The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 9/An Answer to a Paper called a Memorial of the Poor Inhabitants, Tradesmen, and Labourers of Ireland

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I RECEIVED a paper from you, whoever you are, printed without any name of author or printer; and sent, I suppose, to me among others without any particular distinction. It contains a complaint of the dearness of corn; and some schemes for making it cheaper, which I cannot approve of.

But pray permit me, before I go farther, to give you a short history of the steps by which we arrived at this hopeful situation.

It was indeed the shameful practice of too many Irish farmers, to wear out their ground with ploughing; while, either through poverty, laziness, or ignorance, they neither took care to manure it as they ought, nor gave time to any part of the land to recover itself; and when their leases were near expiring, being assured that their landlords would not renew, they ploughed even the meadows, and made such havock, that many landlords were considerable sufferers by it.

This gave birth to that abominable race of graziers, who, upon expiration of the farmers leases, were ready to engross great quantities of land; and the gentlemen having been before often ill paid, and their land worn out of heart, were too easily tempted, when a rich grazier made an offer to take all their land, and give them security for payment. Thus, a vast tract of land, where twenty or thirty farmers lived, together with their cottagers and labourers in their several cabins, became all desolate, and easily managed by one or two herdsmen and their boys; whereby the master grazier, with little trouble, seized to himself the livelihood of a hundred people.

It must be confessed, that the farmers were justly punished for their knavery, brutality, and folly. But neither are the squires and landlords to be excused; for to them is owing the depopulating of the country, the vast number of beggars, and the ruin of those few sorry improvements we had.

That farmers should be limited in ploughing, is very reasonable, and practised in England; and might have easily been done here by penal clauses in their leases: but to deprive them in a manner altogether from tilling their lands, was a most stupid want of thinking.

Had the farmers been confined to plough a certain quantity of land, with a penalty of ten pounds an acre for whatever they exceeded, and farther limited for the three or four last years of their leases, all this evil had been prevented; the nation would have saved a million of money; and been more populous by above two hundred thousand souls.

For a people, denied the benefit of trade, to manage their lands in such a manner as to produce nothing, but what they are forbidden to trade with, or only such things, as they can neither export, nor manufacture to advantage, is an absurdity that a wild Indian would be ashamed of; especially when we add, that we are content to purchase this hopeful commerce, by sending to foreign markets for our daily bread.

The grazier's employment is to feed great flocks of sheep, or black cattle, or both. With regard to sheep, as folly is usually accompanied with perverseness, so it is here. There is something so monstrous to deal in a commodity (farther than for our own use) which we are not allowed to export manufactured, nor even unmanufactured, but to one certain country, and only to some few ports in that country; there is, I say, something so sottish, that it wants a name in our language to express it by: and the good of it is, that the more sheep we have, the fewer human creatures are left to wear the wool, or eat the flesh. Ajax was mad, when he mistook a flock of sheep for his enemies: but we shall never be sober, until we have the same way of thinking.

The other part of the grazier's business is, what we call black cattle, producing hides, tallow, and beef for exportation: all which are good and useful commodities, if rightly managed. But it seems, the greatest part of the hides are sent out raw, for want of bark to tan them; and that want will daily grow stronger; for, I doubt, the new project of tanning without it is at an end. Our beef, I am afraid, still continues scandalous in foreign markets for the old reasons. But our tallow, for any thing I know, may be good. However, to bestow the whole kingdom on beef and mutton, and thereby drive out half the people, who should eat their share, and force the rest, to send sometimes as far as Egypt for bread to eat with it, is a most peculiar and distinguished piece of publick economy, of which I have no comprehension.

I know very well that our ancestors the Scythians, and their posterity our kinsmen the Tartars, lived upon the blood, and milk, and raw flesh of their cattle, without one grain of corn; but I confess myself so degenerate, that I am not easy without bread to my victuals.

What amazed me for a week or two, was to see, in this prodigious plenty of cattle, and dearth of human creatures, and want of bread, as well as money to buy it, that all kind of flesh meat should be monstrously dear, beyond what was ever known in this kingdom. I thought it a defect in the laws, that there was not some regulation in the price of flesh, as well as bread: but I imagine myself to have guessed out the reason: in short, I am apt to think, that the whole kingdom is overstocked with cattle, both black and white: and as it is observed, that the poor Irish have a vanity to be rather owners, of two lean cows, than one fat, although with double the charge of grazing, and but half the quantity of milk; so I conceive it much more difficult at present, to find a fat bullock or wether, than it would be if half of them were fairly knocked on the head: for I am assured, that the district in the several markets, called carrion row, is as reasonable as the poor can desire; only the circumstances of money to purchase it, and of trade, or labour, to purchase that money, are indeed wholly wanting.

Now, sir, to return more particularly to you, and your memorial.

A hundred thousand barrels of wheat, you say, should be imported hither; and ten thousand pounds premium to the importers. Have you looked into the purse of the nation? I am no commissioner of the treasury; but am well assured, that the whole running cash would not supply you with a sum to purchase so much corn, which, only at twenty shillings a barrel, will be a hundred thousand pounds; and ten thousand more for the premium. But you will traffick for your corn with other goods: and where are those goods? if you had them, they are all engaged to pay the rents of absentees, and other occasions in London, beside a huge balance of trade this year against us. Will foreigners take our bankers paper? I suppose, they will value it at little more than so much a quire. Where are these rich farmers and engrossers of corn, in so bad a year, and so little sowing?

You are in pain for two shillings premium, and forget the twenty shillings for the price; find me out the latter, and I will engage for the former.

Your scheme for a tax for raising such a sum is all visionary, and owing to a great want of knowledge in the miserable state of this nation. Tea, coffee, sugar, spices, wine, and foreign cloths, are the particulars you mention, upon which this tax should be raised. I will allow the two first; because they are unwholesome; and the last, because I should be glad if they were all burned; but I beg you will leave us our wine to make us a while forget our misery; or give your tenants leave to plough for barley. But I will tell you a secret, which I learned many years ago from the commissioners of the customs in London; they said, when any commodity appeared to be taxed above a moderate rate, the consequence was, to lessen that branch of the revenue by one half; and one of those gentlemen pleasantly told me, that the mistake of parliaments, on such occasions, was owing to an errour of computing two and two to make four; whereas in the business of laying impositions, two and two never made more than one; which happens by lessening the import, and the strong temptation of running such goods as paid high duties, at least in this kingdom. Although the women are as vain and extravagant, as their lovers or their husbands can deserve; and the men are fond enough of wine; yet the number of both, who can afford such expenses, is so small, that the major part must refuse gratifying themselves, and the duties will rather be lessened than increased. But, allowing no force in this argument; yet so preternatural a sum, as one hundred and ten thousand pounds, raised all on a sudden (for there is no dallying with hunger) is just in proportion with raising a million and a half in England; which, as things now stand, would probably bring that opulent kingdom under some difficulties.

You are concerned how strange and surprising it would be in foreign parts to hear that the poor were starving in a rich country, etc. Are you in earnest? is Ireland the rich country you mean? or are you insulting our poverty? were you ever out of Ireland? or were you ever in it till of late? You may probably have a good employment, and are saving all you can to purchase a good estate in England. But by talking so familiarly of one hundred and ten thousand pounds, by a tax upon a few commodities, it is plain, you are either naturally or affectedly ignorant of our present condition; or else you would know and allow, that such a sum is not to be raised here, without a general excise; since in proportion to our wealth, we pay already in taxes more than England ever did, in the height of the war. And when you have brought over your corn, who will be the buyers? most certainly, not the poor, who will not be able to purchase the twentieth part of it.

Sir, upon the whole, your paper is a very crude piece, liable to more objections than there are lines; but, I think, your meaning is good, and so far you are pardonable.

If you will propose a general contribution for supporting the poor in potatoes and buttermilk, till the new corn comes in, perhaps you may succeed better; because the thing at least is possible: and I think if our brethren in England, would contribute upon this emergency, out of the million they gain from us every year, they would do a piece of justice as well as charity. In the mean time, go and preach to your own tenants, to fall to the plough as fast as they can; and prevail with your neighbouring squires, to do the same with theirs; or else die with the guilt of having driven away half the inhabitants, and starving the rest. For as to your scheme of raising one hundred and ten thousand pounds, it is as vain as that of Rabelais; which was to squeeze out wind, from the posteriours of a dead ass.

But, why all this concern for the poor? We want them not as the country is now managed; they may follow thousands of their leaders, and seek their bread abroad. Where the plough has no work, one family can do the business of fifty, and you may send away the other forty-nine. An admirable piece of husbandry, never known or practised by the wisest nations, who erroneously thought people to be the riches of a country!

If so wretched a state of things would allow it, methinks I could have a malicious pleasure, after all the warning I have in vain given the publick, at my own peril, for several years past, to see the consequences and events answering in every particular. I pretend to no sagacity: what I writ was little more than what I had discoursed to several persons, who were generally of my opinion: and it was obvious to every common understanding, that such effects must needs follow from such causes. A fair issue of things begun upon party rage, while some sacrificed the publick to fury, and others to ambition: while a spirit of faction and oppression reigned in every part of the country, where gentlemen, instead of consulting the ease of their tenants, or cultivating their lands, were worrying one another upon points of whig and tory, of high church and low church; which no more concerned them than the long and famous controversy of strops far razors: while agriculture was wholly discouraged, and consequently half the formers and labourers, and poorer tradesmen, forced to beggary or banishment. "Wisdom crieth in the streets; because I have called on you; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded. But ye have set at nought all my counsels, and would none of my reproof. I also will laugh at your calamity, and mock when your fear cometh."

I have now done with your memorial, and freely excuse your mistakes, since you appear to write as a stranger, and as of a country which is left at liberty to enjoy the benefits of nature, and to make the best of those advantages which God has given it, in soil, climate, and situation.

But having lately sent out a paper, entitled, A Short View of the State of Ireland; and hearing of an objection, that some people think I have treated the memory of the late lord chief justice Whitshed with an appearance of severity: since I may not probably have another opportunity of explaining myself in that particular, I choose to do it here: laying it therefore down for a postulatum, which I suppose will be universally granted, that no little creature of so mean a birth and genius, had ever the honour to be a greater enemy to his country, and to all kinds of virtue than HE, I answer thus; whether there be two different goddesses called Fame, as some authors contend, or only one goddess sounding two different trumpets, it is certain, that people distinguished for their villany, have as good a title to a blast from the proper trumpet, as those who are most renowned for their virtues, have from the other; and have equal reason to complain if it be refused them. And accordingly the names of the most celebrated profligates, have been faithfully transmitted down to posterity. And although the person here understood, acted his part in an obscure corner of the world, yet his talents might have shone with lustre enough, in the noblest scene.

As to my naming a person dead, the plain honest reason is the best. He was armed with power and will to do mischief, even where he was not provoked; as appeared by his prosecuting two printers[2], one to death, and both to ruin, who had neither offended God, nor the king, nor him, nor the publick.

What an encouragement to vice is this? If an ill man be alive, and in power, we dare not attack him; and if he be weary of the world, or of his own villanies, he has nothing to do but die, and then his reputation is safe. For, these excellent casuists know just Latin enough to have heard a most foolish precept, that de mortuis nil nisi bonum; so that if Socrates, and Anytus his accuser, had happened to die together, the charity of survivors, must either have obliged them to hold their peace, or to fix the same character on both. The only crime of charging the dead is, when the least doubt remains whether the accusation be true; but when men are openly abandoned, and lost to all shame, they have no reason to think it hard, if their memory be reproached. Whoever reports, or otherwise publishes, any thing which it is possible may be false, that man is a slanderer; hic niger est, hunc tu, Romane, caveto. Even the least misrepresentation, or aggravation of facts, deserves the same censure in some degree: but in this case I am quite deceived, if my errour has not been on the side of extenuation.

I have now present before me the idea of some persons (I know not in what part of the world) who spend every moment of their lives, and every turn of their thoughts while they are awake (and probably of their dreams while they sleep) in the most detestable actions and designs; who delight in mischief, scandal, and obloquy, with the hatred and contempt of all mankind against them; but chiefly of those among their own party, and their own family; such, whose odious qualities rival each other for perfection; avarice, brutality, faction, pride, malice, treachery, noise, impudence, dulness, ignorance, vanity, and revenge, contending every moment for superiority in their breasts. Such creatures are not to be reformed; neither is it prudent, or safe to attempt a reformation. Yet, although their memories will rot, there may be some benefit for their survivors, to smell it while it is rotting.

I am, Sir,

Your humble servant,

A. B.

Dublin, March
25, 1728.

  1. The memorial was written by sir John Browne.
  2. Edward Waters and John Harding.