Ireland’s history in the Nineteenth Century saw the seeds sown that explains Ireland’s history in the Twentieth Century. The so-called ‘Irish Problem’ did not suddenly occur in one set year in the Nineteenth Century. Ireland’s problems go much further back . Oliver Cromwell, who governed Britain in the mid-Seventeenth Century and at the time when Britain was a republic, detested Roman Catholicism and believed that the Irish could never be trusted. His attempts to ‘solve’ the Irish problem, as he saw it, was to send to the island his New Model Army and coerce the Irish into obedience. This included the sieges of Wexford and Drogheda where the defenders in both towns were executed after being offered terms of clemency if they surrendered to Cromwell’s forces. Cromwell also believed that the best way to bring Ireland to heel in the long term, was to ‘export’ children from Ireland to the sugar plantations in the West Indies, so that Ireland would suffer from a long term population loss, making it less of a threat to mainland Britain.
In the Eighteenth Century, farming land in Ireland became more and more the property of English landlords. The bulk of these were absentee landlords who showed little if any compassion for the people who worked the land. The rural population of Ireland, which was the large majority of the population, lived lives of extreme poverty.
The extent of poverty and the issues surrounding it were well known in the British establishment. Even a stalwart Tory like the Duke of Wellington commented that:
|“There never was a country in which poverty existed to the extent that it exists in Ireland.”
Europeans who went to rural Ireland (though they would have been few in number) were shocked by what they saw:
|“Now I have seen Ireland, it seems to me that the poorest among the Letts, the Estonians and the Finlanders lead a life of comparative luxury.” (Kohl, a German visitor to Ireland in the early C19th)
Many years later when Gladstone wrote to the government of Naples to complain about the state of prisons there, he got a reply stating that what existed in Ireland, outside of prisons, was much worse and that he had no right to complain about prisons in Naples when Ireland was in such a state for people not in prison.
The poverty that existed in rural Ireland is relatively easy to explain and centers around land ownership.
First, the people who owned the land were frequently absent landlords who paid little attention to the state of their land. Their only concern was rent. Those who could not pay were evicted and there was no safety net in place for these people when this happened – as it frequently did. Absentee landlords were responsible for much anger among the rural population of Ireland. They crammed as many families onto their land as they could. No family who worked the land they had, could produce enough to feed their families. Landlords enforced their authority through thugs or via the police or army who could be called in to evict families if the landlord requested such help. Even in the Nineteenth Century, it would still be possible to describe those who lived in rural Ireland as leading the lives of peasants, a term that would have been used in Medieval England. They had no rights, the power rested solely in the hands of the landlords and those who upheld law and order were frequently in league with landlords.
The second problem the rural population had was the fact that their annual food harvest was based on the potato and not a crop such as wheat or corn.
The famous agriculturist, Arthur Young, once wrote:
|“I will not assert that potatoes are a better food than bread and cheese, but I have no doubt of a belly full of one, being better than a bellyful of the other.”
Potatoes were notoriously susceptible to disease and famines due to a failed potato crop had occurred on a number of occasions in Nineteenth Century Ireland. However, the potato blight of 1845 eclipsed all that had passed before and its impact of Ireland is impossible to quantify outside of simple statistics.
Why was the potato grown? When it was not blighted by disease, a good harvest could be expected. Also the vegetable could produce a high yield with little intensive care. With protein from the dairy produce found in rural communities, those who used the potato as the basis for their diet, could get a reasonably good diet. However, when the potato crop failed, those who relied on it faced very serious problems.
The most infamous example of potato failure was in 1845. Its impact on Ireland was nothing short of catastrophic.
Ireland’s population growth in the first half of the Nineteenth Century had been great. Disraeli, even claimed that it was higher than the growth rate of China – but this is debatable simply because of the lack of statistics. From 1780 to 1840, Ireland’s population grew at an estimated 172%. For comparison, in mainland Britain, it is estimated to have been at 88% in the same time period. By 1845, before the Great Famine, the population of Ireland was 8 million.
Why did Ireland’s population grow so quickly in the first half of the Nineteenth Century? The impact of the Catholic Church cannot be overstated. The Catholic Church ruled against contraception and abortions (in whatever forms existed then) and preached about the value of large families. Also, many did believe that a large family was an insurance in old age as your children would look after you. Therefore, the more children you had, the more comfortable you would be in your later years. However, a large family faced many problems when food was in short supply. When there was no supply – as in 1845 to 1847 – the situation became catastrophic.
The Irish were alienated from the British mainland up to 1845, but after it, this feeling of alienation grew. It was after the Great Famine that secret organisations grew and they simply wanted the British out of Ireland and a republic set up free from the rule of Westminster. The most famous were the Fenians and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The tactics of such groups were brutal including the murder of Lord Cavendish, Chief Secretary for Ireland, and T. Burke, the Permanent Under-Secretary in Ireland, in Phoenix Park, Dublin, in 1882. This one event horrified Victorian England but seemed to confirm to many in England that the Irish simply could not be trusted. Despite the murders, Gladstone continued with his Home Rule campaign, but without success in the Nineteenth Century. While Gladstone tried to push through many acts for Ireland, the basic issues of poverty and land ownership were never addressed.