“The country was completely ruined by the English wars of conquest. . .” Engels on Ireland, May 1856

Depiction of Famine Ireland

In May 1856, less than a decade after the official end of the 1840s Famine, Frederick Engels and his partner Mary Burns visited Ireland, Burns’ homeland.  On May 23, Engels wrote the following letter to Karl Marx, his political co-worker, in London.  I’ve taken the text from Marx/Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow, Progress Publishers, third edition (1975), pp86-88.  I have slightly edited the translation to improve punctuation.  Also, I have replaced Traice with Tralee – I assume Traice is a mistake as there is no such town in Kerry, whereas Tralee is on the route between Tarbert and Killarney.  Lastly, I’ve broken up the paragraphs.

Dear Marx,

During our trip to Ireland we traveled from Dublin to Galway on the West Coast, then 20 miles north and inland, on to Limerick, down the Shannon to Tarbert, Tralee and Killarney, and back to Dublin – a total of about 450-500 English miles within the country itself, so we have seen about two-thirds of the whole country. With the exception of Dublin, which bear the same relation to London as Düsseldorf does to Berlin, and has quite the character of a small one-time capital.  It is, moreover, built entirely in the English style.  The look of the entire country, and especially of the towns, is as if one were in France or Northern Italy. Gendarmes, priests, lawyers, bureaucrats, country squires in pleasing profusion and a total absence of any industry at all, so that it would be difficult to understand what all these parasitic plants live on if the distress of the peasants did not supply the other half of the picture.

“Disciplinary measures” are evident in every corner of the country, the government meddles with everything, of so-called self-government there is not a trace.  Ireland may be regarded as the first English colony and as one which, because of its proximity, is still entirely governed in the old way, and one can already notice here that the so-called liberty of English citizens is based on the oppression of the colonies.  I have never seen so many gendarmes in any country, and the constabulary, who are armed with carbines, bayonets and handcuffs, have developed the Prussian gendarme’s alcoholic expression to its perfection.

Characteristic of this country are its ruins, the oldest dating from the fifth and sixth centuries, the latest from the nineteen – with every intervening period.  The most ancient are all churches; after 1100, churches and castles; after 1800, houses of peasants. The whole of the west, especially in the neighbourhood of Galway, is covered with decaying peasant houses, most of which have only been deserted since 1846.  I never thought that famine could have such tangible reality.  Whole villages are devastated, and in between lie the splendid parks of the lesser landlords, who are almost the only people still living there, lawyers mostly.

Famine, emigration and clearances together have accomplished this.  There are not even cattle to be seen in the fields.  The land is an utter desert which nobody wants.  In County Clare, south of Galway, it is somewhat better.  Here there are at least cattle, and the hills towards Limerick are excellently cultivated, mostly by Scottish farmers, the ruins have been cleared away and the country has a civilised appearance.  In the south-west, there are a lot of mountains and bogs but there is also wonderfully luxuriant forest land; beyond that again, fine pastures, especially in Tipperary, and towards Dublin there is land which, one can see, is gradually coming into the hands of big farmers.

The country was completely ruined by the English wars of conquest from 1100 to 1850 (for in effect both the wars and the state of siege lasted as long as that).  It has been established that most of the ruins were produced by destruction during the wars.  The population itself  has got its specific character from this, and with all their national Irish fanaticism, the fellows feel that they are no longer at home in their own country. Ireland for the Saxon!  That is now being put into practice.

The Irishman knows that he cannot compete with the Englishman, who comes equipped with means superior in every respect; emigration will go on until the predominantly, indeed almost exclusively, Celtic character of the population has disappeared.  How often have the Irish started out to achieve something, and every time they have been crushed, politically and industrially!  By consistent oppression, they have been artificially converted into an utterly impoverished nation and now, as everyone knows, fulfil the function of supplying England, America, Australia, etc., with prostitutes, casual labourers, pimps, pickpockets, swindlers, beggars and other rabble.

Debasement is also a characteristic feature of the aristocracy.  The landowners, who everywhere else have become bourgeoisified, are here completely impoverished.  Their country seats are surrounded by enormous, amazingly beautiful parks, but all around is wasteland, and it is impossible to see where the money is to come from. These fellows are too funny for words.  Of mixed blood, mostly tall, strong, handsome chaps, they all wear enormous moustaches under colossal Roman noses, give themselves the false military airs of retired colonels, travel around the country after all sorts of pleasures, and if one makes an inquiry, they haven’t a penny, are deep in debt, and live in dread of the Encumbered Estates Court.

Concerning the ways and means – repression and corruption – by which England has ruled this country long before Bonaparte attempted to do this, I shall write anon if you won’t come over soon. How about it?

Posted on February 25, 2019, in 1840s, Famine, Young Ireland & Irish Confederation, British state repression (general), Engels, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Ireland and British revolution, Ireland in 1800s, Marx, Political education and theory, Revolutionary figures, Social conditions. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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