Michael Davitt
Irish Social Problem, To-day, April 1884, pp.241-255.

A meaningless diagram has been omitted
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.

Irish Social Problem
Mr. Trevelyan's statement, in the recent debate upon Mr. Barry's Land Act Amendment Bill, that 111,419 applications to fix fair rents had been lodged since the passage of the Land Act, proves nothing. Twice that number of tenants went into the Land League for a similar motive – to obtain a reduction in rack-rents. The Land Act is neither a final nor a temporary settlement of the Irish agrarian war. It is a mere parley between contending forces, in which the bayonets of the Government are alone the preservers of the peace. Matthew Arnold was right when he declared, that ' the Irish Land Bill does not meet the moral grievance of the Irish occupier, at all.' Neither does it grapple with the material one, either. The Irish tenant farmer knows as well as any ethical professor could demonstrate what is the true moral doctrine of rent. He knows intuitively, that rent for land which the land does not produce, whether fixed by land court or land-lord, – a rent upon that which God has created for human sustenance which is tax upon the labour of the tenant's hands in its cultivation, and not the interest upon any outlay of the landlord's in working the soil, amounts to robbery, no matter what landlord-and-capitalist-made law may say to the contrary. He is likewise aware that the rents which are fixed in the Land Courts are placed upon his own improvements. Every one who knows Ireland is also cognisant of the fact, that while our climate is uncertain, while prices fluctuate, and competition with the stock and agricultural produce of other more favoured countries lasts, that which the law of the Land Courts fixes as a 'fair rent' today, may from force of circumstances for which the tenant cannot be held responsible, be a rack-rent the next bad season. When to. these moral, economic, and material obstacles in the way of the Land Act we have to add the national antipathy which the moral grievance of landlordism, per se, will always keep. alive in the minds of our people, how can even the most sanguine English statesman look forward to a period when Ireland will become reconciled to a class owner-ship of the land which is responsible for its all but complete social ruin?

Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Trevelyan are, naturally enough, reluctant to admit the inefficiency of the Land Bill of their party for the solution of the Irish social problem. The genius of Whig statesmanship is tentative, and by no means heroic. It is afraid to grapple courageously with even recognised political or social evils. It dealt with the Irish land question when Fenianism in 1870 and Land Leaguism in 1880 compelled legislation, but only with a view of allaying intensified discontent, and not to eradicate the cause of Irish poverty and reproductive disquiet and outrage. This legislative empiricism has brought about the present dead-lock. Farmers, it is alleged, want to purchase their holdings, but cannot or will not. The landlords are frantic to sell, but nobody appears at all anxious to buy. The leaseholders, numerous and politically powerful, are left out in the cold. The Land Act was not passed for them. Contrary to the spirit of the Bill, and the express declaration of Mr. Gladstone, that rent was not to be paid for the tenant's own improvements, the Land Courts have proceeded on the landlord's 'length of enjoyment' theory, and have fixed the rent on the basis of commercial value. The discontent which is the natural result of a purposely mis-interpreted measure, and the stronger national feeling arising from numbers of heartless evictions, all go to show how far Mr. Gladstone's second attempt to settle the Irish land question has fallen short of success. Yet Mr. Trevelyan could say, in his speech on the Land Act Amendment debate, that 'It was meant for a land settlement for Ireland, and the character of permanence and immutability which ought to belong to such a settlement the Government are determined, as far as in them lies, to give it.' 'Twas ever thus.' A measure which even ministers of the Crown have declared to be defective, and for promising to remedy which Mr. Gladstone's Irish Solicitor General was returned for Londonderry County, is not to have its 'character of permanence and immutability' disturbed, although the majority of Irish members, including the supporters of the Government, demand changes and alterations which require a very thorough 'disturbance' of some of its chief clauses! In one single sentence Mr. Trevelyan has shown what Westminster rule of Ireland means. An English minister holding an Irish post in the administration of Irish Government declares, that the opinions of the majority of Ireland's representatives are of no account in influencing the legislation of their country. Their demands in the interest of the peace and prosperity of Ireland are ignored on a purely Irish question. Messrs. Parnell, Dickson, Sexton, and Russell do not represent the feelings of the Irish people on the land question at all equal to the extent to which the member for Hawick district represents them. Mr. Trevelyan, in a word, resorts to the traditional policy of English statesmen towards Ireland, of ignoring a timely and moderate demand that is made by those who know the people, when the country is outwardly calm and comparatively free from crime. He mistakes a temporary quiet for a promise of permanent content, and proclaims what ought to be the motto of such a policy, 'no disturbance, no remedial legislation – no outrage, no concession.' The Whig Government has said its last word on the Irish land question. We shall see. I promise Mr. Trevelyan that the Irish people have not said theirs on Irish landlordism.

The proposal to advance the whole of the purchase money to the tenants, and to extend the time of repayment to such a number of years as will make the annual charges approximate to the judicial rents, will be more welcome to the landlords than to any other class in Ireland. Their interests alone are jeopardised by delay. Those of the tenant farmers incur no risks, as the market value of the landlord's property has been falling, steadily, during the land agitation, to the consequent benefit of that of the tenants. The country at large could not be expected to view this depreciation with any other feelings than those of satisfaction. The class which is bound to suffer most ere the Irish social problem is solved is that which has chiefly contributed to the partial ruin of the country. Justice required that some, at least, of the landlords' rack-rented plunder should be restored to those from whom it had been legally stolen, and no moral code is being violated in permitting the so-called 'economic law of supply and demand' to operate in full force against the unsaleable estates of those who unscrupulously profited by the working of the same law when a mad competition for land had ruined thousands of small farmers in the days of tenancy-at-will.

The pressure which the Government of Mr. Gladstone has been recently wooing from Ireland, to extend the facilities of the purchase clauses of the Land Act, has come from the landlords and not from the people. On the 19th of July last year a deputation of Irish landlords waited upon Mr. Gladstone in Downing Street, almost begging for Government loans, at low interest, with which to meet their liabilities. The novelty of a class in the community calling upon the State to loan money to pay its debts was not sufficient to induce the Prime Minister to promise any relief. The ex-rackrenters were in despair. They could no longer betake themselves, as in the good old times, to the fleecing of their tenants. A class which cannot exist unless privileged to plunder the earnings of some other class is in a bad way when equity is made to put a stop to the legal theft. Crippled by the Land League, and bereft of the power of raising rents, the Irish landlords had no credit, and so got no money from the Government, save what came through the operations of the mischievous Arrears Act. Abandoning the loan scheme, but with their eyes still on the Treasury, they are now beseeching the authors of the Land Act, whom they have heretofore denounced as the accomplices of the Land Leaguers, to render the purchase clauses of that measure workable, or irretrievable ruin will overtake their properties. Mr. Plunket, member for Dublin University, and one of the ablest advocates of the Irish landlords, spoke as follows in his speech on the address at the opening of the present session.

'At the present time the interest of the landowners of Ireland is absolutely unsaleable. It is not by reason of any agricultural depression, but by reason of the tenants' interest; and I have it on the authority of persons well acquainted with the subject that in multitudes of instances estates will be absolutely sacrificed by forced sale. The incumbrancers have not pressed for their claims up to the present time, but in the face of a falling market they, of course, cannot be expected to hold out much longer, and unless something is done very shortly numbers of estates will be sold at nominal value. I am glad to think that there is in progress at present a movement amongst the Irish members and Irishmen of different parties with the view of having some steps taken that will enable that part of the Land Act to work fairly; and I trust the Government will consider the case, which is one of the most cruel and undeserved hardships which has fallen upon the landowners of Ireland, without any fault whatever of their own.'

Evidently Mr. Plunket in no believer in the workings of 'the law of supply and demand' when the market value of a landlord interest is being operated upon. But why should the money of the public be utilised for the purpose of raising the market price of landlord property? What claim upon the aid or generosity of the State have a class of monopolists like the Irish landlords? For generations they have shamelessly robbed a poor and unfortunate tenantry with impunity. As residents in Ireland they have been merciless, both in their rent exactions and as the administrators of rural justice. They have, as was once truly said by the London Times, enforced their rights with a hand of iron, and neglected their duties with a front of brass.' As absentees they have expended outside of Ireland the wealth which no effort of theirs helped to produce, and which, as the sole result of tenant labour and the wants of the community, should have been expended in Ireland. Their general treatment of the agricultural classes, which constitute three millions of our population, has been the chief cause alike of the poverty and discontent of the country. From it has resulted the agrarian crime which has so injured both the name and the peace of Ireland. Having perpetrated their inhuman evictions, 'the virtual sentences of death,' by aid of the law and the bayonets of England, they have made Englishmen participators in the odium of such acts and co-heirs to the feelings of revenge with which the expatriated victims of Irish landlordism are animated towards the power which ruthlessly drove them from Ireland. Not less than one hundred millions of public taxes have been expended in the last eighty-four years in the administration of exceptional and coercive laws, rendered necessary, in consequence of the tyranny and legal robbery of the Irish landlords; and now after this record of criminal action and criminal neglect, of abuse of power and of opportunity, when the consequences of their long and ruinous social sway in Ireland is reacting upon themselves, the public taxpayer is expected to sanction a scheme by which twice the market price of portions of their estates will be obtained in order to recruit their shattered means of persecution, and give to the disturbing element in Irish social life a longer lease of poverty-inducing and crime-provoking power.

The pressure which the Irish landlords are bringing to bear upon the Government on the purchase question, is easily understood; but that with which the name of Captain O'Shea, the member for Clare Co., is identified, is not so clear. He is just now the hero of a requisition which has been signed by the majority of the Catholic Hierarchy and of the members of Parliament for Ireland, and can boast that Mr. Gladstone's letter to him was the first indication of a promised statement from the Premier on the purchase clauses of the Land Act. That this requisition was prompted by the Government is quite certain, Captain O'Shea is, towards the Parnell Parliamentary party, what Mr, Errington is at the Vatican, the unofficial ambassador of the Gladstone administration; and when any Governmental policy requires either the neutrality or co-operation of the Irish representatives the member for Clare is the Government medium for diplomatic intrigue. To increase the facilities for purchase at the eager behest of Irish landlords might displease the popular party in Ireland; but if a similar movement could be obtained from persons who might be said to represent the tenant-farmers, the step which the Government had made up its mind to take before Captain O'Shea obtained a single signature to his requisition could then be taken with safety, if not with profit, by Mr. Gladstone. Hence the O'Shea requisition and the Gladstone letter and promise.

The contemplated extension of the purchase clauses of the Land Act involves the most serious consequences to the tenant-farmer class of Ireland. Upon what basis of value will the holdings of would-be peasant proprietors be purchased? If not on the present market price of the landlord's interest, what standard will have to determine the number of years' purchase for a farmer to pay? According to Mr. Brodrick's statement in the recent debate the average price of land in 1872 was 221⁄2 years' purchase, while that of the land which was sold in Ireland in 1882 averaged but 7. Will the Land Commission or the Landed Estates Court be authorised to sell to the tenants at this figure? Not at all. By extending the period of repayment over fifty years, and lowering the interest on loans so that the annual charges will approximate to the judicial rents, the farmers will be hoodwinked into bargains by which the impecunious landlords will pocket the Government loans to the tune of 20 or 25 years purchase for their otherwise unsaleable interest. It is true the tenant will be no longer at the mercy of the landlord; but he will have to pay an equivalent sum to the rent to the Government for fifty or sixty years, by the end of which time he will probably realise the felicity of having done something for posterity as well as for the landlord, and discover in this fact a corresponding consolation for having done nothing for himself. With an annual Government charge equal to the judicial rent upon his holding the farmer will find it well nigh impossible to borrow other money should adverse circumstances arise; while without his interest being thus mortgaged he would experience no difficulty in this respect. That these considerations will influence the action of the Irish tenant-farmers in the purchase question goes without saying. They are a shrewd class of men, and, like the peasantry of every other country, are swayed much more by selfish interests than by patriotic principles. They are fully alive to the present unsaleable nature of the landlords' interests. They are also convinced that few if any land jobbers will now be found so reckless as to buy up saleable estates when the power of rack-renting has been, to a great extent, swept away. The teachings of the Land League against 'land grabbing' still exercise a potent and salutary influence over the minds and acts of the entire agricultural class of the country, and will continue to do so for years to come, thereby checking that ruinous competition for holdings which encouraged the landlords in past years to carry on their system of rack-renting and clearance. Under these circumstances, and with the opposition of the popular sentiment of the country against any purchase scheme which will contemplate rents that are fixed on tenants' own improvements as the basis of price, there is not much likelihood of anything-like a 'brisk business' being done in the sale of landlord property, even when the whole of the purchase money is loaned by the State. Ireland must not be expected to be generous to a class which never knew how to be just.

To propose that tenants who have reclaimed their mountain or bog-land holdings by years of unremitting toil should pay a twenty years purchase of a judicial rent that is fixed upon the property which was created by their toil and sweat, is simply monstrous. As well demand of a depositor in a savings' bank a similar tax ere he could claim the savings of a lifetime as his own. No landlord capital has been expended, no effort outside that of the tenants has been at work to bring a semi-savage soil into a moderate state of cultivation; and yet after the purchase money has been paid over and over again in the rack-renting which has been the rule upon estates made up of this description of holding, Mr. Gladstone is about to propose that the occupiers of these reclaimed lands shall pay the price which the landlords demand before the fruits of the tenants' toil can be called their own. There are probably near 200,000 holdings of this description in Ireland. They are found chiefly along the Western Coast counties from Donegal to Cork and in the mountain and bog-land districts in other parts of the country. They comprise the area of periodical distress and may be said to constitute the chief difficulty in the solution of the Irish social problem. One out of scores of similar cases which came under my notice when making a tour of some of these districts last year will suffice for an illustration of the wrong which purchase will inflict upon the poorest of our farming class. Widow Collins, of Lissheenfro, West Clare, was a tenant of Col. McDonnell's. Her holding consisted of eleven acres of cut-away bog. The Government valuation was £3. The rent which her husband and herself had been paying for thirty years was £11 4s. She went into the Land Court and obtained a reduction of £6 4s., and for having taken this step against the landlord she was evicted for £19 arrears of the old rack-rent, which she was unable to pay. Taking the judicial rent of £5 as being a fair rent according to a legal tribunal, we see that the sum of £6 4s. more than what was fair was compelled to be paid each year for thirty years by this poor family. A total of £186 was thus extracted over what the landlord was justly entitled to receive, or £86 more than the price of the fee simple, if we reckon that at the figure which the landlords will endeavour to induce the Government to aid them in obtaining, twenty years purchase of the judicial rent; or £126 more than what the fee simple would cost, if the Government valuation be taken as the basis of fair value. Yet had this poor woman not been evicted, as described, she would be required to pay £l00 more before she could claim the property which her husband's labour created, and which their rack-rent payments had already really purchased twice over.

Upon what principle of fair dealing the landlords are to be helped to screw large sums of purchase-money from these mountain and bog-land tenants is not easy to discover. They have been the most fearfully rack-rented portion of our tenantry. Rents have been levied not upon the capabilities of the reclaimed soil but upon the extraneous sources from which the poor people have been accustomed to receive aid, such as turf-cutting, labour of the head of the family in England and Scotland in the summer months, and remittances from relatives in America. They have first been compelled to pay rent for land which they themselves have reclaimed, and the rent has then been mercilessly adjusted so as to tax the extra labour and sources of income of the unfortunate tenants. They are mostly all housed in one-roomed cabins, built of mud or rubble. More than a million of human beings are thus domiciled in Ireland, and the effect which the purchase scheme now clamoured for by the landlords would have upon the social prospects of these people would be to continue them in their present condition for the remainder of their lives by having to pay an equivalent to a judicial rack-rent for fifty years, in order that the class which has shamelessly robbed and oppressed them may receive a liberal price for their infamously administered properties.

It is not the better housing of these one million people, or how extra agricultural industry can be fostered among them, or how the holdings upon which they live can be enlarged; or, failing this, how some of them can be migrated to unoccupied better land, which engages the attention of the Liberal Government. No. That would be going to the root of the social evil of Ireland. It would be commencing where sound social reform should begin, in a regard for the practical amelioration of the condition of the poorer class of workers; but as Whig statesmanship only concerns itself with temporary expedients, oscillating between Tory retrogression and Radical progress, it would be expecting too much to count upon even the semblance of a final remedy for the Irish Land Question from a party that has been bungling over its solution during the past fifteen years. To emigrate the people and compensate the landlords for the working of a system which has reduced our population to less than it was eighty-four years ago, is Mr. Trevelyan's conception of how the Irish Social problem is to he solved. John Stuart Mill has said that 'When the inhabitants of a country quit the country en masse because the Government will not make it a place fit for them to live in, the Government is judged and condemned.' But in the opinion of our Irish Executive, Mr. Tuke is a truer political economist than Mr. Mill. Nevertheless, the people of Ireland will naturally incline to a contrary belief while facts like the following can justify them in doing so. The diagram which follows represents thirty-two squares of one thousand miles each, and will correspond with the area of Ireland, which is 31,874 square miles.

From this diagram it will be seen that but one-fourth of the entire area of the country is under cultivation, while 16,000 square miles of land are under grass. The remaining 8,000 square miles comprise water, bog, and waste land. In 1814 the population per square mile was 270 persons. In 1881 it had diminished to 160, representing in the short space of forty years a loss of 110 persons per square mile, a fact (taking into account the extent of soil capable of sustaining at least 500 people where but 160 are now remaining), without a parallel in the history of any system or scheme for the depopulation of a civilised country. Yet it is a country thus criminally depleted which English Liberal statesmanship proposes to drain still More, in furtherance of what is but a ruthless policy of Celtic expatriation, no matter by what other euphemism of expression, or under what pseudo-philanthropic pretence, it is attempted to be masked.


There are 10,000 square miles of Irish land under grass, and semi-waste at the present time, which could be planted with farms and brought under cultivation, while leaving sufficient pasturage land for the grazing purposes of the country. Why should this land be allowed to starve for labour while thousands of labourers and cottiers' families are being emigrated or left starving for the want of its use? Is it not a heartless mockery of the helplessness to which English Statesmanship has reduced Ireland that we are compelled to listen to arguments about 'an over-populated country,' while we have before our eyes every day millions of acres of fruitful land which no hungry man dare touch? It is the curse of Tantalus inflicted upon a people in pursuance of a policy of political vengeance for their uncompromising nationality, and if such an inhuman system of rule and ruin begets daily increasing trouble and danger to the Government which is responsible for its continuance, it is but the providential infliction of a just penalty for a course of persistent wrong.

The most significant feature of the present phase of the Irish agrarian struggle is the conversion of the territorial class to the doctrine of peasant proprietary, or, as it is now termed, ' occupying proprietary.' It is not surprising, on the other hand, that few, if any, landlords, conservative though they are as a class, advocate state or national proprietary. A Conservatism of the masses, which would result from any other system than one that should be in the interests of a class, finds no favour with the landocracy. The stability of society must be contingent upon a monopoly, and this monopoly must be the property of a class. Conservatism is, therefore, the profession of a selfish creed; and that anxiety for the preservation of political and social institutions which a landlord speaker or writer parades with such patriotism when attacking the advocates of reform, is but akin to the celebrated expression of Louis XIV, 'L'etat, c'est moi.' Society, law, order, government, mean the landlords with, in Ireland, the addition of British Empire and loyalty; and if any encroachment is attempted on the part of the community at large upon any unjust privilege attaching to the ' sacred rights ' of this class, then society, law, order, government, British Empire and loyalty are menaced with the prospect of universal ruin.

The conversion of the Irish landlords to the doctrine of a peasant proprietary is recent. Four years ago such a scheme was either Utopian or insane, when talked of in connection with Ireland, in the opinion of those who are now advocating it as an essential remedy for the existing social evils of the country. Sudden conversions do not invite the credit of honest conviction. This rapid development in the economic education of our landlords needs enquiring into for an explanation of its motives. Very little investigation will be needed to unmask then. The Land Act of 1881 establishes a dual legal proprietorship in the land of Ireland. Absolute ownership is, however, not destroyed, it is only divided: but the proprietory relationship of the joint landlord and tenant owners is so antagonising that the partnership is only workable by the intervention of the State in the machinery of the Land Court. Under this arrangement, backed by the state of public feeling against land-grabbing, the interest of the farmer threatens to eat up that of the landlord. With the latter the chief difficulty is the intervention of the State, while the farmer has the public voice at his back in favour of the abolition of his little difficulty, which is, of course, the landlord. Finding himself in this situation, it strikes the landlord that his best policy is to get the State to buy him partially out, before his entire interest becomes unsaleable; and he now appeals to the author of the Land Act to render him this necessary aid in order to get out of a daily increasing difficulty of position.

The first anxiety of the Irish landlords is a liberal price for that portion of their dilapidated interest which they are anxious to sell, and this they expect the government to virtually guarantee by reducing the interest on loans to tenants, and extending the period of repayment from 35 to 50 or 60 years: but their next concern is for the gradual formation of a peasant proprietary. Lord George Hamilton, Lord Lansdowne, The O'Connor Don, Lord Castleton, and numerous others of the same fraternity, have written and spoken on the advisability of carrying out such a scheme in Ireland. In this the landlord party is showing consummate judgment. Peasant proprietary will not destroy, it will only extend the absolute ownership of land: an ownership which will always be in the market for purchase and re-consolidation into large estates. The sale of some landlords' properties, and of portions of others will not be compulsory, except to the extent of the landlords' pecuniary difficulties: and facilitating the purchase of what the landlords cannot now sell, will be only extending relief to a portion of that class without contributing in any material way either to the abolition of Irish landlordism or to the final settlement of the Irish land question. Landlordism will still remain as an institution powerful for evil, though shorn of some of its former unjust privileges: and 'landlordism in Ireland,' no matter by what conditions it may be restricted in its administration of the land, means a continuation, more or less, of those social evils which have been associated with the system since the unpropitious hour when it was first introduced into the country. Peasant proprietary, therefore, is not 'the abolition of landlordism,' unless as a result of compulsory expropriation, and the accompaniment of .a law against consolidation, together with the imposition of a land tax in the interests of the nation – changes which the landlords well know are not contemplated by the present Liberal party. The Irish landlords are quite safe in agitating for a peasant proprietary, and it is only this feeling of security which has caused them to advocate in 1884 what they denounced as communism and the disintegration of society so recently as 1879. In this respect, at least, the landlords of Ireland have learned wisdom. It remains to be seen whether the people have, on their part, profited also to a like extent by the experience of the last five years. For my part I firmly believe they have, and that they will have little or nothing to do with this contemplated purchase scheme, which has for its chief, if not sole, object, the relief of bankrupt Irish landlords at the expense of Irish tenants; which purpose is sought to be masked by offers to some farmers to become the landlords of their own holdings, in fifty years time – at the selling landlord's own price!


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