The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 9/A Short View of the State of Ireland

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I AM assured, that it has for some time been practised as a method of making men's court, when they are asked about the rate of lands, the abilities of tenants, the state of trade and manufacture in this kingdom, and how their rents are paid; to answer, that in their neighbourhood all things are in a flourishing condition, the rent and purchase of land every day increasing. And if a gentleman happen to be a little more sincere in his representation; beside being looked on as not well affected, he is sure to have a dozen contradictors at his elbow. I think it is no manner of secret, why these questions are so cordially asked, or so obligingly answered.

But since, with regard to the affairs of this kingdom, I have been using all endeavours to subdue my indignation; to which indeed I am not provoked by any personal interest, not being the owner of one spot of ground in the whole island; I shall only enumerate by rules generally known, and never contradicted, what are the true causes of any country's flourishing and growing rich; and then examine what effects arise from those causes in the kingdom of Ireland.

The first cause of a kingdom's thriving is, the fruitfulness of the soil to produce the necessaries and conveniences of life; not only sufficient for the inhabitants, but for exportation into other countries.

The second is, the industry of the people, in working up all their native commodities to the last degree of manufacture.

The third is, the conveniency of safe ports and havens, to carry out their own goods as much manufactured, and bring in those of others as little manufactured, as the nature of mutual commerce will allow.

The fourth is, that the natives should, as much as possible, export and import their goods in vessels of their own timber, made in their own country.

The fifth is, the privilege of a free trade in all foreign countries which will permit them, except those who are in war with their own prince or state.

The sixth is, by being governed only by laws made with their own consent; for otherwise they are not a free people. And therefore all appeals for justice, or applications for favour or preferment, to another country, are so many grievous impoverishments.

The seventh is, by improvement of land, encouragement of agriculture, and thereby increasing the number of their people; without which, any country, however blessed by nature, must continue poor.

The eighth is, the residence of the prince, or chief administrator of the civil power.

The ninth is, the concourse of foreigners, for education, curiosity, or pleasure; or, as to a general mart of trade.

The tenth is, by disposing all offices of honour, profit, or trust, only to the natives; or at least with very few exceptions, where strangers have long inhabited the country, and are supposed to understand and regard the interests of it as their own.

The eleventh is, when the rents of land and profits of employments are spent in the country which produced them, and not in another; the former of which will certainly happen where the love of our native country prevails.

The twelfth is, by the publick revenues being all epent and employed at home, except on the occasions of a foreign war.

The thirteenth is, where the people are not obliged, unless they find it for their own interest or conveniency, to receive any monies, except of their own coinage by a publick mint, after the manner of all civilized nations.

The fourteenth is, a disposition of the people of a country to wear their own manufactures, and import as few incitements to luxury, either in clothes, furniture food, or drink, as they possibly can live conveniently without.

There are many other, causes of a nation's thriving, which I at present cannot recollect: but without advantage from at least some of these, after turning my thoughts a long time, I am not able to discover whence our wealth proceeds, and therefore would gladly be better informed. In the mean time I will here examine what share falls to Ireland of these causes, or of the eftects and consequences.

It is not my intention to complain, but barely to relate facts; and the matter is not of small importance. For it is allowed, that a man who lives in a solitary house, far from help, is not wise in endeavouring to acquire in the neighbourhood the reputation of being rich; because those who come for gold, will go off with pewter and brass, rather than return empty: and in the common practice of the world, those who possess most wealth, make the east parade; which they leave to others, who have nothing else to bear them out in showing their faces on the exchange.

As to the first cause of a nation's riches, being the fertility of the soil, as well as temperature of climate, we have no reason to complain; for, although the quantity of unprofitable land in this kingdom, reckoning bog and rock and barren mountain, be double in proportion to what it is in England; yet the native productions, which both kingdoms deal in, are very near an equality in point of goodness, and might, with the same encouragement, be as well manufactured. I except mines and minerals; in some of which however we are only defective in point of skill and industry.

In the second, which is the industry of the people, our misfortune is not altogether owing to our own fault, but to a million of discouragements.

The conveniency of ports and havens, which nature has bestowed so liberally on this kingdom, is of no more use to us, than a beautiful prospect to a man shut up in a dungeon.

As to shipping of its own, Ireland is so utterly unprovided, that of all the excellent timber cut down within these fifty or sixty years, it can hardly be said that the nation has received the benefit of one valuable house to dwell in, or one ship to trade with.

Ireland is the only kingdom I ever heard or read of, either in ancient or modern story, which was denied the liberty of exporting their native commodities and manufactures wherever they pleased, except to countries at war with their own prince or state: yet this privilege, by the superiority of mere power, is refused us in the most momentous parts of commerce; beside an act of navigation, to which we never consented, pinned down upon us, and rigorously executed; and a thousand other unexampled circumstances, as grievous as they are invidious to mention. To go on to the rest.

It is too well known, that we are forced to obey some laws we never consented to; which is a condition I must not call by its true uncontroverred name, for fear of lord chief justice Whitshed's ghost with his libertas et natale solum[1], written for a motto on his coach, as it stood at the door of the court, while he was perjuring himself to betray both. Thus we are in the condition of patients, who have physick sent them by doctors at a distance, strangers to their constitution and the nature of their disease: and thus we are forced to pay five hundred per cent to decide our properties: in all which we have likewise the honour to be distinguished from the whole race of mankind.

As to the improvement of land; those few, who attempt that or planting, through covetousness, or want of skill, generally leave things worse than they were; neither succeeding in trees nor hedges; and by running into the fancy of grazing, after the manner of the Scythians, are every day depopulating the country.

We are so far from having a king to reside among us, that even the viceroy is generally absent four fifths of his time in the government[2].

No strangers from other countries make this a part of their travels; where they can expect to see nothing but scenes of misery and desolation.

Those who have the misfortune to be born here, have the least title to any considerable employment; to which they are seldom preferred, but upon a political consideration.

One third part of the rents of Ireland is spent in England; which, with the profit of employments, pensions, appeals, journies of pleasure or health, education at the inns of court and both universities, remittances at pleasure, the pay of all superiour officers in the army, and other incidents, will amount to a full half of the income of the whole kingdom, all clear profit to England.

We are denied the liberty of coining gold, silver, or even copper. In the Isle of Man they coin their own silver; every petty prince, vassal to the emperor, can coin what money he pleases. And in this, as in most of the articles already mentioned, we are an exception to all other states or monarchies, that were ever known in the world.

As to the last, or fourteenth article, we take special care to act diametrically contrary to it in the whole course of our lives. Both sexes, but especially the women, despise and abhor to wear any of their own manufactures, even those which are better made than in other countries; particularly a sort of silk plaid, through which the workmen are forced to run a kind of gold thread that it may pass for Indian. Even ale and potatoes are imported from England, as well as corn; and our foreign trade is little more than importation of French wine, for which I am told we pay ready money.

Now, if all this be true (upon which I could easily enlarge) I should be glad to know, by what secret method it is, that we grow a rich and flourishing people, without liberty, trade, manufactures, inhabitants, money, or the privilege of coining; without industry, labour or improvement of land; and with more than half the rent and profits of the whole kingdom annually exported, for which we receive not a single farthing: and to make up all this, nothing worth mentioning, except the linen of the North, a trade casual, corrupted, and at mercy; and some butter from Cork. If we do flourish, it must be against every law of nature and reason; like the thorn at Glastonbury, that blossoms in the midst of winter.

Let the worthy commissioners, who come from England, ride round the kingdom, and observe the face of nature, or the face of the natives; the improvement of the land; the thriving numerous plantations; the noble woods; the abundance and vicinity of country seats; the commodious farmers houses and barns; the towns and villages, where, every body is busy, and thriving with all kind of manufactures; the shops full of goods wrought to perfection, and filled with customers; the comfortable diet, and dress, and dwellings of the people; the vast number of ships in our harbours and docks, and shipwrights in our seaport towns; the roads crowded with carriers, laden with rich manufactures; the perpetual concourse to and fro of pompous equipages.

With what envy and admiration would those gentlemen return from so delightful a progress? what glorious reports would they make, when they went back to England?

But my heart is too heavy to continue this irony longer: for it is manifest, that whatever stranger took such a journey, would be apt to think himself travelling in Lapland or Ysland, rather than in a country so favoured by nature as ours, both in fruitfulness of soil and temperature of climate. The miserable dress, and diet, and dwelling of the people; the general desolation in most parts of the kingdom; the old seats of the nobility and gentry all in ruins, and no new ones in their stead; the families of farmers, who pay great rents, living in filth and nastiness upon buttermilk and potatoes, without a shoe or stocking to their feet, or a house so convenient as an English hogsty to receive them. These indeed may be comfortable sights to an English spectator; who comes for a short time, only to learn the language, and returns back to his own country, whither he finds all our wealth transmitted.

Nostra miseria magna est.

There is not one argument used to prove the riches of Ireland, which is not a logical demonstration of its poverty. The rise of our rents is squeezed out of the very blood, and vitals, and clothes, and dwellings of the tenants, who live worse than English beggars. The lowness of interest, in all other countries a sign of wealth, is in us a proof of misery; there being no trade to employ any borrower. Hence alone comes the dearness of land, since the savers have no other way to lay out their money: hence the dearness of necessaries for life: because the tenants cannot afford to pay such extravagant rates for land (which they must take or go a begging) without raising the price of cattle, and of corn, although themselves should live upon chaff. Hence our increase of buildings in this city; because workmen have nothing to do but to employ one another, and one half of them are infallibly undone. Hence the daily increase of bankers, who may be a necessary evil in a trading country, but so ruinous in ours; who, for their private advantage, have sent away all our silver, and one third of our gold; so that within three years past the running cash of the nation, which was about five hundred thousand pounds, is now less than two, and must daily diminish, unless we have liberty to coin, as well as that important kingdom, the Isle of Man, and the meanest principality in the German empire, as I before observed.

I have sometimes thought, that this paradox of the kingdom's growing rich, is chiefly owing to those worthy gentlemen the BANKERS; who except some customhouse officers, birds of passage, oppressive thrifty squires, and a few others who shall be nameless, are the only thriving people among us: and I have often wished, that a law were enacted to hang up half a dozen bankers every year, and thereby interpose, at least some short delay to the farther ruin of Ireland.

Ye are idle, ye are idle, answered Pharaoh to the Israelites, when they complained to his majesty, that they were forced to make bricks without straw.

England enjoys every one of those advantages for enriching a nation, which I have above enumerated; and, into the bargain, a good million returned to them every year without labour or hazard, or one farthing value received on our side: but how long we shall be able to continue the payment, I am not under the least concern. One thing I know, that when the hen is starved to death, there will be no more golden eggs.

I think it a little unhospitable, and others may call it a subtile piece of malice, that because there may be a dozen families in this town, able to entertain their English friends in a generous manner at their tables, their guests upon their return to England shall report, that we wallow in riches and luxury.

Yet, I confess, I have known an hospital, where all the household officers grew rich; while the poor, for whose sake it was built, were almost starving for want of food and raiment.

To conclude, if Ireland be a rich and flourishing kingdom, its wealth and prosperity must be owing to certain causes, that are yet concealed from the whole race of mankind; and the effects are equally invisible. We need not wonder at strangers, when they deliver such paradoxes; but a native and inhabitant of this kingdom, who gives the same verdict, must be either ignorant to stupidity, or a manpleaser at the expense of all honour, conscience, and truth.

  1. Liberty and my native country.
  2. There has lately been a change in this article, as the viceroy now resides in Ireland, during the whole time of his government.