HL Deb 19 June 1848 vol 99 cc796-800

, before putting the question of which he had given notice relative to the discontinuance of the drainage works in the county of Cavan, and the dismissal of the labourers employed thereon, wished to make a few prefatory remarks. Their Lordships were aware that during the last few years very extensive schemes of drainage had been set on foot in Ireland. One of these was connected with the drainage of the rivers tributary to the Erne, in the north of Ireland. This work extended nearly thirty miles in the county of Cavan, and had given employment to 3,500 persons. It was strictly of a reproductive character. It was a grand national object, intended to connect that part of the country with Belfast to the north, through the Ulster canal; and, through the Shannon, with Limerick to the south, and calculated to drain 30,000 acres of land, flooded, on the average, during eight months in the year. He regretted to state that on Saturday, the 10th inst., the Board of Works issued an order, through their officers, that the works upon seven of the tributary streams should be stopped, and the consequence was that upwards of 2,000 persons, without one moment's notice, had been dismissed from their employment. He was unwilling to trespass long on their Lordships' attention, but could not avoid making one or two remarks on this most appalling subject. In the first place, he must observe that the character of the works on which these poor men were engaged was highly reproductive. The Government, by laying out the money in the first instance, would have had the money repaid to them by instalments. This was, too, the best time of the year, as their Lordships were aware, for persons employed in such works. They had to remove obstructions in rivers, to cut canals in low lands, which at other seasons of the year were flooded. But the most important feature in the case, and that which induced him to bring the matter before their Lordships in the most forcible manner, was the circumstance of the peculiar time at which the dismissal of so large a number of men had taken place. This was the time of the year when even, under ordinary circumstances (and when they were not sub- jected to the destitution and distress from which the people had suffered for two years, and by which they had been overwhelmed), it was most difficult to obtain employment—namely, between the sowing season and the harvest; the time between April and August. For labourers or small farmers it was most difficult in all years, but now impossible, to obtain livelihood in these months. There was, however, another circumstance which rendered the dismissal of these persons at the present moment a most cruel act. Their Lordships would scarcely credit him when he stated, that since the 12th of December last two rates, one of 5s., and the other of 3s. 4d., had been struck in the poor-law union of Cavan; making altogether a poor-law rating of 8s. 4d. within five months upon a most distressed and impoverished district. Now, if the persons to whom he had alluded were thrown wholly out of employment, where were they to look for a subsistence? Landed property is already completely overwhelmed with the operation of the present poor-law system; and he would ask how a third rate could by possibility be enforced, for the maintenance of the men thus suddenly and cruelly dismissed from the works, and for the support of their families? In all years, it is most difficult for the tenant to pay his rent during the spring half year; but at the present period the farmer has neither crops nor cattle to meet this demand, and his utter inability to bear the superadded weight of increased poor-rates must be apparent to all. The landed proprietor feels, too, most severely the unequal pressure of this burthen; which, if it continues unchecked, must produce the necessary result of his diminishing his staff of labour, and thus tend to add a still greater accumulation to the mass of misery to which there is now no means of giving adequate relief. These persons, forming so large a body, being thrown out of employ, they could not look to another rate being made in addition to the two rates already struck. But he much feared that, impoverished as the country was, from the highest to the lowest or humblest classes, it would be utterly impossible to raise even the rate which had been last made. How these men were to subsist he could not tell. They could not starve; and here, perhaps, he might be excused if he told their Lordships what was the character of these men. They had invariably conducted themselves as honest, industrious, and peaceful men— as the lower orders of the Irish always do, when they have got employment, and are not made the tools of designing agitators. He was himself constantly resident in this part of the country, and had watched the conduct of the men engaged in this employment. They had carried the statement of their grievances to him, thinking that he had the power—as he had the wish, certainly—to restore them to their work. Six hundred of these unfortunate but deserving men, being one-fourth of the whole number, had memorialised himself and also other landed proprietors. With the permission of the House, he would read the memorial to their Lordships:— They were supporting families to the amount of 2,500 persons; that they were now, in consequence of the drainage works being stopped, thrown idle, and their families left in a state of the most extreme destitution, there being no labour doing in the country, and they being denied relief from the poor-law guardians. The petitioners appealed to the engineer under whom they worked to show that they were ever willing to earn support for their families at any rate of wages he gave them, and that while employed they conducted themselves in the most peaceable manner, not minding the politics that were talked of, and living free from the disturbances that often occurred on such works. Under these circumstances, the memorialists begged him (Lord Farnham) and the other gentry of the place to use their influence, which they had always been ready to do in the cause of charity, to have the drainage works continued at least through the next three months, that the petitioners might be able to save their families from death by starvation, which was inevitable if some employment was not afforded. To this memorial a statement was appended, signed by the Lord Bishop of Kilmore and the resident magistrates of the district, stating that "the sudden dismissal of so many persons is an act of great hardship, and will necessarily be attended with great distress." In conclusion, the noble Lord said, he had every confidence that the case which he had laid before their Lordships would meet with the favourable consideration of the noble Marquess opposite, and of his noble Friend at the head of the Irish Government, and he knew they would do all they could to raise money to continue in employment the full number of those unfortunate but deserving men. He might further state, that during the whole time these men had been employed on the public works, there had not been brought to the sessions a single case of any individual having stolen a farthing's worth of property of any description; no person had committed the slightest outrage, no mis- chief had ever been done to the property of any gentlemen or farmers through whose lands these works ran. He could not answer for the consequence to these men and their families if they should not be restored to their employment. It was unreasonable to expect that men, wasted by disease themselves, and seeing their wives and children dying of starvation, fever, or dysentery, could submit to such misery without a murmur. He greatly feared, from this wholesale dismissal of the labourers, serious consequences to the peace of the country. Many of them had been earning from 2½d. to 6d. a day, having strength and inclination to work at any price. But if they should be overtaken by famine and fever, they would no longer be able to work, and must perish. He would call upon the Government, in the strongest possible terms, to advance the money required to continue these works, which, as he had before stated, could not fail to be highly reproductive. The money would be sooner or later indispensably required. If the Treasury could not command it, it would be better for them to raise it at once. It would be far better, on every account, to provide the necessary sum for carrying on immediately the whole of the works which had been suspended, and giving employment in reproductive labour to a large class of people, able and willing to work—having their strength unwasted and their energies unimpaired—than to be obliged hereafter to dole out a still larger sum in aid of oppressive and overwhelming poor-rates, which it would be useless to impose, because impossible to collect them from a wretched and distressed population, their bodies wasted by disease, and their minds filled with discontent, and embittered by the miseries they had suffered. Should Government accede to his request, he would venture to insure to them that reward which, next to the approbation of their own consciences, would prove most valuable to them—the thanks of a suffering, a relieved, and a grateful class of people. He would now put the questions of which he had given notice:—"1. Whether the Government have received any information respecting the discontinuance of the works under the Drainage Act in the county of Cavan, and the dismissal, by order of the Board of Works, of the labourers employed in them; and whether such discontinuance of the drainage works is permanent, or merely temporary? 2. Whether the Board of Works have furnished the Government with their reasons for taking such a step? 3. Whether such order of the Board of Works was applicable to all parts of Ireland where similar works were in progress, or only enforced in particular localities; and, in the latter case, by what rules and principles the Board of Works were regulated, in making the selection?"


regretted that the answer he was about to give might not be altogether satisfactory to the noble Lord. This subject was undoubtedly one which must deeply interest their Lordships and the public, both from the nature of the works, which were of an eminently useful and reproductive character, and from the testimony which the noble Lord had so strongly borne to the character of the workmen employed upon them. It was with great regret that he (the Marquess of Lansdowne) had heard that these works were abandoned; but he begged to explain that that was no act of the Government. Those works did not come within the description of works authorised by the Land Improvement Act; but the Board of Works were authorised to carry them on so far as loans could be obtained for the purpose. The works were carried on partly by means of loans provided by individuals who were interested in the property to be benefited, or by persons who advanced money on speculation; partly by loans which were furnished by the Board of Works from the public funds to a certain extent, but not to an indefinite amount. He deeply regretted the exhaustion of the funds at this particular time; but it was not in the power of the Board of Works to apply any additional sums to the continuance of those works.