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The political and religious geography of the island remains, and to all appearance is destined to remain, as immutable as its physical configuration. But the social and economic maps happily exhibit no inconsiderable readjustment of important features, and bid fair to mark ere long a complete transformation in the material welfare of its people.
For although, as we have already admitted, the attitude of the average Irish elector in regard to imperial questions remains unshaken and unchanged, in spite of manifestations which, superficially regarded, might seem to denote an abandonment of the old animosities, and a readiness to forget the old wrongs, we think that those who look below the surface will find that, while the conventional hostility to England is maintained as sturdily as ever, while rival journals and politicians, competing for popular support, find it necessary to assert on every seasonable opportunity, and even upon occasions which most people would regard as unseasonable, their inveterate antagonism to Great Britain, not a few currents of Irish life are trending in a different direction and tending to assuage the bitterness of traditional hatreds in the mass of the people. The patient solicitude which has been shown by a succession of statesmen in recent years to get to the root of the chronic discontent of Ireland, joined to the slow-moving but powerful effects of modern legislation, is beginning to produce its natural fruits. The process which Mr. Gerald Balfour at the outset of his Chief Secretaryship was so unfortunate as to designate as killing Home Rule with kindness, is indeed likely to be a longer one than he anticipated before he had acquired those lessons which his five years' experience of Irish administration must have taught him as to the hopelessness of inducing the majority of Irishmen to abandon their party shibboleths or to surrender their conventional nationalism. But it is none the less true that the people generally are becoming more and more penetrated every year with the conviction that the connexion with Great Britain is not without advantages too material to be lightly jeopardised. And though no formal admission to that effect is likely to be made by the representatives of the electors, the people themselves are more ready than formerly to recognise that, whatever their defects in point of sympathy and comprehension, the rulers of Ireland, irrespective of political parties, have been animated by a sincere desire to do justice among Irishmen, and to seek the advancement of Ireland as the one end of their statesmanship.
To bring about this calmer and more reasonable spirit many causes have combined. Some of these may be found in the gradual effects of the legislation of the last forty years, which has undoubtedly served to raise the standard of comfort and to augment the means of providing it among all ranks of the people; some in the enhanced prosperity which has been secured for the bulk of the existing population by the gradual reduction of its numbers to the point which the country is capable of maintaining; and some in the brighter prospects of material developement which have been opened to the people by the combined efforts of public and private enterprise to utilise the dormant resources of the country. It is our purpose in the present article to indicate, so far as is possible in a brief survey, the scope and character of the various influences which have been thus working together to effect that permanent amelioration of the conditions of Irish life which has undoubtedly characterised the recent history of Ireland.
In noticing the changes which have been wrought in Ireland within the last forty years, a conspicuous, if not the first, place must unquestionably be given, in the sphere of social legislation, to the long series of enactments which form what is known as the Irish Land Code. Perhaps no body of laws has ever been the object of more sustained or more vehement criticism from mutually contradictory standpoints; and certainly never before in the history of Great Britain has legislative sanction been given to a sequence of measures which conflicted in so marked a manner with the general spirit of English law. But the time for controversy over the principles of Irish agrarian legislation bas long passed by. Apologised for by one party and denounced by the other, they have been adopted by both; repudiated at every stage by the representatives of the class they were designed to appease, as palliatives wholly inadequate to remedy the ills to which they were applied, they have been embraced by the vast body of the Irish tenantry, with the result that, directly or indirectly, almost the whole of the agricultural land of Ireland may now be said to be held or occupied under or by virtue of its provisions. The results which the legislation has effected are certainly not the results which those primarily responsible for the Land Acts professed to anticipate. That it has placed the relations of landlord and tenant in Ireland upon the basis of mutual goodwill and good feeling, no indifferent observer who has been a spectator of the proceedings in an Irish land court
will for a moment venture to assert. That it has been productive of grave hardship, and has inflicted an irremediable legal wrong upon large numbers of innocent persons dependent on incomes derived from land, it is impossible to deny. But it is not less true that, speaking broadly, the Irish Land Acts have achieved, though in a manner widely different from that intended by their authors, one, at least, of the objects for which they were designed. They have effectually killed Irish agrarian agitation in the sense which that expression denoted forty years ago. To say this is not to say that legislative finality has been reached, or that Parliament is unlikely in the future to be troubled with proposals for extending the scope and provisions of these Acts. By no means. It is less than five years since the last great addition to the Code occupied a chief place in the labours of the parliamentary session. Scarcely a year has passed since then without suggestions in one form or another for further modification or extension of the principles and provisions of these Acts. And although some considerable time will probably elapse before any Cabinet consents to promulgate a fresh Land Bill, it is as certain as anything in the legislative and political future can ever be deemed, that further provision will sooner or later be made to facilitate the acquirement of the absolute ownership of their holdings by the present occupiers.
But while it is undoubtedly true that the evolution of agrarian legislation has not yet reached its final stage, it is equally true that the Land Acts have wrought a profound change in the condition of the Irish peasantry, and that however loudly politicians may complain of the alleged insufficiency of the Code, however keen the criticism alike from landlord and tenant of the competence and impartiality of the tribunals by which the Acts are administered, agitation on the part of the tenantry has, upon the whole, given way to acceptance, while the murmurs of the landowners are slowly giving place to sombre acquiescence. Any one who has the curiosity to turn back to the voluminous literature of Irish grievances of thirty years ago, or to the parallel records of Irish crime, will be surprised to find to how large an extent the suggestions and even the ideals of those who were then considered the most extreme reformers have been adopted or realised by legislation, an how absolutely the old excuses for criminality have disappeared. The memories are unhappily still recent of the outages which, however revolting in themselves, however unprovoked by those who suffered from them, had their origin in an atmosphere of prejudice and agitation which the legislation of the last quarter of the dying century has rendered impossible for the future by removing every shadow of a pretext for complaint. We are not here concerned to criticise the objects or the methods of the United Irish League, or to discuss the action (or inaction) of the Irish Government with relation to that body. But it is instructive to note that, while according to the language of the founders of the League the Irish tenant is still exposed to the oppressions of a grinding tyranny, the people, whose rights it professes to advocate, have hitherto given it but a small measure of dubious and hesitating support. The comparative failure of this new propaganda to attract any large number of disciples by the mere appeal to agrarian cupidity as distinguished from political advantage is eloquent of the practical contentment of the people with the results of legislation.
Of causes less directly related to politics which have profoundly modified the condition of the people in the last forty years, perhaps the most important has been the growth of railway communication. That the Irish railway system leaves much to be desired the frequent demands for a system of State management sufficiently indicate, and the private bill proceedings at Westminster of recent years have too often borne testimony to the extent and seriousness of the deficiencies which have hampered its developement. But in the extended period we are surveying, the defects so much complained of bear only a very small relation to the magnitude of the improvement which has been steadily, if slowly, effected, and by which the habits of the people have been profoundly modified. At the time of the Queen's last visit little more than fourteen hundred miles of railroad were open for traffic, and, roughly speaking, railway locomotion was confined to the great trunk lines from Dublin to the provincial centres. There is now a mileage of much more than double that extent, which reaches to every extremity of the island, so that whereas ten years ago many important districts were separated by fifty or sixty miles from the nearest station, there is now scarce a single town which is more than thirty miles from one. This extension has been mainly due to the initiative of Mr. Arthur Balfour, who, seeing the importance of developing the remoter districts of the north, south, and west, and as a complement to the policy which is embodied in his Congested Districts Board Act, of which we shall have a word to say presently, encouraged the extension of the trunk lines by State grants, thus enabling the railway companies to undertake developements from which they had previously shrunk as unremunerative. The more remote districts of Donegal in the north-west, of Mayo and Galway in the west, and of Kerry in the south-west, have thus been brought within easy reach of Dublin; and Achill, Connemara, and other picturesque resorts have been rendered accessible to the tourist.
The result is seen on all sides in the fast changing condition of the people of these districts. However much the seekers after the picturesque may deplore the inevitable effect of these increased facilities for intercommunication between the centre of the three kingdoms and their extremities, whether in the matter of costume or of language, the loss must be held to be more than compen. sated by the material benefit to the poor people, to whom many of the cheap conveniences of modern life are now accessible, and who are provided with readier and more profitable markets for the produce of their industry and of the natural resources of their districts. It is indeed not without a pang that the traveller in the far west finds that, save in the case of a few survivors of a past generation, the old frieze costume of the Irish peasant, with its knee-breeches, swallow-tailed coat, and high hat, has given place to the fustian and felt of Manchester and Leeds; or that the student of folklore seeks in vain in all but a very sinall and steadily dwindling number of districts for Irish-speaking children, who shall perpetuate the fast perishing traditions and legends of their Irish bearths. But it is impossible in Ireland, any more than in other countries, to defy the operations of an irresistible tendency. However much and sincerely we may deplore the triumph of a dull uniformity, no real well-wisher of the people would elect, if the choice were open, that they should surrender the comforts and advantages of advancing civilisation for the barren gratification of preserving the distinguishing traits of an earlier but less prosperous stage of national developement.
To say this is by no means to disapprove the movement for the preservation of the Irish language, which has recently been initiated, in so far, at least, as it seeks to secure greater facilities than are at present afforded for the teaching of Irish in the National schools, and thus to preserve the ancient language of Ireland as the spoken tongue in the districts where it still survives. Thanks largely to the passive indifference to and sometimes to the active discourage