Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835
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Clare County Library

Parish Kildysart. Barony Clonderalaw.


FROM the month of November till the month of March, that is, from the digging of the potatoes in autumn, and the setting of them in spring, and during the sowing of corn, there is little or no employment for the labourer, neither are there any improvements in progress which could afford occupation during the winter, when that arising from husbandry has ceased. A few men earn a small pittance by a fatiguing and dangerous voyage up the Shannon to Limerick with boat-loads of turf ; but even in this way they cannot obtain more than 6d. a day. Mr. Sheehy calculated that there were about 200 men altogether in the parish who, having no con-acre, depended entirely on labour, of these nearly 100 in the winter are totally unable to find it ; and the remainder obtain it only occasionally from large farmers, or from the few gentlemen who reside in the parish. The greater number of labourers, however, have some portion of con-acre ; but as the rent of this is to be paid in labour, labour may be looked upon as nearly their sole means of existence. “Our only resource,” said Ginehan, “during winter is to do with a dry potato, sometimes without salt ; during that time we look to the muck potatoes (the produce of the con-acre). I have as much potatoes now as will do me until Christmas ; after that I do not expect more than one day’s work in the week, and if that does not do, my wife must go out and ask something from the farmers, while I stay at home to mind the children. Last Christmas I had saved a pound, from being employed in a lighter, which was better work than at the spade ; but this year I have not a penny. Winter is the worst time for the labouring man.” This poor man hesitated to describe the circumstances in which he was placed ; and another labourer who was present observed, “The truth is, a man is ashamed to tell before his neighbours half the misery and misfortune he goes through in private.”

Mr. Sheehy said, that indiscriminate beggary had not been observed by him since he came to the parish, even at the periods of most distress ; at such times the wife will perhaps privately go to such individuals as she is best known to, and will get some potatoes. He stated positively that prostitution never had been traced by him to temporary destitution. However, another bad consequence has been known to arise from it, that of husbands quitting the country entirely, and leaving their families to struggle on as well as they could. Some months ago one James Kelly secretly left that place, and after some time a letter was received from him from America, saying that he could not bear to look on his wife and children crying every day for the want of a meal.

Advantage is often taken of a labourer who is out of employment to charge him an exorbitant price for the potatoes he may require when the produce of his con-acre is exhausted. Mr. Sheehy said, that he proclaims the practice as usurious, but that the persons who hold over their stock till the end of the summer, in expectation of a rise of price, do not mind him. The assistant barrister also endeavours to check the system by applying the closest scrutiny to all suits arising out of it, but hitherto without success. John Carrig, a labourer, said, “If I had cash last July, I could have got potatoes at 1½d. a stone ; but I had none, and I was afterwards obliged to give at the rate of 2½d. The only way I had to pay was by giving work ; I was allowed 8d. a day, and was obliged to begin immediately : this we call getting potatoes against time.” Hurley said that they will often pawn their clothes and furniture first, and even sell their pig, on which their sole dependance lies for paying their rent, at less than two-thirds of the price they would get for it if they were able to keep it until it was fat. Carrig described the effect which debt thus incurred had upon him, “as a weight that broke down his spirits, that he felt he was giving his body’s labour for nothing ; but a man would do anything rather than starve. All the time he was working out the potatoes he got last July, he had but two meals a day, and my children should have the same ; if they had not, they would screech, and he could not stand that.”

No person in the parish ever employs more labourers than he requires, and, from the low price of agricultural produce, the farmers are rather inclined to dispense with some of their present workmen. “Perhaps,” said M’Namara, “Mr. Scott of Cahircon is an exception to this remark ; but then his supernumerary workmen are his own tenants, who pay their rents in labour.” The ordinary wages of the country are 8d. a day in summer and 6d. a day in winter, and in both seasons without diet, and no man gets more than eight months’ employment in the year. The lowest price of con-acre ground is 5l. an acre, and the smallest cabin is 30s. a year. With these data, therefore, it is unnecessary to say that it would be next to impossible for a labourer to save anything. The low rate of remuneration for labour, and the worse than indigent condition in which the labouring classes usually are, tend to produce a conviction in them that nothing can make them worse off, and render them in the end reckless, or at least indifferent as to what their future lot may be. In the agricultural population of this parish there are not very distinct classes. There are few farms over 12 acres, and the sons of a man holding a farm of that size will, by the division of it into small lots, become eventually nothing more than cottiers. All are poor, and all of them but too prone to premature matches, but decidedly the more prone in proportion to their destitution. As for the labourer, he seems to think he never can get married early enough. A farmer’s son will wait till he gets a fortune, or till he settles his sisters ; but with the labourer, an acquaintance begun the night before at a wake or a dance is sometimes consolidated the next morning into matrimony. “Not long ago,” said he, “a girl of about 13 came down from the mountains with a young lad of 19 or 20, and wanted me to marry them, which I refused ; and the very next night the mother of the girl came, and insisted upon being married to the same man who had proposed to be the bridegroom of her own daughter. I complied, and the mother said that either she or her daughter should have a husband, in order to have somebody to look after their acre of ground.” Mr. O’Grady observed, that there was reason to think that the wish to have children, on whom they could depend in their old age, was an inducement to marry with some, but not so much with the young people, who do not often give themselves time to make such calculations as with those rather advanced in life. He has heard it observed, when a destitute unmarried person has been seen begging, “What a fool she was not to have got married, and she would have had children to keep her from that line of life.”

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