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

WIDOWS WITH CHILDREN

The witnesses present were able to enumerate about 38 widows who had families of young children, without any other support than their own earnings. “Their condition,” said Hehir, “may be said to be miserable exactly in proportion to the numbers in their families, who never can contribute to their own support, in a place where there is not sufficient employment for grown up people.” Mr. Hynes also observes, pointing to some women who were picking muscles and other shell-fish on the rocks, that half of them were widows, or the children of widows ; they have no other “kitchen” to their bad potatoes, than the unwholesome stuff they pick up there at low tides, and limpets and perriwinkles often constitute their entire meal. They, in common with the other poor, are often attacked with English cholera after the use of such food ; but though they know perfectly well the cause of their illness, necessity compels them again to revert to it.

“It is long since,” said Scanlan, “that a woman could support herself by her own industry. Spinning is nearly done away with ; formerly, indeed, there were ‘flannel fairs,’ which were frequented by buyers from the north ; if you looked into a house, during the long nights, you would see them full of women, carding and spinning, and the rent of some farmers was easily paid by the labour of their females. There is nothing of that kind now, and a woman is lucky if she can get employment two months of the year in the fields.” Mr. Hynes also added on this point, “Let a woman do what she can, and she cannot support two children by her labour ; and as for spinning, they can only get their food by it. I give two women a stone of wool, and they are nine days in spinning it ; for that they only get 4s. between them, and that is 4d. beyond the usual price. Many of them spin the entire day in a farmer’s house, and get nothing beyond their diet.” There is not an instance known in the parish of a widow being engaged in the sale of illicit spirits. Private distillation is almost unknown, from the total absence of fuel. The parish gives them no assistance, neither are there petty sessions held from which they could draw any relief by a participation in the fines levied.

Not one of the witnesses present had known a single instance where the owner of the estate had made any provision for the widows of those tenants who had lived and worked upon it. Salmon said that they are not turned out of their husband’s ground at once, merely because they are widows, but that happens before long, as soon as they are unable to pay their rents. No landlord in the parish had even given to his knowledge a cabin rent-free to any one. There were no mechanics or tradesmen in the parish, the population being purely agricultural. The gentry do not subscribe, for there are none resident. As to any support they receive from their relatives, it was observed, that a widow has but a weak claim for support on any of her relations, except her father, and in general they derive but little from them.

It very seldom occurs that a farmer will give a widow credit for con-acre, and when she does obtain it, it is in general badly managed. She has not money to purchase a sufficiency of seed potatoes, or to pay the hire of hands for setting and trenching them. The harvesting of a widow’s crops is sometimes performed gratuitously on a Sunday morning, before mass, by the young men of the neighbourhood, who assemble for the purpose ; but this forms the amount of the assistance they receive from the labouring classes in general ; for it seldom occurs that any of their neighbours relieve them from the burthen of maintaining their children. One cannot expect this of people who are nearly as badly off as themselves. - (Hehir.)

Extreme poverty has, in some widows, overcome the sense of shame; and they have by degrees become confirmed mendicants. They at first ask charity privately from their immediate neighbours ; afterwards they go as far perhaps as the next parish, and return home at night, until at last they take their children with them, and quit the place altogether, and are heard of as begging and living in other parts of the country. - (Mc Dermott.)

No exertions of a labourer would enable him to lay by anything for his family in case of his death. His average wages are less than 7d. a day, and a few men are employed more than half the year, many not more than five months. Their wages do not even give them food, for which they are almost entirely dependant on the produce of their own con-acre. - (Hynes.)


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