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The Poor Man At His Gate

Enda O’Doherty writes: In 1831, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville and his friend Gustave de Beaumont set off for the United States on a government-sponsored mission to study the penitentiary system there. On his return he did furnish a report on prisons but the main fruit of his travels – he had been away for nine months – was to be the celebrated De la démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America), published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. Beaumont drew from his travels a study of slavery in the form of a novel, Marie, ou de l'Esclavage aux États-Unis (1835).


Tocqueville, who had become romantically involved with the Englishwoman Mary Motley, whom he married in 1836, visited England in 1833, where he was given introductions into radical political (high) society, and again in 1835. On this occasion, and again in the company of his friend Beaumont, he visited Ireland over two months in the summer. Some years later, in 1839, Gustave de Beaumont published his L’Irlande sociale, politique et religieuse (some twenty pages of the original were dedicated to praise of Daniel O’Connell). Beaumont, who visited Ireland for a second time in 1837, was obviously in little doubt, from what he had seen in the country or what he had later read, of what to make of Irish history. The first sentence of his historical introduction to L’Irlande sociale gives a foretaste of what is to come:

The dominion of the English in Ireland, from their invasion of the country in 1169, to the close of the last century, has been nothing but a tyranny.

Tocqueville, in the notes which he took in Ireland (and which were not published as a separate work in his lifetime) wrote of the care he was taking to listen to the view of all sides, or to be prepared to listen to the views of all sides. Nevertheless he seems to have ended up with rather similar conclusions to his friend’s about English rule, and particularly landlord rule, in Ireland. In an entry written at Cork on July 28th, 1835, he mentions that before leaving Dublin he had taken care to furnish himself with letters of introduction to representatives of all parties in Ireland, and in particular to ministers of the two chief religions.

In Tuam he had examined his letters and noted that two referred to a Catholic and Protestant minister in the same village not too far away. A great opportunity then to hear the same circumstances accounted for in possibly two quite different ways. Leaving behind his coach at the nearest significant settlement, Tocqueville walks into a valley where the only “road” is a semi-dried-up river bed, with on either side cabins made of mud whose walls are about the size of a man and whose thatched roofs have been so encroached upon over the years by grass as to make them difficult to distinguish visually from the surrounding hillsides.

Nearby he finds a group of five or six apparently able-bodied young men, lounging in the grass by the side of the stream. But the perhaps normal reaction of the scandalised (and privileged) outsider is suspended since, as Tocqueville remarks, he already knows enough of this troubled country to realise that God’s injunction to Adam that man must earn his bread by the sweat of his brow does not apply here: there is no work to be had. He is guided by a child to the home of the priest and welcomed there by a man “in the prime of life, with muscular limbs and skin burned by the sun”.

After a simple dinner of salmon and potatoes and a hastily made cake the priest takes Tocqueville with him on his evening visitations to parishioners. In a while they come back to the place where the visitor had first encountered the young men lying by the stream. The priest engages them in conversation, asking if they had not managed to get any (day) labour. No, one replies, we went to the farmer O’Croly as you suggested, but he has been put off his land by the landlord’s agent. A little further on the priest comments on what has just happened. “You’ve just seen men whose only desire is to work so that they can live, but they can’t do it. And when you think that in Ireland there are a million such, would you not agree with me that such a situation cannot long be tolerated?” Tocqueville remarks that he has heard that the Marquess of Sligo (Lord Altamont of the Browne family, at the time governor of Jamaica) had come home to furnish his house. Surely if he knew of the distress that obtained on his lands he would take steps to alleviate it?

Not a bit of it, the priest replies. The only ones who relieve the distress of the poor are other poor people. The lord takes his walks inside his vast domains surrounded by walls. There, everything is splendid but outside poverty howls. His servants make sure he will never see the poor, but if by any chance he does encounter them he will respond to their pleas: “I’m afraid I have made it a principle not to encourage mendicity.” I can understand perhaps, replies Tocqueville, that a great landowner living in the middle of a hostile population might not be moved to relieve distress, but you have in the country also a certain number of large Catholic landowners. Might they not set an example? “Not at all,” the priest replies. “Catholics and Protestants oppress the people in almost the same way. As soon as a Catholic becomes a substantial landowner he conceives for the interests of the people that same egotistical scorn which seems a natural property of the aristocracy, grabbing for himself, like those others, every means of self-enrichment at the expense of the poor.”

They come upon the schoolhouse and shortly after the priest remarks: “Forty years ago, sir, any Catholic who dared to give instruction to these poor children would have been severely punished ... you have no idea of the enthusiasm with which these unfortunates will grasp at education if they are furnished with the means. The generation which is coming will not be like those we see now: that is our hope for the future.” Tocqueville asks if this welcome advance of civilisation might not however be accompanied by a falling-off of religious faith. “We can’t admit that consequence,” the priest replies. “Religion rests on solid enough proofs for us not to be afraid of enlightenment ... Education is a vital need for Ireland today. The Protestants say that the Catholic population is half-barbarous, that it is ignorant and devoid of enterprise. That is partially true, but whose fault is it, sir?”

Tocqueville asks about the state schools which the government is starting to set up and which will be non-religious. Does the priest approve of these? Yes, he does, though for the moment the parish is too poor to make the required contribution to the setting up of such an institution. But does he not fear that education divorced from religious instruction could be more harmful than useful? No, the priest replies. “After school we have access to the children and it’s up to us to furnish them with religious instruction. School teaches them the basics of human knowledge, the Church teaches them their catechism. To each his own. Every method of teaching the people is good. Instruction is a vital need in Ireland.”

On the following day Tocqueville sets out to meet the Protestant clergyman and hear the other side of the story. But he does not appear to have found enough to interest him to expand his recollection of the visit much beyond fragmentary notes. The minister just back from a voyage to Italy undertaken for his health ... Inside the church, a stove, a carpet, pews, two or three landowners, a lot of servants ... a well-constructed sermon on moral obligations ... an allusion to Saint-Bartholomew (on the feast day of the saint in August 1572 thousands of Protestants were murdered in Paris) ... Tocqueville presents his letter of introduction and is brought to the minister’s house, where he is introduced to wife and daughter ... Regrettably, it being Sunday, the daughter cannot play for him on the piano ... regrets the absence of his son, who would have shown the visitor around the lord’s park, “where we are always welcome” ... broaching some of the subjects discussed on the previous day with the priest ... education: must be properly carried out ... literacy and newspapers ... can lead the people astray ... the need for an aristocracy, for a national church ... incapacity of the people in general for self-government, and in particular the Irish. Savages! ... Regrets he cannot offer me dinner as he is engaged to dine with the lord.

Going back up the hill towards the priest’s house and looking back down on the minister’s tidy house and garden and the large parkland of the lord surrounded by walls, Tocqueville reflects on what he has seen: “There, wealth, knowledge, power. Here, strength. And different words according to social position.” Where is the truth to be found, he asks himself. But one has the feeling he has almost made up his mind.

227/3/2019

The account is based on the edition of Tocqueville’s Voyages en Angleterre et en Irlande edited by JP Mayer and published by nrf/Gallimard in the series idées/gallimard in 1967. Image: Alexis de Tocqueville.