Land Monopoly in Ireland
[Excerpts from The Reason Why, published in 1953 by
McGraw-Hill Book Co.]
IN THE MID-NINETEENTH CENTURY ENGLAND STOOD AT
THE CENTER OF A GROWING WORLD EMPIRE. TRUE, THE AMERICAN
COLONIES HAD GAINED INDEPENDENCE BEFORE THE CENTURY BEGAN, BUT
THE EMPIRE WAS PRESENT ON EVERY CONTINENT -- IN CANADA,
AUSTRALIA, NEW ZEALAND, AND INDIA. IT SO HAPPENED THAT AFTER
ALMOST A QUARTER CENTURY OF RELATIVE PEACE, CZARIST RUSSIA AND
ENGLAND BECAME ENTANGLED IN THE CONFLICT KNOWN AS THE CRIMEAN
WAR. HOPING TO GAIN CONTROL OF CONSTANTINOPLE (THEN PART OF THE
TURKISH EMPIRE) AND ACCESS TO THE MEDITERRANEAN, RUSSIA ATTACKED
THE TURKISH FLEET IN OCTOBER 1853. ENGLAND WAS TO COME TO
TURKEY'S AID, ITS TROOPS UNDER THE COMMAND OF GENERALS WHOSE
PAST EXPERIENCE IN WARFARE STRATEGY, AS WELL AS THEIR INTRIGUES,
WAS TO BRING ON DISASTER. HOW THEY ACHIEVED TO SUCH POWERFUL
POSITIONS IN THE ARMY AND THE UNDERLYING POLITICAL ECONOMY OF
BRITAIN IS TOLD BY MRS. WOODHAM-SMITH. WHAT FOLLOWS ARE EXCERPTS
OF HER WORK:
The system of command in any army is, of course, a reflection of the
social organization and stratification of the country that raised it.
Despite the political and social changes set in train by the
Industrial Revolution, England, in the first half of the 19th Century,
was still a country in which the aristocracy was regarded with
deference and given privileges that were not open to other men.
How this system worked is revealed in the first part of Mrs.
Woodham-Smith's book, which describes the early careers of George
Bingham (later Lord Lucan) and his brother-in-law James Brudenell
(later Lord Cardigan). Both these men advaneed to the rank of
lieutenant-colonel before they were 35 years old, and found themselves
giving orders to officers with long years of garrison and overseas
service Lucan was a barely competent peacetime commander. But even for
garrison duty, Cardigan proved to be impossible;
Nathaniel Hawthorne once observed that the Crimean War gave Britain "a
vast impulse toward democracy." The revelation of the criminal
blunderings of men like Raglan, Lucan and Cardigan cast a cold, clear
light on the inadequacies of a system based upon privilege. The
resultant demand for reform not only revolutionized the administration
of the British army but effected changes in many other areas in the
years after the war. The tragic conflict in the Crimea was, therefore,
not wholly without positive result, and the valor of the common
soldier, so ably portrayed in this fine book; was not in vain.
Gordon A. Craig, Professor of History, Stanford University
THE UNCHALLENGED ARISTOCRACY
And the strange, the astonishing fact was that public opinion
accorded these privileges not merely with willingness but with
enthusiasm. Foreigners were struck by the extraordinary and eager
deference paid by the English to their aristocracy. It was, as Richard
Monckton Milnes wrote, "a lord loving country." Honest
British merchants quivered with excitement in the presence of a peer)
as if they were susceptible young men in the presence of a pretty
girl. True, beneath the surface dark and gigantic forces were
beginning to move, and in mines and mills, in rural hovels and
cholera-infested city rookeries, half-starved, sub-human millions were
beginning to stir in their sleep. But die wind of revolution that had
blown from France seemed to have died away, and in England rank and
privilege had never appeared more firmly entrenched. Flattered,
adulated, deferred to, with incomes enormously increased by the
Industrial Revolution, and as yet untaxed, all-powerful over a
tenantry as yet unenfranchised, subject to no ordinary laws, holding
the government of the country firmly in their hands and wielding
through their closely knit connections an unchallengeable social
power, the milords of England were the astonishment and admiration of
WEALTH AND POWER OF THE CONQUERER
The Brudenclls and the Binghams sprang from very different roots, and
the origin of the Binghams was stern and fierce. The family was
founded by thrce brothers, Richard, George, and John Bingham, soldiers
of fortune in the Irish wars of Queen Elizabeth. Richard Bingham rose
to be military governor of the intractable province of Connaught, and
his rule was so merciless that the ferocity of the Binghams became a
legend, and to this day his name is execrated in the west of Ireland.
Among many massacres, he ordered the execution of all Spaniards
shipwrecked on the coast of Connaught after the Armada, and boasted
that he had caused the throats of more than a thousand men to be cut.
The Binghams acquired a baronetcy, a stronghold at Castlebar, and
vast acreages of wild land in Mayo, but they never became identified
with Ireland. They remained, as such families did remain foreigners,
separated from the Irish population by religion and language,
preserving through the centuries the outlook and behaviour of
conquerors in an occupied country, regarding their Irish estates
merely as the source which produced money to pay for English
OLIVER CROMWELL TEACHES THE ARISTOCRACY A LESSON
The purchase system, under which a man first bought his commission
and then paid for each subsequent step in rank, and which enabled a
rich man to buy the command of a regiment over the heads of more
efficient officers, appears at first sight so childishly unjust, so
evidently certain to lead to disaster, that it is almost impossible to
believe that sensible people ever tolerated, much less supported it.
Yet the purchase system expressed a principle which is one of the
foundations of the British Constitution; famous victories were won by
the British Army while it was officered by purchase, and it was upheld
by so great a master of military administration as the Duke of
No sentiment is more firmly rooted in the English national character
than a hatred of militarism and military dictatorship. "An armed
disciplined force is in its essence dangerous to liberty," wrote
Burke, and Parliament in its dealings with the Army has always been
concerned, above all else, to ensure that no British Army shall be in
a position to endanger the liberties of the British people.
The vital period in the formation of Britain's policy towards her
Army was the period of government by Cromwell's majorgenerals. The
people of England were then subjected to a military dictatorship, they
were ruled by Army officers who were professional soldiers, and who,
though admittedly the finest soldiers in the world, usually had no
stake in the country, and often were military adventurers. Their
government was harsh and arbitrary, and the nation came to detest the
very name of the Army.
After the Restoration, nation and Parliament were equally determined
that never again should the Army be in the hands of men likely to
bring about a military revolution and impose a military dictatorship.
With this object, purchase was introduced when a standing Army was
formed in 1683. Men were to become officers only if they could pay
down a substantial sum for their commission; that is, if they were men
of property with a stake in the country, not military adventurers. As
a secondary consideration the purchase price acted as a guarantee of
good behaviour; a man dismissed from the service forfeited what he had
paid. From that date it was the settled policy both of Parliament and
of the Crown to draw the officers of the British Army from the class
which had everything to lose and nothing to gain from a military
THE BEGINNINGS OF CLASS CONFLICT IN ENGLAND AND THE MOVEMENT
TOWARD POLITICAL DEMOCRACY
That year of 1832 was the year of the Reform Bill. At this distance
of time it seems a moderate and sensible measure, framed to correct
the grosser injustices of Parliamentary representation by a
redistribution of seats. But it was the cause of extraordinary
contemporary violence. The Tory aristocracy, seeing the reins of
government slipping from their hands, frantically opposed Reform with
coercion, with severe penal laws, with military force; while the great
blind mass of the people, sensing that power for the first time was
within their grasp, fought as frantically back.
Revolution was averted by the passage of the Bill in June, and in the
winter of 1832 the first general election of the Reformed Parliament
took place. The Tories gathered themselves together to fight for the
control of the country.
THE LANDED ARISTOCRACY REACTS
To James Brudenell, Tory principles were of infinitely more
importance than a political creed -- they provided the justification
for his existence. His enormous faith in himself was based on the
principle of hereditary aristocracy. By virtue of that principle he
could brush aside the facts that he was perhaps more stupid than other
men, that there were ideas he could not grasp, conclusions which
eluded him, results he failed to anticipate. The question was one of
divine right; his rank gave him a divine right to command and to be
obeyed. It was a conviction which would have aroused no surprise in
the seventeenth or even the eighteenth century, but in a world in
which railways and steamships had been invented, and in which gaslight
was dispelling the gloom of centuries, the divine right of Lord
Brudenell appeared startling indeed.
The elections of the winter of 1832 and the spring of 1833 were
fought with frightful bitterness, and Tory landlords openly resorted
to coercion. Mr. Brown, a tenant of the Earl of Ailesbury, received
notice to quit because he had "circulated bills to weaken Lord
Ailesbury's influence over the election of members of Parliament,"
though he protested that he had been obliged to deliver the bills in
the performance of his duty as postmaster.
GEORGE BINGHAM, HEIR TO THE ESTATES OF LORD LUCAN IN IRELAND,
ENDS HIS FAMILIY'S ROLE AS ABSENTEE LANDLORD
He was, moreover, seriously concerned about the family estates in
Ireland. The Binghams had never enjoyed such wealth as the Brudenells,
and though their estates round Castlebar in Mayo were vast, they were
unremunerative. No industries had been founded, few roads had been
built, few buildings erected, the immense aereages of wild land had
never been transformed into a smiling countryside of prosperous farms.
Mayo remained poverty-stricken, backward, inhospitable, and the
Binghams, absentee landlords, turned their backs on Mayo and
Castlebar. George Bingham never visited Castlebar until, at the age of
twenty-six, he stood as Member for Mayo; his father, after the
purchase of Laleham, was never seen at Castlebar at all. The estates
were left to an agent, whose business was to squeeze out the utmost
possible amount of cash to satisfy the requirements of the second
Earl, since, as that gayest of gay gallants flitted between Paris,
Florence, Rome, and Laleham, applications for money came constantly to
It had never been easy to extract large sums from the wild lands of
Castlebar, but since 1826 the years had been disastrous. Money was
slow in coming, then did not come at all; the estate accounts fell
into arrears, first for months and then for years. Disquieting reports
trickled across the Irish Channel -- the agent was taking
extraordinary liberties, had even moved with his family into the
family mansion. Someone must go over and take control at Castlebar.
George Bingham had lately become interested in improving the family
property. Farm management suited his active, autocratic temperament;
he had become converted to the profitable possibilities of new farming
methods, and the improvement of cultivation had become an object
second only to his desire for an active military career. He made up
his mind to go to Ireland to tackle the immense acreages of Bingham
property in Mayo. In the autumn he crossed to Ireland and drove to
SUBJECTS OF THE ENGLISH CROWN THE PLIGHT OF THE IRISH PEOPLE
The economic structure of the country was such that a frightful
catastrophe was inevitably approaching.
In 1844 Ireland presented the extraordinary spectacle of a country in
which wages and employment, practically speaking, did not exist. There
were no industries; there were very few towns; there were almost no
farms large enough to employ labour. The country was a country of
holdings so small as to be mere patches. The people inhabited huts of
mud mingled with a few stones, huts four or five feet high, built on
the bare earth, roofed with boughs and turf sods, without chimney or
window and destitute of furniture, where animals and human beings
slept together on the mud floor. In 1843 the German traveller Kohl
pronounced the Irish to be the poorest people in Europe. lie had
pitied, he wrote, the privations endured by the poor among the Letts,
Esthonians, and Finns, but compared to the Irish they lived in
comfort. "There never was," said the Duke of Wellington,
himself an Irishman, "a country in which poverty existed to so
great a degree as it exists in Ireland."
MALTHUSIAN POPULATION GROWTH?
And yet, in spite of misery, the population swarmed. "The
population of Ireland," said Disraeli in the Commons on February
15, 1847, "is the densest of any country in the world; the
population as regards the arable area is denser even than in China."
Until the last half of the eighteenth century the population of
Ireland had been inconsiderable; then abruptly, mysteriously, an
extraordinary and fatal phenomenon occurred, and the population began
to increase at a rate unknown to history. The accepted Increase for
the years 1779 to 1841 is 172 per cent, and many authorities put the
figure higher. This increase was linked with the adoption of the
potato as the staple, indeed the sole, food of Ireland. The people, in
their desperate poverty, lacked land, implements, barns. Potatoes
require only one-third of the acreage of wheat, flourish anywhere.
need the minimum of cultivation, can be stored in the ground and
shared with fowls and pigs. As Ireland became a potato country, the
shadow of starvation lifted slightly and the character of the people
made itself felt. The Irish people were religious, their family
affections strong, their women proverbially chaste. Early marriages
became invariable; girls were usually married before they were
sixteen, but religion and ignorance combined to make birth control
unthinkable, and by their early thirties women were grandmothers. Thus
the population spread with the rapidity of an epidemic.
COMPETITION FOR LAND AND THE RISING RENTS
For these people, swarming in the cabins and the fields, there was no
employment, no means of earning wages, no possibility of escaping
starvation, except the land -- and land became like gold in Ireland.
Farms were divided and subdivided until families depended entirely for
existence on a plot the size of a suburban garden.
Over great tracts of Ireland any form of cooking beyond boiling a
potato in a pot became unknown -- greens were unknown, bread was
unknown, ovens were unknown. The butcher, the baker, the grocer did
not exist; tea, candles and coals were unheard of. The miserable
cultivation of the horse potato occupied only a few weeks, and through
the dark, wet winters the people, wrapped in rags and tatters,
crouched over the turf fire. "Not a bit of bread," said a
tenant of the Marquis of Conyngham in 1845, "have I eaten since I
was born; we never taste meat of any kind or bacon
drink to our potatoes is pepper and water."
As the population increased, the continual subdivision of farms into
patches brought the landlord higher and still higher rents, and the
potato patches of Ireland first equalled what the rich farmlands of
England fetched in rent, and then went higher. Men bid against each
other in desperation, and on paper the landlords of Ireland grew rich;
but the rents were not paid -- could not be paid. Castlebar was only
one of hundreds of estates in Ireland which, prosperous on paper, were
sliding in to hopeless confusion. "If you ask a man,"
reported the Devon Commission in 1844, "why he bid so much for
his farm, and more than he knew he could pay, his answer is, 'What
could I do? Where could I go? I know I cannot pay the rent; hut what
could I do? Would you have me go and beg?'"
THE GREAT POTATO FAMINE BEGINS
By 1845 the population of Ireland had swollen to eight million, and
the enormous majority of these people were living exclusively on the
potato, were feeding such animals as they possessed on the potato,
were consuming fourteen pounds of potatoes per head per day. The
structure of the country, crazily rising higher and higher, was
balanced on the potato. And the potato was treacherous: over and over
again it had proved itself to be the most uncertain, the most
dangerous, the most unpredictable of crops.
In 1739 the potato harvest had failed, and again in 1741, when deaths
had been so numerous that the year was named the year was named the
year of slaughter. In 1806 the crop partially failed, and in the west
of Ireland it failed in 1822, 1831,1835, 1836 and 1837. In 1839
failure was general throughout Ireland.
ARE THE LANDLORDS RESPONSIBLE?
The Land Commission of 1830 had stated that in their opinion the
poverty and distress of Ireland were principally due to the neglect
and indifference of landlords. Large tracts were in the possession of
individuals whose extensive estates in England made them regardless
and neglectful of their properties in Ireland. It was not the practice
of Irish landlords to build, repair, or drain; they took no view
either of their interest or their duties which caused them to improve
the condition of their tenants or their land. "All the landlord
looks to is the improvement of his income and the quantity of rent he
can abstract." "Regard for present gain, without the least
thought for the future seems to be the principal object which the
Irish landlord has in view," wrote an English obscrver.
THE SOLUTION OF THE ARISTOCRATIC LANDLORDS
The solution, the only possible solution, was to reduce the number of
potato patches, to throw the small holdings together into farms, and
give the people work for wages. But how was this to be done, where
were the people to go, helpless, penniless, and without resources as
they were? The Irish peasant dreaded the "consolidating landlord"-and
prominent among consolidating landlords was the third Earl of Lucan.
NATURAL RIGHTS (OF THE IRISH PEOPLE) AND THE LAWS OF ENGLAND
Between the Irish tenant and the Irish landlord not only was there no
hereditary attachment, there was hereditary hatred.
Ireland was a country the English had subdued by force, and Irish
estates were lands seized from a conquered people by force or
confiscation. But Ireland had refused to acknowledge herself
conquered, religion had prevented assimilation, and down the centuries
rebellion succeeded rebellion, while underground resistance,
assassinations, secret societies, anonymous outrages had never ceased.
Moreover, the English, normally kind, behaved in Ireland as they
behaved nowhere else; the Irish had earned their undying resentment by
persistently taking sides with the enemies of England.
The laws of Ireland were laws imposed by a conqueror on the
conquered, and the conditions under which an Irish peasant leased his
land were intolerably harsh.
In Ireland alone [wrote John Stuart Mill] the whole agricultural
population can be evicted by the mere will of the landlord, either at
the expiration of a lease, or, in the far more common ease of their
having no lease, at six months' notice. In Ireland alone, the bulk of
a population wholly dependent on the land cannot look forward to a
single year's occupation of it.
The power of the landlord was absolute. Lord Leitrim, for instance,
passing by a tenant's holding, noticed a good new cabin had been
built, and at once ordered his bailiff to pull it down and partially
unroof it. James Tuke was told in 1847 that his Lordship used to evict
his tenants "as the fit took him." Only in Ulster had a
tenant any rights. In Ulster a tenant could not he evicted if he had
paid his rent, and when he left his farm he had a right to
compensation for any improvements. Elsewhere in Ireland the tenant had
no rights. All impiovements became the property of the landlord
without compensation. Should a tenant erect buildings, should he
improve the fertility of his land by drainage, his only reward was
eviction or an immediately increased rent, on account of the
improvements he himself had laboured to produce.
Sir Charles Trevelyan, a far from sympathetic observer, wrote of
Ireland in 1845 "
what was the condition of the peasant?
Work as he would, till and rear what he might, he could never hope to
benefit. His portion was the potato only, shared, it may be said, with
his pig." No ordinary amount of hard work, no thrift or
self-denial could bring a better life to the Irish peasant.
PARLIAMENT DECIDES NOT TO ACT: THE PROBLEM IS SIMPLY TOO MASSIVE
In 1844 it was reported that the potato crop had failed in North
America, but no apprehension was created in Ireland, for the country
was occupied with her own concerns. That year was a restless one.
rents were at their highest, evictions numerous, secret societies
active, and more than one thousand agrarian outrages occurred.
A start was made, too, towards establishing a system of public works
to provide the people with money with which food might be purchased,
since wages in Ireland were almost unknown.
In England, too, the potato crop failed partially, and potatoes
became a luxury. In France, Belgium, Holland, and Italy both potato
and rye crops entirely failed. Prices rose steeply, freight charges
more than doubled and such supplies of grain and other foods as were
available, instead of being sent to relieve Ireland, were diverted to
Famine began in earnest. The magnitude of the disaster was almost
inconceivable. The people of Ireland had no food, no honey, were in
any case entirely unaccustomed to buying food; in the west of Ireland
no organisation existed, no corn factor, miller, baker, or provision
dealer, through which to bring food to them. The evils of subletting
and subdividing now disclosed themselves with frightful effect.
Captain Mann quotes a typical case of a landlord occasionally
resident, who let his land to a middleman at 10 shillings an acre. The
middleman also re-let it. It was again and again re-let, until the
price received for a quarter of an acre was £1 10s. In 1846 the
landlord, by no means a hard-hearted man, applied to the Society of
Friends for food for his starving tenants. He calculated that he had
about sixty to provide for and was "terrified" to receive
over six hundred applications. He had never inspected his farms.
All over Ireland famished multitudes, whose existence was utterly
unsuspected and unknown, rose like spectres from the ground, demanding
The Government of Great Britain regarded the starving multitudes with
the utmost apprehension. Distress and starvation in Ireland -- the
very words. woefully familiar, evoked hopelessness. Was the Government
to tie the frightful burden of responsibility for the support of eight
million people round the neck of the British tax-payer? It was decided
to proceed with great caution.
Meanwhile, in London the Government became seriously disturbed. The
number of persons on relief was increasing with terrifying speed: by
January, 1847, half a million men were employed on relief work on the
roads, and more than two million were receiving food; and each day
added fresh tens of thousands. There was apparently no end to the
helpless starving multitudes of Ireland.
PARLIAMENT TURNS ON THE IRISH LANDLORDS
Parliament turned angrily on the Irish landlords: How had they ever
allowed this state of things to come about? What had they done to
prevent or to remedy the disaster? The Irish landlords had come
forward with no plan, they had provided the Government with no
information, they had assumed no responsibility, the miserable hordes
perishing on their very doorsteps had been callously ignored. All they
had done was to "sit down and howl for English money."
A PARTIAL "SOLUTION": EMIGRATION AND "THE WEALTH
That spring the roads to the ports of Ireland became thronged with
people flying from certain death. Not half the land had been sown with
any kind of crop: the people were accustomed only to a primitive
method of potato culture, and though the Government had sent round
lecturers to teach them to sow wheat, they had not been able to
understand what was said. In some districts the starving peasantry had
received pamphlets containing extracts from Adam Smith's
Wealth of Nations.
THE FINAL "SOLUTION": THE EMPTY LANDS
Once the patches had been given up, the landlords would not let the
people stay: a new race of beggars must not be allowed to grow up on
the land. Flight or death was the choice. The people tramped to the
ports, for as little as half a crown were transported across the Irish
Channel, and the destitute and starving came into the industrial towns
of England like an avalanche.
The winter of 1847 was again exceptionally severe, with heavy falls
of snow, sleet, and gales of icy wind. But when spring came, a change
had taken place.
the period of mass evictions was over.
Thousands had died, thousands had fled, thousands were still dying and
fleeing, and the problem was solved -- the people had disappeared. In
Mayo alone it was estimated that 100,000 acres lay without a single