On Irish Rural Society and Poverty

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On Irish Rural Society and Poverty


Arthur Young

Arthur Young (1741–1820), an agricultural reformer, visited Ireland in 1776 and published his findings about Irish society in 1780. In the following extracts he comments on housing, marriage, and relationships between social classes.

SEE ALSO Agriculture: 1690 to 1845; English Writing on Ireland before 1800; Family: Marriage Patterns and Family Life from 1690 to 1921; Population, Economy, and Society from 1750 to 1950; Potato and Potato Blight (Phytophthora infestans); Rural Life: 1690 to 1845

Generally speaking the Irish poor have a fair bellyful of potatoes, and they have milk the greatest part of the year. What I would particularly insist on here is the value of his labour being food not money; food not for himself only, but for his wife and children. An Irishman loves whisky as well as an Englishman does strong beer, but he cannot go on Saturday night to the whisky house and drink out the week's support of himself, his wife and his children, not uncommon in the ale house of the Englishman. . . .

The cottages of the Irish, which are called cabins, 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 have only a door, which lets in light instead of a window, and should let the smoke out instead of a chimney, but they had rather keep it in. These two conveniences they hold so cheap, that I have seen them both stopped up in stone cottages built by improving landlords. The roofs of the cabins are rafters, raised from the tops of the mud walls, and the covering varies; some are thatched with straw, potato stalks, or with heath, others only covered with sods of turf. The bad repair of these roofs are kept in, a hole in the thatch being often mended with turf, and weeds sprouting from every part, gives them the appearance of a weedy dung-hill, especially when the cabin is not built with regular walls, but supported on one, or perhaps on both sides by the banks of a broad dry ditch; the roof then seems a hillock, upon which perhaps the pig grazes. Some of these cabins are much less and more miserable habitations than I had ever seen in England. I was told they were the worst in Connacht, but I found it an error; I saw many in Leinster to the full as bad, and in Wicklow some worse than any in Connacht. When they are well roofed, and built not of stones ill put together, but of mud, they are much warmer, independently of smoke, than the clay or lath and mortar cottages of England, the walls of which are so thin, that a rat hole lets in the wind to the annoyance of the whole family.

The furniture of the cabins is as bad as the architecture, 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 styes is coming in in Ireland, which excludes the poor pigs from the warmth of the bodies of their master and mistress.

This is a general description, but the exceptions are very numerous. I have been in a multitude of cabins that had much useful furniture, and some even superfluous; chairs, tables, boxes, chests of drawers, earthenware, and in short most of the articles found in a middling English cottage; but upon enquiry, I very generally found that these acquisitions were all made within the last ten years, a sure sign of a rising national prosperity. I think the bad cabins and furniture the greatest instances of Irish poverty, and this must flow from the mode of payment for labour, which makes cattle so valuable to the peasant, that every farthing they can spare is saved for their purchase; from hence also results another observation, which is, that the apparent poverty of it is greater than the real; for the house of a man that is master of four or five cows will have scarce anything but deficiencies, nay I was in the cabins of dairymen and farmers, not small ones, whose cabins were not at all better furnished that those of the poorest labourer; before therefore we can attribute it to absolute poverty, we must take into the account the customs and inclinations of the people. In England a man's cottage will be filled with superfluities before he possesses a cow. I think the comparison much in favour of the Irishman; a hog is a much more valuable piece of goods than a set of tea things, and though his snout in a crock of potatoes is an idea not so poetical as—

Broken teacups, wisely kept for show,
Ranged o'er the chimney, glistened in a row.

yet will the cottier and his family at Christmas find the solidity of it an ample recompense for the ornament of the other. . . .

It must be very apparent to every traveller, through that country, that the labouring poor are treated with harshness, and are in all respects so little considered, that their want of importance seems a perfect contrast to their situation in England, of which country, comparatively speaking, they reign the sovereigns. The age has improved so much in humanity, that even the poor Irish have experienced its influence, and are every day treated better and better; but still the remnant of the old manners, the abominable distinction of religion, united with the oppressive conduct of the little country gentlemen, or rather vermin of the kingdom, who never were out of it, altogether still bear very heavy on the poor people and subject them to situations more mortifying than we ever behold in England. The landlord of an Irish estate, inhabited by Roman Catholics, is a sort of despot who yields obedience, in whatever concerns the poor, to no law but that of his will. To discover what the liberty of a people is, we must live among them, and not look for it in the statutes of the realm. The language of written law may be that of liberty, but the situation of the poor may speak no language but that of slavery; there is too much of this contradiction in Ireland. A long series of oppressions, aided by very many ill-judged laws, have brought landlords into a habit of exerting a very lofty superiority, and their vassals into that of an almost unlimited submission; speaking a language that is despised, professing a religion that is abhorred, and being disarmed, the poor find themselves in many cases slaves even in the bosom of written liberty. Landlords that have resided much abroad are usually humane in their ideas, but the habit of tyranny naturally contracts the mind, so that even in this polished age, there are instances of a severe carriage towards the poor, which is quite unknown in England.

A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invent an order which a servant, labourer or cottier dares to refuse to execute. Nothing satisfies him but an unlimited submission. Disrespect or anything tending towards sauciness he may punish with his cane or his horsewhip with the most perfect security; a poor man would have his bones broken if he offered to lift his hand in his own defence. Knocking down is spoken of in the country in a manner that makes an Englishman stare. It must strike the most careless traveller to see whole strings of cars whipt into a ditch by a gentleman's footman to make way for his carriage; if they are overturned or broken in pieces, no matter, it is taken in patience; were they to complain they would perhaps be horsewhipped. . . .

The cabins of the poor Irish being such apparently miserable habitations, is another very evident encouragement to population. In England, where the poor are in many respects in such a superior state, a couple will not marry unless they can get a house, to build which, take the kingdom through, will cost from £25 to £60; half the life, and all the vigour and youth of a man and woman are passed before they can save such a sum; and when they have got it, so burdensome are poor to a parish, that it is twenty to one if they get permission to erect their cottage. But in Ireland, the cabin is not an object of a moment's consideration; to possess a cow and a pig is an earlier aim; the cabin begins with a hovel, that is erected with two day's labour, and the young couple pass not their youth in celibacy for want of a nest to produce their young in.

Marriage is certainly more general in Ireland than in England. I scarce ever found an unmarried farmer or cottier; but it is seen more in other classes, which with us do not marry at all; such as servants. The generality of footmen and maids, in gentlemen's families, are married, a circumstance we very rarely see in England.

Another point of importance, is their children not being burdensome. In all the enquiries I made into the state of the poor, I found their happiness and ease generally relative to the number of their children, and nothing considered as great a misfortune as having none. Whenever this is the fact, or the general idea, it must necessarily have a considerable effect in promoting early marriages, and consequently population.

The food of the people being potatoes is a point not of less importance; for when the common food of the poor is so dear as to be an object of attentive economy, the children will want that plenty which is essential to rearing them; the article of milk, so general in the Irish cabins, is a matter of the first consequence in rearing infants. The Irish poor in the Catholic parts of that country are subsisted entirely upon land, whereas the poor in England have so little to do with it, that they subsist almost entirely from shops, by a purchase of their necessaries. In the former case it must be a matter of prodigious consequence, that the product should be yielded by as small a space of land as possible; this is the case with potatoes more than with any other crop whatever. . . .

Arthur Young, A Tour in Ireland with General Observations on the Present State of That Kingdom Made in the Years1776, 1777 AND 1778, selected and edited by Constantia Maxwell (1925), pp. 184, 187–191, 199–200.

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