The open secret of Ireland

CHAPTER V

THE RAVAGES OF UNIONISM (I)

Ireland, as we have seen, has had the misfortune to provoke many worthy writers to a sad debauch of sentimentalism. It has pleased their fancy especially to picture her as a sphinx, mysterious, elusive, inscrutable. It is impossible to govern her, declare these theorists, because it is impossible to understand her. She is the femme incomprise of modern politics. Her temperament is a magnet for disaster, her soul a sanctuary of inviolable secrets. So runs the rhapsody, and many of my own countrymen have thought it good strategy to accept and exploit it. They have this to urge, indeed, that failure to make oneself understood is commonly regarded as a sign of the superior mind. Lord Rosebery, for example, has told us that he himself, for all his honey-dropping tongue, has never been properly understood. And Hegel, the great German philosopher, who was so great a philosopher that we may without impropriety mention his name even in the brilliant vicinage of the Earl of Midlothian, used to sigh: “Alas! in the whole of my teaching career I had but one student who understood my system, and he mis-understood it.” This is all very well in its way, and a climate of incomprehension may suit orators and metaphysicians admirably; but it will not do for politics. The party or people that fails to make its programme understood is politically incompetent, and Ireland is assuredly safe from any such imputation. She has her spiritual secrets, buried deep in what we may call the subliminal consciousness of the race, and to the disclosure of these secrets we may look with confidence for the inspiration of a new literature. But in politics Ireland has no secrets. All her cards are on the table, decipherable at the first glance. Her political demand combines the lucidity of an invoice with the axiomatic rectitude of the Ten Commandments. There is no doubt about what she wants, and none about why she ought to have it. In that sense the case for Home Rule is made, and this book, having justified its title, ought to come to an end. But convention prescribes that about the nude contour of principles there should be cast a certain drapery of details, and such conventions are better obeyed.

Where we are to begin is another matter. We are, as has been so often suggested, in presence of a situation in which one cannot see the trees for the forest. The principle of the government of Ireland is so integrally wrong that it is difficult to signalise any one point in which it is more wrong than it is in any other. A timber-chaser, that is to say a pioneer for a lumber firm, in the Western States of America once found himself out of spirits. He decided to go out of life, and being thorough in his ways he left nothing to chance. He set fire to his cabin, and, mounting the table, noosed his neck to a beam, drank a large quantity of poison, and, as he kicked over the table, simultaneously shot himself through the head and drew a razor across his throat. Later on the doctor had to fill in the usual certificate. At “Cause of Death” he paused, pondered, and at last wrote, “Causes too numerous to specify.” The fable possesses a certain suggestive value upon which we need not enlarge. How, one may well ask, are we to itemise the retail iniquities of a system of government which is itself a wholesale iniquity? But since we must begin somewhere let us begin with the Economics of Unionism.

In this often-written, and perhaps over-written story there is one feature of some little comfort. Whatever quarrel there may be as to causes, the facts are not disputed. Pitt and his friends promised that the Union would be followed by general prosperity, development of manufacturers, and expansion of commerce.

“Among the great and known defects of Ireland,” he declared in a typical statement, “one of the most prominent features is its want of industry and of capital. How are these wants to be supplied but by blending more closely with Ireland the industry and capital of Great Britain?”

It was a Witches’ Promise making smooth the path to damnation. In every point in which Pitt had prophesied white the moving finger of history began, from the very day of the Union, to write black. The injury to the whole economic tissue of Ireland was immediate, cumulative, in the end crushing.

We have at hand authoritative figures of the decline collected by various Commissions and private inquirers. Let us note some of these as summarised by Monsignor O’Riordan in his remarkable book, “Catholicism and Progress”:

“Again, in 1800 there were 91 woollen manufacturers in Dublin and 4938 hands employed; in 1840 there were only 12 manufacturers, and 682 hands employed; in 1880, only 3 manufacturers in Dublin and around it. In 1800 there were 56 blanket manufacturers in Kilkenny, and 3000 hands employed; in 1840 there were 12 manufacturers and 925 hands employed. In 1800 there were 900 hands employed on ratteens and friezes in Roscrea; in 1840 the industry had completely disappeared. In 1800 there were 1000 flannel looms in County Wicklow; in 1840 there was not one. In 1800 there were 2500 looms at work in Dublin for the manufacture of silk and poplin; in 1840 there were only 250. In 1800 there were 27,000 cotton workers in Belfast and around it; in 1840 there were only 12,000. In 1800 there were 61,075 tradesmen in Dublin for the woollen, silk, and cotton industries; in 1834 there were only 14,446, and of these 4412 were idle, showing a decrease of 51,041 in the employed.”

There was, we must add, an increase in other directions. For instance, whereas there had been only seven bankruptcies decreed in Dublin in 1799 there were 125 in 1810. The number of insolvent houses grew in seven years from 880 to 4719. These figures are not random but symptomatic. Mr Pitt had promised to blend Ireland with the capital and industry of Great Britain; he blended them as the edge of a tomahawk is blended with the spattered brains of its victim. We have glanced at the condition of manufacture. Lest it should be assumed that the tiller of land at least had profited by the Napoleonic Wars, with their consequent high prices, let me hasten to add that the Grey Commission, reporting in 1836, had to inform the Government that 2,385,000 persons, nearly one-third of the population, were “in great need of food.”

“Their habitations,” the Report proceeds, “are wretched hovels; several of the family sleep together on straw, or on the bare ground, sometimes with a blanket, sometimes not even so much to cover them. Their food commonly consists of dry potatoes; and with these they are at times so scantily supplied as to be obliged to stint themselves to one spare meal in the day…. They sometimes get a herring or a little milk, but they never get meat except at Christmas, Easter, and Shrovetide.”

But a truce to these dismal chronicles. The post hoc may be taken as established; was it a propter hoc? Was the Union the cause as well as the antecedent of this decay? No economist, acquainted with the facts, can fail to answer in the affirmative. The causal connection between two realities could not be more manifest. Let us examine it very briefly.

I begin of necessity with the principle of freedom, for freedom is the dominating force in economic life. No instance can be cited of a modern people of European civilisation that ever prospered while held politically in subjection.

“All history,” writes Professor Marshall of Cambridge, the doyen of Political Economy in England, “is full of the record of inefficiency caused in varying degrees by slavery, serfdom, and other forms of civil and political oppression and repression.”

The Act of Union was, as has been said, one of those spiritual outrages which, in their reactions, are like lead poured into the veins. It lowered the vital resources of Ireland. It made hope an absentee, and enterprise an exile. That was its first-fruits of disaster.

These commonplaces of the gospel of freedom “for which Hampden died in the field and Sidney on the scaffold” will possibly appear to their modern descendants mystical, sentimental, and remote from real life. For there is no one in the world so ready as your modern Englishman to deny that he is a man in order to prove that he is a business-man. Fortunately we can establish for this strange being, who has thus indecently stripped himself of humanity, and establish in very clear and indisputable fashion the cash nexus between Unionism and decay. The argument is simple.

The Union came precisely in the period in which capital was beginning to dominate the organisation of industry. The Union denuded Ireland of the capital which would have enabled her to transform the technique of her manufactures, and so maintain the ground won under Grattan’s Parliament. The channels through which this export of capital proceeded were absenteeism and over-taxation.

The first statement in this paragraph of plaint calls for no elaboration. Arnold Toynbee took as the terminal dates of the Industrial Revolution the years 1760 and 1830. The last generation of the eighteenth century brought to birth the great inventions, but it was the first generation of the nineteenth that founded on them large scale production, and settled the structure of modern industry. Not without profound disturbance and incalculable suffering was the new system established in England; the story may be read in the pages of Marx, Cunningham, Cooke Taylor, or any of the economic historians. But, for all the blood and tears, it was established. Insulated from the continental turmoil, served by her Titanic bondsmen coal and iron, England was able to defeat the Titan, Napoleon. Now it is idle to deny that this period would under any government have strained Ireland, as the phrase goes, to the pin of her collar. But the Union made her task impossible. Lord Castlereagh was quite right in pointing to the accumulation of capital as the characteristic advantage of England. Through centuries of political freedom that process had gone on without interruption. Ireland, on the contrary, had been scientifically pillaged by the application to her of the “colonial system” from 1663 to 1779; I deliberately exclude the previous waste of war and confiscation. She had but twenty years of commercial freedom, and, despite her brilliant success in that period, she had not time to accumulate capital to any great extent. But Grattan’s Parliament had shown itself extraordinarily astute and steady of purpose in its economic policy. Had its guidance continued – conservative taxation, adroit bounties, and that close scrutiny and eager discussion of the movements of industry which stands recorded in its Journal – the manufactures of Ireland would have weathered the storm. But the luck was as usual against her. Instead of wise leadership from Dublin the gods decreed that she should have for portion the hard indifference and savage taxation of Westminster. Reduced to the position of a tributary nation, stripped of the capital that would have served as a commissariat of advance in that crucial struggle, she went down.

I am not to make here the case for Ireland in respect of over-taxation. It was made definitely in the Report of the Childers Commission, a document which no Englishman reads, lest in coming to the light he should have his sins too sharply rebuked. It has been developed and clarified in many speeches and essays and in some books. To grasp it is to find your road to Damascus on the Irish Question. But for the moment we are concerned with but one aspect, namely, the export of capital from Ireland as a result of the Union, and the economic reactions of that process. Since we are to use moderation of speech and banish all rhetoric from these pages, one is at a loss to characterise Union arrangements and post-Union finance. Let it suffice to say that they combined the moral outlook of Captain Kidd with the mathematical technique of a super-bucket-shop. From the first Great Britain robbed the Irish till; from the first she skimmed the cream off the Irish milk, and appropriated it for her own nourishment. One has a sort of gloomy pride in remembering that although cheated in all these transactions we were not duped. Mr Foster, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons – in those days the Speaker actually spoke, a whimsical Irish custom – tore the cloak off Lord Castlereagh’s strutting statesmanship, and laid bare his real motives. Speaking on the first Union proposal in 1799 he said:

“But the noble Lord has told us the real motives of this scheme of Union, and I thank him for stating them so fairly. Ireland, he says, must contribute to every war, and the Minister won’t trust to interest, affection, or connection for guiding her conduct. He must have her purse within his own grasp. While three hundred men hold it in Ireland he cannot put his hand into it, they are out of his reach, but let a hundred of you carry it over and lay it at his feet, and then he will have full and uncontrolled power.”

So it came about. Even before the Union Grattan’s Parliament had, of its own free will and out of an extravagant loyalty, run itself into debt for the first time to help England against France. But, as Foster indicated, the Irish members felt that they were coming to the end of their resources. They were about to call a halt, and so the Union became a necessary ingredient of Pitt’s foreign policy. By it Ireland was swept into the vortex of his anti-French hysteria, and of what Mr Hartley Withers so properly styles his “reckless finance.” In sixteen years she was brought to the edge of bankruptcy. Between 1801 and 1817 her funded debt was increased from £28,541,157 to £112,684,773, an augmentation of nearly 300 per cent. In the first fifteen years following the Union she paid in taxes £78,000,000 as against £31,000,000 in the last fifteen years preceding the Union. After the amalgamation of the Exchequers in 1817 the case becomes clearer. In 1819-20, for instance, the revenue contributed by Ireland was £5,256,564, of which only £1,564,880 was spent in Ireland, leaving a tribute for Great Britain of £3,691,684. For 1829-30 the tribute was £4,156,576.

Let us now inquire how things stood with regard to absenteeism. This had existed before the Union’; indeed, if the curious reader will turn to Johnson’s “Dictionary” he will find it damned in a definition. But it was enormously intensified by the shifting of the centre of gravity of Irish politics, industry, and fashion from Dublin to London. The memoirs of that day abound in references to an exodus which has left other and more material evidence in those fallen and ravaged mansions which now constitute the worst slums of our capital city.

One figure may be cited by way of illustration. Before the Union “98 Peers, and a proportionate number of wealthy Commoners” lived in Dublin. The number of resident Peers in 1825 was twelve. At present, as I learn from those who read the sixpenny illustrateds, there is one. But when they abandoned Ireland they did not leave their rents behind. And it was a time of rising rents; according to Toynbee they at least doubled between 1790 and 1833. Precise figures are not easily arrived at, but Mr D’Alton in his “History of the County Dublin,” a book quite innocent of politics, calculates that the absentee rental of Ireland was in 1804 not less than £3,000,000, and in 1830 not less than £4,000,000, an under-estimate. If we average these figures over the period we find that during the first thirty years of Union, that is to say during the most critical phase of the Industrial Revolution, not less than £105,000,000 of Irish capital was “exported” from Ireland to Great Britain through the channel of absenteeism.

Averaging the figures of the taxation-tribute in similar fashion, and taking the lowest estimates, I am unable to reach a less total than £120,000,000 for the same period. In other words, the effect of the Union was to withdraw from Ireland during the thirty years that settled the economic structure of modern industry not less than £225,000,000. Let me draw the argument together in words which I have used elsewhere, and which others can no doubt easily better:

“We have heard, in our day, a long-drawn denunciation of a Liberal government on the score that it had, by predatory taxation, driven English capital out of the country, and compromised the industrial future of England. We have seen in our own day gilt-edged securities, bank, insurance, railway, and brewery shares in Great Britain, brought toppling down by a Tory waste of £250,000,000 on the Boer War. We know that in economic history effects are, in a notable way, cumulative; so clearly marked is the line of continuity as to lead a great writer to declare that there is not a nail in all England that could not be traced back to savings made before the Norman Conquest. A hundred instances admonish us that, in industrial life, nothing fails like failure. When we put all these considerations together, and give them a concrete application, can we doubt that in over-taxation and the withdrawal of capital we have the prime causa causans of the decay of Ireland under the Union?”

In this wise did Pitt “blend Ireland with the industry and capital of Great Britain.” Cupped by his finance she gave the venal blood of her industry to strengthen the predominant partner, and to help him to exclude for a time from these islands that pernicious French Democracy in which all states and peoples have since found redemption. Such was the first chapter in the Economics of Unionism.

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