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movement in the opposite direction, for after the sup-
pression of the Irish manufactures, but few Englishmen,
except those who obtained Irish offices, came to Ireland.'"
Swift frequently called attention to the growth of
absenteeism in his time: "The rents of land in Ireland,
since they have been of late so enormously raised, and
screwed up, may be computed at about two millions ;
whereof one-third part, at least, is directly transmitted to
those who are perpetual absentees in England. . . .
Upon this subject of perpetual absentees, I have spent
some time in very insignificant reflections; and con-
sidering the usual motives of human actions, which are
pleasure, profit, and ambition, I cannot yet comprehend
how those persons find their account in any of the three..
I speak not of those English peers or gentlemen, who,
besides their estates at home, have possessions here ; for,
in that case, the matter is desperate ; but I mean those
lords, and wealthy knights, or squires, whose birth, and
partly their education, and all their fortune (except some
trifle, and that in very few instances) are in this kingdom.
I knew many of them well enough, during several years,
when 1 resided in England ; and truly I could not discover
that the figure they made was, by any means, a subject
for envy; at least it gave me two very different passions;
for. excepting the advantage of going now and then to

Lccky.vol. i., p. 213.


an opera, or sometimes appearing behind a crowd at
court, or adding to the ring of coaches in Hyde Park, or
losing their money at the Chocolate House, or getting
news, votes, and minutes, about five days before us in
DubHn, I say, besides these, and a few other privileges
of less importance, their temptations to live in London
were beyond my knowledge or conception. And I used
to wonder how a man of birth and spirit could endure
to be wholly insignificant and obscure in a foreign
country, when he might live with lustre in his own ; and
even at less than half that expense, which he strains him-
self to make, without obtaining any one end ; except that
which happened to the frog when he would needs con-
tend for size with the ox. I have been told by scholars
that C^sar said he would rather be the first man in I
know not what village, than the second in Rome. This,
perhaps, was a thought only fit for Csesar : but to be
preceded by thousands, and neglected by millions ; to
be wholly without power, figure, influence, honour, credit,
or distinction, is not, in my poor opinion, a very amiable
situation of life, to a person of title, or wealth, who can
so cheaply and easily shine in his native country.'"

In 1729 a list of the absentees was drawn up by Prior, who
divided them into four classes. The first class comprised
those who had more than ;£400 a year, and who lived con-
stantly abroad and were seldom or never seen in Ireland ;
the second class, those who lived generally abroad visiting
Ireland for a month or two in the year; the third class
those who lived generally in Ireland, but who were absent
at the time that the list was made ; and the fourth class
included all absentees with incomes under ;£400 a year.
The rents paid to the absentees of the first class amounted
to ;i{^204,ooo, to those of the second class ;£9i,8oo, to those
of the third class ;^54,ooo, and to those of the fourth class
;C40,ooo. These figures did not include the large sums
which were annually remitted to pensioners and ofiice
holders living abroad. Another edition of this list was

' Seventh Drapier's Letter.


lr'as'"f()liows:— First class, £37^^900] second class,

publislK-d in .709, wt'c-n the respective amounts were
nut as follows :-First class, £37^,900', second class
/-.oH.VH); third class, >(;92,cx)o, and fourth class, ;^6o,ooo

In 1779 Arthur Young estimated the rents of absentees
nt /732,(xxj.' " It is not," he says, " the simple amount
of the rental being remitted into another country, but
the damp on all sorts of improvements and the total want
of countenance and encouragement which the lower class
of tenantry labour under. The landlord at such a great
distance is out of the way of all complaints : miseries of
which he can see nothing and probably hear as little can
make no impression. All that is required of the agent
is to be punctual in his remittances: and as to the people
who pay him, they are too often welcome to go to the
devil provided their rents could be paid from his ter-
ritories." Hely Hutchinson calculated that the sum
remitted to Great Britain for rents, interest on money,
taxes, salaries, and profits of offices amounted from 1768
to 1773 to ;Ci»ioo,ooo yearly.' In 1783 the amount of the
absentee rents was put at ;£i,227,48o, while in 1797 it
had grown to ;£i,5oo,ooo.' The rate of increase would
undoubtedlv have been much greater had it not been for
the establishment of Grattan's Parliament, w^hich brought
back to Dublin a great number of those who had pre-
viously gone to live in England, thus checking to some
extent the flow in the contrary direction. The number
of absentees increased after the Rebellion, and, of course,
the evil became worse after the Union than it had ever
been before. As early as 1804, Newenham calculated
that over two million a year was remitted to England
in rents.* It was suggested that the extent of this evil
was largely exaggerated," but the general opinion seems
to have been that the absentee rents amounted to a very
large sum.

The suggestion that absentees should be taxed was

> Tour in Irelatul. vol. ii.. p. 114. a Commercial Restraints, page 81.

*lr. Pari. Dehatta. vol. xvii., p. 382.

* Bttiiy nn Poputation. and see ODriscoll's Views of IrelatuJ. 1823.

• Speech of Lord Sheffield in English House of Commons, 22nd April, 1799.


frequently made throughout the century, but the opposi-
tion of the landed gentry in ParHament, who numbered
amongst themselves some of the worst offenders, was
always strong enough to prevent the imposition of such
a tax. In 1729 a tax of four shillings in the pound was
placed on all salaries, profits of employment, and fees
payable to persons who were absent from Ireland more
than six months in the year, but this did not touch rents
of land remitted. The popular party was at all times in
favour of a tax, especially in view of the fact that there
was no land tax in Ireland. Thus an Irish land-owner
resident in England avoided payment of the English land
tax by reason of his property being situated in Ireland, and
of the Irish taxes on consumption, as he was not resident
in the country. The justice of an absentee tax was in-
sisted on by no less an authority than Adam Smith :
" Those who live in another country contribute nothing,
by their consumption, towards the support of the govern-
ment of that country in which is situated the source of
their revenue. If in this latter country there should be
no land tax, nor any considerable duty upon the trans-
ference either of movable or of immovable property, as
is the case in Ireland, such absentees may derive a great
benefit from the protection of a government to the support
of which they do not contribute a single shilling. This
inequality is likely to be greatest in a country of which
the government is in some respects subordinate and
dependent upon that of some other. The people who
possess the most extensive property in the dependent, will
in this case generally choose to live in the governing
country. Ireland is precisely in this situation, and we
cannot, therefore, wonder that the proposal of a tax upon
absentees should be so very popular in that country. It
might, perhaps, be a little difficult to ascertain either what
sort or what degree of absence would subject a man to be
taxed as an absentee, or at what precise time the tax
should either begin or end. If you except, however, this
very peculiar situation, any inequality in the contribution



of individuals which can arise from such taxes is much
more than compensated by the very circumstance which
(Kcasions that inecjuahty, the circumstance that every
man's contribution is altogether voluntary, it being alto-
gether in his power either to consume or not to consume
the commodity taxed.'"

In 1773 financial distress called for a great increase
in revenue, and Lord Ilarcourt, who was Viceroy at the
time, proposed a tax of two shillings in the pound on the
rents of absent proprietors. The Tory party in England,
although they did not like the proposed tax, were prepared
to agree to it if it were passed in the Irish Parliament ; but
the Whigs, who included in their numbers many of the
greatest of the Irish absentee proprietors, opposed the
tax with great vigour. A remonstrance signed by Lords
Devonshire, Rockingham, Bessborough, Miltown and
I'pper Ossory, which Lecky describes as one of the most
perfect State papers of the time, and which was probably
composed by Edmund Burke, was presented to Lord
North. All the arguments against the tax were stated
with great ability, the principal one being that a pro-
prietor of land was entitled to choose his own residence
in any part of the King's dominions that he pleased. It
was pointed out that many of the proprietors of land in
the North of England lived in London, and it was sug-
gested that a restriction on this species of absenteeism
would be the logical conclusion of the proposed measure.
This argument, of course, rested on a fallacy. Although
Ireland and England were under the same crown, in
money matters they were two distinct countries, as they
had separate exchequers, different taxes, and distinct,
indeed hostile, commercial systems. This remonstrance
was seconded by the great English companies, which were
large proprietors of Irish lands.

Lord Harcourt, being apprised of the strong English
opposition, took care that the measure, which he himself
had suggested, should not be passed in the Irish House

' Wealth of Nations. Bk. v.. ch. ii., pt. 2. art. 4.


of Commons. " In consequence of this determination,"
he wrote, " we have used our industry to divert the pro-
gress of the tax for the present, and we mean to allow it
to be moved in the House by a certain wild, inconsistent
gentleman, who has signified such to be his intention,
which will be sufficient to damn the measure were no other
means employed against it." Who this member was we
are unable to say : some say it was Flood, others
Fortescue. However, the ruse was a success, for the
measure was rejected in the House by a majority of

A tax on absentees was again brought forward by
Molyneux in 1783, but was lost by an overwhelming
majority.' In 1797 it was brought forward by Vandeleur,
who, in proposing the tax, referred to the extra taxation
occasioned by the war, and pointed out that it fell
altogether on the heads of the poor. He went on to show
the great evils which had been caused in the country by
the absentees, and stated that all the disturbances of the
last few years had commenced on the lands of absentee
landlords. His proposal of a tax of two shillings in the
pound, however, was defeated by 122 votes to 49.* The
same gentleman brought the matter forward again in the
early part of 1798, but his proposal was defeated by a large
majority, and no further attempt was made during the
century to impose a tax of this kind.

1 Lecky, vol. ii., p. 132 ; Charlemonl MSS., I.. 36.

2 Plowden, vol. ii., p. 64.

^ Ir. Pari. Debates, vol. xvii., p. 376.

Landlords, Middlemen, and Farmers.

OX \i of the worst results of absenteeism was the system
of middlemen which it produced. The landlords, who
lived at a distance from their estates, preferred a moderate
and secure income, coming from a few large tenants, to a
larger income from a number of small ones, with the addi-
tional trouble of managing their estates themselves. They
consequently were in the habit of leasing their land in
large tracts to substantial holders for terms of nine hun-
dred and ninety-nine years, or for ever, by means of fee
farm grants. Once having parted with their land, they
were unable to insist upon the tenant occupying the
holding himself, and, as the value of land tended to rise,
the occupiers found that they could sublet the lands at a
profit. In this way, the middleman became a sort of
agent, " necessary by the indolence of the landlord, who
will not be at the trouble of judging for himself of the
character and responsibility of his tenants, nor of keeping
small accounts — a most expensive agent, as his profit
generally amounts to seven shillings in the pound.'"
The habit of leasing to middlemen was, no doubt,
prevalent on the estates of some of the large resident
gentry, but, on the whole, middlemen were much more
common on, indeed scarcely ever absent from, the estates of
absentees.' The evil was not confined to one middleman :
there were often three or four between the owner of the

• Project for Re-Estahlishing Internal Peace in Ireland, by Whitley Stokes 1799
' Foster's Speech on the Union.


land and the actual occupier : needless to say, the rent
became higher at each transaction, until the ultimate
occupier was burdened with a rent far higher than he
would have been asked to pay if he held immediately from
the owner of the soil.

The middleman had not the interest in the land which
a resident landlord would have had, his only desire being
to extract for himself as large a profit as possible during
the continuance of his holding, and the system of letting
land which prevailed in Ireland enabled a middleman, if
so disposed, to make a very large profit. In England,
when a landlord took a tenant, the former invariably let
the farm in an improved condition, having laid out con-
siderable capital on it : at the end of the lease, moreover,
a good tenant was almost certain of getting a renewal of
his holding, on the same terms, or at a very slightly
increased rent. In Ireland, on the other hand, the land
was let in its unimproved state : the tenant was expected
to stock the farm, and to put it into a state fiit for culti-
vation, without any assistance from the landlord, whose
sole part in the transaction was to extort the rent when it
became due. The system of renewals which prevailed
in England was quite unknown in Ireland : at the end
of the tenancy it was the custom to put up the lands for
auction without any regard to the claims of the occupying
tenant. This custom of auctioning farms over the head
of the outgoing tenant was a characteristic feature of the
Irish land system and was known as " canting."

As soon as the lease of a farm fell in, the landlord,
who was in nine cases out of ten himself a tenant, in short,
a middleman, put the land up for public auction. Some-
times, proposals were invited from prospective tenants.
These were usually under seal, so that no proposer knew
what his neighbour offered, the result being that, in their
anxiety to get a piece of land, the unfortunate tenants
often offered rents which they were quite unable to pay,
without subjecting themselves to extreme hardship. There
is ample evidence of the universal prevalence of this

CH I HI-: KcoNOMic histokv of Ireland

custom. Swift describes the landlords canting their own
lands upon short leases and sacrificing their oldest tenants
f„r a penny an acre advance.' In 1729, Dobbs stated
that "agents, particularly of those small noblemen and
gentlemen who resided in England, or at a distance from
their estates, who have been empowered to treat with
tenants and give leases, to encourage themselves with
their employers, have in some places taken proposals
sealed up under a promise to divulge none of the names
but that of the person who offered the most, and whose
proposal was consequently accepted.'" " When a lease
has expired," says Crumpe, writing in 1793, " the lands
are advertised to be let to the highest bidder: the pro-
posals of each are kept secret, and by this unfair species
of auction a promise of an exorbitant rent is obtained,
verv fretjuently to the exclusion of the former occupier,
who is considered as having no stronger claim to them
than the most perfect stranger, unless he exceed him in
the amount of the proposed rent.'"* " It is now the almost
universal mode of letting land in Ireland for the landlord
to advertise his land at the expiration of a lease to be let
to the best and highest bidder, and to let them

The result of this system of canting was injurious in
the extreme. In the first place, the land, instead of being
let at a proper value, was usually let at a rent higher
than it could reasonably bear. The tenant, having under-
taken to pay this high rent, was devoid of any spare
money wherewith to stock the land. The result, as we
shall see, was a wretchedly low state of cultivation
throughout the country. But even tenants who had
capital to spare had no motive for investing much
in the improvement of land, which would cease to be
theirs in a short time. In England, the tenant farmer
was encouraged to improve his land, knowing that, at the
expiration of his lease, he would be granted a renewal at

< ^uC*""' ''"^ L'nivemal Vse of Irixh Manufactures. 1720.
1 ,,?''• 7''i!."{*' "^ ''■^^'•"d- " Essay on Providing Employment, p. 232.

Ir. Pari. Dchaifs. vol xiii.. r 114 : and see lb., vol. vi.. p.435


a reasonable rent; but in Ireland the tenant knew that the
only consequence of improving his land would be that
in a few years some poor wretch witliout capital or re-
source would be tempted to bid some utterly exorbitant
sum for a lease of it. Indeed, it was common towards the
end of a letting deliberately to waste the land so that it
might fetch a lower price when it came to be auctioned :
•' The tenant, when he finds he cannot renew upon his
own terms, towards the latter end of his lease does all he
can to destroy his farm by turning up all the greensward,
by taking false crops, neglecting to manure it, not giving
it due seasons, and suffering the houses and fences to
run to decay.'" " It is, indeed, the shameful practice,"
wrote Swift, " of too many Irish farmers to wear out their
ground with a plough ; while, either through poverty,
laziness, or ignorance, they neither take care to manure
it as they ought, nor give time to any part of the land to
recover of this: and when their leases are near expired,
being assured that their landlords will not renew, they
plough even the meadows and make such a havoc that
many landlords are considerable sufferers by it.'"

The result of this system of letting land was, there-
fore, disastrous in the extreme. The landlord did not
improve his land, and the tenant had no inducement to
do so, knowing that any improvements effected would
simply have the result of raising the price of the land at
the public " cant," which would take place at the end of a
few years. It is possible that this discouragement might
have been got over if the tenant was sure of enjoying the
land himself for a long term, but the almost universal
custom was to grant nothing but leases so short as to give
the tenant no opportunity to reap the reward of his own
improvements during the duration of his term. It must
be remembered that the vast majority of the tenant
class were Catholics, and, as we have seen, prior to
1778 no Catholic could obtain a lease for more than

' Considerations for Promoting Agriculture, by Lord Molesworth, Dublin, 1723.
^Answer to a Paper called a Memorial, 1728.


thirty-one years, and could only obtain a lease for a
shorter period on the condition that, if at any time the
hoidin^r were improved so that the rent became less than
two-thirds of the improved annual value, the landlord
was entitled to re-enter. It is true that there was nothing
to prevent a Protestant being granted a much longer
lease, but, as a matter of fact, the general custom was
only to grant Protestants leases for the same term that
could legally be granted to Catholics, and, in any event,
the only result of giving a long lease under the existing
system would have been to create a new middleman. In
1778, Catholics were enabled to take long leases, but
the habit of granting short leases had become so fixed
that for some years the change of the law did not make
very much difference to the tenantry.

The Octennial Act of 1768, which provided that Par-
liament should be dissolved every eight years, acted as an
inducement to landowners, who wished to have voters
on their estates, to grant leases for lives — which, being
freehold tenure, qualified the holder to vote. But a lease
for lives was a very uncertain tenure, and not one cal-
culated to tempt tenants to lay out sums of money on
their lands, which might be taken away from them by
the unexpected death of one of the " lives."

The tenants, therefore, had no inducement to improve
their lands, and indeed, even if they had the inducement,
they had not the means wherewith to do so. The result
of the canting system was that an inflated value was given
to the land, and tenants, in their anxiety to acquire a
holding, offered a rent so high that its payment exhausted
their whole available means, and left them no capital
wherewith to stock or improve their holdings. Inci-
dentally, the worst tenants usually procured the lands in
preference to the best, as the former would improvidently
offer to pay a rent higher than the land could really bear,
and which, therefore, would not be offered by a prudent
farmer. The tenants were, indeed, afraid to improve their
lands or to show any outward signs of prosperity, as thev


knew that the only result of this prosperity would be to
increase the rent immediately. A writer in 1724 described
the tenant as " a poor animal tucked up in a voluminous
lease, large enough to be his winding sheet, afraid to ride a
likely garron, to put a good coat on his back, to eat a flesh
dinner once a week, or to keep a cup of small ale in his
house for fear of having his land taken from him.'" " The
landlords," wrote Swift, "either by their ignorance
or greediness to make large rent rolls, usually acted so
ill, as we see by experience, that there is not one tenant
in five hundred who hath made any improvement worth
mentioning, for which I appeal to any man who rides
through the Kingdom whether anything is to be found
among the tenants but beggary and desolation ; the cabins
of the Scotch themselves in Ulster being as dirty and
miserable as those of the wildest Irish. Whereas good
firm penal clauses for improvement with a tolerably easy
rent and reasonable period of time would, in twenty
years, increase the lands of Ireland at least one-third part
in intrinsic value.'" " Farms are screwed up to rack-
rent, leases granted but for a small term of years, tenants
tied down to hard conditions, and discouraged from culti-
vating the land they occupy to the best advantage, by
the certainty they have of the rent being raised on the
expiration of the lease proportionately to the improve-
ments they shall make. Thus is honest industry
restrained ; the farmer is a slave to his landlord ; it is well
if he can cover his family with coarse homespun frieze.'"
The following is Dobbs' Account of this evil system :
" The discouragement to improve arising from our
present method of letting our lands by short leases of
twenty-one years is obvious to all. Places where the
number of Papists is great, it is plain, will never be
improved; on the contrary, they will either endeavour
to waste and impoverish their land, though bound
up by the strictest ties. This is occasioned by

^Considerations uf>oti Cotisideratiotis, Dublin, 1724.

2 Swift, Answer to Several Letters, 1729.

8 Swift, The Present Miserable State of Ireland. 1726.


the shortness t>f tlieir leases. We find very little
improvement made upon leases of thirty-one or forty-
one years. Let us cast our eyes upon churchlands
throughout the Kin^'dom, and we will not find one place
in a hundred where there has been any improvement made
upon them. Have not tenants daily instances before
them of landlords squandering away their time and
money, and living above their fortune, upon the
prospect they have of retrieving their affairs at the expira-

Online LibraryGeorge Augustine Thomas O'BrienThe economic history of Ireland in the eighteenth century → online text (page 6 of 38)