Structural Problems

By the end of the century a model of sorts had been established to provide a foundation on which a more administratively sophisticated future could build. Responses to social problems in Ireland compared favourably with contemporary experience abroad. The willingness of governors and parliamentarians in a poor country to confront social problems positively, and not without courage, often placed them in the vanguard of humanitarian thinking.

However, circumstances increasingly beyond their control overwhelmed their intentions as the rise in population was unaccompanied by a rise in economic opportunities. It could be argued that they were - in the classic Malthusian trap - faced with a race against time. Also, their achievements lacked visible continuity, and were therefore deprived of the accolades of hindsight, as nineteenth-century Irish affairs became further complicated by the advent of European romanticism.

Another consideration is that the second half of the eighteenth century saw an improvement in the weather, always vitally important in an agrarian community. Scarcities did not vanish, but they became less frequent and less severe. Although the itinerant population of the very poor was always a danger in terms of the spread of disease, there was also a decline in the virulence of epidemic disease.

Smallpox in particular appears to have been less severe, and plague, which was known at the beginning of the century, had gone into abeyance. Inoculation became more widespread, although it had the danger of infecting a whole village if it got out of hand. Itinerant inoculators boasted of their success, pointing out that if their patient died they would have to flee for their lives. At the end of the century the much safer practice of vaccination became known. The population was rising sharply, and the great typhus and cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century lay in the future.

The ‘condition of Ireland’ problem, although present throughout the eighteenth century, became acute only at the very end and assumed its most menacing aspects in the post-Union decades. The post-1800 British parliamentary reports - a fascinating, if often horrendous, mine of information - were a response to the pressure that was increasing with every decade on a social infrastructure facing unprecedented conditions. Unfortunately, while these Reports could define problems, the executive machinery to implement their solution did not exist in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century, while Irish society lacked the industrial dynamic that might have ameliorated them.