Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835
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Clare County Library

Parish Abbey and Oughtmanagh. Barony Burren.


THE greater number of labourers in the parish are altogether without employment for more than half the year, spring and harvest being the only periods at which labour is in demand ; the latter end of March for the setting of potatoes, April, May and June in spring, and August, September, October, and part of November in autumn ; but in these months there are frequent interruptions, and by no means continued employment for all. Wages are nominally about 6d. a day for the short days, and 7d. or 8d. for the long ones, and never rise beyond 10d. or 11d., even in harvest. Mr. Hynes employs several men, even at 6d., throughout the year ; and their condition is considered enviable by the labourers who depend on casual employment ; for it is calculated that, putting the setting and digging of potatoes, and sowing and reaping altogether, there are few persons occupied for more than four months in the year. Of the unemployed months, July is by far the severest for the working man. His stock of con-acre potatoes is then nearly exhausted, and the price of potatoes is then at the highest ; and if the number of his meals suffer no reduction, they become more scanty, and he is obliged to do without the addition even of a little milk. “As it is,” said Serjeant Norton, “it is a miracle to me, who am accustomed to England, how the most of them live at all ; and yet,” said he, “except in peculiarly scarce seasons, neither their wives nor children are to be seen begging ; at least openly. They may go to a neighbour’s to borrow a lock of potatoes, but nothing more.” The women and girls are never known to be driven to prostitution when work fails the rest of the family, nor have there been any instances known of women being abandoned, with their families, by their husbands.

The able-bodied and their families have never been known to have committed any offences for the purpose of being sent to gaol; and Serjeant Norton very fairly remarked, that there was “not a bridewell within 20 miles to tempt them.”

In ordinary seasons, thefts of potatoes are not common ; but when there has been a failure in the crop, Mr. Hynes has been obliged to house both his turnips and his potatoes ; and he has frequently seen people stealing the leaves of mangel wurzel, which of course he did not prevent. As to outrages arising from destitution, it was considered that those which characterize the “Terry Alt system” were almost entirely the result of a dread on the part of the labouring population of impending starvation ; for their object seemed in most cases to have been attained, when they had so far rendered themselves masters of pasture ground as to be enabled to turn it up for the purpose of planting potatoes; and much jealousy still prevails towards those who keep their land extensively in grass. - (Hynes.)

When out of employment, the labourer is obliged periodically to involve himself in debt, by taking provisions on credit, for which he pays in all instances an exorbitant interest. The usual persons who lend on these occasions are middling farmers ; but none refuse to do so who have a surplus of potatoes ; and it is seldom that an offer of an advance of less than one-third on the market price will procure a poor man this kind of accommodation for a period of not more than three of four months. And Scanlan observed, that the matter goes much farther than acquiring the potatoes at an unfair price ; for as the labourer has no money to pay for them, he is obliged to give his labour on account, and is often allowed only at the rate of 4d. a day for it. O’Loughlin, the labourer’s wife, showed the tally or notched stick on which she kept the reckoning, or number of days which her husband had given her employer for a load of potatoes borrowed last August. Since that time, she assured them that he had not received the value of a single day’s labour in money. He had also got on credit a bonnuff (a young pig) in September, when they cost for cash in hand only 3s., but he was obliged to pay 7s. 6d. for it, when it was sold to him in that way. The labourer in this manner becomes insolvent to a degree that leaves him very little hope of extricating himself from debt ; he makes little exertion to free himself, and he is ultimately rendered perfectly reckless.

There has never been any plan tried here in the nature of a labour-rate, nor have the landlords in the slightest degree endeavoured to alleviate the distress of the unemployed, by setting them at work, which did not hold out a prospect of immediate profit. A few years ago, in the summer, when potatoes had become dear, Mr. Hynes contrived to find occupation for a few men in addition to those whom he would otherwise have required ; and though he paid but 5d. a day, he said he never in his life saw people so grateful as those whom he selected on that occasion.

With regard to the proneness of the labouring classes to contract early and improvident marriages, and the causes which lead to this disposition, Scanlan remarked, that it is always the poorest who marry the earliest, especially poor boys and girls who live in other people’s houses, and get tired of working for strangers, and wish to have a home of their own. Mr. Hogan has known the parish priest demand higher fees than usual, in order to deter indigent persons of this class from marrying, but without effect ; the sum, whatever it was, has been borrowed or procured in some way or other. The sons of farmers who have been accustomed to greater comforts, generally remain single for a much longer time than others, and will not marry without some portion. It is, however, considered most desirable by farmers that their daughters should be settled when young, that they may be withdrawn from the dangers and schemes to which their fortunes expose them - (Hogan.)

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