Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835
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Clare County Library

Parish Kildysart. Barony Clonderalaw.


REV. Mr. Sheehy stated the number of aged destitute persons to be about 30, which is nearly one in every 150 in the parish, the population being about 4,501 : of these about five support themselves entirely by begging, and nearly 20 continue to be maintained by their relations, and about five are partially supported by their neighbours, while they reside in the houses of their children, but none receive any aid from the richer classes except occasional alms. The powers of a labouring man are observed to decline from the age of 55, and at 60 he ceases to be considered capable of performing a profitable day’s work.

Amongst the agricultural population the heads of families consider that their children are bound to support them during their old age ; but they often look forward to this period with much anxiety, as they know but too well that they are likely to meet with little favour from those who may marry into the family. The younger branches of the family readily recognize the claim, and willingly perform, in most instances, the duty which thus devolves upon them, though from the condition in which the lower classes usually are, it must often be felt as a heavy burthen. The Assistant Commissioners visited one old woman, a cripple and blind, who lived with her son (a weaver) who was unable to earn more than 6d. a day at his trade, though he works at least 12 hours on an average ; he had five children, and his wife said that she is satisfied to keep her mother-in-law, as long as she was contented with the fare her own family had, which was dry potatoes three times a day. Though the son may not feel aggrieved in supporting his parents, his wife often does, and the father, anticipating some disagreement of the kind, usually (if he has land) reserves some portion of it for himself, and to prevent any misunderstanding, commits the compact to writing. The old people are, however, particularly desirous of taking up their abode with one of their daughters, as it is found that the son-in-law is much kinder to them than the son’s wife. “The daughter-in-law,” said M’Namara, “being always at home, is apt to find her husband’s father in her way, and you will see the old man cowering in a corner of the chimney, as if he was endeavouring to hide himself from her.”

“He is not welcome,” said M’Mahon, “to the meals or the firesides of the neighbours, because he cannot, like younger beggars, entertain them with the news or with idle stories. He stays at home in his dark, damp cabin, eating cold boiled potatoes, which he has got in that state as alms, having no one to dress his food for him, or in any way to attend him. In addition to this, he is nearly, in three cases out of six, disabled by rheumatism in his joints, the result of a life passed under imperfect shelter both day and night. The old man’s other ills are aggravated by dirt and squalor, and he has no female relation to wash his clothes ; he appears at last to become insensible to his sad condition.”

The Assistant Commissioners asked John Conlon, a man of 73, what food he had during the day ; and he answered, that he had been unable to get up before 11 o’clock, and that he had for his breakfast four cold potatoes, nearly half raw ; “for,” said he, “the fire went out before I had crisped them.” The spirit of emigration does not appear to have extended itself much in this parish ; only one person left last year, but there were five went this year. No remittances have as yet been received from any of them.

Mr. O’Grady observed, that the individuals who sent home bad accounts of their success were in most instances persons of bad character for dissipation before their departure. These have generally stopped in cities on their arrival in America, and have not sought to better themselves ; on the contrary, cheering letters have often been received from those who had been previously known to be industrious. Such a man left Kildysart about seven years ago ; he had been a day labourer in Ireland ; and Mr. O’Grady had a letter from him last year, to send out his wife and family, for that he was going to purchase 300 acres of land in Indiana with his savings.

The last general subscription was in 1828, when there was a scarcity of potatoes. On that occasion Mr. O’Grady was appointed treasurer, and he collected about 65l., the greater part of which was contributed by strangers. The absentees who were applied to did subscribe, except one, to whom application was not made, as it was well known that it would not meet with success, as the proprietor in question never subscribes, not even to the dispensary.

The money was employed in purchasing meal, which was in the beginning distributed at first cost, and was afterwards given out at lower prices, until it was bestowed gratuitously on those who were considered to be in the greatest distress. There were no persons in the parish supported as pensioners upon the bounty of any individual or of any family.

All present agreed that no man unable to work obtained more than the common necessaries of life by any of the foregoing means of relief. No opportunity has been afforded of trying the labourers whether they would be unwilling to allow their relations to enter an almshouse, but it was thought that if they had any reluctance at first it would soon diminish. They were also of opinion that it would be quite impossible for a labourer or small cottier with a family to lay by anything for his old age. The Assistant Commissioners inquired how such an assertion could be reconciled with the fact that they were always able to give some fortune with their daughters when married, in some instances 20l. or 30l. M’Mahon, however, answered by saying, that such things were much less frequent now than formerly, and that, moreover, if they did not in that manner provide for their children in their youth they would only heap additional misery on themselves in their old age, by having helpless females on their hands. With some exceptions, the general feeling of those with whom the Assistant Commissioners conversed on the subject was certainly in favour of some provision for those who were infirm through age.

Mr. O’Grady said that his only objection to such a provision would be the danger that it would be liable to the same abuses that were so oppressive in England. If there was any adequate security against these abuses, he would be quite ready to bear his share of the burthen. Major Ross Leiven said that he was of the same opinion, and that he has addressed some questions on this point in common to about 35 small holders of land, who were digging potatoes for him that very morning. They all thought that relief should be provided for the infirm through age ; but many said they would rather help them as they do at present than pay 1s. a year to the tax-gatherer. Hurley and M’Mahon both remarked, that the reason farmers are so indisposed to the substitution of the money tax for their present mode of contributing to the poor is, that they really do not know how much goes out of their houses in charity. If they were to stay at home one long day in summer and watch all that their wives give away, they would soon alter their way of thinking.

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