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Oh, To Be Poor in Ireland!

The eighteenth-century peasants of Ireland were battered and crushed by the infamous Penal Laws imposed by the British. While their farms were backward and inefficient by English standards, rather than train farmers in new techniques, the Parliament passed an oppressive series of laws that left the peasant class dying of starvation.

These policies and their effect provoked Jonathan Swift to write his famous 1729 satire, A Modest Proposal. In it, he suggested the solution to the decimating poverty he encountered was to offer up Irish babies as succulent meals for the rich.

“…I believe no gentleman would refuse to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good, fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent, nutritious meat.”

Apparently, his sarcasm went over the aristocrats’ heads, for his condemnation of the ruling class had little effect.

To make matters worse (if you can imagine), in 1741, a terrible famine known as “The Great Slaughter” rampaged across Ireland. This disaster rivaled its more famous cousin, “The Great Potato Famine”. Numbers are sketchy, but one estimate has 38% of the population dying of hunger and disease.

According to the BBC’s A Short History of Ireland, “The Reverend Philip Skelton, curate of Monaghan parish, reported that there were ‘whole parishes in some places…almost desolate; the dead have been eaten in the fields by dogs for want of people to bury them. Whole thousands in a barony have perished, some of hunger and others of disorders occasioned by unnatural, unwholesome, and putrid diet.’

“An anonymous author of an open letter to Archbishop Boulter described conditions about Cashel in Co Tipperary:

‘Multitudes are daily perishing…I have seen the labourer endeavouring to work at his spade, but fainting for want of food and forced to quit it. I have seen the aged father eating grass like a beast…the helpless orphan exposed on the dunghill, and none to take him in for fear of infection…the hungry infant sucking at the breast of the already expired parent…’”

Remember, this was twelve years after Swift’s damnation of the poor’s deplorable plight.

In the years that followed, landowners found that sheep and cattle were more profitable than tillage. Hence, tenants were evicted as more grazing land was needed. Even the commons where all were free to feed their livestock were taken away.

James Connolly stated in Labour in Irish History, “Where a hundred families had reaped as sustenance from their small farms, or by hiring out their labour to the owners of large farms, a dozen shepherds now occupied their places.”
This and other restrictions were apparently the final straws. Having no political power or legal recourse whatsoever,

…the Whiteboys were born.

**See modern-day satirist Stephen Colbert’s take on Swift’s Modest Proposal:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word – Swift Payment
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

2 comments on “Oh, To Be Poor in Ireland!

  1. Steve Gordy says:

    If you want some arresting images about life in Ireland in the mid-18th century, Google “Barry Lyndon”. There are a bunch of YouTube clips from Stanley Kubrick's 1975 movie that bring that world to life.


  2. Mary Beth says:

    Thanks, Steve. I certainly will. It is surprisingly hard to find information on that era. Most focuses on the nineteenth century.


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