Letters to Lord John Russell on the Further Measures for the Social Amelioration of Ireland/Letter 2

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LETTER II.


Ireland not over-peopled—Proofs of this upon every scale from a Townland to a County Statistics of Mayo—Waste Land and Waste Labour generally found together—Proofs that Reclamation of Bog will Pay—Lancashire Bogs—Irish Bogs—Private Enterprise not to be relied on in Ireland—Immediate Action indispensable.


My Lord,

I have ventured to assert, contrary to the general persuasion, that Ireland is by no means over- peopled; nay, that even her seemingly most over-crowded districts might easily, by wise arrangements, be made to support in comfort their entire population. I proceed to the proof of this assertion.

I will first take an extreme instance on a small scale. In the course of last spring a memorial was circulated among Members of Parliament, signed by the Chairman of the Board of Guardians of the Union of Limerick, Mr. John Thomas Devitt, containing a statement in detail of the condition of the population of the single townland of Moanduff, in the county of Limerick, which measures less than 150 acres, and is inhabited by more than 300 souls, or above two to the acre I Being a rural townland, the inhabitants of which have to live (if they can) off its produce, it is, therefore, one of the strongest examples to be met with of a redundant population. As one consequence, the estate is eaten up by its pauper inhabitants. No rents or rates can be collected. And the memorial gives the names in full of some thirty or forty families inhabiting this true pauper-warren, who implore to be assisted to emigrate, or to be removed somewhere at the expense of somebody, to prevent their continuing to starve one another. Mr. Devitt, however, while he supports their prayer, in his "desire to catch at anything that may offer a palliative to their misfortunes," goes on to say (and I beg your Lordship to mark the words)—"Yet I hold that we have an ample field at home for the employment of what is now deemed a superabundant population. The very district I am describing possesses within itself mountain bog, and marsh (with an inexhaustible supply of limestone), more than enough, if brought into cultivation, to sustain five, aye ten times its present amount of population."

I refer next to the case of a wider district; for example, the considerable estate of Sir Charles Style, in County Donegal, managed by Capt. Kennedy, whose valuable evidence on the subject was given in detail before the Devon Commission. Here, " by lettings of waste land during the last four years no less than 172 families have obtained a permanent means of support, and there still remain 3628 acres of similar land disposable for an extension of the same principle." "The original cost of the reclamation is refunded in three years, and £1s. 12. 9d. per acre cleared on the average by the transaction," in addition to an increase of permanent value equal to 7s. per acre. The expenditure on these and other permanent improvements of the estate is, in the opinion of Mr. Kennedy, certain to pay a profit of at least ten per cent, on an outlay of £5. per acre. And the result of what has been already done is that the same population which was formerly crowded on a few tracts of old arable land, in numbers far beyond what its produce could maintain, is now comfortably located, each man on his own conveniently-arranged farm. Actually a want of hands is now experienced for the cultivation of a district, half of whose inhabitants were previously idle through the greater part of the year from deficiency of employment!—(See Digest, p. 586, &c.)

I proceed next to the case of an entire county. I take the one which of all the counties of Ireland, is generally referred to as the most over-peopled, the most incapable of affording a maintenance to its population—the county of Mayo. Mayo obtained a shocking pre-eminence last year in the starvation of its inhabitants. It was from Mayo chiefly that Liverpool was invaded by hordes of fevered and famished outcasts. It was in Mayo that ejectments and civil bill processes, having clearance for their object, were most numerous. It is in Mayo of all Irish counties, that the population will be found to have suffered most from these combined causes, when the dreadful reckoning of last year's depopulation is made up. Those who deny that Ireland can maintain her people, usually adduce as their strongest proof the statistics of the county of Mayo.[1]

But what are these statistics? The population of Mayo in 1841 was under 400,000. The acreage of cultivated land is, in round numbers, 500,000, or four persons to five acres, which is at the rate of about six acres of cultivated land to each family. The population being almost entirely agricultural, this, no doubt, appears tolerably close packing. But what is the entire area of the county? No less than 1,300,000 acres; 800,000 acres being still uncultivated; of which very nearly 500,000 acres are declared by Mr. Griffith to be reclaimable with profit I Were these wastes, therefore, reclaimed, the proportion of cultivated land to the population would be doubled. Instead of six acres to each family on the average, there would be twelve acres, besides the run of four or five acres more of rough mountain or bog for their cattle and turf digging. Then it is evident that even Mayo itself is far from being over-peopled in reference to its natural capacity for maintaining an agricultural population. It is only the land now arable that is really overstocked. And this chiefly because it is cultivated in the most barbarous methods, rundale and joint-occupancy being general; drainage and green crops almost unknown! Hear the evidence of the Dean of Killala, given before the Devon Commission: —

73. "Is there sufficient employment for the people in the cultivation of the arable land?—No, it does not employ them half the year.

74. "But there would be employment for them in reclaiming the waste?—Yes, more than ample if there was encouragement given. Where I reside there are many thousand acres waste, because it would not be let at a moderate rent.

75. "Is the land which you term waste capable of being made productive, if a fair rent was fixed on it?—Yes, every acre of it."

But the landowners of Mayo prefer driving their people out of the country, to England or America^ or starving them out of existence, to encouraging them by long leases and assistance to settle on their waste lands at home. This is why Mayo appears so over-peopled, when the contrary is, or ought to be, the fact.

And let me here remark upon the fallacy often put forward by those who insist on the impossibility of a county situated like Mayo maintaining its population. They compare the numbers of that population with the net valuation of the land now in (wretched) cultivation,—e.g. 400,000 souls with a rental of under £300,000. And allowing say £3. a head for each individual, see, they exclaim, it will take four times the entire rental of Mayo to maintain its population only on the footing of paupers!

Of coarse, this is the best possible reason for their being set to work to maintain themselves (as I have shewn they may so easily do) by improved cultivation of the soil of the country,—a process which, instead of diminishing its net rental, would, as Mr. Kennedy proves by facts, vastly increase it.

So, again, of the county of Monaghan. Mr. W. Steuart Trench, who has for years been extensively engaged in reclaiming waste land there, is asked,

12. "You have alluded to emigration to America. Do you think the locating the superabundant population upon waste mountain tracts in Ireland would have an equally beneficial effect?" His reply is, "Certainly; at least for a vast period of years to come."

I might quote similar facts and opinions in regard to other counties, especially Galway, Cork, Kerry, Waterford, Donegal, &c. Indeed it is a singular and striking fact, that it is precisely those districts of the west and south of Ireland where the population is most wretched and destitute of employment, which most abound in improveable waste land. The useless land, requiring only labour to produce abundance, generally lies almost at the doors of the idle thousands, who are starving for want of work. In the words of the address of the Council of the Royal Agricultural Improvement Society, for 1845, "In every district may be seen tracts on which labour might be employed with the utmost advantage, and in all those districts are to be found masses of people in want of food, or of wages to purchase food."

But to all this there are objectors who oppose the doubt whether the reclamation of these wastes would really pay, and the doubt is rested on the very fact that they have not been reclaimed. "Private enterprise," it is said, "would already have effected their reclamation if it were profitable." And to private enterprise they would still leave the process of effecting it. Such seems to be the feeling of many, who on this plausible primâ facie objection refuse to listen to any proposal for the interference of the Legislature in the matter, and forgetful of the momentous importance of the subject, treat with scorn and ridicule the notion of cultivating Irish bogs!

Yet those same incredulous venters of bad jokes against this proposal, have probably often admired, as they were whirled over Chatmoss on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the magnificent crops of every kind of produce which are now yearly raised upon a black bog worse in its unreclaimed state than three-fourths of the Irish bogs.

Mr. Baines, writing from Barton Grange, in Lancashire, "a house standing in the midst of a tract of 2,000 acres of peat moss, within a few years past as wet and barren as any morass in Ireland, but now covered with luxuriant crops," estimates the sum expended in reclaiming the Lancashire piosses at about ten pounds per acre on the average "all spent in manual labour," at the high wages of that county, which are more than double the ordidinary wages of labour in Ireland. I have the details before me of Mr. Wilson France's expenditure in reclaiming 1,000 acres of Rawcliffe moss, near Garstang, likewise in Lancashire, which amounted to £9,000. This outlay now pays ten per cent.; and the reclaimed bog gives constant employment throughout the year to seventy labourers at high wages.

Why cannot the similar peat mosses of Ireland, where wages are so much lower, be reclaimed with at least equal profit?

But, in fact, Mr. Griffiths, who superintended personally the Government Survey of Ireland, and has been employed all his life in the valuation and survey of the lands, both cultivated and waste of the island, unquestionably the highest attainable authority on the subject, estimates the number of acres of waste bog and mountain land in Ireland, that maybe profitably reclaimed, at four millions; one million and a half for arable purposes, two and a half millions of acres for pasture. Professor Kane's estimate of improvable waste is still higher, namely, 4,600,000 acres. Who has the right to sneer down, or dispute in any degree, these high authorities?

But any one who honestly and fairly wishes for information of a detailed and practical character on the subject will find ample evidence in the report of the Devon Commission, of instances innumerable. of successful and very profitable reclamation of waste in Ireland, both bog and mountain, on both a large and a small scale. Some of this evidence I printed last year, in the hope of overcoming the fatal incredulity which checked the birth of your Lordship's embryo measure. Some of it may be seen in Lord Devon's recently printed Digest. I cannot venture to quote any portion in this place. It is enough to state that in most cases the cost of reclamation was entirely repaid by the second year's crop; in some even by that of the first year. In all, after repayment in full of the expense of reclaiming, land was left worth from ten to sixty shillings an acre, which had previously been almost valueless—at the utmost worth from one shilling to two or three.

But then it is said, "If so much profit can be derived from the reclamation of waste land, private enterprise will be sure to undertake and accomplish it.*' And this argument is conclusive with many against any proposed Legislative interference.

This indeed would be a full and sufficient answer in England! But the case of Ireland is anomalous, and her condition wholly abnormal. The ordinary rules which teach us to leave profitable works of this kind to private enterprise are inapplicable to a country in the circumstances which Ireland exhibits at present. The very fact that these wastes, though cultivable with profit, have remained uncultivated, except here and there in a few instances, prove this assertion. It is not merely the insecurity of life and property prevailing there—nor the want of capital alone—nor the want of sufficiently secure tenure, or of a permanent interest—nor the embarrassments of proprietors—nor their habitual indolence and inertness—nor absenteeism. But it is the combination of all these impediments, and others besides, which has occasioned the neglect of such available means for enriching landlord, tenant, and labourer, if properly used. No doubt these impediments are capable of removal, and will be more or less, some or all of them, in course of time removed. But not in sufficient time to effect that great change in the existing relations between the numbers of the labouring population and the demand for their labour, which is immediately indispensable to avert ruin and revolution.

What is imperatively wanted is some means for securing immediate employment of a productive character, and such, if possible, as will directly increase the growth of food in the country, for many thousands of able-bodied men, who, during the next winter and spring (and probably for several following seasons) will, in very many localities, be left wholly unemployed by private enterprise. The waste lands— which are scattered very generally over the surface of the island, but especially abound, as I have already remarked, in the poorest districts, where labour is most redundant—offer you this, and the waste lands alone. Further useless expenditure of public money on the road-works of last year wilt hardly be thought of. Some roads indeed may require to be finished. In some districts works of drainage, or the lowering of river levels, may be usefully set about. But in very many localities, where large numbers of able-bodied destitute persons will have to be either fed in idleness (a system which it is difficult to believe will be any longer permitted), or employed on some public work, these resources will be wanting. While the waste lands in the vicinity, if power be lodged with the proper authorities to appropriate to the purpose such portions of them as are most conveniently applicable to it, will afford precisely the required means of employment, of a character superior in every respect to any other, and fulfilling all the necessary conditions—remunerative—productive of an increase of food—capable of indefinite expansion or contraction—most likely to elicit the industry and energies of the labourers employed; especially if it be a part of the scheme (as it should be) to hold forth to some of them the prospect of being enabled at some time, by industry and good conduct, to rent or purchase portions of the waste they may reclaim.

But my limits are long since exhausted. I must defer to another opportunity the description of the measure I venture to recommend for this purpose.

I remain, my Lord,
Your Lordship's very obedient servant,
G. Poulett Scrope.

London, Sept. 27
  1. See a Letter signed a "Mayo Man," in the Times of September 20.