“In 1841 Ireland had long been under British rule, and became united with England in 1801. A large Anglo-Irish population, descendants of people who had settled in Ireland some centuries earlier, were the land-owning aristocracy. The Church of Ireland was also in a privileged position, and tenants were required to pay tithes to a parson of a faith they considered heretical.
Rebellions against British rule occurred in 1798 and 1803. Many people perished, and many rebels were transported to Australia. Others were transported because they were convicted of crimes of violent protest against poverty and landlordism; yet others were transported because they were ordinary criminals, mostly thieves, often as a consequence of their poverty.
The period from the late eighteenth century until the big potato famine in the eighteen-forties was one in which there was literally a “population explosion”. Montesquieu calls population “une immense manufacture”. It certainly flourished in Ireland. From an estimated population of 4,753,000 in 1791, the figure rose to 8,175,124 in 1841. This increase was achieved despite the migration in the period 1780-1845 of 1,140,000 to the U.S.A. and Canada, 600,000 to England and Scotland, and a smaller number to Australia.
The standard of living improved in the second half of the eighteenth century. Arthur Young visited Ireland in 1776, and in the most fertile districts he found “lower classes” – tenant farmers’ -had a sufficient supply of potatoes. They normally kept a cow, a pig, a flock of hens, which lived in the cabin with the family, and numerous lakes abounded with fish.
“But reverse the medal: They are ill-clothed and make a wretched appearance, and, what is worse, are much Oppressed by many who make them pay too dear for keeping a cow, horse, etc., and the wretched cabins, sometimes made out of sods of clay, have to house the livestock as well as the family.”
This oppression was due to the land tenure system. Landlords farmed out rents to middle-men, who put the screw on “rack-renting”. Many tenants felt their only recourse was to force. Land-leagues sprang up in the 1760’s “Whiteboys” (so named for their hoods) terrorised the country.
The housing position remained shocking. The census of 1841 graded “houses” in Ireland Into four classes. The fourth and lowest class consisted of windowless mud cabins of a single room. “Nearly half of the families of the rural population” reported the Census Commissioners, “are living in the lowest scale”. Pigs slept with their owners.
There were severe famines in Ireland in 1817, 1822, 1826, 1831,1835-37. Then came the Great Famine of 1845, so called because instead of attacking one and a half million, as in 1817, it killed some two million people directly and forced a million more into the hunger-hulks to emigrate.
Over most of the first half of the century, there was extreme agrarian distress. William Carleton called Ireland “one vast lazar-house, filled with famine, disease and distress”. The Poor Law Commission of 1836 reported that for about 30 weeks of every year some 585,000 (with 1,800,000 dependants) were “out of work and in distress”. This led to the passing of the Irish Poor Law and the establishment of workhouses.”
From 1831-1836 the tithe resistance movement was in full spate in County Cork, as well as in Kilkenny, Tipperary and Waterford. Tithes were taken on two things touching the peasant’s life closely, bog-turf and potatoes. The clerical income derived from potatoes was enormous. Farmers armed with pitchforks and pikes engaged in hand to hand fighting with the military and police, who had rifles, bayonets and artillery. The last of these encounters took place at Rathmacormac, a hamlet between Cork and Castletownroche, in December 1834 when soldiers with a Protestant clergyman (who was also a justice of the police) proceeded to collect a tithe of forty shillings from a widow. In 1838 the resistance proved successful and Parliament passed the Tithe Commutation Act.
Taken with permission from “The Overflow of Clancy” by Eric G. Clancy.