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Chapter Nine

British Labor from 1800 to 1850

We will now backtrack in time and review the story of British Labor and Industrial Revolution. We do this in order to understand why the Irish, who had every reason to detest the English, still found it necessary to go to England to work in order to live. Some ideas can be seen as we relate a few excerpts of the condition of labor at this period of history.

The English population was 10 million in 1790. From 1811 to 1813 they had the Luddite crisis. In 1817, there was the Pentridge uprising, followed in 1819 by Trade Union activity, the Owenite crisis. From 1831 to 1832 there were multiple movements which made up Chartism, called Union Labor. Cotton mills became the agent of the Industrial and Social Revolution. Cotton mills were barrack-like buildings with mill chimneys, factory children, clogs and shawls, and dwellings cloistered around mills with harsh discipline. The mill worker was a minority of adult workers in the mill. Cotton hand loom weavers outnumbered the mill worker. The mass of workers crowded into small quarters. There was conflict between the aristocratic manufacturers and the landless, pauperized laborers. These people were simultaneously subjected to an intensification of economic exploitation and political oppression.

The master was supreme over the worker. From 1800 to 1820 children, six years of age, worked from 5 AM to 9 PM. Their food was gruel, oatcake, water, milk potatoes, and bits of bacon fat. The factories were eight stories high, with 600 people in a factory. In 1818 the steam engine enabled the mill to do all the jobs which formally were parceled out to wives and children at home as piece meal work for wages.

In 1830 there began agitation concerning wages. From 1821 through 1822 in Ireland there were successive failures of the potato crop. This drove many to permanent migration in England. From 1829 to 1830, mass evictions of peasant freeholders swelled the numbers traveling crowded boats to Liverpool. The more fortunate, who could save the passage money, traveled to Canada and America from 1830 through 1840. This is why we find the families of Kilmartin’s, Neary’s, and others moving to Leeds, Bradford, and North Bierly. Other families like the Driscoll’s, Guiry’s, and the Donegan’s were moving to America. There was a need for men to perform heavy manual labor in mines. The base of the industrial society required an excess of physical energy. Irish labor was cheep and had been demoralized in Ireland by a sub-standard economy and by conacre, the dividing of the land of a family into smaller holdings. This forced too many people to work small pieces of land. They had acquired a reputation of fickleness, as energy was no asset in Ireland. A good tenant was penalized by doubling the rent. In England, the Irish did astonishing feats, they persevered in the severest, most irksome, most disagreeable kind of rugged labor. The Irish would work anywhere, anytime, and captured all the lowest levels of manual labor. We find out that this is what happened in America during the heavy flow of Irish to New York.

The most enduring cultural traditions, which the Irish peasantry brought to England, was that of a semi-feudal nationalistic church, their Catholic faith. From 1838 to 1843 in Ireland land eviction by landlords was at its peek. This was the prime cause for the flood of Irish paupers into English factories. They worked at reduced wages, which threatened the standards of living of the low paid English worker. So followed the substitution of the potato economy of Ireland for the bread economy of England, with unwholesome consequences. Conditions were so bad in Ireland that the Poor Law was passed in 1838. The law called for the building of poor houses for the poorest peasants. England, because of its total control of Ireland, had to take care of the Irish when they came to England under full citizens rights. If we added all these circumstances together and pour on the impossible conditions created by the Potato Famine, from 1845 through 1847, we can clearly understand why Thomas Kilmartin, along with milions of others, tried to escape to America. With the help of those who had already reached America of Canada, the time was ripe.

I will not try to write any of the details of the Great Famine, but I do recommend that everyone read a remarkable book called "The Great Hunger," written by a woman named Cecil Woodham-Smith, published by Harper & Row of New York. The book describes, in great detail and vivid fashion, the ultimate suffering placed on the Irish after 150 years of suppression of any semblance of liberty by the British government. The character of the Irish was forged in this cesspool of disease, repression, and the memory of over two million deaths.

Chapter 10

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