Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835
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Parish Abbey and Oughtmanagh. Barony Burren.


MR. HYNES, whose shop (almost the only one in the parish,) is situated at the meeting of the two principal roads, estimates the number of vagrants whom one would meet in the parish at this time of the year (December), at about 30. Of these, not more than two are natives, and permanently resident. All the witnesses concurred in representing vagrancy as having increased of late years, and Mr. Hogan said that he perceived the number of persons who came to these parishes in summer from other districts to be annually augmenting. Salmon exemplified the general growth of poverty, by stating that 20 years ago he would not see more that three or four persons collecting perriwinkles and limpets on the rocks at neap tides, and those were generally children doing it for amusement ; but now, one may see them flocking thither in scores, and eagerly gathering them as an addition to their meal of dry potatoes. The acknowledged increase of vagrancy is attributed to the increase of a population which has no other means of subsistence than the tilling of land. The peasantry readily promise rents higher than they can possible afford to pay for the smallest portions of land ; of these, in process of time, they are dispossessed, after having run up arrears. There is also much less employment than formerly ; and Mr. Hynes observed that he found no difficulty now in procuring in the parish as many labourers as he wants in harvest time, while formerly at that season, his father used to be often obliged to hire them in Cunnemara, and to pay their passage across the Bay of Galway.

Potatoes in this neighbourhood are plentiful, from the abundance of sea manure ; so much so, that they form an article of barter for turf from the Galway coast, there being no fuel in the district they are in. An able-bodied beggar, it was thought, could easily collect four stone of potatoes one day with another in winter, and in most summers he would get at least a stone and a half in the course of the day. As he could not possibly consume more than one stone himself, as he often gets a share of the peasant’s meal, over and above what raw potatoes he receives, it can scarcely happen that he is ever without some surplus. - (Salmon, a farmer.) - No public vehicle or conveyance passes within six miles of any part of the parish. A beggar is seldom to be seen at the roman-catholic chapel, the only place of worship in the two parishes.

The chief object of the sturdy beggar is to collect for sale ; his personal wants are soon satisfied, and everything else is carefully accumulated. With this in view, it is not unusual for a mendicant to have two wallets, and when he approaches a hamlet, he deposits the one that is full in a place of security, and after he has made his rounds with the other, he goes back for the one he had left. He then finds a purchaser for the whole, in some labourer who is without mock ground, or else in some person who, though no beggar, is far more destitute than himself. The money acquired in this manner is seldom spent in drink in this quarter of the country, but chiefly in tobacco, &c. The vagrant shows but little inclination to purchase any clothing except shoes, because, as Finn, the tailor, observed, he knows that if he was well clothed he would be suspected, in a place where he was not known, of not being so bad as he believed, of not being so badly off as he looked. Serjeant Norton stated that one fellow who had been in the parish for the last eight months, frequently brings eight stone of potatoes to dispose of ; and yesterday, hearing the Serjeant ask for the change of a pound note, he offered him 13s. in copper and the rest in silver. Winter is decidedly the best season for him who continues a mendicant throughout the year, as the potatoes are then plentiful, and most of the Mayo vagrants are at home at that time subsisting on the produce of their con-acre.

The witnesses in general thought that even if the vagrants were inclined, they could not procure better clothes than they have, and that the place itself not being a thoroughfare, there was not much deception practised. Neither fairs nor markets are held in either of the parishes, and they are, therefore, in a great measure free from the visits of those notorious impostors, “the boccoughs,” who are only to be found where alms are given in money, and who never give themselves the trouble of collecting food in a rural district. The five policemen who were quartered here were, however, successively imposed upon during the last week. One of them, of the name of Saunders, stated that two miserable-looking women came to the barrack, and told them that they were from the King’s County, and that they had the dropsy. Some of the police were from that county, and they gave them meat and some money. He afterwards came suddenly upon them in the ruins of the abbey, where they were washing their faces, which they had coloured with some kind of herb. They were stripped and were going to change their clothes, and he did not see a finer woman than one of them was ; and they only laughed at him, when he upbraided them for their tricks. Mr. Hynes stated, that in other places they bring false recommendations to the gentry, in order to get money from them, but there is not a single gentleman residing in this quarter, and the poor give charity indiscriminately to all who ask for it.

The vagrants who frequent that part of the country are rather an idle than a vicious or dissolute class ; and Serjeant N. stated that in the course of the four years that he had spent there, he had had but one occasion to apprehend a mendicant for theft or any other illegal act. As to the point of their sharing their earnings with those more destitute than themselves, Salmon observed, that of late years there was no necessity for their doing so, as they all get enough to eat at least. With regard also to the fact of their hoarding their earnings, it was generally supposed that they were inclined to do so. An instance had been mentioned before of a vagrant who had accumulated a pound, and it was the opinion of those present that few able-bodied men who have no families are without some ready money, as they have always some tobacco. It was observed with regard to mendicants borrowing or hiring children, that it sometimes happens that in the case of where a grandmother resides in the house of a poor man, she is sent out with some of the children, while the mother takes out the rest. A suspicion of this practice arises from seeing young children with women too old to be their parents. It is not, however, thought that children were borrowed under the circumstances, and certainly they were not hired for the purpose mentioned.

Very few beggar women are to be seen with less than two children, many have more, and the number of children may safely be set down as the chief cause of their wandering life. Marriages seldom take place amongst persons of this class ; but Hynes informed them that a large portion of farm servants are the children of such persons, and that as they have approached the age of 15 or 16 years, they have generally relinquished their idle habits and have sought employment. It is among the female servants of this origin that the greatest number of bastards are born ; and both males and females, though nearly the poorest in the community, are remarkable to their propensity for early marriages. In the absence of any connected evidence of the relative mortality among vagrants, it would not appear that it is not greater than among the other poor and labouring classes, more especially from the fact that no beggar had died there at any time from the cholera. - (Norton.)

On Mr. Hynes being requested to compare the state of the labourer with that of the able-bodied beggar, he said that he had no hesitation in declaring the comparison to be in favour of the latter. “Revert,” continued he, “to what you have been told with respect to what a beggar would collect in the day ; remember also that the highest wages given here are 6d. a day, and that, with the exception of the men whom I myself employ, no man in the parish can find employment for more than five months in the year, and you will only be surprised that so many remain in their cabins and struggle on in their misery, when they could at least obtain a greater quantity of food by mendicancy.” This was the general opinion ; and O’Loughlin observed, that he had seen the beggar to whom he had given a night’s lodging eating bread for his supper, whilst he and his wife and his family had nothing but dry potatoes.

In the country the mendicant finds his night’s lodging in the first cabin where he may choose to ask for it. The inhabitants of villages are rather less disposed to admit strangers, and large families decline doing so altogether, but they never refuse as much straw to the wanderer as will make his bed by the fire-side of the peasant. It would be considered most inhuman to refuse it; and Mr. Hynes estimates that he gives away two tons of straw at least in this manner throughout the course of the year. Very little clothes are given to mendicants in this quarter of the country by the peasantry ; there are but few large farmers there, and the small holders are in many instances not better clad than the mendicants themselves. The usual relief given consists solely of potatoes. In the neighbouring mountain parishes, however, where potatoes are scarce, and where the land is only fit for sheep feeding, wool is often given in lieu of food, and the Assistant Commissioners met beggars who had come from a distance to collect it in small portions, intending to have it spun on their return home into worsted for the purpose of making frieze to clothe themselves. Sometimes also, at the thrashing time, a handful of corn is given as alms, and at that time the mendicant is accustomed to provide himself with a small bag to carry what he gets, and he sells it afterwards. Milk is not much given, owing to the rocky nature of the soil ; it is rather scarce even among the farmers. As to money, the small farmers could never give any, for the price of their grain and bacon is generally anticipated by their rents, and nothing remains with them but their potatoes. It is clear, however, that beggars would always prefer the money, from their anxiety to convert their surplus collections into coin as quick as possible.

During the winter months there is no limit to the quantity given; even at the poorest house every applicant receives something, and the difference in the amount of what is given away by a rich man and by a poor man is not to be measured by the number of those who get alms at their respective doors, but rather by the quantity given to each individual, the former always giving “a better alms,” in the words of the mendicant. A poor man gives three or four potatoes, while the wife or servant of the small farmer will give a single or a double handful, or may be more, where there is a long family. - (M’Dermott.) - There is no person in that parish assisted throughout the year by receiving food or clothing as a pensioner on any wealthy family ; but there is an old man and his wife of the name of Beattie, who had been in better circumstances formerly, who are relieved from the necessity of begging, by contributions received from a few of the upper class of occupiers. - (Mr. Hynes.) - The witnesses were of opinion that there was only one man in the parish who gives away anything near the value of an additional workman ; this was Mr. Hynes, who, as a large farmer, and the only shopkeeper, contributes very extensively to the relief of the poor. Many persons, however, give quite as much daily as would suffice for the food of an able-bodied man, and even some give more. -(Salmon.)

There is neither landlord nor any person of independent means residing in this or any of the surrounding parishes, the relief of the beggars therefore falls exclusively on the tillers and occupiers of the soil, and amongst persons of that class ; the burthen presses with peculiar severity upon the holders of under 20 acres, who form the majority, and who give far more in proportion to their means than any others, except indeed the cottiers who live by the side of the main road ; “and these,” exclaimed Mr. Hynes, “are absolutely robbed by the shoals of mendicants in summer ;” even those who have no con-acre give a little, and when potatoes are scarce, and they have none to spare, they yet assist the vagrant with a night’s lodging, which is never refused. - (Scanlan.)

Scanlan observed that it seldom happens that relief is given under the idea that the applicant is suffering from immediate privation, but rather with the intention of preventing such privation. Much almsgiving, however, is thought to be actuated by the custom of the country ; and it would appear, also, that it depends in some measure upon a religious feeling, which latter motive, though perhaps not uppermost at the moment of giving charity, is yet one from the contemplation of which the poor people derive much pleasure. - (Scanlan.) Norton, the police-serjeant, was of opinion that fear of violence had not much influence in extracting charity, and as to the dread of the beggar’s curse, that is daily decreasing ; “for,” as Salmon said, “a man would be ashamed to say he was afraid of a ‘boccough,’ and no other beggar would curse him.”

Mr. Hynes, jun. stated that contagious diseases were not unfrequently communicated by beggars where they receive lodgings at night, and the Assistant Commissioners were able to trace two cases of small-pox to infection received in that manner. The moral injury inflicted by vagrants upon those whom a night’s lodging thus brings them into contact with, is not thought to be very great in this remote part of the country, where vicious characters from the towns do not often penetrate ; but there are a few old women, well known wherever they go, who are more than suspected of lending themselves to the amours of those who require their services, one of whom was implicated in a gross case of abduction which occurred in the neighbourhood two years ago.

No punishments for vagrancy have ever been inflicted here. There is not a single magistrate residing in this or the neighbouring parish, nor are any petty sessions held in the entire barony. The people there would never approve of the application of coercive measures for the repressing of vagrancy, unless some provision was made for those whom they look upon as destitute. Even those, however, who disapprove of instituting such a provision through the instrumentality of the laws, declare that they see no objection to a vagrancy law, if they were taxed for the support of the poor. There had been no outrages in the neighbourhood immediately attributable to actual destitution.

There is no house of industry in this county nearer than that at Ennis, a distance of 20 miles. Some of the mendicants who are old and infirm express no reluctance to enter into a mendicity asylum ; but middle-aged vagrants to whom the question was put, invariably declared their unwillingness, on any account, to part with the power of roaming about freely on all occasions.

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