to time by such men as Mr.
Smith O'Brien, Mr. Wyse, and Mr. Sharman Crawford; while, did your space permit,
I might furnish dozens of quotations to show how common such a conviction is to
every school of politics and class of society.
To attribute its existence to our stupidity and selfishness is even more
gratuitous. When did a tradesman ever complain of the multitude of his
customers, or a manufacturer of the easiness of the labour-market? But what is
the owner of an estate other than a trader in land? His tenants are his
customers; the more strenuous their competition, the higher his rents, and the
denser their number, the more keenly will they compete; emigration has a
tendency to diminish rather than to increase his rental, and if it has not done
so already, it is because it has not continued long enough.
Very frequently the landlord is a large employer of labour. With the last
15 years I myself have paid away upwards of 50,000l. in wages alone. During the
last half of that period, in consequence of the rise in wages, I have got much
less for my money than I did during the first half, and my consequent loss,
comparing one period with another, would amount to several thousand pounds, and
this has been a direct consequence of the emigration. But, though a dealer in
land, and a payer of wages, I am, above all things, an Irishman, and as an
Irishman I rejoice at any circumstance which tends to strengthen the
independence of the tenant farmer, or to add to the comforts of the labourer's
For these reasons I believe that emigration has been, and will continue to
be, a benefit in Ireland, and I disagree with those persons who consider that
the Almighty pronounce a curse, and not a blessing upon His children when He
bade them "go forth and multiply, and replenish the earth."
I propose to consider the next point in the inquiry in a subsequent letter.
I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant,
Cathy Joynt Labath
Ireland Old News