IRISH in the 19th century


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The first part of this essay uncovers the troubles the Irish peasants had while being at hands of those in charge of the rebellion that absorbed Britain in the seventeenth century.

Also it includes discussion of problems that were brought on by the Potato Blight in the 1940’s, underdevelopment of the colony and harassment based on nationality.

The Irish became England’s first colony in the late 12th Century following the Earl of Pembroke’s (AKA Strongbow) helping of the King of Leinster fight against a rival king. Then King Henry II lands the following year, and so begins the 800 years plus British influence in Ireland.

In the mid-16th Century, Queen Elizabeth, a protestant monarch and daughter of Henry VIII, came to the throne during a time of increasing tension between the Catholics and the Protestants. This was the beginning of centuries of unrivalled religious conflict which was to continue in to the 21st Century.

Civil war had been raging in English since the early part of the 17th Century and colonization began in Ireland early in the 17th Century with the plantations at Ulster. This created some feelings of resentment amongst the natives which resulted in a rebellion and the deaths of some 12,000 settlers.

This leads to the native Irish being told to either leave the country, be killed or to resettle in Connaught, plot land to the west of Ireland.

Cromwell’s set about giving away the land to soldiers and to other allies during his conflict that he could not pay with money.

The land in Connaught was terrible. Little could grow there; let alone enough to feed a family of hungry children. This had no effect on Cromwell, who dismissed them out of hand and sent them away on pain of death.

The potato blight culprit was a potato fungus called Phytophthora infestans – the fungus is dispersed by wind-borne sporangia (spores), which are produced on branched hyphae (sporangiophores) that emerge from the stomata of infected leaves in humid conditions.

Three successive harvests went wrong, with catastrophic events. The land was not farmable. With potatoes being the method of payment for otherwise poor farmers, the only means of payment was removed.

The potato blight, or rather the dubious position that arose from it and, to some extent preceded it, led one way or the other to the ‘Great Starvation’ in the mid 19th Century. Something to note during this essay is.

One other point worthy of mention is that although the Irish relied heavily on potatoes as part of their diet, they did have one advantage over the English…this was their access to peat as fuel. Whereas the English struggled to afford coal for their fires, the Irish could more or less remove fuel from the cost of day to day living. This was probably an important measure in combating complete destruction of the family.

Colonial underdevelopment is when an alien nation colonises another land and does little, if nothing, to rebuild the economical infrastructure, especially where the natives are concerned. Was the naturally occurring potato blight adopted as a convenient means of allowing the British government to easily ‘clear off over two million of the surplus population’, as claimed by John Mitchel? Or was he simply an embittered Irishman seeking to apportion culpability somewhere? In the case of the former, the case would be strong for colonial underdevelopment, a definite crime against the Irish people, but what evidence is there for such a claim?

The amount of people on the land in Ireland far outstretched the resources available.

Another push-factor was the background and increasing religious intolerance largely on the part of the Catholics. This really kicked off around the end of the 17th Century when James II, who by then had been asked to leave England due to his strong Catholic views, went to Ireland because he (James) knew it was Catholic-friendly and that all power had been more or less restored to the Catholics, AND because he saw Ireland as a spring-board over the Irish sea into both Scotland and England.

Large numbers of Protestant Irish began to leave Ireland due to the Catholics anger and readiness for a fight beginning to boil over and with them they took large sums of hard cash. This was no doubt a definite blow to James II.

William of Orange, who had defeated James II, was now the ruling king of England on the understanding that he did so under the strictest of supervision of Parliament. That he, alone, could not and would not dissolve Parliament, and, probably most important of all, that he would rule as a Protestant king.

With Britain now a Protestant country, the non-Catholic Irish in Britain could feel safer not living under the constant threat of religious persecution.

Ease of entry was a deciding factor in the Irish coming to Britain, as there were no passport controls until the beginning of the 20th Century. There was a demand for cheap labour in the factories, especially since the start of the industrial revolution in the 18th & 19th Centuries (1760-1830 CCE). There were jobs for the many Irish who wanted to make the journey. The money was generally better, and therefore the general standards of living would improve. There was plenty of work for the migrants, such as labouring in the building trade, on the docks and on the railways. Britain was fast becoming a world leader in industry and the declining crafts such as handloom weaving, tailoring, shoemaking, dress-making and hawking (mobile sales person) were in need of manpower.

The cotton industry was also in need of workers. The many temporary jobs that stemmed from this occupation were carding, blowing, tenting and weaving.

The reception the Irish received, upon entering Britain, must have been reminiscent of what their ancestors, and indeed they must have experienced at least once in their lives. They were seen as dirty peasants, even today as back in the 17th & 18th Centuries. They were accused of being untrustworthy, they were ‘boozers’, fornicators, scroungers, black legs and strike breakers (a term derived from the times when the Irish were ‘imported’ as a means of maintaining production when manufacture was blocked at a factory, and the manager/owner needed to keep things moving). The Irish have had a hard time at the hands of the British, who stole their land; evicted them; poisoned who was left and killed who didn’t concur with the set principles, fight in their wars or leave Ireland when ordered to.

Today this has changed in as much that they are now a legitimate part of our society, even though some in our midst may not like this - it remains, and always will remain the case.

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