TENAKILL, ABBEYLEIX, Saturday, May 8th

“I may be told that this famine is a visitation of Divine Providence, but I do not admit that. I fear there is blasphemy in charging on the Almighty the result of our own doings…. God’s famine is known by the general scarcity of food of which it is the consequence. There is no general scarcity, there has been no general scarcity in Ireland, either during the present or the past year, except in one solitary species of vegetable. The soil has produced its usual tribute for the support of those by whom it was cultivated… The vice inherent in our system of social and political economy is so settled that it eludes inquiry. You cannot trace it to the source. The poor man on whom the coroner holds an inquest has been murdered, but no one killed him. Who did it? No one did it. Yet it was done.”

I have just now seen in the Nation of last Saturday, May 1, the foregoing extract from the lecture of Dr. Hughes, on the “Condition of Ireland.”

Doctor Hughes does not seem sufficiently to understand how the failure of a single root can have produced a famine. “The vice of our political and social economy is one that eludes inquiry.” But is it, indeed, so obscure? Has it then been able to conceal or disguise itself? It must be dragged out.

In self-defence the question is now forced on us, whether there be any particular class or institution specially chargeable? It is a question easily answered. Into the more remote causes of the famine it is needless now to enquire, but it is easily traced back to its immediate origin.

The facts are few, and are soon told and speedily understood, when the conditions of the country it had to act on have first been stated. I state them from recollection; I have no returns at hand to refer to, but I shall be found generally correct.

There are in Ireland, or were last year, 231,000 agricultural families, comprising 319,000 adult male labourers, depending altogether on wages for subsistence. If I commit any mistake, it is that of overstating the number of such families. There was not constant employment to be found for those 319,000 men, and the rate of wages was very low.

The labourer, partially employed and poorly paid, was unable, on the mere hire of his hands, to feed himself and those who looked to him for food. He borrowed for six months (May 1 to Nov. 1) from some neighbouring farmer the use of a quarter of an acre of land. He paid for this six months’ use the sum of £2 12s 6d. The farmer, however, manured the land; he manured it by paring off with the plough a thin layer of surface, which the labourer left to dry, made up into heaps, and burned into ashes, which he spread over the ground.

On the land so manured – for in no other mode was it ever manured – he planted potatoes, and was able to live; and he did live on, from year to year, from youth to grey hair, from father to father, in penury and patience. Whether the penury made the patience, or the patience made the penury, I stay not to enquire.

Certain it is that they commonly go together. The details I am giving are sufficiently well known here, but I write for England. Such as I state him is, or was, the Irish labourer, that “independent” labourer, whose free and happy condition is now offered and recommended so strongly the small landholder, as preferable to his own.

Last year this man did as usual. He planted his potatoes; but when he came to dig them out, there was none to be digged. Two hundred and thirty thousand families begun to die of hunger; and famine ran wild into fever.

The cultivated soil of Ireland is distributed, or was last year, into about 880,000 landholdings, each occupied by a family. Of this number of landholders, 510,000 were in occupation, each of farms varying in size from one acre to ten, and none of them exceeding that extent. This class of men differed little in the appearance, but very much in the reality of circumstance and condition, from the class of men labourers.

Their circumstances varied with the size of the holding; but the lowest family among them stood far above the labourer. Their means of subsistence were somewhat greater, their securities for subsistence far greater. They did not, as the labourers did, commonly starve or suffer hunger through the summer months – the famine months, as we call them in this country.

Those of them who held farms of from five to ten acres of holding, enjoyed some little share of the comfort of life, which the careless and mirthful temperament of Ireland heightened into happiness. The men dressed well on Sunday, and the women gaily; at least in all parts of the country with which I am acquainted.

The smallest landholders of this class were labourers also – labourers with allotments – labourers with assurance against positive starvation. Each man had at least a foothold of existence. Each man potato-ground at least; a high rent, indeed, but not so high as the one-acre rent. Still, however, the lowest grade of these men were miserable enough; but not so utterly so as the mere labourer.

Their country had no hope for them, too, while she had none for the labourer. To avoid, if I can, confusion or complication of statement, I put out of view for the present the holdings of size beyond ten acres each, amounting in number to about 370,000. But such as I state it was the condition, so far as affects the small occupiers I speak of, in which the famine found Ireland.

Two circumstances of this man’s situation, and those not unimportant, remain yet, however to be stated, in account for the past, and in calculation for the future. One of them is, that he held his land by no other assurance, legal or moral, than his landlord’s pecuniary personal interest in retaining him as a tenant. He had commonly no lease of his holding, or, if he had, it was rendered null in effect by numberless circumstances which I cannot stop to state.

The feelings that exist in England between landlord and tenant, coming down from old times, and handed as an heirloom from generation to generation – the feeling of family pride, the feeling of family attachment, the habit of the house, the fashion of the land, the custom of the country, all those things that stand for laws, and are stronger than laws – are here unknown; as, indeed, they are beginning to decay and die out in England.

But the working farmer of Ireland, who held his own plough and acted as his own labourer, was able to pay a higher rent for his land than the farmer of any other class; and hence alone he continued to hold it. This was his title of tenure – his only title; his security against the grazier and against the extensive tillage-farmer; his sole security for leave to live.

Such is the first circumstance requiring note. The second is this: – The occupier I speak of, if his holding was very small, put the entire of it in tillage; if large, he put a portion in pasture. In either case, his tillage ground was appropriated to two crops – a potato crop and a grain crop. He sowed grain for his landlord, he planted potatoes for himself.

The corn paid the rent, the potato fed the tenant. When the holding was small, the grain crop was insufficient, alone, to balance rent; a portion of potatoes made up the deficiency by feeding a hog. When the holding was larger, the grain crop was often more than sufficient, with the help of a hog, to clear rent and tithe rent, county rate and poor rate.

In such the cultivator had a small overplus, which he could actually dispose of as he liked, and he commonly laid it out in the purchase of mere luxuries, such as shoes, wearing apparel, and other articles of convenience. So stood the landholders of ten acres or under.

Last year this man did according to custom. He planted potatoes for his own support, he sowed corn for his landlord’s rent. The potato perished; the landlord took the corn. The tenant-cultivator paid his rents – was forced to pay them – sold his grain crop to pay them, and had to pray to man as well as to God for his daily bread.

I state general facts; I stop not to count scattered and petty exceptions. Who is it says the landlords got no rent last year? Bernal Osborne says so; and adds that the conduct of the Irish farmers in withholding their rents was most discreditable and disgraceful. One hundred voices and pens have said and repeated it.

The landlords are in Parliament and in the “compositor’s room”, the tenant-cultivators are not. The lion is no painter. It may be so that in districts of Tipperary the tenants, or many of them, kept their corn for food – thus paying themselves for their labour, capital, and seed, and saving their own lives – instead of paying the land rent.

It may be that in those districts the full rents were not paid; it may be that in parts of Galway, Mayo, Cork, and elsewhere they could not be paid. The oat crop failed partially, as the potato failed wholly; and when these were the crops in the ground the landowner, of course, in many cases, lost a portion of his rent, as the tenant-cultivator lost his entire provision of food.

But these exceptions are inefficient against the facts I state. I say and I assert that the landowners took entire possession of last year’s harvest – of the whole effective sum and substance of that harvest. The food for this year’s subsistence, the seed for next year’s crop – the landlord took it all.

He stood to his right and got his rent – and hunger was in five hundred thousand houses, pinching dearth in all, deadly famine in many. Famine, more or less, was in five hundred thousand families; famine, with all its diseases and decay; famine, with all its fears and horrors; famine, with all its dreadful pains, and more dreadful debility. All pined and wasted, sickened and drooped; numbers died – the strong man, the fair maiden, the little infant – the landlord got his rent.

Relief committees were formed and public works set on foot. The landowners grew bustling, if not busy, in the work of demanding relief and dispensing it. To the local relief funds very many of them, indeed, contributed nothing; but there was others who contributed even so large a sum as 000’000 ¼ percent on their annual income, and were most properly appreciated and praised as beneficent individuals, while several gave a percentage of double or thrice that amount – and Ireland rung with applause.

They demanded the Labour Rates Act; called for works which would increase the productive powers of the soil; and grew clamorous in the expression of pity for their suffering countrymen, whom they charged Government with delivering up to famine by adopting an erroneous and insufficient system of relief. Finally, under the flag of their country they met in the Rotunda, and formed an Irish party for the professed object of establishing and supporting an Irish party for Irish purposes; that is to say, for the purpose of taking care that the pecuniary interests of the landowners of Ireland should suffer no detriment, more especially by any extension of poor law relief. Such is the history of the present famine. Does it furnish or suggest an answer to the concluding query of Dr. Hughes?

But another famine is in preparation, and will surely come, no matter for fallacious statements of an increased breadth of tillage. The lord of the soil had got his rent, and become a public and professed patriot. The cultivator of the soil had lost his provision of food, and gone out on the public roads for public wages. The preparations for tillage, of course, were neglected. The tenant had neither seed nor subsistence; or, if he had any small provision of either, he was soon deprived of it by the rules of the relief system.

Whatever seed he might have saved from the landlord; whatever little means he possessed for making manure; whatever small capital was in his hands to work on with, were taken from him by relief committees and relieving officers. The law was laid down, and acted on very generally, that no man should obtain either gratuitous relief or public employment until he should be first completely pauperised.

If he had seed corn he should consume it, if he had a cow he should sell it – and not a few of them said, as they are still saying, “if he had land he should give it up;”, otherwise he could have no title to relief. This was to say, they chose rather to maintain wholly for ever after the first few months, than to maintain partially for those few months; rather to give permanent support then temporary aid; rather to create a pauper than to assist a struggling worker.

This was to declare in favour of pauperism, and to vote for another famine. I am putting no blame on the parties to this proceeding. The reasons for it were plausible in appearance. I am merely stating a fact, and charging nothing more than mistake. “We must guard against the evils,” said the official authorities, “Of indiscriminate relief, and avoid the risk of pauperising the feelings of the peasantry, encouraging the spirit of dependence, and training them to the trade of beggars.”

To me it seems it would have been safer to incur the risk of pauperising their feelings than the certainty of pauperising their means; and better even to take away the will to be independent than to take away the power. “When there are such numbers utterly destitute,” said the Relief Commission, “why should we give a man relief who has a barrel of oats in his possession? It would be wasting silver and cheating the poor.”

What was it to them that the barrel of oats, if kept for seed, would have produced 12 barrels at harvest? – A return of 1,200 per cent on the cost of feeding the man while consuming his poor little provision of corn seed.

The tenant was left without seed or substance. The effect is, that the smaller class of holdings remain uncropped and untilled, and in many cases abandoned. This class of holdings constituted a large portion of the tillage lands of Ireland. The largest class of farms are exclusively under grass. The proportion of pasture diminishes as the farm grows smaller.

The smallest class of holdings are exclusively in tillage; and these are not in the usual course of preparation for being cropped, but will, to all appearance of evidence, remain waste this year. The season is passing. The potato will not be planted to any efficient extent. No adequate substitute has been adopted or found – no adequate additional quantity of corn crop, or of any crop, has been sowed, or is in course of sowing. A famine for next year is all but secured.

Numbers of the small occupiers have abandoned or surrendered their holdings. The landowners are assisting the natural operation of the famine instead of arresting it – putting the tenant out of his foothold of land instead of aiding him to retain and cultivate it. In every district the tenantry are being evicted in hundreds by legal process, by compelled surrenders, by forced sales for trifling sums – the price being very frequently paid by a receipt for fictitious or forgotten arrears.

These men are being converted into “independent labourers;” and the number already evicted will form a very considerable addition to a class too numerous even now for the demands or resources of the country – too many to be absorbed – too many to be supported. Another famine comes next year – a famine of undiminished powers of destruction to act on diminished powers of resource and resistance – a famine of equal origin to act on weakened conditions.

Additional numbers of the small occupiers are thrown out of occupation of land – the entire body I am speaking of are thrown out. It will not stop short of that, nor stop even there. Who can limit such an operation to ten-acre holdings, or limit it at all? They lose this land; they acquire, in lieu of it, that valuable species of Irish property, “independent labour.”

Stop one moment to look at the fact. Five hundred thousand families added to the two hundred and thirty thousand who form the present mass of labour – six hundred and seventy thousand adult males converted into “independent labourers” – six hundred and seventy thousand hands added to those three hundred and nineteen thousand already so successfully engaged in independent labour.

But surely I overstate. No one will believe this can happen until it has actually happened. No one believes in the future  – no one sees tomorrow as he sees today. I may not be correct to the very last figure, but I am effectively correct. But is it I that say this result will come – is it I alone?

Every speaker in parliament whose words carry weight forestates this result, defends, justifies, urges it; and not a voice rises to protest against the principle, the feasibility, the consequences. It is the policy and purpose of every act that is passing through the legislature. “Whereas, it is desirable that the conversion of the inferior classes of Irish landholders into independent labourers shall take effect as speedily and safely as possible, and without serious damage or danger to the English interest or the English garrison in Ireland.” I read this as the preamble of every Irish act of the session.

It is assumed and set down that such conversion is to take place – not partially neither, but universally. No authority assumes, no argument asserts, that the small occupiers are too many, and ought to be reduced. The assertion is that the small occupier is a man who ought not to be existing.  He ought to be, and is to be henceforth, an independent labourer. No cause, moreover, is operating against one of the class, that is not operating against all.

But the confiscation will not be limited to ten-acre holdings. There are causes in operation will shortly render it impossible for tillage land to pay as high a rent as land under grass. Many causes – some natural, others artificial – render it impossible to produce corn in this country at as low a cost, quality for quality, as it can be produced in most others.

Our corn will soon be undersold in the market by a superior article -a result rendered surer and speedier by the present increased demand for foreign corn. Shortly, too, the house-feeding of cattle can no longer be carried on. Even if the repeal of the corn duty should realise the utmost expectations of its advocates, and if there should be, consequently, a proportionate increase in the demand for beef, mutton, butter, and wool, yet the tillage land of Ireland, turned into grass land, will be fully adequate to supply that increased demand.

House-feeding will be unable to compete against grass-feeding, or to pay for itself. Together with corn, therefore, the root crops will no longer be raised; a regular system of active cultivation is sustained and supported by corn alone. The agriculture that employs and maintains millions will leave the land, and an agriculture that employs only thousands will take its place.

Ireland will become a pasture ground once again, as it was before, and its agricultural population of tillage farmers and labourers will decay and die out by degrees, or vanish and become extinct at once; even as heretofore, from the same cause in many times and countries, populations as numerous, melting away by a rapid mortality, or mouldering out by slow but sure decay, have perished and passed away from the earth; for classes of people, nor entire populations, nor nations themselves, are not fixed or immortal, anymore than the individual men that compose them.

The eight thousand individuals who are owners of Ireland by divine right and the grant of God, confirmed (by themselves) in sundry successive acts of parliament, have a full view of these coming results I have stated, and have distinctly declared their intention of serving notice to quit on the people of Ireland. Bernal Osborne states that the small landlords are unable (after having paid their rents) to support themselves out of the land, and that they must be completely got rid of.

The landowners have adopted the process of depopulating the island, and are pressing it forward to their own destruction or to ours. They are declaring that they and we can no longer live together in this land. They are enforcing self-defence on us. They are, at least, forcing on us the question of submission or resistance; and I, for one shall give my vote for resistance.

Before I examine that question, and state what I conceive to be the true grounds, limits, and mode of resistance, I purpose making one other and last appeal to the landowners to adopt the only course that can now save a struggle.