Christopher Hollis
Two Nations

Chapter XV — Ireland

The closing years of Beaconsfield saw the first appearance in parliamentary politics of a new and strange force of incalculable importance. It has been argued that party government is only possible when both the parties are substantially in agreement, and up till this time all the parliamentary politicians of consequence, whatever else their differences, were at least united in their desire that the system should work. In the last years of the 1870's there appeared in politics Charles Steuart Parnell — a man who differed profoundly from the leading politicians, who saw clearly that his difference would make the system unworkable, who intended to make the system unworkable.

"What is the Irish question?" Disraeli had asked(155) some forty years before, and he had answered with truth and cynicism, "One said it was a physical question another a spiritual; now it was the absence of the aristocracy, then the absence of railways. It was the Pope one day, potatoes the next." In all the answers there was truth. But, overriding them all, predominant over them all, was the greater truth that Berkeley had seen — the truth that the Irish question was the question of usury.

Between the time of Bishop Berkeley and that of Parnell there was a large increase in the productivity of agriculture. The population, which had risen throughout the eighteenth century, had sunk after the emigrations of the middle of the nineteenth. Ireland in the nineteenth century was free of the tyranny of the commercial code by which she was shackled in the eighteenth. By Parnel's time the problem of tithes was in some measure settled. And yet it is a curious, and not sufficiently noted, truth that, miserable as was the condition of the Irish peasantry in the eighteenth century, there were in that century no famines so utterly devastating as those of 1847 and 1879. In spite of the country's increased productivity the condition of the people had got not better but worse. Nor, in spite of the cry of over-population, did matters improve with the population's decline. In 1880 General Gordon reported(156) from personal observation that the condition of the people of Ireland was "worse than that of any people in the world, let alone Europe." They were "lying on the verge of starvation in places where we would not keep cattle."

Why was this? It was because in Ireland, as in England, the landlord had only been able to keep his land through the Napoleonic Wars by going into debt to the London money-lender — -a debt which in the nature of things could never be repaid since the money-lender was himself the issuer of money and only issued it as a further loan. In 1793, before the war, the Irish National Debt was £2,250,000; in 1797 it was £6,500,000; by 1800 it was £28,500,000, swelled by £6,000,000 for English troops for put[ting] down the Irish rebellion of 1798 and £1,500,000 to pay the bribes by which the Act of Union was passed. By 1815 it was £80,000,000.(157) In Ireland, unlike England, the holder of the debt was resident out of the country. The provision of the interest on this debt was a crushing burden on the Irish taxpayer. According to the British Treasury's own figures between 1820 and 1870 £287,000,000 were raised from Ireland by taxation and only £92,000,000 of public money spent there.(158)

The landlord was only able to furnish such taxes by mortgaging his lands. The rent which he wrung out of the impoverished peasant he in turn handed over to the unflinching money-lender. The peasant had, as a rule, to give one-half his year's labour in order to earn his rent and, as the figures of a previous page have shown, a million starved in the Hungry Forties while food for four million was being exported from the country.(159) The books tell us that Ireland was "overpopulated."(160) (In the eighteenth century, when they starved, the Irish used to be told the reason was that their country was "underpopulated.") It was only overpopulated if we admit that the primary and most unchallengeable of obligations is that of satisfying the demands of usury.

This aspect of the Irish problem was not vividly present to O'Connell, interested as he was in the obtaining of Catholic Emancipation and himself a landlord, and by no means an exemplary one. To him tithes even were to be fought not because they were a part of a system of usury but because they were a symbol of Catholic subordination to Protestant. Neither the Republicans of Young Ireland nor the staid and gentlemanly Repealers who followed Isaac Butt saw more clearly than O'Connell. One of the largest and worst of Irish landlords, Lord Palmerston, Prime Minister of England, was so busily engaged in supporting the claim of the Sicilians to self-government that he was compelled to dismiss the problem of his starving tenants with the sufficient witticism that "Tenant's right is landlord's wrong."(161) Nor was the problem one that naturally presented itself even to Parnell.

Parnell, himself a landlord, had but little natural sympathy with agrarian reform. The burning passion of his soul was pride. He felt that he, as an Irishman, was despised because he was an Irishman and therefore determined to earn the respect of mankind for his country and for himself by holding up the whole machinery of the British Empire. To achieve this purpose, it was necessary that the Irish members should separate themselves from all other members of Parliament and should make impossible the transaction by whatever government of any other business until Irish grievances were remedied. It was necessary also that he should unite behind him all Irishmen. It was this second necessity of Parnell which gave his opportunity to the man who understood far more clearly than he the nature of the Irish agrarian problem. Michael Davitt was born in County Mayo in the year of 1846, a child of the famine. When he was 6 years old, his father, a peasant, was evicted from his home and driven from his country to find refuge in Lancashire. There Davitt grew up. He was sent to work in a cotton mill. When he was but 11 years old, since eleven-year-olds were cheaper, he was set to mind some machinery to which no one under 18 was supposed to be appointed. There was an accident which resulted in the amputation of his right arm. In his later teens he joined the Fenians and by the time that he was 24 he had earned for himself a sentence of fifteen years for treason-felony. He served for seven years, and those seven years of seclusion gave him the opportunity to shape his ideas into a coherent form. He emerged from prison to found the Land League and to devote his life to agrarian reform as the prime solution for the troubles of his country.

Up till this time Irish nationalists had fallen into two groups — the constitutional, moderate, Parliamentary party and the extreme revolutionary Fenians. Davitt was able to show Parnell that he had no chance of success unless he was prepared, whether he liked it or not, to advocate a strong agrarian policy so as to capture the support of those who would otherwise be violent revolutionaries. It was Davitt who first, it seems, of all students of Irish land conditions saw clearly that the rent which the tenant paid to the landlord, the landlord paid on as interest to the banker and that, since the money with which this rent and interest could be paid only came into existence by the issue from the banks of further loans, the breaking of the vicious circle was a mathematical impossibility. The penalty for non-payment of the rent, according to the orthodox economists, was eviction and the substitution of a tenant who would pay. This penalty between 1869 and 1886 was suffered by 129,708 fathers of families,(162) or, if we reckon an average of five persons to a family, by about 600,000 people, including incidentally, as we have said, Davitt's own father. A large landless class made it always possible for the landlords to find new tenants to attempt the miserable and impossible task at which the old had failed.

It is absurd to make the landlords the villains of the piece. There was hardly a landlord in Ireland at any time after the middle of the nineteenth century who would not have been only too glad to sell his land if only he could have found a buyer. But, until he found a buyer, he had to continue to exact his rents because of his debts. The alternative would be his own bankruptcy. Davitt's solution was a double one. First, let the tenants force the issue to a crisis by refusing to pay more than a fair rent. For an individual, who refused, the penalty would of course have been eviction. But, if there was a collective refusal of all tenants, a refusal by the landless to take the land of the evicted, a plan of campaign, a policy of boycott, the system would have to be reformed. Second, since it was not to be expected that any private person would buy out the landlords, the State must buy them out.

That was Davitt's policy. It had a curious history. Popular attention has been mainly focussed upon the sad atrocities with which its enforcement was sometimes attended or on the bad manners of the Parnellite policy of obstruction. That story has been too often told. It is enough here to point out that unfortunately it was necessary to bring some sort of pressure to bear on English politicians. The whole history of Ireland, and in particular the futile career of Butt, had proved that. Save only during the short and noble rule of Thomas Drummond, Melbourne's Under-Secretary for Ireland, there are all too few exceptions to the melancholy generalization that no reasonable concession was ever made to Ireland unless it was demanded by threats of violence. As Gladstone frankly confessed,(163) "It has only been since the termination of the American War and the appearance of Fenianism that the mind of this country has been greatly turned to the consideration of Irish affairs." Pressure there had to be. The contribution of Parnell and Davitt was to invent forms of pressure that were not bloody. It is unfair to blame Davitt because the policy of boycott occasionally led to bloody accidents. If it had not been for Davitt, there would not have been peace, as stupid Englishmen sometimes maintained; there would have been nothing but blood.

Davitt's notions were taken up by Parnell who neither greatly understood them nor greatly cared about them. Parnell's only interest was to compel the British Parliament to concede Home Rule. In order to obtain Home Rule, first it was, he thought, necessary to unite the Irish and therefore it was necessary to have a programme of agrarian reform. Secondly, it was necessary by a policy of obstruction to make the whole machinery of the British Parliament unworkable. Few British politicians cared anything at all for the problems of Irish land. On the other hand they cared greatly, for reasons which ranged from those of highest patriotism to those of selfish ease, that the Parliamentary machine should work. Therefore, as Parnell had foreseen would happen, while there was loud and pompous language about a refusal to be diverted from their course by hooliganism, in point of fact Parnell had only to persist in his tactics to obtain a remedy for Irish grievances. It was only his own quarrel with his own followers over the O'Shea divorce case which prevented Ireland from obtaining that remedy many years earlier than she did. In particular, the tenants had only to persist in their refusal to pay rents in order to convert the bankers to State purchase. For the last thing that the bankers wanted was to see the landlords go bankrupt, since it would do the bankers no good to have on their hands the quite unrealizable title-deeds of the landlords' lands.

At first the Liberals took up land reform, hoping thus to kill by kindness the demand for Home Rule, and the Irish got the Gladstonian Land Act of 1881, conceding the three F's of Fair Rent, Free Sale, and Fixity of Tenure. The Conservatives, hoping to outbid the Liberals, passed the Ashbourne Act of 1885, which committed the State to the principle of buying out the landlords, the tenants to repay the State by annuities over a period of years. When the Liberals took up Home Rule, it was doubly important for the Conservatives to take up agrarian reform, and by the Wyndham Act of 1903 the State agreed to pay to the landlord a bonus of 12 per cent in addition to the purchase price to be recovered out of the tenant. That is to say, Parnell took up land reform in order to unite the Irish in support of Home Rule, and the English politicians took it up in order to dish Home Rule by proving to the Irish that they would do better from a Westminster than from a Dublin Parliament.

It is important to see just how much Davitt's policy achieved — for Davitt's policy it was, although, since it happened to be brought in by the opposite political party, he had, according to the conventions of the game, to pick holes in it and denounce it. It was by no means a direct frontal attack on usury. The bankers did not lose a penny out of it. Had they stood to lose, we may be sure that they would not have supported it. All that they did was to lend the money to the State with which the State bought out the landlords who with the purchase money repaid their debt to the banks. The bankers became creditors of the State — which was a good debtor — whereas previously they had been creditors of the landlords — who were becoming increasingly bad debtors. On the other hand the peasant's position was enormously improved. He was, to begin with, given fixity of tenure, which made it for the first time worth his while to improve his land. Secondly, the burden on the land was immediately reduced, since the annuity which he had to pay to the Government was by the Ashbourne Act 4 per cent and by the Wyndham Act 3½ per cent of the purchase price. As the land was always sold for less than twenty years' purchase, this meant that the new annuity was substantially less than the old rent, while after a period of years the annuity would be extinguished altogether. The consequence was that a large class of the community was freed from debt and put into a position where it was not compelled to go into debt again. It was a class, a high proportion of which had the enormous advantage of being for all practical purposes illiterate and therefore superior to the suggestions of the finance-controlled press.

The immediate result was a very great increase in prosperity, and the thirty years which elapsed between Parnell's adoption of the policy of obstruction and Lord Carson's reintroduction into Irish politics of the appeal to violence were certainly incomparably the most prosperous in Irish history. The further result has been to erect a State whose policy cannot be controlled by the manoeuvers of central banks. One of the most interesting discoveries of recent years has been that of the complete failure of the money power to overturn, or indeed even to weaken, the position of Mr. de Valera.






proceed !


155. Quoted by Raymond, Disraeli, the Alien Patriot.

156. Parnell, St. John Ervine, p. 159.

157. History of Ireland, S. Gwynn, pp. 418, 424.

158. Ibid., p. 428.

159. See Chapter 10, p. 116. [page 40 in this version]

160. England since Waterloo, 171 et seq.

161. Palmerston, Guedalla, p. 455.

162. History of Ireland, Sr James O'Connor, ii, 55.

163. House of Commons, 30th March, 1868.