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The Most Distressful Country

Joseph Woods

Poverty In Ireland 1837: A Hungarian’s View, by Baron József Eötvös (transl by Paul Sohar and Lázló Bakas), Phaeton, 220 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1908420213

This is an extraordinarily lucid and “modern” analysis of the desperate conditions and suffering that prevailed in Ireland in the decade preceding the Great Famine, by the visiting Hungarian writer Baron József Eötvös.

In every sense, it is a discovery to read of Eötvös’s visit to Ireland in the years 1836-37. In a foreword by the Hungarian ambassador to Ireland, Dr Tamas Magyarics, we are given much of the context and the measure of Eötvös. He was simply one of the most interesting public figures in nineteenth century Hungary: aristocrat, poet, intellectual, novelist, politician and above all a statesman driven by a deep humanitarianism. Born in Buda in 1813, his statue stands in Budapest in a square that bears his name.

By the time he visited Ireland as part of a grand – and educative – tour, he already had a reputation as a romantic poet. His poem “The Frozen Child”, about an orphan who freezes to death at his mother’s grave (1833) was later made into a film. The poem reflects his thinking about “those classes, minorities, and nations whose dignity is violated and whose need for love is unfulfilled in the contemporary world”.

His enlightened and empathetic approach set the tone for his visit to Ireland. After that visit, he embarked on writing novels and would eventually become better known as a novelist and essayist. His first novel, The Carthusian (1839), based on a real-life encounter, was of a man disappointed in love who later joins a monastery. Like his poem, the novel was subsequently made into a silent movie in 1916 directed by Michael Curtiz, who would later direct Casablanca. Later came The Village Notary (1845), which is now upheld as the first Hungarian (Eötvös only learned Hungarian at the age of thirteen) realist novel in the vein of Balzac and was “a portrait of contemporary Hungarian society of panoramic proportions, depicted with the passion of a poet and the lucid diagnosis of the social reformer”.

Perhaps Eötvös was “radicalised” by his visit to Ireland in previous years, but it is clear that his “social reformer” consciousness was already in evidence seven years earlier with Poverty in Ireland. It’s an extended essay or pamphlet but presented here bilingually and carefully illustrated with prints of the era – from circa 1780 to 1850 – it makes an elegant if disturbing book.

The essay was first published in 1840 in the first edition of the short-lived Budapest Journal (there were only two issues), and it was translated into English only in 1978 as part of Eötvös’s Collected Works, published in Hungary. This new translation (I can only speak of the English rendering) by Paul Sohar and Lázló Bakas is exceptional and renders Eötvös as a thoroughly modern writer, albeit with a slightly romantic tone, as befits the poet.

Baron Eötvös’s journey to Ireland was part of a wider-ranging European tour throughout Europe in the hope of finding “models for lifting contemporary Hungarian economic, social and political life out of its comparatively backward state”. Reading and hearing about Daniel O’Connell and his struggle for Catholic emancipation had first inspired Eötvös’s interest in Ireland. As someone with liberal views, in particular concerning religion, he viewed discrimination against Catholics as one of the root causes of the stark contrast in every social sense between Ireland and England. He applauds the advocacy of Daniel O’Connell’s oratory for making Europe aware of Westminster’s hatred for Catholicism and, as he sees it, constitutional tyranny. England, while being viewed by the world as “great” and upholding the rights of man, was now “trembling before the country she has enslaved”.

From the Giant’s Causeway to the Lakes of Killarney (Eötvös clearly followed the tourist route, even then), suffering for workers was general everywhere. His account is no travelogue and personal observations rarely intrude. Rather, Eötvös has absorbed all the contemporary accounts, the laws and commissioners’ reports, and draws his own conclusions with the benefit of having witnessed the country for himself. Fellow Hungarian moderate Agoston Trefort, accompanied him. Trefort was a “centrist” in the Hungarian parliament and like Eötvös went on to become an education minister (and later brother-in-law to Eötvös).

Fundamental to Eötvös’s understanding of Ireland is how it treats its poor and the conditions regulating ownership and use of land. For him there was no comparison between the poor of England and of Ireland. In England the Poor Act had raised £7.5 million and was meant to be spent on temporary paupers and while he acknowledged the severity of the Vagrancy Act – which made it an offence to be found begging or “wandering abroad” – England was after all “a land of factories, and so cannot do without the poor”. Poverty in England, Eötvös concludes, is like “a sine qua non condition of her wealth”.

By contrast, “In Ireland, the poor are not helped by anyone”. Despite being under the same rule, land ownership in Ireland was divided among the fewest people in all of Europe. And upon the tiny plots he breaks down the categories to small farmers, cottiers and day-labourers. All three classes had to live on leased land from tiny plots to a few acres; all were subject to extortionate rents or rents in lieu of labour, that rarely a year’s crop could meet.

That is why … two pounds can be bid for a hut, the building of which did not cost more than 6–7 pounds and which no one would believe could be inhabited by humans were it not for the sight of half-naked children sitting before it, the smoke billowing through the chimneyless roof, and the half-foot-wide window plugged with rags.

Consequently, for most plot and hovel rents to be paid, a tenant would have to hand over most of the harvest and a considerable sum on top of that. Despite the extortion, there was no shortage of takers; a Mr Birmingham of Galway (The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the State of the Poor in Ireland, 1834) states that, if he let it be known that he had a farm of five acres to lease, he’d have fifty bidders within a day, willing to pay any price he demanded.

In Waterford, Eötvös cites HD Inglis (A Journey Throughout Ireland, During the Spring, Summer and Autumn of 1834), who found up to £7 per acre being paid for smallholdings, an astronomical sum for its time, and that potatoes formed the diet “with occasionally the back bone of a pig”. To make matter worse, most leases were taken through middlemen, who profiteered from each transaction as land was divided up into yet smaller and smaller portions. Invariably the smallest tenant had no idea who owned the land they tilled.

The cotter was significantly worse off than a small farmer working for payment of his lease, and therefore his work was costed at less value. A typical example was eighty days’ labour for the rent of a filthy cabin on an acre. Life therefore was no better than for an indentured slave. Eötvös records that even serfs in his own country (whom he later campaigned for) were much better off than the poor in Ireland.

Even the variety of potato eaten, “the lumper” – grown for its “fecundity” – was of such poor quality that it was given to cattle elsewhere. It also rotted more quickly and consequently the poor went hungry for weeks every year between diminishing stocks rotting and new potatoes being harvested. Children stayed at the breast for up to three or four years due to the lack of food. During these “hungry months” he attributes general lawlessness to lacking food or rights in relation to leased land, or revenge for eviction. Such was the universal and abject misery, Eötvös records, that “agrarian crimes”; a term then specific only to Ireland, was on the rise, with societies such as the “Whiteboys” and “Friends of Captain Rock”.

Eötvös turns his attention to the Penal Laws, which he regards as a form of “preposterous persecution” over three centuries, contending that while the English did not force a Protestant education on children, the only other option for the people was to remain in ignorance . He lists the various cruelties and exclusions, from trade to property, including the well-known “Catholic on a horse worth more than five pounds”, where a Protestant could demand to buy it on the spot. But for sheer pettiness the prize was taken by the law whereby a Catholic could not receive a present from a Protestant. It was as if, Eötvös wrote, every barrier was put in place so that “friendship and obligation might never develop between them”. He cites Edmund Burke on the same laws: “You abhorred it, as I did, for its vicious perfection.”

Quoting from Arthur Young, he concurs that the situation in Ireland is one of fictione juris – “legal fiction” – in the minds and deeds of its oppressors and therefore the rights of its citizens. The best justification for a tyrant is to assert that the people he oppresses are “unfit for freedom” and degenerate. Having promulgated that degeneracy, religion was a useful admixture. “A noble and magnanimous British people would not have tolerated the oppression of a brother nation [Ireland]; that was why an impenetrable wall had to be built based on religious rather than ethnic differences; the former are more divisive.”

Eötvös closes with a recommendation that only through reforms, decent legislation and justice would these inequalities begin to be removed, especially among the poor and landless. These reforms were tempered by Eötvös’s passionate and “deep-seated classical liberal beliefs”.

Poverty in Ireland is both an extraordinary account and and indictment of the most calculating subjugation and oppression, the full extent of which would reveal itself in less than a decade later with the catastrophe of the Great Irish Famine. John Mitchel later made the distinction that “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.” Baron Eötvös evidenced the latter with frightening prescience.


Joseph Woods is a poet



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