About 160 years ago, even as the Industrial Revolution was getting underway, a monumental and historic economic catastrophe occurred across the sea in Ireland. Like a slow motion train wreck, predictable and terrible in its effects, failure finally came to the Irish economy, long teetering on disaster, when a potato blight wiped out the crop. The world watched while the people starved. The seeds of the tragedy had long ago been sewn in the religiously-inspired subjugation of Ireland by England and the establishment of landed gentry, mostly absentee landlords. It was all about land exploitation by the wealthy, and it was all perfectly legal.
During the 18th century, a new system for managing the landlord’s property was introduced in the form of the “middleman system”. Rent collection was left in the hands of the landlords’ agents, or middlemen. This assured the (usually Protestant) landlord of a regular income, and relieved them of any responsibility; the tenants however were then subject to exploitation through these middlemen.
The middlemen leased large tracts of land from the landlords on long leases with fixed rents, which they then sublet as they saw fit. They split the holding into smaller and smaller parcels to increase the amounts of rents they could then obtain, a system called conacre. Tenants could be evicted for reasons such as non-payment of rents (which were very high), or if the landlord decided to raise sheep instead of grain crops. The cottier paid his rent by working for the landlord. Any improvements made on the holdings by the tenants became the property of the landlords when the lease expired or was terminated, which acted as a disincentive to improvements. The tenants had no security of tenure on the land; being tenants “at will” they could be turned out whenever the landlord chose.
Religion played a major role in this catastrophe. The government of the U.K. was of course dominated by the Anglican Church and the laws were made accordingly. Again, from Wikipedia:
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish Catholics had been prohibited by the penal laws from owning land, from leasing land; from voting, from holding political office; from living in a corporate town or within 5 mi (8.0 km) of a corporate town, from obtaining education, from entering a profession, and from doing many other things that are necessary in order to succeed and prosper in life.
The depth and breadth of the Irish tragedy is too vast, too complex by far for me to do it much justice here, but I offer these St. Patrick’s Day reflections on the Irish tragedy in the context of what freedom means in America. Freedom is found not only in the ability to travel the streets and lanes of the land at will, to choose a religion or no religion, to be secure in one’s own home, and to stand on a soapbox in the town square and orate. It is those things of course, but so much more. In the complex amalgamation of civilized life freedom must be had in an economic context, for without economic equality under the law opportunity is forfeit and with it the meaning of freedom itself.
Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears (Brendan Graham)
On the first day on January,
They opened Ellis Island and they let
The people through.
And the first to cross the threshold
Of that isle of hope and tears,
Was Annie Moore from Ireland
Who was all of fifteen years.
Isle of hope, isle of tears,
Isle of freedom, isle of fears,
But it’s not the isle you left behind.
That isle of hunger, isle of pain,
Isle you’ll never see again
But the isle of home is always on your mind.
In a little bag she carried
All her past and history,
And her dreams for the future
In the land of liberty.
And courage is the passport
When your old world disappears
But there’s no future in the past
When you’re fifteen years
When they closed down Ellis Island
In nineteen fourty-three,
Seventeen million people
Had come there for sanctuary.
And in Springtime when I came here
And I stepped onto its piers,
I thought of how it must have been
When you’re fifteen years.
“Megyn, guess what, I made a lot of money. I’ve been very successful. I’m not going to apologize for that.” — From a recent statement by a conservative American politician.