The greater part of the labouring classes in Ireland were sunk in this state of poverty and wretchedness. The potato was almost their only food; and it formed their chief means of obtaining the other necessaries of life. The circumstances under which it was cultivated were very peculiar. A large portion of the crop which was to supply the food of the labourers, as well as that of the pigs which they reared, was grown under the conacre system. Under this system, the labourer usually took from some farmer a small portion of ground for the season, manured, prepared, and sowed it. The rent was paid sometimes in money, but more frequently by working a certain number of days for the farmer, at sixpence, eight-pence, or ten-pence per day. The labourer thus became a commercial speculator in potatoes. He sunk his capital in manuring the ground, and in seed. He mortgaged his labour for a part of the ensuing year for the rent of his field. If his speculation proved successful, he was able to replace his capital, to fatten his pig, and to support himself and his family, while he cleared off his debt to the farmer. If it failed, his former savings were gone; his heap of manure had been expended to no purpose in preparing his field; and he had lost the means of rendering his pig fit for market. But his debt to the farmer still remained, and the scanty wages which he could earn at some periods of the year, were reduced not only by the increased number of persons looking for work, but also by the diminished ability of the farmers to employ them. |
Many have attributed this state of chronic poverty to the facility with which a bare subsistence was obtained by the cultivation of the potato. Such does not appear to us to have been the case. The people lived on potatoes because they were poor; and they were poor because they could not obtain regular employment. This want of employment seems in great measure to have arisen from the state of the law, and the practice respecting the occupation and ownership of land.
Not only were a great number of the landlords needy men, powerless to assist either themselves or their tenants, but in very many cases they had ceased to reside in Ireland. They found that in other counties the scanty residue of their rental procured for them more of the luxuries to which they had been accustomed, than they could obtain at home. They were anxious to be relieved from the burden of supporting a high social position upon inadequate means. They were disgusted by seeing their estates placed under the management of a receiver appointed by the Court of Chancery. They were annoyed by the importunities of their tenantry, and pained by the sight of misery which they could not relive; and influenced by one or more of these causes, they sought in another land the consideration and enjoyment which they no longer met with in their own. The resident gentry were therefore few in many parts of Ireland, and were often widely separated; and in a large part of the country there were whole parishes with scarcely an educated resident except the Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy; while the extent of others, and the union in some cases of several parishes into one benefice, deprived many districts even of that assistance. When the famine resulting from the blight of the potato brought so many to destitution, the labours of the few who, in those deserted districts, exerted themselves to feed the poor, were thus greatly increased, as the whole burden was cast upon them. "The position of a "county gentleman," writes one of this class, "left single-handed as I am, to deal with such a calamity, and doomed daily to hear tales of woe which he cannot alleviate, is truly miserable." At any time, the want of an educated, intelligent body of men to carry out the various local measures must be severely felt. But its pressure was almost overpowering, when the whole population of many districts were fed by the hands of strangers. We believe that this want of the necessary machinery for administering relief in the districts which most required it, had more effect than any other circumstance in impeding the exertions requisite to relieve the sufferings of the destitute in that time of calamity.*
The restrictions which had previously existed on the importation of foreign grain had evidently an important influence on the condition of the people of Ireland. The natural laws which the all-wise Creator has impressed on human society, render us dependent on each other for the various wants of life. This dependence appears to apply in the case of nations as well as individuals. It is a wise and benevolent arrangement of Providence, that different countries should yield different valuable products; and one of the effects apparetntly intended by this variety of production, arising from the variety of soil and climate, is the promotion of that friendly intercourse and exchange of commodities by which both parties are benefited. This intercourse tends to make nation better acquainted with nation, to remove prejudices, to counteract the disposition for war, and to bind together in one family the whole brotherhood of man.
If the trade in corn had been free, and if the almost exclusive possession of the English market had not held out peculiar inducements for the cultivation of wheat, we may presume that the attention of Irish farmers and landholders would have been given to other crops for which the soil and climate appear more peculiarly suited. Wheat would still have been grown, but the principal objects of the farmer's attention would have been oats, barley, green crops and flax; and even more care than heretofore would have been devoted to the rearing and fattening of cattle. The result would probably have been the importation of wheat for the middle and upper classes; and of Indian corn for the use of the poor, and for the feeding of stock; while oats, barley, cattle, and flax, both raw and manufactured, would have been exported. A more extended commerce must consequently have existed with foreign countries. The price of food being allowed to sink to its natural level, would have placed bread and the other cereal products within the reach of a larger class of the people. The lower classes, being thrown less exclusively on the potato for support, would have consumed more oatmeal, and have learned the use of Indian corn; and for the distribution of these various articles of food, a larger number of dealers and a greater amount of internal trade would have been requisite.
The want of a previously existing import trade in corn increased the difficulties of obtaining supplies from foreign countries. The restrictions were relaxed in the summer of 1846, and ceased entirely in the early part of 1847; but the effects they had produced could not be immediately removed. They had prevented the natural growth of trade, and a fully developed commerce could not at once be brought into perfect action. As soon as the demand for foreign supplies became urgent, a sudden and general advance of freights took place. Vessels could not be obtained for less than double, and sometimes treble the ordinary rates. The difficulty and expense of importing food was thus greatly increased. "We are unable," wrote a valued American correspondent, in second-month, 1847, "to send you all the food you require, for want of vessels. It is heart-rendering to think that while our granaries are bursting with food, your poor are starving." Under any circumstances, it is probable that the failure of an important crop would have produced a considerable advance of freights, in the endeavour to supply the deficiency; but the advance would in all probability have been comparatively small, if a foreign trade in corn had already existed, and if the people of Ireland had been less dependant on the potato for support. After a short time, the high freights produced their natural effect of attracting large quantities of shipping to the conveyance of corn, so that freights fell even below their former rates.