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sum of a hundred thousand pounds were demanded for
renewals. As the tenants were utterly unable to pay these,
two or three rich merchants of Belfast obtained the lands,
turned them into pasture, and thus drove the population
of a vast district from their homes.' The Oakboy agitation
had its origin in the hardships suffered by the poor in
being bound to contribute their labour to the upkeep of
the roads.' Indeed, of all the conspiracies which convulsed
Ireland during the latter half of the eighteenth century,
the only ones which did not arise from the pressure of
economic grievances were the Peep o' Day Boys and the

Towards the end of the century the middlemen seem
to have disappeared to some extent, although they never
quite died out. Young mentions that " the system of letting
farms to be re-let to lower tenants is very much going
out; it is principally done upon the estates of absentees,

1 Wakefield, vol. i.. p. 308 ; see Si(?erson. p. 128. and authorities there referred to.

^ Lecky, vol. ii., p. 50 ; Lewis, Irish Disturbances, p. 35.

« Lewis, p. 36. * Lewis, p. 36.


whose aj,'ents think of the most rent from the most solvent
tenants.'" One of the results of I'oster's Corn Law was
to s(|uee/.e out a good many of the middlemen. The head
landlords, seeing the great increase of rents which was
caused hy the growth of tillage, became jealous of the
middlemen, who were reaping all the benefits of this
increase, whereas their own rent had not increased : they,
therefore, did all they could to break the leases of the
middlemen, and took advantage of every technical point
to put an end to their long tenancies.^ Their interests
were then auctioned, sometimes to other large holders,
who, in their turn, became middlemen, and replaced those
who had been ejected, but more frequently the landlord
let the land by auction direct to the tenants, thus pro-
curing a higher rent. This did not in any way relieve
the condition of the tenants, who were still in the same
position as before, with the one exception that, instead
of being ground down by middlemen, they were ground
down by the landlords or their agents.^ An English
traveller, in 1806, noticed that the middlemen were dis-
appearing in various parts of the country,* and the same
feature is noticed in several counties in the statistical
surveys which were made about that time for the Dublin
Society. In 1822 the middlemen were said to have
nearly disappeared ;' indeed, the elimination of the
middlemen would seem to be a feature common to every
improving country; " in Ireland recently, as formerly in
England, Scotland and France, the system of middlemen,
or allowing the tenant to re-let at a profit, has gone out
m proportion as the countries became more improved.'"
It is possible that too much weight mav have been laid
on the evils caused by the middlemen. After all, the
cause of the evils of the Irish land system was the system
Itself, and not the individuals who took advantage of it.
This was admirably put by Isaac Butt: "It is an

; You„«. ^u ■ 114 and 237. » Wakefield, vol. i.. p. 244.

" Smerson. p. 150. 4 „ , ^ .

«r ,-fc^.„^, ,, . *tioare's Tour tn Ireland.

• Femuson and Vance. Imfrovtmeui c/ Utnd in Ireland. 1851. p. 185.


absurdity to say that the existence of the middlemen was
the cause of the miseries of the people. At the very worst
they were the administrators of a vicious system of land
tenures — not its creators. They may have preyed upon
the miseries of the people, but they did not make them.
It is plain that whatever the middleman did the chief land-
lord might do, and if the power of extortion and oppres-
sion did not exist in that chief landlord it was not possible
for him to delegate it to another. The middleman was
obnoxious, because, wherever he did exist, he was the
instrument of oppression who came in contact with the
people ; and it was the natural tendency both of the people
and the aristocracy to throw all the blame of every
oppression on him. . . . It would be the greatest of all
mistakes to imagine that oppression and extortion were
confined to estates that were let to middlemen. On the
contrary, the agent of the absentee proprietor was
generally, if not always, a more grievous oppressor than
even the worst of the middlemen, and the resident land-
owner, having just the same opportunity for oppression,
used it just as often.'" " There are very few competent
thinkers," says Professor Cairnes, "who will not be of
opinion that the utmost damage inflicted by absenteeism
on Ireland — and I am, for my part, far from thinking
that this was not very considerable even from an economic
point of view — was absolutely inappreciable in comparison
with the misfortunes entailed upon the country through
the proprietary who remained at home. The absentee
landlords neglected their duties, and drew their rents ;
the resident proprietarv drew much more exorbitant rents,
and were, at the same time, the active agents of a tyranny
as demoralising and ruinous as any which the history of
modern times has exhibited.'"

' Butt. Irish People and Irish Land. p. 111. 2 Political Essays, p. 161.


Cottiers, Spalpeens, and Beggars.

Till-: Irish agricultural labouring class was made up of
three difTerent grades of workmen — " first, cottiers
who hold at will a small take of land, seldom more than
an acre, and grass for a couple of cows, at an exorbitant
rent, which they work out at the small wages of four
pence or five pence a day without diet ; second, persons
who have short leases or leases of uncertain tenure at
high rents; and third, the inhabitants of cottages in the
neighbourhood of towns and small villages, who hold no
land, and are supported by daily labour.'" The last class
must have formed an insignificant proportion of the
whole, and the general rule was that the agricultural
labourer derived his subsistence partly from the small
money-wages which he received from his employer, the
farmer, and partly from the produce, chiefly potatoes, of
the little patch of ground which he tilled. Labourers
employed on these terms were known as "cottiers," or
"cottars," and the system of employment under which
they worked "the cottier system," or " cottierism " —
" a specific and almost unique product of Irish industrial
life."' The great majority of the Irish population during
the eighteenth century were " cottiers." and, therefore, an
examination of their condition must take a foremost place
in any account of the economic condition of the time.
The best contemporary account of the cottiers' condition
is to be found in Young. " It is necessary here," he says,

i^i?.'^'c."'S''''^''°*'''^'^^'"*^"'''* • • • C;..Wr«t. Dublin. 1771.


" to explain the common cottar system of labour in Ire-
land, which much resembles that of Scotland until very
lately; and which was probably the same all over Europe
before arts and commerce changed the face of it. If there
are cabins on a farm, they are the residence of the cottars ;
if there are none, the farmer marks out the potato gar-
dens, and the labourers, who apply to him on his hiring
the land, raise their own cabins on such spots; in some
places the farmer builds; in others he only assists them
with the roof, etc. ; a verbal compact is then made, that
the new cottar shall have his potato garden at such a
rent, and one or two cows kept by him at the price of the
neighbourhood, he finding the cows. He then works with
the farmer at the rate of the place, usually sixpence half-
penny a day, a tally being kept (half by each party), and
a notch cut for every day's labour ; at the end of six
months, or a year, they reckon, and the balance is paid.
The cottar works for himself as his potatoes require.'"
Young points out that, in the cottar system, the recom-
pense for labour was the means of living; that in England
these were dispensed in money, but in Ireland in land or
commodities ; and concludes that such a system, be it
good or bad, was consistent with the situation of Ireland,
and that it would necessarily continue until a great
increase of national wealth had induced a more general
circulation of money. ^

The position of the cottier is nowhere better analysed
than in an essay by the late Professor Cairnes, which is
so admirable that it must be quoted at length: — "One
of the most curious and unfortunate blunders which have
been made about the Irish cottier is that which confounds
him with the peasant proprietor under the general descrip-
tion of a representative of the petite culture. In fact, the
two forms of tenure are, in that which constitutes their
most important attribute — the nature of the cultivator's
interest in the soil which he tills — diametrically opposed:
and the practical results stand as strongly in contrast as

• Totir, vol. ii.. p. 37. 2 Tour, vol. ii.. p. 40.


the conditions. It would be difficult, perhaps, to conceive
two modes of existence more utterly opposed than the
thriftless, squalid, and half-starved life of the peasant of
Munster and Connaught, and that of the frugal, thriving,
and energetic races that have, over a great portion of Con-
tinental I*:urope — in Norway, in Belgium, in Switzerland,
in Lombardy — and, under the most various external
conditions, turned swamp and deserts into gardens. And
it is scarcely a less gross error to apply to the same status,
after the fashion so common with political reasoners in
this country, conclusions deduced from the relations of
landlord and tenant in England and Scotland. True, the
cottier and the cultivator of Great Britain are alike tenant-
farmers; they both pay rent, which is, moreover, in each
case determined by the competition of the market. But
under what circumstances does competition take place in
the two countries? In Great Britain the competitors are
independent capitalists, bidding for land as one among
the many modes of profitable investment which the com-
plex industrial civilisation of the country supplies : in
Ireland they are men — we speak, it will be remembered,
of the cottier class — for the most part on the verge of
absolute pauperism, who see in a few acres of land their
sole escape — we cannot now^ say from starvation, but at
best from emigration and the workhouse. Is it strange
that the result should be different in the two cases?
and that 'rent.' which in England and Scotland repre-
sent exceptional profit (the appropriation of which by
the landlord merely equalises agriculture with other occu-
pations), should, in Ireland, be the utmost penny that
can be wrung from the poverty-stricken cultivator? How,
again, does the analogy of the tenant-farmer of Continental
countries meet the present case? Between the ' metayer'
and the cottier there is the broad distinction, that, \vhile
the rent of the former is a fixed proportion of the produce,
determined by custom, that of the cottier is whatever com-
petition may make it— the competition, we repeat, of
mipoverished men. bidding under the pressure of pros-


pective exile or beggary. Lastly, we must insist on
keeping the cottier distinct from another class also, with
whom he has been more pardonably confounded, and
with whom, indeed, he has many real affinities — the serf
of Eastern Europe and of mediceval times. Judging from
their ordinary existence, there is, perhaps, little to distin-
guish the cottier from the serf. Nevertheless, they are
not the same. The serf is adscriptus glehce : the Irish
cottier, as he knows by painful experience, is bound to
the soil by no tie save those imposed by his own neces-
sities. He has unbounded freedom to relinquish, when
he pleases, his farm and home, and to transfer himself
to the other side of the Atlantic, and he pays for the
privilege (of which, no doubt, he has largely availed him-
self) in the liability, to which the serf is a stranger, of
being expelled from his farm and home when it suits the
views of his landlord.

" Such is the Irish cottier, the essential incidents of
whose position are w^ell summed up in the definition of
Mr. Mill — ' a labourer, who makes his contract for the
land without the intervention of a capitalist farmer,' and
' the conditions of whose contract, especially the rents,
are determined not by custom, but by competition.'

" I have hitherto dwelt chiefly upon one incident — the
fundamental one, as it seems to me — in the condition of
the Irish cottier — the determination of his rent by com-
petition, he himself having no other resource than the
land. But we may look at him also from another point
of view, as, to borrow the definition of Judge Longfield,
* the cultivator who produces almost wholly for his own
consumption, and pays his rent chiefly in labour.'

" The Irish peasant undertook to pay for his patch of
land that sum of money which the competition of his
fellows forced him to pay, and this sum he was allowed to
work out in labour, at a rate of wages also determined by
competition. Cottierism (omitting the condition of per-
sonal freedom, and regarding it simply in its economic



aspect) was thus, in fact, serfdom reduced to a money
standard, and modilied by competition.'"

It has been pointed out above that a strong analogy
existed between the Irish land system at the beginning
of the eighteentli century and the English system after
the Norman Conquest. The position of the " villein " in
the latter was now taken in Ireland by the cottier. Lewis,
in his Hssay on Irish Disturbances, demonstrates that the
Irish cottier was subject to all the disabilities of the
ancient English "villein." "The transition from the
state of a villein to that of a free labourer cannot be
considered as fully effected until the peasant is able to
live on wages, without cultivating his own land, and
until his wages are regularly paid to him in money. The
essential mark of a villein is that he gains nothing by his
work ; although he may live in a separate house, contract
a legal marriage, rear a family, have the use of land, and
even though he may be only bound to perform certain
specified services, yet he never receives any remuneration
fn^m his lord. Now, a cottier who rents a cabin and a
small piece of ground, and who works for his landlord
on an agreement that the wages are to be set off against
the rent, is virtually in the same condition as a villein,
if his annual wages never exceed his annual rent, and if,
in fact, he never receives nor can hope to receive any-
thing. His person may be free, but he can no more hope
to raise himself to pecuniary independence than the villein
who was bound to work for his lord without claiming any
recompense. It is only when a man receives his wages at
certain short intervals, and relies on the payments made
to him in money for his means of support, that the
transition from villeinage can be said to be fully effected.'"

The average rent paid by the cottier for his little bit
of land was estimated by Young at £j 13s. lod., and. in
addition. £\ its. 3d. for grass for his cow; while the
average price which he got for his labour was 6^d. a day

>Cairnp-» Fr.jume-'fs on Ireland, published in Political Essavx. 1873: on Scotch
Cotten«m. «« AHam Rmith. H>.77/;i of \ations. Bk. i., ch. x., pt. 1. and Skene. Celtii:
itcolianil. vol. 111. 2 Lewis, p. 319.


all the year round. The average size of his plot was about
an acre. This was barely enough to sustain life, and, all
through the century, the poor cottiers were very near the
verge of starvation. In 1728, Sheridan wrote in the
Intelligencer:—'' When I travel through any part of this
unhappy kingdom, it raises two passions in my breast of
a different kind : an anger against those vile betrayers and
insulters of it, who insinuate themselves into favour by
saying it is a rich nation ; and a sincere passion for the
natives, who are sunk to the lowest degree of misery and
poverty, whose houses are dunghills, whose victuals are
the blood of their cattle or the herbs in the field, and whose
clothing, to the dishonour of God and man, is naked-
ness." In the same year. Swift drew an equally
depressing picture: " My heart is too heavy to continue
this journey longer, for it is manifest that whatever
stranger took such a journey would be apt to think him-
self travelling in Lapland or Iceland rather than in a
country so favoured by nature as ours. The miserable
dress and diet and dwelling of the people, the families of
farmers who pay great rents living in filth and nastiness
upon buttermilk and potatoes, not a shoe or stocking to
their feet, or a house so convenient as an English hog-sty
to receive them.'" In a letter written in 1726, Swift
had previously referred to the subject: "All they have
left is, at the expiration of a lease, to rack their tenants,
which they have done to such a degree that there is not
one farmer in a hundred through the kingdom who can
afford shoes or stockings to his children, or to eat flesh,
or drink anything better than sour milk or water, twice
in a year: so that the whole country, except the Scottish
plantation in the North, is a scene of misery and deso-
lation hardly to be matched on this side of Lapland."" In
1719, Archbishop King wrote that "The peasants in
France and Turkey live much better than the tenants in
Ireland." The state of the cottiers in 1764 is described
in Bush's Hibernia Curiosa as follows: — "The landlord

1 Short View of the State of Ireland, 1727-8. 2 And see The Tribune. Dublin. 1729.


does nothing for them. Tliey build their own mud hovels,
plant their hedges, dig their ditches. They are half
naked, half starved, utterly destitute of all providence and
of all education ; the poor wretches have hardly a skin of
a potato left to live on — they live in cabins of such
shocking material and construction that from hundreds of
them you may see the smoke ascending from every inch
of the roof, for scarce one of them have any chimney, and
the rain drips from every inch of the roof on the half-
naked, half-starving inhabitants within .... the case of
the lower class of farmers, indeed, is little better than a
state of slavery." Their condition towards the end of
the century is described by Whitley Stokes: — " Generally
the cottier has but an acre .... they could afford them-
selves but one meal a day, and that consisted of potatoes
and buttermilk, for which they paid a penny a quart, and
they could never afford to procure themselves enough. In
many places the poor were exposed to a variety of diseases,
especially of putrid diseases, from the poorness of their
diet. In Kerry they lived so low that I am assured by a
medical man that the addition of a very small quantity of
butter to their potatoes is used as a cordial with very
evident advantage.'"

Young, in his Tour, gives a full and sympathetic
account of the cottiers in 1776: " Their food consisted of
milk and potatoes, and practically nothing else " — a diet,
by the way, which Young considered better than that of
the average English labourer—" but of this food there is
one circumstance which must ever recommend it, they
have a bellyful; and that, let me add, is more than the
superfluities of an Englishman leave to his family; let any
person examine minutely into the receipt and expenditure
of an English cottage, and he will f^nd that tea, sugar, and
strong liquors can come only from pinched bellies. I will
not assert that potatoes are a better food than bread and
cheese; but I have no doubt of a bellvful of the one beincr
much better than a half a bellyful of the other; still less

• Whitley Stoke.. Project for Rt^sfablishiug Iniernal Peace in Ireland. Dublin. 1799.


have I that the milk of the Irishman is incomparably
better than the small beer, gin, or tea of the Englishman ;
and this even for the father ; how much better it must be for
the poor infants ? Milk to them is nourishment, is health,
is life. If anyone doubts the comparative plenty which
attends the board of the poor natives of England and
Ireland, let him attend to their meals; the sparingness
with which our labourer eats his bread and cheese is well
known; mark the Irishman's potato-bowl placed on the
floor, the whole family upon their hams around it,
devouring a quantity almost incredible, the beggar seating
himself to it with a hearty welcome, the pig taking his
share as readily as the wife, the cocks, hens, turkeys,
geese, the cur, the cat, and, perhaps, the cow — and all
partaking of the same dish. No man can often have been
a witness of it without being convinced of the plenty,
and, I will add, the cheerfulness, that attends it.'"

Young pointed out that the average cottier labourer
usually had some little live stock, such as a pig or poultry,
and thus eked out his subsistence. With respect to their
clothing and habitation, he says : " The common Irish are,
in general, clothed so very indiflferently, that it impresses
every stranger with a strong idea of universal poverty.
vShoes and stockings are scarcely ever found on the feet of
children of either sex ; and great numbers of men and women
are without them : a change, however, in this respect, as in
most others, is coming in ; for there are many more of them
with those articles of clothing now than ten years ago.
An Irishman and his wife are much more solicitous to
feed than to clothe their children ; whereas in England
it is surprising to see the expense they put themselves to,
to deck out children, whose principal subsistence is tea.
Very many of them in Ireland are so ragged that their
nakedness is scarcely covered ; yet are they in health and
active. As to the want of shoes and stockings, I consider
it no evil, but a much more cleanly custom than the
beastiality of stockings and feet that are w^ashed no oftener

1 Tour. vol. ii., p. 45; and see A Tour in Irelatid in 1775, Anon., London, 1776.


than thuse of our own poor. Women are oftener without
shoes than men; and by washing clothes nowhere but
in rivers and streams, the cold, especially as they roast
their legs in their cabins till they are /tre-spotted, must
swell them to a wonderful size, and horrid black and blue
colour, always met with both in young and old. They
stand in rivers and beat the linen against the great stones
found there with a beetle.

** I remarked, generally, that they were not ill-dressed
of Sundays and holidays, and that black or dark blue was
almost the universal hue.

" The cottages of the Irish, which are all called cabbins,'
are the most miserable looking hovels that can well be
conceived ; they generally consist of only one room : mud
kneaded with straw is the common material of the walls ;
these are rarely above seven feet high, and not always
above five or six; they are about two feet thick, and have
only a door, which lets in light instead of a window, and
should let the smoak out instead of a chimney, but they
had rather keep in it ; these two conveniences they hold
so cheap, that I have seen them both stopped up in stone
cottages, built bv improving landlords ; the smoak warms
them, but certainly is as injurious to their eyes as it is to
the complexions of the women, which, in general in the
cabbins of Ireland, has a near resemblance to that of a
smoaked ham. The number of the blind poor I think
greater there than in England, which is probably owing
to this cause.

" The furniture of the cabbins is as bad as the archi-
tecture; in very many consisting only of a pot for boiling
their potatoes, a bit of a table, and one or two broken
stools; beds are not found universally, the family lying
on straw, equally partook of by cows, calves, and pigs ;
though the luxury of sties is coming in in Ireland, which
excludes the poor pigs from the warmth of the bodies of
their master and mistress; I remarked little hovels of earth
thrown up near the cabbins; and in some places they
build their turf stacks hollow, in order to afford shelter



to the hogs. This is a general description, but the
exceptions are very numerous.'"

Some interesting annual budgets of labourers' families
are given in the first volume of Young's Tour, of which

the following is one : —

Online LibraryGeorge Augustine Thomas O'BrienThe economic history of Ireland in the eighteenth century → online text (page 8 of 38)