West Gippsland Gazette – 19 Nov 1912



    Every summer thousands of Irish farmers and farmers’ sons and daughters take cheap tickets in the steerage of the English and Scottish boatsa special harvester’s ticket brings you from the County of Mayo to England for a few shillingsand set out in search of labor in British fields. That is the way in which they earn the money for the year’s rent and the year’s bills. They can make more as agricultural laborers in England than as farmers in Ireland. They keep their farms, not as a business, but as it poor man’s estate.
    It has been estimated that there are about 200,000 “uneconomic holdings” in Ireland. Many of these, of course, are kept going by remittances from America. Many struggle along without any outside help at all. In Mayo and Donegal the peasants make ends meet by hiring themselves out as laborers to British farmers. Only a few years ago it was calculated that more than one-third of the adult male population of Mayo annually crossed to Great Britain for a spell of summer work. “It is a well-known fact,” says M. Paul-Dubois, the ablest Continental student of contemporary Ireland, “that throughout the summer there is not an able-bodied man under sixty years of age to found in the island of Achill.” Even if this is an exaggeration, it is an exaggeration that expresses the truth.


    This migration, this habit of summer exile, is an old one in Ireland. As long ago as 1735 it was commented on by Bishop Berkeley. Lecky is quoted by M. Paul-Dubois as recording how, towards the end of the eighteenth century, at certain times in the year, gangs of half-naked peasants could be seen on the roads setting out on a two-hundred mile tramp on their way to the English harvest. In those days the men were collected by labor agents called “Spalpeen brokers,” who took them over to England in droves, and incidentally “pocketed the greater part of their wages, and worked them as few West Indian planters would have worked their negroes.”
    Even to-day the gang system still obtains among the migrants from Achill. The chill laborers hire themselves outin groups or “squads,” as they are called, for the season. But the “spalpen broker”“spalpeen, by the way, is an Irish word originally meaning “a man with a scythe”has disappeared. Nowadays, when the “squad” consists of women workers, the gaffer is usually an elderly male relative of one of the women. But the procession of these squads of Achill women from their homes along the roads to the station of departure in as picturesque a sight as ever was any gang under the harsh eye of the “spalpeen broker.” “The girls,” Mr Stephen Gwynn tells us in one of his essays, “go off together with cheap tickets by a particular train, and they come down to Achill Sound on strings of ponies, every pony carrying two red-skirted girls and their little bundles of clothes.”


    It Is practically only from Connachtand Ulsterchiefly from the counties of Mayo and Donegalthat these summer workers come. From Achill and Donegal they go chiefly to the southern counties of Scotland. From the rest of Connacht many of them set out on a long itinerary through England, beginning with work in the hay fields of Lancashire, passing on into Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire for the corn-harvest and ending the year’s work in the potato and turnip fields of Warwickshire and Cheshire. That these migratory laborers are no idlers at their work, as those who defame Ireland either out of ignorance or from political prejudice have so long painted Irish men and women, is shown by the evidence of Mr Munro Ferguson, in whose part of Scotland is a great deal of the agricultural labor is performed by workers from Ireland. ‘They are the best workers we know,” he affirms. ” . . . we are supposed to work fairly hard in Scotland, but I heard one of my best tenants say that he liked to have one or two Irishmen about him to keep his men up to the mark.
    “The tragedy is that so badly has Irish life been disorganised by landlordism and external government that the remorseless industry of the Irish people has never been able to find a proper outlet at home. Happily, the exodus of Irish workers from their own farms becomes every year smaller. In 1841 the number was 57,651. In 1906 it had gone down to about 25,000. In 1910 it was only 10,225. This diminution is partly due to the more widespread use of agricultural machinery in place of manual labor. But probably the improvement in the Irish land system has something to do with It. And I am sure that old age pensions must now be helping a good many peasants’ families to hold together and work the home farm instead of flying off to make the year’s income in England. Of the 10,225 migratory laborers of 1910, it is true, there were 7789 who did not themselves hold any land, but of the latter number 5957 were farmers’ sons and daughters.


    A Government report estimates the savings brought back by the harvesters to Ireland in 1910 as 200,000. Many of the Donegal men, it is said, save from10 to 15 and up to 20 in the season, and the Connacht man can save from 15 to 20 out of his earnings in a seven or eight months’ season in England. Naturally, in a society in which wealth only makes its appearance once in the year, the shopkeepers have to give long credit, and the gombeen man, or money-lending type of shopkeeper, flourishes in Connacht and Donegal. He is not always, however, the heartless extortioner he is painted by those who judge him by extreme cases. At the same time, a system which compels, whole country-sides of poor people to sink ever deeper into debt for the greater part of the year can only result in demoralisation. One cannot but be astonished at the way in which, in spite of the constant intercourse with England and Scotland, the peasants of Mayo and Donegal have retained their national characteristicsincluding costume, song, and speech. One hears even of a girl who had worked in England for ten consecutive summers and who had not yet learned a word of English. On the other hand, a friend of mine met an Irish-speaking man in Achill a year or two ago who had picked up English during his summer work in Lancashire, with the result that he spoke it, not with a brogue, but with a Lancashire accent. During the winter months the people return to their old speech and their old ways (with, perhaps, something added from the English music halls). There is no other part of the country where the fiddlers are kept so busy during the long, dark evenings playing reels and jigs for the dancers on the earth and stones of the cottage floors.

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