Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835
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Clare County Library

Parish Kildysart. Barony Clonderalaw.


M’MAHON computed the entire number of bastards in the parish to be 40 ; but Mr. Sheehy said that it would be very difficult to ascertain the number exactly. He stated the average amount of illegitimate births to be about four ; and that the crime, though still too frequent, is decidedly on the decrease. The number, however, does not afford a perfect clue to the morality of the parish, as those children only are considered illegitimate who are born out of wedlock. Many instances, however, occur when they are conceived before marriage, which is sometimes hurried on to save the character of the female. The mothers of bastards, in three cases out of four, are farmers’ servants, who are particularly exposed to danger from the promiscuous manner in which such servants, both male and female, are obliged, from want of other accommodation, to sleep together. Farmers’ daughters, however, are rarely known to become pregnant from this cause. They are, from their possessing fortunes, more exposed to another danger, that of abduction ; which has, however, become less common of late years. Bastards are never supported by the parish. Infanticide also is a crime almost unknown. About four years ago a child was found dead at Ballynacally, but it was proved on the inquest that it was still-born. Rev. Mr. Dinan observed, that if ever this crime be committed by a mother, he was convinced that it arose rather from a wish to hide her shame than from any unwillingness to support her own offspring.

It is a common practice to apply for wages at the petty sessions, but it is found that no men but the poorest allow matters to go so far as the issuing of a summons against them. Sometimes the women apply privately to the magistrates, and they are advised rather to bring their case before the quarter sessions. This system has been in operation longer than any magistrate present remembered.

Wages are never granted before the birth of the child, because they are looked upon rather as a reimbursement for expenses incurred. When the woman makes her application, the magistrates award her about as much as she could have earned by her usual occupation in the period of time during which she represents herself as having been unable to continue such occupation. As to the amount given in the case of a farm servant, the most usual case of seduction, it was calculated from about 10s. to 15s. a quarter ; but this is subject to variation, in some measure depending on the power of the party to pay.

No instance was known of a young man evincing an anxiety to marry a young woman for the sake of the wages. These women find the utmost difficulty in procuring husbands, and there is a decided feeling against them, “so much so,” added Hurly, “that she is always the last to get a partner at a dance, and nobody will step out with her as long as he can find another.” Mr. Sheehy calculated that not more than three out of twelve such women get married to any others than the fathers of their children. There were a few instances, perhaps a dozen, where money given by the wealthy father has succeeded in getting husbands for such girls ; they have all been ill-conducted fellows, too, who have accepted such conditions, and though some of the marriages have, in other respects, turned out happily, yet the man is much looked down upon by his equals. Rev. Mr. Dinan said, he knew several instances where small farmers’ sons have refused considerable sums held out as an inducement to marry a gentleman’s illegitimate sister or daughter ; but still there were other instances where such offers were attended with success.

With regard to the necessary proof at the petty sessions, it is simply required that some contract has been made by the father to support the child, or that he has at any time made a promise to the mother to support it. The mother often swears the child before birth, and makes use of her affidavit afterwards when she brings forward her claim. Her testimony is also considerably enforced, if she can prove that the father has ever given her any money to meet the expenses which she has incurred. The man is always allowed to bring his witnesses to disprove the assertion of the woman, and for this purpose a summons is always served upon him to attend at the petty sessions on a given day. If the woman can prove the promise, the magistrates have no discretionary power to refuse her application ; they can only use additional strictness in examining the witnesses produced.

“When wages are not granted,” said the Rev. Mr. Sheehy, “the woman with more than one bastard has hardly any other resource than begging ; while she has but one she endeavours, if possible, to support herself by occasional labour ; but she does not obtain it very readily. In certain months she may find work in the fields ; but people are unwilling to admit her into their houses. If she has more than one child, she is too much occupied in the charge of them to be able to earn her livelihood by industry, and she is sure to resort to begging, of which there are four or five instances known here, and sometimes, though rarely, to prostitution.”

The Rev. gentleman described the condition of the unfortunate creatures who are driven to this extremity as deplorable in the extreme. Unable to pay their rent, they are first driven from their cabins ; they then rear a wretched hovel of sods against some ditch, which, as soon as it is discovered by the farmer on whose ground it is, is immediately pulled down, in order to prevent the corruption of his children and of his servants. She then goes to another place, and finds the whole neighbourhood leagued against her ; she is thus compelled to lead a wretched and vagabond life, and gradually rendered reckless by her sufferings, and by a consciousness of her degradation, she instructs her children in every kind of vice, and ultimately takes refuge in a town, where she soon terminates her miserable existence. Few of the children of these women outlive the period of infancy ; but if they do, they become the pest of society, and endeavour to make other children as bad as themselves. “Last Sunday,” said Mr. Dinan, “on going to a chapel that I have up towards the mountains, I found that such a woman as Mr. Sheehy has described had erected a hut by the side of the road. I caught her son, a boy of seven years of age, in the act of teaching the most horrible imprecations and acts of the grossest obscenity to a child of only five years old. I chastised the elder boy, and thereby drew down on me the abuse of the mother, who said that her child had a right to do what he liked.”

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