CHAPTER XIV. LAND AND LABOUR

The fortunes of every country, when one comes seriously to reflect on it, are to a great extent dependent on these two vital factors - Land and Labour. In a country so circumstanced as Ireland, practically bereft of industries and manufactures, land and labour - and more especially the labour which is put into land - are the foundation of its very being. They mean everything to it - whether its people be well or ill off, whether its trade is good, its towns prosperous, its national economy secure.

The history of Ireland, ever since the first Englishman set foot on it with the eye of conquest, centres to a more or less degree around the land. We know how the ancient clans tenaciously clung to their heritage and how ruthlessly they were deprived of it by the Plantations and the Penal Laws and by a series of confiscations, the memory of which even still chills the blood. Conquest, confiscation, eviction, persecution - this was the terrible story of Ireland for seven centuries - and the past century worst of all. At the commencement of the nineteenth century Ireland was extensively cultivated. The land had been parcelled out amongst the people; holdings were multiplied and tenancies for life increased amazingly because it meant a larger rent-roll for the landlord and a great increase in the voting power of his serfs. But there came the Corn Laws, making cultivation unprofitable, and earlier the law of Catholic Emancipation, withdrawing the right of voting from the forty-shilling freeholders, and the crisis was reached when the Great Famine appeared and was followed by the Great Clearances. The Famine lasted for three years, the Clearances endured for over thirty. Houses were demolished, fences levelled, the peasants swept out and the notices to quit kept falling, as the well-known saying of Gladstone expressed it, as thick as snowflakes. Between 1849 and 1860, according to Mulhall, 373,000 Irish families were evicted, numbering just about 2,000,000 in all. "I do not think the records of any country, civilised or barbarian," said Sir Robert Peel, "ever presented such scenes of horror."

Legislation became necessary to counteract the appalling evils arising from such a state of things. It went on through the years with varying fortune, never providing any real solution of the intolerable relations between landlord and tenant, until the blessed Land Conference pact was sealed and signed and the country finally delivered from the haunting terror of landlordism. Now although the entire population may be said in Ireland to be either directly or indirectly dependent on the land, two classes were absolutely dependent on it for their very livelihood - namely, the farmers and the agricultural labourers. And through all the various agrarian agitations they made united cause against their common enemy, the landlord. There was also in the days of my boyhood a far friendlier relation between the farmers and labourers than unhappily exists at present. Their joint heritage of suffering and hardship had drawn them together in bonds of sympathy and friendship. The farmer often shared, in the bitterness of the winter months, something out of his own stock of necessities with his less fortunate labourer. And before the arrival of the Creameries the daily allowance of the gallon of "skimmed" milk was made to almost every labourer's family in the country by kind-hearted neighbouring farmers. In addition, in a land where few were rich, the ancient proverb held good: "The poor always help one another." And it is true that, in the darkest days of their suffering, the farmers and labourers shouldered their troubles and their sorrows in a community of sympathy, which at least lessened their intensity. It is only with the growth of a greater independence among either class that the old friendly bonds and relationships have shown a loosening, and newer and more personal interests have tended to divide them into distinctive bodies, with separate class interests and class programmes.

As a very little boy I remember trudging my way to school with children who knew not what the comfort of boots and stockings was on the coldest winter's day; who shivered in insufficient rags and whose gaunt bodies never knew any nourishment save what could be got from "Indian meal stir-about" (a kind of weak and watery porridge made from maize). And it was not the children of the labourers alone who endured this bleak and starved and sunless childhood; the offspring of the smaller struggling farmers were often as badly off - they were all the progeny of the poor, kept poor and impoverished by landlordism. This further bond of blood and even class relationship also bound the farmers and labourers together - the labourers of to-day were, in countless cases, the farmers of yesterday, whom the Great Clearances had reduced to the lowest form of servitude and who dragged out an existence of appalling wretchedness in sight of their former homes, now, alas, razed to the ground. My mind carries me back to the time when the agricultural labourer in Munster was working for four shillings a week, and trying to rear a family on it! I vowed then that if God ever gave me the chance to do anything for this woe-stricken class I would strive for their betterment, according to the measure of my opportunity. And it happened, in the mysterious workings of Providence, that I was able to battle and plan and accomplish solid work for the amelioration of the labourers' lot.