A Poverty-Stricken Economy?
The poverty of prefamine Ireland was unambiguously described by contemporary writers,. Foreign and British travelers such as Kohl (1844), Walter Scott (1935), Beaumont (1839), de Tocqueville (1958), Lavergne (1855), Foster (1847), and Inglis (1835) were unanimous on this subject. They followed the example of Berkeley (1953, p. 237) in comparing the Irish peasant unfavorably to black slaves, Russian peasants, and Indian savages, and clearly believed that the material condition in Ireland was vastly inferior to that in their own countries. While the Irish west was obviously regarded as the worst off, the negative verdict held for Ireland as a whole. Kohl (1844, p. 5) noted, for example, that “until one has seen the west of Ireland he has no idea that human beings can live in a state of greater misery than in the fertile environs of Dublin or that a peopled and cultivated land can look wilder than the corn-abounding plains of Meath, Kildare, and Westmeath”. The occasional Irishman abroad made similar observations. A. H. Lynch (1839, p. 86) wrote that “an Irishman travelling through Belgium cannot refrain from asking himself, why is it that Ireland is wretched whilst Belgium is flourishing?” The British government, too, was very much aware of the inferior economic situation in Ireland. During 1801-45 they launched a large number of major investigations into the problem of Irish poverty. Some of these investigations, to be sure, stemmed from some specific problems such as the absence of a poor law in Ireland. There was, however, a growing realization in Britain that Ireland was not sharing in the growth and development of the British economy, and recommendations designed to reverse this process were made repeatedly.