H.M. Hyndman

England For All

Chapter V

It is perhaps the most telling commentary upon our government of Ireland, that in dealing with the affairs of that island English statesmen are still obliged to proceed in every respect upon the separate system. Ireland has been an integral portion of the United Kingdom for eighty years, and yet we have at this time more than 30,000 troops and 12,000 constabulary occupied in keeping down a serious rebellion. This, at any rate, is the contention of the people immediately responsible for that law and order to secure which a liberal ministry has been content to override the first guarantee of all liberty, and to proclaim the capital of the country in a state of siege. There is, perhaps, no need for the mass of Englishmen to take special blame to themselves for the harm which has been done. They are scarcely responsible for a policy over which as a mass they have exercised no real control. Yet it is impossible to compare what has happened with Ireland to that which has taken place in regard to Alsace and Lorraine, or Savoy and Nice, without being compelled to acknowledge that in all that relates to a subject people they manage these matters better in France. Reforms in Ireland – political, religious, economical, social – have in every case been delayed, until they have ceased to be boons to the people; pressure from without has been waited for in every instance, until it took an explosive shape; and men who to start with were ready to welcome moderate measures, have been driven to combine on an almost revolutionary programme, from sheer hopelessness of obtaining justice in any other way.

There is no need to go back to the history of centuries of misgovernment to account for what we see to-day. Doubtless the wrongs of the past have done much to embitter the relations between two countries which ought to be at one; but enough has occurred within the lifetime of the present generation to account for that sad state of affairs which politicians of all parties deplore and all ought to strive to remedy. In Ireland, as in England and Scotland, the people have been deprived of the possession of their own land in favour of a small minority. Such manufactures as existed having been destroyed long since by English legislation, and Ireland not producing iron and coal to a profitable extent, the men have been unable to seek in the cities the work which their brothers in destitution across the channel were enabled to obtain. Hence arose that earth-hunger which enabled landowners to exact rack-rents, and left the people to multiply on poor food, nearer and ever nearer to the limit of starvation. Foreign conquest and absenteeism have aggravated the mischief politically and economically. Difference of race and religion rendered grave social ills more difficult to deal with. But the great catastrophe of 1847 ought to have opened our eyes to some portion of the truth – ought to have shown the people of England that here we had an exceptional problem to deal with, and that such dominance as had been established was discreditable to the rulers and ruinous to the ruled.

That fearful famine formed the starting-point of the modern history of Ireland. It had been predicted by men of very different views and capacities. It came, as such cataclysms sometimes do, in its worst possible shape, and was followed up by a revolutionary legislation which all can now see was most unfortunate. Instead of accepting the wise recommendations of the Devon Commission – made, be it remembered, three years before the famine – or the still wiser advice of Lord Beaconsfield, given about the same time, but later so unfortunately withdrawn – full rights were given to landlords, new and old, to uproot the population, tear down their miserable dwellings, and hurry them across the Atlantic, famine fever wearing out their bodies, and fury at such injustice and tyranny rankling in their minds. Who that has read through the details of that miserable time, when men, women, and children were turned out of their holdings, – as they are now being turned out, though happily in far fewer numbers – to wander in starvation and misery along the highways, can wonder that a generation has grown up in Ireland and in the United States which regards with positive hatred England and all that belongs to her? The very Encumbered Estates Act, a most valuable measure in itself if carefully carried out, forced the lands of ancient proprietors who understood the people, not into the control of the State, which would have acted with some consideration, but into the hands of foreign speculators, who bought at a low price with the express purpose of raising the rents upon the tenants. An absenteeism was thus created worse than that which had existed before. In the end, doubtless, good came out of evil for those who were left; but twenty-four years elapsed before any effort was made on the part of the Imperial Parliament to secure to the mass of the people of Ireland some portion of the benefits which even the Devon Commission had urged.

All this while, over the greater part of Ireland a purely agricultural community had no security of tenure of any sort or kind, and the church of the small minority was kept up at the expense of those who were of a different creed. Irishmen, who in the United States did an amount of hard work which almost reconciled the not very sympathetic Americans to their gregarious habits in the cities, and their religious belief, so hostile to the Puritanism which even sceptics in that great country still consider it prudent to affect – Irishmen, who in our colonies, notwithstanding many defects, have brought themselves to the front by their industry, were accused in their own country of idleness and indifference, because, after centuries of misrule, they could see no object in giving their masters their labour for nothing. That was really the fact. All accounts agree that wherever in Ireland a man has a permanent tenure of a fair piece of land, in the great majority of cases he works as hard as an Indian ryot or French peasant-proprietor. It is absurd, of course, to deny the influence of race and climate; none would contend that a Saxon and an Irishman have the same qualities. But the remarkable feature in the whole matter is, that the descendants of Saxons have been just as much opposed, and more violent in showing their opposition to the landlord-made legislation, as the Irish themselves. Nor have they been one whit more industrious than their Celtic neighbours. The descendants of Cromwell’s soldiery, though more turbulent under injustice, have not been any more inclined to give the fruits of their labour to their landlords than the Catholics around them. But wherever tenant-right has been introduced and fairly held to, there, notwithstanding the fact that economical disturbances – American competition, slackened demand for store beasts in England and Scotland, no requirement for casual Irish labour in the summer – have affected the whole island, there peace and quiet have in the main prevailed.

As a mere matter of national business it would have been cheap to have given the tenants a permanent hold upon the soil, even if the landlords had been compensated beyond the value of what they parted with. The cost of the maintenance of a large army and a great constabulary in Ireland cannot well be estimated in actual money. Many considerations are involved. But in any case, have we the right to prevent 5,500,000 people from settling their own local business in their own way? Surely there is not an Englishman of either party who does not feel that our present attitude is somewhat hypocritical. It may be that Irishmen if left to themselves would not make the best possible settlement of their own affairs; but are English landlords qualified to judge of the matter for them any better? They have hitherto constituted the ultimate court of appeal. When we speak of the unfairness of Irish juries in agrarian cases, let us at least remember the persistent unfairness of the great English jury of legislators on this question of life or death to the people of Ireland. Even when the House of Commons has been willing to give in, the House of Lords has stood by their own class; and here, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, we have as honest and patriotic a man as ever lived, hotheaded and furious though he be, taken and put in gaol, though also a member of Parliament, for having denounced, and urged his countrymen to resist, a most tyrannous system of evictions. And let us bear this in mind, that unfortunately the immense majority of the Liberal party have been quite delighted at the arrest of Mr. Dillon, and cheered like madmen at the arrest of Mr. Davitt.

The history of the last few months of panic and misgovernment in Ireland is worth consideration by all who hold that freedom and justice are worth something in themselves, aside from the question whether a party chooses to throw them over or not. What has occurred since July of last year is alone enough to prove conclusively that no country could be peaceable under such a rule as we have inflicted upon the people of Ireland. Steady despotism would be far preferable to such miserable incapacity and vacillation as has been exhibited.

For here is what has taken place. Last year, after Ireland had suffered from a period of severe privation, which fell upon the small tenant-farmers and the labourers with redoubled severity owing to their being unable to obtain work in England, the landlords – or rather a few of the baser sort – began to evict their tenantry. Hunger and sense of injustice combined made men desperate. The Land Bill of 1870, though by no means a satisfactory measure, had given a tenant a certain claim for compensation for disturbance in all cases save non-payment of rent. If evicted for not paying his rent, however, this right to compensation was gone, and he went out upon the high roads a pauper, with the workhouse as his only refuge. This eviction, therefore, was felt to be a greater hardship than any previous eviction, because it was not only harsh, but in the view of the tenant unjust. Good landlords, of course, were considerate in Ireland as elsewhere: people like Lord Lansdowne, whose idea of landed property necessarily involved serfdom and servility (as he was good enough to inform the Americans, of all people in the world, through the Chicago Tribune), were naturally eager not to lose the advantage of any misfortune among their tenantry. That few should have acted in this contemptible fashion gives no conception of the alarm produced. Not a very large proportion of tenants in the year are rack-rented; but that proportion acts as a damper upon thousands of others in improving their farms, and prevents them from making the best of their labour.

These evictions, then, having begun, and going on in an increasing ratio, the Government boldly and rightly introduced a Bill of the most carefully-guarded character, to prevent downright oppression and tyranny from being brought to bear. That Bill, after some of the most bitter discussions in the House of Commons and in the press ever known, was passed by a considerable majority, the Prime Minister making himself prominent of course in its championship, and saying, what recent events have proved only too clearly to be the truth, that if it were not passed we should be within a measureable distance of civil war. This, be it remembered, also took place after the Government had declined to renew the Peace Preservation Act, on the express ground that it was contrary to the principles of liberty and Liberalism. Very well. What followed was not only probable but certain. The House of Lords, seeing the whole right of eviction when contrary to common interest jeopardized by the measure, threw out the Bill. The Government – that is the opinion of all parties in Ireland – winked at the agitation which followed. That agitation was, in view of what had passed, justifiable and righteous, and was carried on, when once the Land League had obtained a hold upon the people, with surprisingly little bloodshed or bad action. A vast agrarian strike was organized – not against all rent, but against rent above a certain valuation. There were also rattenings and boycottings, where men took land from which tenants had been evicted. Many things, no doubt, were done, and are being done now, most obnoxious to Englishmen: the injuries to cattle in particular are dastardly in the extreme. Gradually, as evictions went on, and help was received from sympathizers in America, temper rose, and the feeling – mingled with that race and religious hatred which is the worst feature of all, because the least capable of yielding to reason – became very bitter.

But what has it been after all? A trifle beside the agitations of 1848 and 1833, and to be met – that was the just contention of the Government and the Liberal party – not by repression, but by reform. “Force is no remedy,” said Mr. Bright, strong as he always has been on this Irish question; and there was not a genuine liberal Englishman in the country who would not have stood behind those words. And force has been no remedy – has only aggravated the whole mischief. But what comes now? The Cabinet having been summoned in hot haste in December, decided that in these days we must deal with popular grievances, even when exaggerated, by reason and argument, and not by bullets and buckshot – and separated without calling Parliament together. A little while and Mr. Forster again comes over, with woe-begone visage, and Parliament is summoned. A Coercion Act and Arms Act become law, at what a strain to our whole system of parliamentary government we perhaps yet scarcely know. Members of the House of Commons, acting no doubt very provokingly and very foolishly, but still within their rights, are silenced and ejected; and Ireland is put under a suspensive state of siege.

Thus the very Government which had declared that evictions of a certain kind were most unjust, and must be restrained, put in the hands of the landlords as complete a machinery of eviction as they had ever possessed, and backed it up by pouring troops into the country. And evictions soon multiplied. Men, women, and children were turned out under circumstances which reproduced here in England would have brought about an insurrection.

What? Let us for once use plain language about these things. Has a Government, have any number of landlords, sitting in Parliament to represent a dominant caste, the right to turn a man, his wife, and children, out into the bitter air of January, because, poor devil, there had been a famine, and he could not pay his rent? I say No. Last year the vast majority of the House of Commons said No; and if the question were fairly put to them I believe the vast majority of Englishmen to-day would say No. Ireland, it is true, cannot hope to resist successfully such shameful oppression, but why should English working men sanction and support action which, if applied to themselves, they would rise against? The truth is, and this will shortly become apparent to all, the tenant-farmers and labourers of Ireland are fighting the battle of the working-classes of England in relation to the land, and get far less support than they ought to get on grounds where they are both agreed. This, at least, is certain, that unless the Land League had been formed, and the Irish had stood together in a great economical movement, no such Land Bill as that of 1881 would have been brought before the English House of Commons at all. The Land League, whether it be called communistic, nationalistic, or what not, has brought the first genuine attempt yet made at reform within the range of practical politics.

The facts in relation to Irish land have been made known to all by means of the propaganda which they carried on. There are but 12,000 landowners in all Ireland, and 1,000 of them own two-thirds of the island. One fourth of these landowners are permanent absentees, who take their rents to the amount of millions sterling out of the country, and spend them elsewhere. And yet six-sevenths of the population have to derive their subsistence from the land, and naturally enough compete against one another to such an extent as to raise rents to a high figure. Say the theorists, Irishmen are too fond of land, are too much given to agriculture. This is quite absurd. In the United States the Americans make precisely the opposite complaint. They say that the Irish are too much addicted to crowding into the cities; and so they undoubtedly are. But in Ireland they stick to the land, for the best of all possible reasons, that there is nothing else for them to get a living out of; and as arable land is being continually turned into pasture by the large landowners and large farmers, there is less and less employment for them as labourers, and less and less land which they can take up to feed themselves and their families upon. No one disputes the sad condition of a vast proportion of the tenant farmers who hold under fifteen acres, which amount to more than half the whole 500,000. Those who drag out a miserable existence in Mayo and Connemara, would be no better off if they held their patches in fee. Migration and emigration are the only possible remedies for these people.

But here, as in England, the first step is to get the land out of the hands of the large proprietors, and enable the people of Ireland to work out their own social difficulties. The great main drainage works which some reformers clamour for, cannot possibly be carried out for the benefit of the landowners, whose properties would be improved; neither can reclamation go on without some regard to economical and physical conditions. The tendency of bog to revert to bog is as well-known in Scotland as in Ireland. That Ireland is in itself a poor country has lately been disputed, and with good reason. It is not a poor country, but a poor people, that we have to deal with. In Ireland, to take the same comparison as was made in the case of England, the population has decreased nearly 3,000,000 in thirty years, and the assessment to income-tax has grown by £15,000,000 annually. Moreover, the deposits in the banks point in the same direction. Ireland itself, therefore, has become far richer in the last generation, but the distribution of that wealth is so faulty that a year of bad crops means little short of famine to a large population.

Happily, the Bill of 1881 accepts principles which have hitherto been scouted as communistic. The distinct object which underlies the complicated economical clauses is to secure to a portion at least of the population that right to the fruits of their labour, of which they have hithertobeen deprived by landlords under the name of freedom of contract. Why is it that peasant proprietorship has, on the whole, been beneficial where people have been settled on the soil? Surely because in this way alone can a man and his family, in our system of society, be secure of the fruits of his own labour. In every other case, where the poor man wishes to obtain employment he is deprived of a portion of his produce for the benefit of others. Unquestionably the Liberal Government has made a great step forward when it recognizes in a definite measure that freedom of contract, where the force is all on one side, may, and in many cases must mean, injustice and tyranny.

But to suppose that any Land Bill, however carefully drawn – that any courts, however impartial – will settle the Irish question, is to assume far more than the facts warrant. Nothing is more noteworthy than the disposition of the tenant-farmers all over the country to sink their differences in view of the agitation for a mitigated form of the three F’s, which will probably break down – or a peasant proprietorship, which will involve the pressure of the gombeen man. This latter point is worth a moment’s consideration. India is, it is true, different in many ways from Ireland; but there the right of eviction by the moneylender has been found more dangerous and objectionable than eviction by any other method. Should not restriction be placed on mortgage and bill of sale here, too, if we desire to prevent similar expropriations from taking place there, and giving rise to a distinctly socialist agitation, which could not be dealt with under present conditions? But the Land Bill as it stands constitutes such an enormous advance upon what seemed possible even a few months ago, that Irishmen would be foolish indeed not to make as much of it as they can. To secure the tenants in their holdings, to obtain assistance in settling a peasant proprietory on the land, and help for emigration and migration, are steps towards that pacification which full patience alone can bring about. But for the shameful and silly Coercion Bill a hope might have arisen, not of a settlement of all Irish difficulties —such impatience to get rid of the natural troubles of administration argues weakness and incapacity—but of a better understanding between the English and the Irish peoples.

That, little as it may seem to be so at this moment, has really been the outcome of the agitation. For the first time in recent Irish history, a vast number of Englishmen of all classes have felt that wrong was being done in their name when the common rights of the United Kingdom were suspended in deference to the clamour of an interested and panic-stricken minority. Even the race hatred and the jealousy of keen competitors in the labour-market have been to a certain extent laid aside in view of the fact that injustice was being done. Had the Irish managed their own case better, and kept religious differences altogether out of sight when a political end was in view, this understanding between the democracy of the two countries might have already progressed even farther than it has. There need be no real difference. There is room enough and to spare for the workers of both races under a better system than that which has hitherto found favour. We are, let us hope, approaching the time when we shall endeavour to rule in any case with the consent of the majority – when the highest aim of every statesman will be to reconcile all to a beneficial union, in which every member is contented and free.

That many grievances still remain unredressed even if the Land Bill is passed with reasonable amendment, is unfortunately but too certain. That absurd playing at Viceroyalty in Dublin, with an English Chief Secretary, and a worn-out bureaucracy at the Castle, would aggravate a less touchy people than the Irish. What do they want with a Viceroy and underlings, any more than the Scotch? Why should Irishmen more than Scotchmen be shut out from the management of their own affairs? “They hate you, it is said, and long to drive you out.” Has any reason for love been given? At least let us wait to see whether a definite alliance between the English and Irish democracies be not possible, before continuing to support such methods as have hitherto been favoured. Local administration there must be. The management of local business in Ireland as a whole must henceforth be carried on by Irishmen, if there is to be any success at all. That process of decentralization which must go on in Scotland, Wales, and England, is applicable to Ireland too. There, more than here even, the railway, and drainage, and road systems need to be under one great administration. Let them in Heaven’s name try their hand with manhood suffrage, at the improvement of their own country; leave them the task of carrying out the detail of the reforms they have rightly forced us to adopt.

This at least we must all admit, that we cannot; continue parliamentary government if we are persistently to run counter to the opinions of the majority of 5,000,000 of people represented in our own House of Commons. It is because separation would be injurious to both countries, as mutual understanding would be beneficial, that Irishmen should at length be granted fair play. Take the absentees, for instance. They are not dealt with; and yet no man can hold that absenteeism is not a serious drawback to Irish prosperity. Such a question concerns the whole country most seriously; but their compulsory expropriation or a heavy exceptional taxation – which commended itself even to Lord George Bentinck – has not been suggested by the Government. The labourers also have to be considered. It is true that the fullest justice to the farmers does not directly benefit them, though the well-being of one class might slowly re-act upon the other. Here again is encountered, in a less complicated shape, the same problem that is met with in England – how to benefit the real workers on the soil at the same time that the most is made of the land. The 500,000 tenant farmers of Ireland form, however, a very different proportion of the entire population, as well as of the agricultural population, from that which a similar class does here with us. To improve their condition without injustice to others, if this can be done, is already much gained.

There is no reason however, why we should stop there. Men who know that they are secure of possession are always ready to reclaim land, and might well be given the option of taking part in such reclamation, or in being assisted to obtain farms in English colonies. Let us not, however, lose sight of the principles involved in all such proposals. We recognize thereby that the State is responsible for the removal of the causes which can be proved to lead to the wretched poverty of the mass of the people. We are entering plainly upon the path of restriction of selfish competition, because, under certain conditions it has failed in agriculture as it has in other directions. Hitherto in Ireland brute force – the brute force of the people of England – has stood behind the dominant class, ready to maintain their views of a political economy which might have been invented in the interest of monopolists. A peaceful revolution has to be brought about, and the first step has been taken. Those, however, who contend that the modification of the land laws of Ireland must extend to England have right on their side. It is impossible any longer to use two sets of arguments on the two sides of the Irish Channel. When, therefore, fixity of tenure, purchase of property, reclamation of land, assisted emigration, and main drainage, are accepted for Ireland, we are not far – we could not be far – from the consideration of similar proposals in England and Scotland.

But even supposing the land question in a fair way of settlement, and local administration set on foot, there remain the race and religious hatreds to consider. These of course are difficulties of a very different character from any which Acts of Parliament can touch. How can Celts and Saxons, Catholics and Protestants, live together in unity? Yet such things have been; and at this moment the leader of the irreconcilable Irish party is neither an Irishman nor a Catholic. Leave the Irish more liberty to arrange their own business, and they will find out some way of getting on with one another, when once the injustice complained of for centuries has been remedied. Ireland has been conquered by arms from generation to generation; it remains for us to conquer finally by justice, magnanimity and consideration.

Many of the noblest names in English history and literature are those of Irishmen; the Irish party in the House of Commons to-day contains men of ability out of all proportion to its numbers; the two most distinguished of our younger generals are Irishmen by birth. Would it not be well, then, for all to consider whether, even at the cost of some sacrifice of consistency, and some forgetfulness of past domination, the loyalty of such a people could be secured, by a freedom which is yet reconcilable with common action? The national feeling now running so high in Ireland could find as full an outlet in the British Empire as that of Scotland, when once it is understood that supremacy is no longer claimed in the interests of a small minority, but to give satisfaction to the high ideals of empire and greatness which a petty island like Ireland, overshadowed perpetually by English power, could never attain. A complete agreement between England and Ireland will be possible only when the people of both countries can control their own policy, and secure at home and abroad that the benefit of the many, not the gain of the few, should be the end.

Last updated on 30.7.2006