What the Tenant claims

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER II (7) start of chapter

The Irish demand, during the existence of its Tenant League, never went beyond 'fixity of tenure,' possession of the land by the tenant so long as he fulfilled his primary obligation of paying his stipulated rent.

Struck by the similarity of the name, I enquired of an intelligent friend what were the exact objects of the colonial organisation.

'Oh,' replied my friend, 'it was a combination to get rid of rent: the people here don't like the notion of paying rent; they are not satisfied until they have the land in their own possession.' The answer was calculated to put my moderate opinions to the blush.

'Then I suppose the rents are rather oppressive? What are they on the average?'

'As for that, the rent is but a shilling an acre.'

'A what?' said I.

'A shilling an acre—yes, a shilling an acre,' was the tranquil reply, made as much in answer to my stare of astonishment as to the exclamation with which it was accompanied.

'Why how, in the name of common sense, could anyone object to such a rent as that—a rent inconceivably small to one coming from a country where the rent per acre is twenty times, thirty times, even fifty times, nay, in some instances, nearly one hundred times greater?'

'Well, as compared to rents in the old country, it is no doubt low; but you see the tenants took the land in its wilderness state, and they had to do everything to it to make it what it now is. And the rent, small as it may appear to you—5l. the 100 acres—comes heavy enough; and when there are arrears falling due besides, it is a serious thing, I can tell you. But small or large, our people have an aversion to paying rent; they want to have the land their own, and they are willing to pay a fair price for it too.'

A shilling an acre! I could scarcely realise to my mind the idea of this being a burden, or its payment a grievance; still to many the burden was felt to be intolerable, and the grievance one of real magnitude. And, as the strangest confirmation of the existence of this feeling, there is the policy of the leading public men of the colony, which is to free the actual cultivators from the obligation of rent-paying, by converting the occupying tenant into a fee-simple proprietor. Already much had been done in pursuance of this popular policy. Extensive properties—mostly held by absentees—had been purchased by the State, and resold to the occupiers on easy terms, ranging from 5s. to 10s. or 12s. per acre. The last great property thus purchased by the Government, with the view of being resold, belonged to the representatives of the late Sir Samuel Cunard. It consisted of 212,000 acres, partly reclaimed and partly in the wilderness state, and was sold for 53,000l. British money; the purchase money including a considerable sum in arrears, generously flung into the bargain, or indeed practically given up. There being no difference of opinion with respect to the policy of converting tenancy into fee-simple proprietorship, and the only dispute being as to the best or speediest mode by which this conversion can be accomplished, it is probable that a short time will be sufficient to bring about a satisfactory solution of the 'difficulty' which has its origin in the Land Question of Prince Edward Island.

If the claim to be released from the obligation of paying rent could in any case be regarded as fair and equitable, it would be so when urged by the cultivators of Prince Edward Island; as it was they, and they alone, who by their labour changed the whole face of the country, redeeming it from the forest which at no distant time covered the land from shore to shore. About one hundred years ago the island was parcelled out to about as many proprietors, on certain specified conditions, the principal of which was, to procure settlers, with a view to the cultivation of the soil and the population of the colony, and also to pay quit-rent to the Crown. These obligations, the conditions on which the estates were originally granted, were generally disregarded to such an extent, indeed, were they disregarded, that some forfeitures were made, and these forfeitures would have been extensively enforced had not the defaulting proprietors sufficient influence with the Home Government to retain their property, notwithstanding that they had failed in many and flagrant instances to redeem their part of the original compact. So little was done in the way of obtaining settlers, that at the commencement of the present century the population of the whole island did not exceed 6,000 souls; and it was not until the year 1830-35 that any extensive emigration from the United Kingdom took place. In 1832 the population was 32,000; it was 80,552 by the last census; and in 1866 it was rather triumphantly estimated at or near 90,000.

About two years since the anti-rent feeling resolved itself into an active organisation, having its centre in Charlottetown, the capital and seat of government. Who were its leaders, or by whom it was originated, is of little consequence to know. I have heard it stated that the Irish were not among its active promoters in the first instance, the English and Scotch settlers taking the lead. But the Irish were soon drawn into the League, as they sympathised heartily with its object, which was not so much to abolish the payment of rent, as to compel the proprietors to sell their estates on fair terms. Passive resistance was eventually adopted in certain districts, the representatives of the civil power being coolly set at defiance, or rather laughed at by the sturdy colonists. Seeing the inability of the civil force to cope with what a prosecuting crown lawyer would describe as 'a conspiracy against property at once wide-spread and formidable,' it was deemed advisable to send to the mainland for two companies of infantry, there not then being a single soldier in the colony. Backed by this armed force, the law was vindicated, a few individuals being made the victims of their bold resistance, or legal indiscretion. The Tenant League came to an end; but as proof that the feeling in which it had its origin was still potent, inasmuch as it really represented the universal sentiment of the colony, an extract or two from the public records may be useful.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

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