Editorial on Irish Poverty (1748)

by Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

(writing as ‘AE’)

Take Physic, Pomp!
Expose thyself to feel, what Wretches feel;
That thou mayst shake the Superflux to them,
And shew the Heavens more just.
[Online editor’s note: King Lear, III.iv.37-40. – RTL.]
EIP.2 The riches of a nation are not to be estimated by the splendid appearance or luxurious lives of its gentry; it is the uniform plenty diffused through a people, of which the meanest as well as greatest partake, that makes them happy, and the nation powerful. When this is wanting, the splendor of the great is rather a reproach than honour to them: as Mr. Addison justly censures an Italian prince, whose subjects lived in the greatest poverty, and were exposed to continual dangers for want of a bridge over a rapid river, whilst he lived in the utmost magnificence. [Online editor’s note: English writer Joseph Addison (1672-1719), in his 1718 book Remarks on Several Parts of Italy. – RTL.] It is the care of every wise government to secure the lives and properties of those who live under it: why should it be less worth consideration, to make those lives comfortable, and these properties worth preserving? Whoever travels through this kingdom will see such poverty, as few nations in Europe can equal. In this city [Online editor’s note: Burke was writing in Dublin; the earlier reference to “this kingdom” likewise means the “Kingdom of Ireland” rather than Great Britain as a whole. – RTL.] things have the best face; but still, as you leave the town, the scene grows worse, and presents you with the utmost penury in the midst of a rich soil. Nothing perhaps shews it more clearly, than that though the people have but one small tax of two shillings a year, yet when the collector comes, for default of payment, he is obliged to carry off such of their poor utensils, as their being forced to use denotes the utmost misery; those he keeps, until by begging, or other shifts more hard, they can redeem them. Indeed money is a stranger to them; and were they as near the Golden Age in some other respects, as they are in this, they would be the happiest people in the world. As for their food, it is notorious they seldom taste bread or meat; their diet, in summer, is potatoes and sour milk; in winter, when something is required comfortable, they are still worse, living on the same root, made palatable only by a little salt, and accompanied with water: their clothes so ragged, that they rather publish than conceal the wretchedness it was meant to hide; nay, it is no uncommon sight to see half a dozen children run quite naked out of a cabin, scarcely distinguishable from a dunghill, to the great disgrace of our country with foreigners, who would doubtless report them savages, imputing that to choice which only proceeds from their irremediable poverty. Let any one take a survey of their cabins, and then say, whether such a residence be worthy any thing that challenged the title of a human creature. You enter, or rather creep in, at a door of hurdles plastered with dirt, of which the inhabitant is generally the fabricator; within-side you see (if the smoke will permit you) the men, women, children, dogs, and swine lying promiscuously; for their opulence is such that they cannot have a separate house for their cattle, as it would take too much from the garden, whose produce is their only support. Their furniture is much fitter to e lamented than described, such as a pot, a stool, a few wooden vessels, and a broken bottle: in this manner all the peasantry, to a man, live; and I appeal to any one, who knows the country, for the justness of the picture. Who, after having seen this, comes to town and beholds their sumptuous and expensive equipages, their treats and diversions, can contain the highest indignation? Such follies considered in themselves, are but ridiculous; but when we see the bitter consequences of them, ‘twere inhumanity to laugh. BOCCALINI, to create a distaste for false glory, introduces SFORZA Duke of Milan, making his triumphal entry into Parnassus, attended, by order of Apollo, by all whom his victories had made miserable. [Online editor’s note: Italian satirist Traiano Boccalini (1556-1613), in his 1612 Reports from Parnassus. – RTL.] Never (says that writer) was seen so sad a spectacle; the eyes of the most obdurate were melted into tears, to see such an infinite number of creatures; some starved in loathsome hospitals, some mangled and hewed to pieces by horrid wounds, some trampled to death under horses’ feet; and others begging their bread on the road; their prince’s service, in which they had lost their blood, and exposed their lives to a thousand dangers, not having furnished them with enough to carry them to their homes, which, to their misfortune, they had so foolishly abandoned. As he passed, a thousand curses were thrown on him, on the art of war, and that false love of glory, which renders mankind miserable. I fancy, many of our fine gentlemen’s pageantry would be greatly tarnished, were their gilt coaches to be preceded and followed by the miserable wretches, whose labour supports them. That some should live in a more sumptuous manner than others, is very allowable; but sure it is hard, that those who cultivate the spoil, should have so small a part of its fruits; and that among creatures of the same kind there should be such a disproportion in their manner of living; it is a kind of blasphemy on Providence, and seems to shew, as our motto finely expresses it, ‘the Heavens unjust.’ Our modern systems hold, that the riches and power of kings are by no means their property, but a depositum in their hands, for the use of the people: and if we consider the natural equality of mankind, we shall believe the same of the estates of gentlemen, bestowed on them at the first distribution of properties, for promoting the public good: and when, by the use they make of their fortunes, they thwart that end, they are liable to the same or a greater reproach than a prince who abuses his power. Is it not natural for a man, who ride sin his coach on a bitter day, or lies on his velvet couch, secured from all the inclemencies of the weather, to reflect with pity on those who suffer calamities equal to his enjoyments?
EIP.3 But there are some people who shut their hearts to charity, and to excuse their want of compassion, throw all the fault as well as misfortune on the unhappy poor. Their sloth, say those, is the cause of their misery. ‘Tis pleasant to observe, that this objection frequently comes from those who in all their lives have not been as serviceable to their country, as the idlest of these poor creatures in one day; but the falsity of the thing shews evidently the ignorance of the assertors. We shall examine into their means, and thence judge, how much the greatest industry does or can better them. There are three kinds of people in the country besides the gentlemen of fortune; we shall begin with the lowest and most numerous, the labourers; they have an acre of land at a very high rent, to pay which they must work for their master a great part of the year; the rest is employed in cultivating their own garden for an immediate support; then judge what time they have to produce clothes and other necessaries for themselves and their families: thus they must labour, and that without intermission, for the lowest livelihood; yet there are few whom hard seasons or other calamities have not sometime in their lives sent to beg. The poorer kind of farmers, called in some parts of the kingdom cottiers, live nigh as miserably as the former, though they hold larger quantities of land, but at such a rent as both hurts them and the landlord. Gentlemen perceiving that in England farmers pay heavy rent, and yet live comfortably, without considering the disproportion of markets, and every thing else, raise their rent high, and extort it heavily: thus none will hold from them but those desperate creatures who ruin the land (in vain) to make their rent; they fly; the ;landlord seizes, and to avoid the like mischance, takes all into his own hands; which being unable to manage, he turns to grazing: thus one part of the nation is starved, and the other deserted. The rich farmers or graziers, the third sort, hold vast quantities of land, and as they live like estated men, equally contribute to the poverty of the rest.
EIP.4 The evil is easier seen than remedied; but perhaps the example of a gentleman of fortune, whom I knew, may be useful: he came early to the possession of an estate valued 2000 l. per Ann. [Online editor’s note: librae per annum Latin for “pounds per year.” – RTL.] but set to a vast number of tenants at a very high rent: as usual in such cases, nothing could be in a worse condition than his estate; his rents ill paid, the land out of heart, and not a bush, not a tolerable enclosure, much less habitation, to be seen. He found his leases out, but he did not study, with the greediness of a young heir, how to raise the price nor value of his lands, nor turn out all his poor tenants to make room for two or three rich. He retained all those to whose honest industry he had been witness, and lowered his rents very considerably; he bound them to plant certain quantities of trees, and make other improvements. Thus in a few years things had another face, his rent was well paid, his tenants grew rich, and his estate increased daily in beauty and value: there was a village on it, which was equally ruinous with the rest; when he designed the improvement of this, he did not take the ordinary method of establishing horse-races and assemblies, which do but encourage drinking and idleness; but at a much smaller expence he introduced a manufacture, which, though not very considerable, employed the whole town, and in time made it opulent. Notwithstanding all this, no person lives more hospitably in the country, in the town more genteel. I have often heard him discourse on this subject. ‘I have lowered my rents (says he) but how much am I the poorer? What gratification do I want? ‘Tis true, I have not every month some new invented carriage coming from England to make the town amazed at my folly; I keep no French cook, I wear my own country manufactures; by which means I save, I believe, more than I lose by the lowness of my rent: at the same time I am satisfied I am making numbers happy, without expence to myself, doing my country service without ostentation, and leaving my son a better estate without oppressing any one.’
EIP.5 Had many of our gentlemen the same just way of thinking, we should no doubt see this nation in a short time in the most flourishing condition, notwithstanding all the disadvantages we labour under. But while they proceed on a quite opposite plan, it can never emerge, though we were possessed of many more advantages than we are able to boast of.
[Online editor’s note: Short for “Æmon,” the Gaelic form of “Edmund.” – RTL.]

The Reformer, 10 March 1748.

[See Roderick T. Long’s Commentary.]

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