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Agricultural conditions in Ireland, 1843

In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville toured Ireland and wrote of his experiences. What he saw was not to the credit of the British government. However, parliament in Westminster did not appear to have any idea of the appalling conditions that existed in Ireland. In 1843, the Devonshire Commission was established to report into conditions in Ireland in terms of landholding and the law. This extract was written by Captain Kennedy just after the outbreak of the potato blight. Kennedy was Secretary to the Commission.

It has been stated almost universally throughout the evidence, that the lands in nearly every district of Ireland require drainage; that the drainage and deep moving of the lands or subsoiling have proved most remunerative operations wherever they have been applied; that these operations have as yet been introduced but to a very limited extent.

That the mass of the lands is held by small working farmers.

That the small farmers and labourers are for considerable portions of the year in search of employment which they cannot obtain.

That the most valuable crops and the most profitable rotations cannot be adopted on wet lands, &c., &c.

These apparent contradictions are variously accounted for by different witnesses. Some attributing the apathy that exists to want of capital, which they strongly recommend to be supplied in some way or other. But this cause would not prevent the small farmer from draining the wet field of which he is the occupier, and which is situated at his own door, instead of sitting idle for several months of the year, and complaining all the while that he cannot find profitable employment!

Others, and by far the most extensive class of witnesses, attribute the inertia to the fact of the occupiers not having any certainty of receiving compensation, if removed immediately after having effected valuable improvements; and to their not generally having leases, or that security of tenure of their farms which would justify them in expending labour or money in their improvement, as, if they did so, the proprietor would then have the power of immediately increasing the rent.

A close analysis of this subject would probably lead to the conclusion, that the potato is the main cause of that inertia in the population, and that want of improvement in the lands and tillage, which is so striking throughout Ireland.

This root, as compared with other food stuffs grown in this climate, supplied the largest amount of human food on the smallest surface. Its peculiar cultivation enabled the occupier of land to plant it in the wettest soils; because the ridge or lazy bed, universally adopted in such cases, supplied the most minute system of drainage that can be imagined for that one crop, although it did not permanently drain the land, or extend any substantial benefit in that respect even to the following crop.

The indolent occupier, therefore, passed his winter inactively, consuming this food which he preferred to all others, and neglecting to prepare his land permanently for more profitable crops, of which he had heard little, and for which he cared less. Enjoying all the while the pleasing delusion, that, as sure as the spring came round, any portion he might select of his farm would be ready to receive his favourite root, and to furnish a certain supply of food for his numerous and increasing family.

Digest of Evidence on Occupation of Land in Ireland (1847), Pt. I, 14-16

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