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from Called to Account (formerly The Poor Law Inspector) by Frank Parker

Chapter 14
Anniversary Blues

As autumn progressed into winter the conditions in Ireland, and the need for relief, were discussed with increasing passion in Parliament and in the British news sheets. A consensus seemed to be growing that the tax payers of England had poured money into Ireland and received nothing but ingratitude in return. Nothing that Edward Twisleton said, nothing that I and other inspectors wrote in our reports, could move Trevelyan from the view that the problem was one for Ireland, and the owners of Irish land, to solve. A suggestion that income tax should be extended to Ireland was dismissed, since so few Irish people had incomes on which to pay tax. It had to be the land that was taxed, via the rates. But that necessitated the landlords having an income from rents. With so many farmers struggling to produce crops they could sell in order to be able to pay rent, many landlords, though possessed of considerable wealth on paper, nevertheless had too little hard cash available from which to meet the demands of the rates.

Whilst the land owners were in effective control of the rates, through membership of the Board of Guardians, it was inevitable they would set the rate at a level that they deemed affordable but which was never sufficient to meet the ever increasing need for provisions for the workhouse, the fever hospitals and outdoor relief. Once the board was disbanded, the vice-guardians and I set the rate at a level such that, if collected, it would ensure solvency for the Union, or so we believed at the time. The return of blight and the consequent loss of much of the potato crop so increased the demands on our resources that these higher rates alone could not satisfy them. Moreover, the task of collecting the rates proved much more difficult than we had imagined.

Landlords were able to enforce the collection of rents, and did so, often in the most brutal manner imaginable. Whereas the landlord was legally able to impound property to the value of the rent owed, we had no equivalent means by which to extract rates from any farmer, landlord or agent who refused.

And the landlord could readily reduce his liability for rates by removing from his inventory those holdings which produced insufficient income. He did this by the simple expedient of evicting the defaulting tenant or sub-tenant. That this further increased the demands made upon the resources of the Union whilst reducing the landlord's liability to contribute to the Union's income was the central conundrum that the officials and representatives in London seemed unable to understand.

Many pointed out that there was increasing poverty in England, too, made greater by the arrival of a steady stream of Irish paupers. Was it not, these men asked, the duty of the government to take care of its own ahead of the needs of the idle and ungrateful Irish? In vain was the retort uttered that Britain had incorporated Ireland into the United Kingdom against the general wish of many Irish men. If the Kingdom were indeed United then the whole Kingdom should contribute to the cost of relieving suffering wherever in the Kingdom that suffering occurred.

The resolution of this discussion among the great and good of London was an imposition dubbed “Rate-in-Aid”; the very notion condemned by my father, brothers and their neighbours during our brief sojourn in Ulster in the summer. Those in the more prosperous parts of the island were to contribute to the relief of those in the least prosperous. In truth, the phrase “more prosperous” was scoffed at by most, since, though being an accurate comparison, it carried the implication that there was in some part of the island something that merited the description “prosperous” when in fact the whole island was facing destitution. It would have been more appropriate to describe the “more prosperous” regions as “furthest from destitution”. Thus, the effect of the measure was merely to spread destitution over a wider area.

Meanwhile the Vice-Guardians and I struggled on, dispensing such aid as we were able to those in the most desperate need. It soon became apparent that although many had been employed for the few weeks of the harvest period the wage they were able to access by this means was utterly inadequate to meet their most basic needs. During my attendance at the admission on two days and part of a third, I took the opportunity of inquiring of every able bodied applicant where and with whom he had last been employed and at what rate of wages. Almost the whole number declared that even during the harvest they had laboured for 2d and 3d per day, seldom getting 4d, and that at present they could not exchange or obtain their food for their labour.

On a grey November day when the sky hung over the lan...

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