1776 Arthur Young on Irish agriculture and the conditions of life of the Irish peasants, 1780

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1776 Arthur Young on Irish agriculture and the conditions of life of the Irish peasants, 1780

(Arthur Young, A Tour in Ireland, Part II (1780), pp. 12-13, 18-19, 23-26, 29; in D. B. Horn and Mary Ransome, eds., English Historical Documents, Vol. X, 1714-1783, N.Y: Oxford University Press, 1969, pp. 714-18.)

Tillage in Ireland is very little understood. In the greatest corn counties, such as Louth, Kildare, Carlow and Kilkenny, where are to be seen many very fine crops of wheat, all is under the old system, exploded by good farmers in England, of sowing wheat upon a fallow, and succeeding it with as many crops of spring corn as the soil will bear. Where they do best by their land, it is only two of barley or oats before the fallow returns again, which is something worse than the open field management in England, of 1. fallow; 2. wheat; 3. oats; to Which, while the fields are open and common, the farmers are by cruel necessity tied down. The bounty on the inland carriage of corn to Dublin has increased tillage very considerably, but it has no where introduced any other system. And. to this extreme bad management, of adopting the exploded practice of a century ago, instead of turneps and clover, it is owing that Ireland, with a soil, acre for acre, much better than England, has its products inferior.

But keeping cattle of every sort, is a business so much more adapted to the laziness of the farmer, that it is no wonder the tillage is so bad. It is every where left to the cottars, or to the very poorest of the farmers, who are all utterly unable to make those exertions, upon which alone a vigorous culture of the earth can be founded; and were it not for potatoes, which necessarily prepare for corn, there would not be half of what we see at present. While it is in such hands, no wonder tillage is reckoned so unprofitable; profit in all undertakings depends on capital; and is it any wonder that the profit should be small when the capital is nothing at all? Every man that has one gets into cattle, which will give him an idle, lazy superintendence, instead of an active attentive one.

That the system of tillage has improved very little, much as it has been extended in the last fourteen years, there is great reason to believe, from the very small increase in the import of clover seed, which would have doubled and trebled, had tillage got into the train it ought....
Of the Labouring Poor.

Such is the weight of the lower classes in the great scale of national importance, that a traveller can never give too much attention to every circumstance that concerns them; their welfare forms the broad basis of public prosperity; it is they that feed, cloath, enrich and fight the battles of all the other ranks of a community; it is their being able to support these various burthens without oppression, which constitutes the general felicity; in proportion to their ease is the strength and wealth of nations, as public debility will be the certain attendant on their misery. Convinced that to be ignorant of their state and situation, in different countries, is to be deficient in the first rudiments of political knowledge, I have upon every occasion, made the necessary enquiries, to get the best information circumstances would allow me....

The food of the common Irish, potatoes and milk, have been produced more than once as an instance of the extreme poverty of the country, but this I believe is an opinion embraced with more alacrity than reflection. I have heard it stigmatized as being unhealthy, and not sufficiently nourishing for the support of hard labour, but this opinion is very amazing in a country, many of whose poor people are as athletic in their form, as robust, and as capable of enduring labour as any upon earth. The idleness seen among many when working for those who oppress them is a very contrast to the vigour and activity with which the same people work when themselves alone reap the benefit of their labour. To what country must we have recourse for a stronger instance than lime carried by little miserable mountaineers thirty miles on horses backs to the foot of their hills, and up the steeps on their own. When I see the people of a country in spite of political oppression with well formed vigorous bodies, and their cottages swarming with children; when I see their men athletic, and their women beautiful, I know not how to believe them subsisting on an unwholesome food.

At the same time, however, that both reason and observation convince me of the justice of these remarks, I will candidly allow that I have seen such an excess in the laziness of great numbers, even when working for themselves, and such an apparent weakness in their exertions when encouraged to work, that I have had my doubts of the heartiness of their food. But here arise fresh difficulties, were their food ever so nourishing I can easily conceive an habitual inactivity of exertion would give them an air of debility compared with a more industrious people.... Granting their food to be the cause, it decides very little against potatoes, unless they were tried with good nourishing beer instead of their vile potations of whisky. When they are encouraged, or animate themselves to work hard, it is all by whisky, which though it has a notable effect in giving a perpetual motion to their tongues, can have but little of that invigorating substance which is found in strong beer or porter, probably it has an effect as pernicious, as the other is beneficial....

But of this food there is one circumstance which must ever recommend it, they have a belly full, and that let me add is more than the superfluities of an Englishman leaves to his family: let any person examine minutely into the receipt and expenditure of an English cottage, and he will find that tea, sugar and strong liquors, can come only from pinched bellies. I will not assert that potatoes are a better food than bread and cheese; but I have no doubt of a bellyfull of the one being much better than half a bellyfull of the other; still less have I that the milk of the Irishman is incomparably better than the small beer, gin, or tea of the Englishman; and this even for the father, how much better must it be for the poor infants; milk to them is nourishment, is health, is life.

If any one doubts the comparative plenty, which attends the board of a poor native of England and Ireland, let him attend to their meals: the sparingness with which our labourer eats his bread and cheese is well known; mark the Irishman's potatoe bowl placed on the floor, the whole family upon their hams around it, devouring a quantity almost incredible, the beggar seating himself to it with a hearty welcome, the pig taking his share as readily as the wife, the cocks, hens, turkies, geese, the cur, the cat, and perhaps the cow-and all partaking of the same dish. No man can often have been a witness of it without being convinced of the plenty, and I will add the cheerfulness, that attends it. . . .


The common Irish are in general cloathed so very indifferently, that it impresses every stranger with a strong idea of universal poverty. Shoes and stockings are scarcely ever found on the feet of children of either sex; and great numbers of men and women are without them: a change however, in this respect as in most others, is coming in, for there are many more of them with those articles of cloathing now than ten years ago.

An Irishman and his wife are much more solicitous to feed than to cloath their children: whereas in England it is surprizing to see the expence they put themselves to, to deck out children whose principal subsistence is tea. Very many of them in Ireland are so ragged that their nakedness is scarcely covered; yet are they in health and active. As to the want of shoes and stockings I consider it as no evil, but a much more cleanly custom than the beastiality of stockings and feet that are washed no oftener than those of our own poor. Women are oftener without shoes than men; and by washing their cloaths no where but in rivers and streams, the cold, especially as they roast their legs in their cabbins till they are fire spotted, must swell them to a wonderful size and horrid black and blue colour always met with both in young and old. They stand in rivers and beat the linen against the great stones found there with a beetle.

I remarked generally, that they were not ill dressed of sundays and holidays, and that black or dark blue was almost the universal hue.


The cottages of the Irish, which are all called cabbins, are the most miserable looking hovels that can well be conceived: they generally consist of only one room: mud kneaded with straw is the common material of the walls; these are rarely above seven feet high, and not always above five or six; they are about two feet thick, and have only a door, which lets in fight instead of a window, and should let the smoak out instead of a chimney, but they had rather keep it in: these two conveniencies they hold so cheap, that I have seen them both stopped up in stone cottages, built by improving landlords; the smoak warms them, but certainly is as injurious to their eyes as it is to the complexions of the women, which in general in the cabbins of Ireland has a near resemblance to that of a smoaked ham. The number of the blind poor I think greater there than in England, which is probably owing to this cause.

The roofs of the cabbins are rafters, raised from the tops of the mud walls, and the covering varies; some are thatched with straw, potatoe stalks, or with heath, others only covered with sods of turf cut from a grass field; and I have seen several that were partly composed of all three; the bad repair these roofs are kept in, a hole in the thatch being often mended with turf, and weeds sprouting from every part, gives them the appearance of a weedy dunghill, especially when the cabbin is not built with regular walls, but supported on one, or perhaps on both sides by the banks of a broad dry ditch, the roof then seems a hillock, upon which perhaps the pig grazes. Some of these cabbins are much less and more miserable habitations than I had ever seen in England.... The furniture of the cabbins is as bad as the architecture; in very many, consisting only of a pot for boiling their potatoes, a bit of a table, and one or two broken stools; beds are not found universally, the family lying on straw, equally partook of by cows, calves and pigs, though the luxury of sties is coming in in Ireland, which excludes the poor pigs from the warmth of the bodies of their master and mistress: I remarked little hovels of earth thrown up near the cabbins, and in some places they build their turf stacks hollow, in order to afford shelter to the hogs. This is a general description, but the exceptions are very numerous. I have been in a multitude of cabbins that had much useful furniture, and some even superfluous; chairs, tables, boxes, chest of drawers, earthen ware, and in short most of the articles found in a middling English cottage; but upon enquiry, I very generally found that these acquisitions were all made within the last ten years, a sure sign of a rising national prosperity.... In England a man's cottage will be filled with superfluities before he possesses a cow. I think the comparison much in favour of the Irishman; a hog is a much more valuable piece of goods than a set of tea things; and though his snout in a crock of potatoes is an idea not so poetical as
Broken tea cups, wisely kept for shew,

Rang'd o'er the chimney, glisten'd in a row.
Yet will the cotter and his family, at Christmas, find the solidity of it an ample recompence for the ornament of the other……

…. a long series of oppressions, aided by many very ill judged laws, have brought landlords into a habit of exerting a very lofty superiority, and their vassals into that of an almost unlimited submission: speaking a language that is despised, professing a religion that is abhorred, and being disarmed, the poor find themselves in many cases slaves even in the bosom of written liberty. Landlords that have resided much abroad, are usually humane in their ideas, but the habit of tyranny naturally contracts the mind, so that even in this polished age, there are instances of a severe carriage towards the poor, which is quite unknown in England.

A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invent an order which a servant, labourer, or cottar dares to refuse to execute. Nothing satisfies him but an unlimited submission. Disrespect or any thing tending towards sauciness he may punish with his cane or his horsewhip with the most perfect security, a poor man would have his bones broke if he offered to lift his hand in his own defence. Knocking down is spoken of in the country in a manner that makes an English man stare. Landlords of consequence have assured me that many of their cottars would think themselves honoured by having their wives and daughters sent for to the bed of their master; a mark of slavery that proves the oppression under which such people must live. Nay, I have heard anecdotes of the lives of people being made free with without any apprehension of the justice of a jury. But let it not be imagined that this is common; formerly it happened every day, but law gains ground. It must strike the most careless traveller to see whole strings of cars whipt into a ditch by a gentleman's footman to make way for his carriage; if they are overturned or broken in pieces, no matter, it is taken in patience, were they to complain they would perhaps be horsewhipped....

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