John Mitchel: Extract from 'The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps)' pertaining to the Famine

The following is an extract from John Mitchel's work "The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps)" (1876). It deals with the policies and actions of the British in the decades leading up to the Famine - and how the mass starvation was a culmination of British policy. 


In 1843, the Government sent forth one of their endless "Commissions" the famous "Landlord and Tenant Commission" to travel through Ireland, collect evidence, and report on the relations of landlord and tenant in Ireland. In '44 it travelled and investigated; and the next year its report came out in four great volumes. The true function and object of this Commission was to devise the best means of getting rid of what Englishmen called "the surplus population" of Ireland. Ever since the year 1829, the year of Catholic Emancipation, British policy had been directing itself to this end. We shall see how it worked.

As a condition of Catholic Emancipation, the "forty shilling franchise" had been abolished, so that the privilege of voting for members of Parliament should be taken away from the great mass of the Catholic peasantry. This low franchise had theretofore induced landlords (for the sake of securing political power), to subdivide farms and create voters. The franchise abolished, there was no longer any political use for the people; and it happened about the same time that new theories of farming became fashionable. "High farming" was the word. There was to be more grazing, more green cropping; there were to be larger farms; and more labour was to be done by horses and by steam. But consolidation of many small farms into one large one could not be effected without clearing off the "surplus population;" and then, as there would be fewer mouths to be fed, so there would be more produce for export to England. The clearance system, then, had begun in 1829, and had proceeded with great activity ever since; and as the tenants were almost all tenants-at-will, there was no difficulty in this, except the expense.

The Code of Cheap Ejectment was therefore improved for the use of Irish landlords. As the laws of England and of Ireland are extremely different in regard to franchise and to land-tenure; and as the Ejectment-laws were invented exclusively for Ireland, to clear off the "surplus population," I shall give a short account of them.

There had been an Act of George the Third (1815) providing that in all cases of holdings, the rent of which was under £20 - this included the whole class of small farms - the Assistant Barrister at Sessions (the County Judge) could make a decree at the cost of a few shillings to eject any man from house and farm. Two years after, the proceedings in ejectment were still further simplified and facilitated, by an Act making the sole evidence of a landlord or his agent sufficient testimony to ascertain the amount of rent due.

By another Act of the first year of George the Fourth, it was declared that the provisions of the cheap Ejectment Act "had been found highly beneficial" (that is to say, thousands of farms had been cleared off) -"and it was desirable that same should be extended." 

Thereupon it was enacted that the power of summary ejectment at Quarter Sessions should apply to all holdings at less than £50 rent; and, by the same statute, the cost of procuring ejectments was still farther reduced. In the reigns of George the Fourth and Victoria, other Acts were made for the same purpose, so that the cost and trouble of laying waste a townland and levelling all its houses, had come to be very trifling. It must be admitted that there is cheap justice in Ireland, at least for some people.

In many parts of the island extermination of the people had been sweeping. At every Quarter Sessions, in every county, there were always many ejectments; and I have seen them signed by Assistant-Barristers by hundreds in one sheaf. They were then placed in the hands of bailiffs and police, and came down upon some devoted townland with more terrible destruction than an enemy's sword and torch. Whole neighbourhoods were often thrown out upon the highways in winter, and the homeless creatures lived for a while upon the charity of neighbours; but this was dangerous, for the neighbours were often themselves ejected for harbouring them. Some landlords contracted with emigration companies to carry them to America "for a lump sum," according to the advertisements I cited before. Others did not care what became of them; and hundreds and thousands perished every year, of mere hardship.

All this seems a tale of incredible horror. But there are in these United States, this moment, at least one million of persons, each of whom knows the truth of every word I have written, and could add to my general statement, circumstances of horror and atrocity, that might make one tremble with rage as he reads.

The Irish are peculiarly attached to their homesteads; and, like all people of poetic temperament, surround their homes and hearths with more tender associations than a race of duller perception could understand. Take, from a volume published in '44, one ejectment tableau;

"Having swept from every corner towards the door, she now took the gatherings by handfuls, and flung them high into the air, to be scattered by the winds. Having next procured some salt upon a plate, she went again through every part of the dwelling, turning the salt over and over with her fingers as she went. This lustral visit finished, she divided the salt into separate parcels, which she handed to those without, with directions for its farther distribution."She now wrenched from the threshold the horse shoe which the Irish peasantry generally nail upon it, imputing to it some mystic influence; after which, standing erect, with one foot within the house and the other outside, she signed the sign of the Cross on her brow and on her breast. This strange ceremony was concluded by a sweeping motion of the hand towards the open air, and a similar one in the contrary direction, attended by a rapid movement of the lips, as though she muttered some conjuration. A reverent inclination of her body followed, and again she made the holy sign; then, drawing herself up to her full stature, she took her place among the children, and, without casting a look upon the desecrated cabin, she departed from the place."

It is but fair to tell, that sometimes an ejecting landlord or agent was shot by desperate, houseless men. What wonder? There were not half enough of them shot. If the people had not been too gentle, forgiving, and submissive, their island could never have become a horror and scandal to the earth.

There was a "Poor Law" in Ireland since 1842 - a law which had been forced on the country against its will, on the recommendation of an English tourist (one Nichols); and workhouses, erected under that law, received many of the exterminated people. But it is a strangely significant fact, that the deaths by starvation increased rapidly from the first year of the poor law. The Report of the Census Commissioners, for 1851, declares that, while in 1842 the deaths registered as deaths by famine amounted to 187, they increased every year, until the registered deaths in 1845 were 516. The "registered" deaths were, perhaps, one-tenth of the unregistered deaths by mere hunger.

Such, then, was the condition of Ireland in 1844-5; and all this before the "Famine."

Now, the "Landlord and Tenant Commission" began its labours in '44. The people were told to expect great benefits from it. The Commissioners, it was diligently given out, would inquire into the various acknowledged evils that were becoming proverbial throughout Europe and America; and there were to be parliamentary "ameliorations." This Commission looked like a deliberate fraud from the first. It was composed entirely of landlords; the chairman (Lord Devon) being one of the Irish absentee landlords. It was at all times quite certain that they would see no evidence of any evils to be redressed on the part of the tenants; and that, if they recommended any measures, those measures would be such as should promote and make more sweeping the depopulation of the country. "You might as well," said O'Connell, "consult butchers about keeping Lent, as consult these men about the rights of farmers."

The Report of this set of Commissioners would deserve no more especial notice than any of the other Reports of innumerable Commissions which the British Parliament was in the habit of issuing, when they pretended to inquire into any Irish "grievance" - and which were usually printed in vast volumes, bound in blue paper, and never read by any human eye, - but that the Report of this particular "Devon Commission" has become the very creed and gospel of British statesmen with regard to the Irish people from that day to this. It is the programme and scheme upon which the Last Conquest of Ireland was undertaken in a business-like manner years ago; and the completeness of that conquest is due to the exactitude with which the programme was observed.

The problem to be solved was, how to get rid of the people. There was a "surplus population" in Ireland - this had long been admitted in political circles - and the alarming masses of powerful men who had trooped to the summons of O'Connell, and had been by him paraded "in their moral might," as he said, at so many points of the island, brought home to the bosoms of Englishmen a stern conviction of the absolute necessity that existed to thin out these multitudinous Celts.

One of the strongest demands and most urgent needs of these people, had always been permanence of tenure in their lands; - O'Connell called it "fixity of tenure," and presented it prominently in his speeches, as one of the greatest benefits to be gained by repealing the Union. It was indeed the grand necessity of the nation - that men should have some security -that they who sowed should reap - that labour and capital expended in improving farms should, in part, at least, profit those who expended it. This would at once prevent pauperism, put an end to the necessity of emigration, supersede poor-laws, and prevent the periodical famines which had desolated the island ever since the Union. It is a measure which would have been sure to be recommended as the first, or indeed, the only measure for Ireland, by any other Commission than a Commission of Irish landlords.

In the northern province of Ulster, there was, as before mentioned, a kind of unwritten law, or established custom, which, in some counties, gave the tenant such needful security The "Tenant-Right of Ulster" was the name of it. By virtue of that Tenant-Right, a farmer, though his tenure might be nominally "at will," could not be ejected so long as he paid his rent; and if he desired to move to another part of the country, he could sell his "good will" in the farm to an incoming tenant. Of course the greater had been his improvements, the larger price would his Tenant-Right command; in other words, the improvements created by his own or his father's industry were his. The same custom prevented rents from being arbitrarily raised in proportion to the improved value; so that in many eases which came within my own knowledge, in my profession, lands held "at will" in Ulster, and subject to an ample rent, were sold by one tenant-at-will to another tenant-at-will at full half the fee-simple value of the land. Conveyances were made of it. It was a valuable property, and any violent invasion of it, as a witness told Lord Devon's Commission, would have "made Down another Tipperary."

The custom was almost confined to Ulster. It was by no means (though this has often been stated), created or commenced by the terms of the Plantation of Ulster in the time of King James the First; but was a relic of the ancient free social polity of the nation, and had continued in Ulster longer than in the other three provinces, simply because Ulster had been the last part of the island brought under British dominion, and forced to exchange the ancient system of tribe-lands for feudal tenures. Neither is the custom peculiar to Ireland. It prevails in Italy, in Spain, in Hungary, in all Austria. In France and Prussia it has ripened into full peasant proprietorship; and nowhere, perhaps, in all Europe, is it denied or disallowed to the tillers of the soil, except in Galicia (the Austrian part of Poland), and in the three Southern provinces of Ireland.

Surely it was fair, it was not unnatural, that Tipperary should seek to become another Down; and if, throughout all Munster, Leinster, and Connaught, there was idleness and indifference to improvement of farms, who could expect it to be otherwise, seeing that if a man was so insane as to improve, to drain, to fence, to build a better cabin, his landlord was quite sure to serve him with a "notice to quit." In fact, on many estates those notices were always served regularly from six months to six months - so that at every Quarter Sessions the whole population of such estates was liable to instant extermination.

The people of Ireland are not idle.

They anxiously sought opportunities of exertion on fields where their landlords could not sweep off all their earnings; and many thousands of small farmers annually went to England and Scotland to reap the harvest, lived all the time on food that would sustain no other working men, and hoarded their earnings for their wives and children. If they had had Tenant-Right they would have laboured for themselves, and Tipperary would have been a peaceful and blooming garden.

Is the American mind able to conceive it possible that noble lords and gentlemen, the landlords and legislators of an ancient and noble people, should deliberately conspire to slay one out of every four - men, women, and little children - to strip the remainder barer than they were - to uproot them from the soil where their mothers bore them - to force them to flee to all the ends of the earth - to destroy that Tenant-Right of Ulster where it was, and to cut off all hope and chance of it where it was not? No; I can hardly suppose that an American is able to grasp the idea; his education has not fitted him for it; and I hesitate to make the assertion of this deliberate conspiracy. Take the facts and documents, and draw such inferences as they will bear.

First, then, for the Report of the Devon Commission. As first printed, it fills four stupendous "Blue Books." But it contained too much valuable matter to be buried, like other Reports, in the catacombs which yawn for that species of literature. The Secretary of the Commission, therefore, was employed to abstract and condense, and present the cream of it in two or three octavo volumes. This had the advantage, not only of condensation, but of selection; the Commissioners could then give the pieces of evidence which they liked the best, together with their own recommendations. Now, those volumes have been the Bible of British legislators and Irish landlords; the death-warrant of one million and a half of human beings, and the sentence of pauper banishment against full a million and a half more. It is worth while to examine so portentous a volume. It is called a "Digest of the Evidence," &c., is published by authority, and has a preface signed "Devon."

Much of the volume is occupied with dissertations and evidence respecting "Tenant-Right," which the North had, and the South demanded. The Commissioners are clearly against it in every shape. They term it "unphilosophical;" and in the preface they state that the Ulster landlords and tenants look upon it in the light of a life-insurance - that is, the landlord allows the sale of Tenant-Right, and the incoming tenant buys it, lest they should both be murdered by the outgoing tenant. The following passage treats this Tenant-Right as injurious to the tenant himself:

"It is even questionable whether this growing practice of Tenant-Right, which would at the first view appear to be a valuable assumption on the part of the tenant, be so in reality; as it gives to him without any exertion on his own part an apparent property or security, by means of, which he is enabled to incur future incumbrance in order to avoid present inconvenience - a practice which frequently terminates in the utter destitution of his family, and in the sale of his farm, when the debts thus created at usurious interest amount to what its sale would produce."

It appears, then, that it is injurious to the tenant to let him have anything on the security of which he can borrow money; a theory which the landlords would not relish if applied to themselves. Further, the Commissioners declare that this Tenant-Right is enjoyed without any exertion on the part of tenants. Yet they have, in all cases, either created the whole value of it in the sweat of their brows, or bought it from those who did so create it.

The Commissioners "foresee some danger to the just rights of property , from the unlimited allowance of this Tenant-Right.'' But they suggest a substitute: "Compensation for future improvements;" surrounding, however, that suggestion with difficulties which have prevented it from ever being realized.

Speaking of the consolidation of farms, they say:

"When it is seen in the evidence, and in the return of the size of the farms, how small those holdings are, it cannot be denied that such a step is absolutely necessary. "

And then, as to the people whom it is thus "necessary" to eject, they say:

" Emigration is considered by the committee to be peculiarly applicable as a remedial measure."

They refer to one of their Tables (No. 95, p. 564), where;

"The calculation is put forward, showing that the consolidation of the small holdings up to eight acres [An Irish acre is to an English one in the proportion of eight to five, nearly.] would require the removal of about one hundred and ninety-two thousand three hundred and sixty-eight families."

That is, the removal of about one million of persons.

Such was the Devon programme: Tenant-Right to be disallowed; one million of people to be removed , that is, swept out on the highways, where their choice would be America, the poor-house, or the grave. We shall see with what accuracy the details were carried out in practice.

The "Integrity of the Empire" was to be menaced no more by half-million Tara meetings: those ordered masses of the "Irish Enemy," with their growing enthusiasm, their rising spirit, and their yet more dangerous discipline, were to be thinned, to be cleared off: but all in the way of "amelioration." They were to be ameliorated out of their lives: there was to be a battue of benevolence. Both government and landlords had been thoroughly frightened by that vast parade of a nation: and they knew they had only been saved by O'Connell and his Peace-principle: and O'Connell was not immortal.

When I say there was a conspiracy of landlords and legislators to destroy the people, it would be unjust, as it is unnecessary, to charge all members of the Queen's Government, or all or any of the Devon Commissioners, with a privity to that design. Sir Robert Peel knew how Irish landlords would inquire, and what report they would make, just as well as he knew what verdict a jury of Dublin Orangemen would give. Sir Robert Peel had been Irish Secretary. He knew Ireland well; he had been Prime Minister at the time of Catholic Emancipation; and he had taken care to accompany that measure with another, disfranchising all the small farmers in Ireland. This disfranchisement, as before explained, had given a stimulus and impetus to the clearance system. He had helped it by cheap Ejectment Acts. But it had not worked fast enough.

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