Cyclical economic depressions
The early 18th century economic depression – partly caused by the protectionist English laws at the end of the 17th century – resulted in the miserable conditions of a growing share of the Irish population and in famine. In 1730, according to a pamphlet probably by Swift, “At present Ireland is a melancholy instance of this : That it is very poor, and in most unhappy Circumstances, every one allows; but every one endeavours to charge some Set of Men […] with the Cause of those Misfortunes, which he finds press so hard on his Country” (doc. A, p. 6-7).
In 1740-41, following a harsh winter and 400 000 deaths, les “groans of Ireland” were such that pamphlets addressed to Members of Parliament (doc. B) summarized the reasons for the famine and proposed solutions – here the lack of credit (investment capital) and the creation of a Bank of Ireland. Towards 1779, the situation remained critical: unemployment, famine, bankruptcy of the country (doc. C , p. 4-5)…
Arthur YOUNG in A Tour in Ireland, describes the vicious circle which lead the tenant farmer to a life of subsistence and poverty: the extreme division of land, the absence of capital for investment, the lack of protection (doc. D, p. 44-45).
Absence of protection
The Poor Laws in England provided for succor for the needy, but, in Ireland, parishes were not obliged to provide such protection, thus a vagrant family would settle in a dry place, and with a few sticks, broom and ferns, build a cabin, which YOUNG considered worse than a pigsty, living from hand to mouth, working, begging and stealing (doc. D, p. 57)
Abundance or scarcity?
In two passages, YOUNG describes both misery and plenty. He compares the food of the English and Irish workmen: frugal bread and cheese for the Englishman, whilst the Irish ate a large dish of potatoes, the whole family squatting around it and devouring large quantities of healthy food (doc. D, p. 68).
“But of this food there is one circumstance that must forever recommend it, they have a bellyful, and that let me add is more that the superfluities of an Englishman leave 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 better food than bread and cheese; but I have no doubt of a bellyful of the one being much better than half a bellyful 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.” (A. Young, A Tour in Ireland, with general observations on the present state of that kingdom in 1776–78, London, 1780, p. 345).
However he also remarks on the low agricultural wages and resulting distress in other areas (Kerry): “The oppression is, the farmer valuing the labour of the poor at fourpence or fivepence a day, and paying that in land rated much above its value. Owing to this the poor are depressed; they live upon potatoes and sour milk, and the poorest of them only salt and water to them, with now and then a herring. Their milk is bought; for very few keep cows, scarce any pigs, but a few poultry. Their circumstances are incomparably worse than they were twenty years ago; for they had all cows, but then they wore no linen: all now have a little flax. To these evils have been owing emigrations, which have been considerable.” (London, Cassell, 1897, p. 112-113)
Poverty taken into account
At the end of the 18th century, Henry Grattan, who was called « friend of the people » and was a figure of the Anglican Ascendancy, which, tried to gain its independence from London and to effect a alliance with the Catholics, thus became interested in the issue of poverty without making distinctions and tried to improve social and political conditions for all (doc. E) without however addressing the causes identified by contemporary commentators.