Alexis de Tocqueville visits Ireland

25th July 1835
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For six weeks between July and August 1835, the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville travelled around Ireland. This respected theorist of liberal democracy said, “If you wish to know what the spirit of conquest, religious hatred, combined with all the abuses of aristocracy without any of its advantages, can produce, come to Ireland”.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859) was a French diplomat, political scientist, and historian. He was best known for his works Democracy in America (appearing in two volumes: 1835 and 1840) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856). In 1835, Tocqueville made a journey through Ireland, with his companion, Gustave de Beaumont.

De Tocqueville's observations provide one of the best pictures of how Ireland stood before the Great Famine (1845–49).

“Most of these people have not eaten since yesterday. Since this morning they are waiting there fasting. These men are small farmers paying a rent. The potato harvest partially failed last year, the scarcity since last March has begun to make itself felt. Those who had cows, sheep, and pigs have sold them in order to live. All those you see there have nothing more.

There is a terrifying exactitude of memory among the Irish peasantry. The great persecutions are not forgotten. All the Irish Protestants whom I saw speak of the Catholics with extraordinary hatred and scorn. The latter, they say, are savages, and fanatics led into all sorts of disorders by their priests”.

His observations chronicle the growing Catholic middle-class and the appalling conditions in which most Catholic tenant farmers lived. Tocqueville made clear both his libertarian sympathies and his affinity for his Irish co-religionists. He was scathing of the aristocracy for creating this deeply divided society.

SEE

A bleak vision of Ireland

An Irishman’s Diary on Alexis de Tocqueville and Ireland in 1835

READ

Journeys to England and Ireland Alexis de Tocqueville, translated by George Lawrence and K.P. Mayer, edited by Jacob Peter Mayer, London, Faber and Faber (1957)

Alexis de Tocqueville's journey in Ireland, July–August 1835, trans. and ed. Emmet Larkin, Catholic University of America Press (1990)

Ireland: Social, Political and Religious by Gustave de Beaumont, edited and translated by WC Taylor. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (2006)