From Narrative of a Recent Journey
FromNarrative of a Recent Journey
Traveling in Ireland during the height of the Great Famine with seed provision for the victims, William Bennett ascribed the sufferings which beset Ireland during the nineteenth century to a series of natural calamities rather than to the combination of political, economic, and natural events that had developed over time. Unlike most English commentators on Ireland at this time, though, he did not blame the Irish for the situation in which they found themselves.
Take the line of the main course of the Shannon, continued north to Lough Swilly, and south to Cork. It divides the island into two great portions, east and west. In the eastern there is distress and poverty enough, as part of the same body, suffering from the same causes; but there is much to redeem. In the west it exhibits a people, not in the centre of Africa, the steppes of Asia, the backwoods of America—not some newly-discovered tribes of South Australia, or among the Polynesian Islands—not Hottentots, Bushmen, or Esquimeaux—neither Mahomedans nor Pagans—but some millions of our own Christian nation at home, living in a state and condition low and degraded to a degree unheard of before in any civilised community; driven periodically to the borders of starvation; and now reduced, by a national calamity, to an exigency which all the efforts of benevolence can only mitigate, not control; and under which absolute thousands are not merely pining away in misery and wretchedness, but are dying like cattle off the face of the earth, from want and its kindred horrors! Is this to be regarded in the light of a Divine dispensation and punishment? Before we can safely arrive at such a conclusion, we must be satisfied that human agency and legislation, individual oppressions, and social relationships, have had no hand in it. . . .
Is there anything inherent in the national character fatal to improvement? The Irish are accused of being lazy, improvident, reckless of human life. I doubt their being much more so than the English, the Americans, or any other nation would be under the like circumstances. The distances to which an Irish labourer will go for work, and the hardships he will submit to, are notorious; and the private correspondence of all who have entered into the subject teems with evidence of the alacrity of the poor women and peasant girls for employment of any kind, and of the teachableness and skill they exhibit. The appeal to a wider range of facts is irresistible. Who come over in such numbers to reap our harvests, dig our canals, construct our railroads, in fact wherever hard work is to be obtained? Who save up what money they can, during harvest-time, and such-like seasons of extra employment, to take back to their families at home? Who, in a country where labour is better remunerated, send over sums exceeding all that the wealthy have raised in charity, to comfort those they have left behind, or help over their poor friends and relatives to what they think that happier land? The generosity of the Irish was never questioned. Their peaceableness has been put to the severest test. In no other country, probably, could such a state of things have endured so long, and to such an extremity, without ten-fold more outrages than have been committed. They are naturally a contented and a happy race. The charge of recklessness of human life—apart from those deplorably aggravated deeds arising invariably out of natural jealousies—is answered by the perfect safety of a stranger amongst them; and it has further been placed on the right shoulders in another quarter, more fearlessly that I durst have penned it here.
Reprinted in Strangers to That Land: British Perceptions of Ireland from the Reformation to the Famine, edited by Andrew Hadfield and John McVeagh (1994), pp. 156–157.