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rally paid in money; but in the western counties, the labourer or cottier gives a certain number of days' labour annually, in payment for the rent of the cabin in which he lives, and of a small plot of ground in which he grows potatoes for the support of his family. His pig and poultry must provide clothing, and every thing consumed by the family which his potato-garden does not produce. Low as is the condition of the cottier or labourer, whose labour merely pays the rent of his cabin and potato-garden, there is yet a lower class; those who, having no certain employment, are obliged to pay a money rent for their wretched cabin, and for the land which they take in con-acre,” and whose subsistence depends on the success of their crop. If it fail, they have no resource ; their bed or whatever they have is probably distrained for the rent; nothing remains. There is so little employment to be had, that they have no alternative but to beg, or steal, or starve. “These appear to be the most wretched among the many wretched classes in Ireland.”f The labourers who go annually to reap the harvest in England, and in the eastern parts of Ireland, are mostly of this class; and their earnings during this season of employment pay the rent of their cabin and con-acre, and assistin clothing them. Their numbers have been annually increasing by improvident marriages; and the very small demand for labour appears to render their condition hopeless. There are no means of ascertaining exactly the number of persons who were dependant on conacre potatoes for their support; but it must have formed a large portion of the population of all the western counties, and was not inconsiderable even in the eastern counties of Leinster and Ulster. Perhaps it may be estimated at 2,000,000. The editor of the Digest of the Evidence on the Occupation of Land, thus remarks respecting the labouring population —“The means of subsistence “of the various classes of labourers in Ireland “ have long been an enigma, even to those investi“gators who have given the greatest degree of “attention to the subject. There is one fact, how“ever, that all readily admit ; namely, that the “continued existence from year to year of this “large portion of the population, mainly depended “on the potato, which is no longer available to “ them ; and consequently, a distinct provision “must now be made for their future support, with“out reference to former habits or practices. “There are but two alternatives by which this “object can be accomplished. 1st. Gratuitous re“lief to the families of able-bodied labourers, “which, if extensively adopted, must produce ruin “to all classes in Ireland, and great loss to the “nation at large, 2nd. A broad principle of “ permanent improvement of the lands, which are “capable of affording ample employment for some “years to all the labouring classes.”
* The term con-acre means a contract for the use of a small portion of land for one or more crops. It does not constitute a tenancy, or give any right of possession, but is merely a liberty to occupy the ground.—See Appendix AA.
f Digest of Evidence, part I. page 475.
First appearance of disease in the Potato in 1845–Alarm then excited— Destruction of the crop in 1846—Estimate of the loss—Peasantry reduced to destitution—Distress of the manufacturing and civic population—Subsequent famine and disease—All classes affected by this calamity.
In the autumn of 1845 the potato crop first appeared diseased. Some were discoloured or partially rotten when dug out; others rotted in the pits where they were stored. They were dug out apparently healthy, and in a few weeks a large proportion were unsound. The sudden decay of an important article of food, in a manner so unexpected, surprised and alarmed us. Various were the reports. The whole crop was believed to be decaying, and many feared that before spring there would not be a potato left even for seed. It was said that the disease was extending to other vegetables, that the turnips were infected, that there were alarming appearances in the wheat. The minds of men were unsettled by a calamity for which none could account. A government commission was appointed to investigate the subF
ject, to inquire into the nature and extent of the injury, and if possible ascertain its cause, and discover a remedy which might preserve those still uninjured. Their labours produced no result. Various suggestions were made, and several experiments were tried, but they only served to show the extent of human ignorance. The cause and the remedy remained alike unknown. Meanwhile the disease appeared stayed, no one could say how. Potatoes were scarce and dear, and many were decayed, but still there were potatoes during the spring and summer, and even the poorest cottiers managed to get enough for seed. The partial failure in many places, and the increased price, caused considerable distress. Liberal subscriptions were raised to employ the poor, and thus support them until the new crop came in. The summer of 1845 had been cold. It was said that there had been frosts at night, and to this cause some attributed the injury to the potato crop. The summer of 1846, on the contrary, was unusually warm. The wheat appeared particularly fine. The appearance of the potatoes was most favorable, when suddenly they seemed blasted, as if by lightning. The leaves withered, the stalks became bare and black, the whole plant was dead, while the tubers were in many places scarcely formed, and in no part of the country were the late