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|Address of the Peasantry, 1831|
“We, the descendants of the old and faithful tenantry …”
The following memorial, or public petition, purporting to speak on behalf of 150,000 tenants and cottiers in county Clare, was published in the Clare Journal on Monday 11 April 1831. It is addressed to Henry William Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge and the 1st Marquis of Anglesey, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1828/29 and from 1830 to 1833. Set against the immediate background of the Terry Alt agrarian disturbances, beginning in Clare and Limerick in January 1831, and the ongoing tithe war, the petition raises a number of grievances such as absentee landlords, tenancies, and the parish vestry cess (tax).
The memorial also gives interesting contemporary social information, such as average numbers in families, rates of pay for labour, diet and living conditions. The petition alludes as well to recent famines, such as those of 1817, 1822/23 and from 1827 onwards. In the light of the Great Famine of 1845 – 9, the plea of the memorialists was tragically prescient.
“To his Excellency the Marquis of Anglesey, Lord Lieutenant General and General Governor of Ireland.
The humble Address of the impoverished and destitute People of Clare, amounting to about the number of one hundred and fifty thousand.
With feelings of delight, gratitude, and confidence, we hail your Excellency’s arrival.
Feelings of delight, in beholding the Representative of our gracious Monarch, King William the Fourth, amongst us –
Of gratitude, for the parental solicitude thus nobly evinced by your Excellency, in undertaking the arduous but humane and generous task of investigating personally the causes of disturbance in this County –
And feelings of confidence, in the sincerity of your Excellency’s intentions to meliorate, to the fullest extent in your power, the distresses which prevail to an alarming degree.
We humbly take leave to state to your Excellency, that the following are the real causes of disturbances:
For a series of years, previous to the year 1800, our forefathers held several extensive tracts of land in this county, upon leases generally of one life or twenty-one years, which according as the term expired, were renewed by the resident landlord to the tenant at a fair and reasonable rent.
That from the year 1800, a large portion of the Aristocracy and Gentry of this county left their ancient residences, and went to reside in foreign countries, leaving their tenantry to the management of land-agents; the consequence has been, that according as the respective farms (held as before stated) became out of lease, they were let in large farms to graziers and land-jobbers, to fatten black cattle and sheep; and we, the descendants of the old and faithful tenantry, have been cast upon the world homeless wanderers, to seek shelter for ourselves and our helpless families in huts or cabins built in bogs or commons, the residences of our forefathers being levelled to the earth by those land-jobbers.
We humbly state to your Excellency, that the principal means of support our families have had for nearly thirty years, is the potato crop, and one half the year without milk; as to flesh meat, we scarcely ever can procure it more than twice a year – namely, Easter Sunday and Christmas-day.
We humbly state to your Excellency, that having but little land, and that of the most inferior kind – and numbers of us no land at all in our possession, we are obliged to pay at the rate of six to eight pounds an acre for muck or conacre, for one crop.
We humbly state to your Excellency, that the frequent inclemency of the seasons have rendered the crops so bad, that we are obliged to leave the crop on the premises in lieu of the rent, forfeiting our seed and labours, and frequently processed and decreed for the difference between what the crop thus left sells for, and our original contract in consequence of which our families are often obliged in the summer season to pluck the rape-leaf and wild nettle-top for their sustenance.
We humbly state to your Excellency, that we have frequently, in supplicating and respectful terms, stated our grievances to the now resident gentry and landholders of the county, but up to this period they have taken no measures to relieve our distress, on the contrary, some of them have often told us, they considered all ties between them and the people for ever severed in consequence of our having exercised our undoubted and constitutional right in 1828, contrary to the will of our landlord.
We humbly state to your Excellency, that a further cause for the miseries and distresses of this county has arisen out of the system of grand jury jobbing carried on to a shameful and unprecedented extent for thirty years; which, while it puts large sums of money into the pockets of the Grand Jurors themselves, and a heavy tax upon the poor cottiered tenants, affords no benefit to the labouring classes the roads being made by the tenants of those Grand Jurors to pay an enormous rack-rent, which, in no other shape could possibly be paid for the land.
We humbly state to your Excellency, that another great cause of the evils and miseries of this county are lay and impropriate tithes exacted from the industry and hard labour of the people, averaging a sum of 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. an acre, which in eight cases out of ten is paid to the agent of absentees to be spent in foreign countries.
We humbly state to your Excellency, a not less distressing cause of poverty which is enormous sums of money exacted from the hard working tiller of the land, under the title of Vestry, which the applotters and collectors pretend is for the repairs of the Church, but in truth and in fact, the four-fifths of which collection go to supply the incumbent’s house with those comforts denied to us.
We humbly abstain from the introduction of the subject of tithes to the protestant clergy, lest we should be supposed to introduce any topic which, by any possibility, could subject us to the imputation of Sectarian feeling, the great portion of your Excellency’s memorialists being Catholics, leaving it entirely to your Excellency’s wisdom and benignity to consider whether the members of one Church should pay, out of the hard earnings of their labour and the sweat of their brow, for the support of the richest Church establishment in the world, to the doctrines of which, in conscience, we do not, nor cannot subscribe.
We humbly state to your Excellency that another most grievous cause for the unhappy and discontented state of the county, is want of employment for the mechanic, artisan or labourer, although there are many thousand acres of land in this county, which, if reclaimed, would give employment, food, raiment and comfort, to the starving thousands that now humbly and supplicatingly approach your Excellency with this unhappily, but not exaggerated statements of their sufferings.
We humbly state to your Excellency that in addition to the foregoing causes of privation, the average price of labour in this county is six-pence per day, from six in the morning to six in the afternoon, without breakfast or dinner, and even that is not to be had upon an average of more than three days in the week.
We humbly state to your Excellency, that our unfortunate families average about six individuals in each family, obliged to exist upon 1s. 6d. or 2s. 6d. a-week, and many weeks not able to procure that same.
We humbly state to your Excellency, that another most grievous cause for the miseries of this county, is that Penal Law, the Sub-letting Act, an Act, since it came into operation, has not only driven thousands from their houses in a state of destitution and sometimes starvation, but has deprived the present occupiers of the power of relieving your memorialists, some of whom would be very willing to let a portion of their land to the people but from a fear of eviction by the absentee agent, who, in almost every instance, would take advantage of the clauses in this depopulating act.
We respectfully state to your Excellency, that in our humble judgment the want of a resident Legislature has been the cause of privations and sufferings of your memorialists, for we humbly state, that the evils complained of, would not have continued to exist for thirty years without melioration from an Irish House of Parliament.
The foregoing facts are the real and true causes of discontent and disturbance in this country, and not, as unfairly and unfoundedly attributed, to want of loyalty to our gracious Monarch; in that we yield to no part his Majesty’s dominions; and were our stations in life as free from suffering as our allegiance is sincere, our county would never have been reduced to such a state as to create the necessity of having your Excellency’s kind and paternal feelings subjected to the pain of witnessing our present unfortunate condition.
We, therefore, humbly and respectfully pray, that your Excellency may be graciously pleased to lay before our gracious Monarch the facts herein set forth, fully convinced that when his gracious Majesty, through your Excellency, is informed of the real cause of our sufferings and discontent, he will, with that paternal fondness upon all occasions evinced by him towards his people of Ireland, direct the Government to adopt such measures as may relieve us, his people, from the awful but likely recurrences of famine and fever, which, alas! have been but too familiar to the peasantry of Ireland for the last thirty years.
We humbly state to your Excellency, that there is upwards of £200,000 a year absentee rents sent out of this county, one shilling of which is not spent in Ireland.
That those absentee noblemen and gentry have some hundred thousand acres of reclaimable land on their estates, upon which, if they gave encouragement and employment to the people, they would not only increase the value of their estates, but would afford subsistence and generally meliorate the conditions of many thousands of your petitioners.
We humbly state to your Excellency, we are ready to work at any species of labour or employment that can save our families from starvation, and we humbly and respectfully state that meliorating measures will have more effect in restoring peace, tranquillity, and confidence, than bayonets and insurrection acts. Death cannot have much terror for persons in the last extremity of destitution.
Signed on behalf of the Members,
Basil Davoren, Chairman