Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835
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Parish Kildysart. Barony Clonderalaw.


THE Assistant Commissioners requested some of the witnesses to count the mendicants residing in the parish, and Miers, the publican, said, that in Cruverahan there were three ; in Ballymore two, and scattered up and down the parish there are about at least 15 more ; making not less than 20 persons who live on the charity of their neighbours : and besides those, there is not a day in the week on which six or seven do not come asking him for alms that he never saw before.

There was the most unaccountable discrepancy in the statements of the different persons as to the increase or decrease of vagrancy, and the causes of it. The Rev. Mr. Sheehy asserted that it had decidedly diminished, that there was more employment then than formerly, in consequence of the extensive reclaiming of lands, and that the people every day were getting more industrious. On the contrary, Hurley observed, that he saw much more beggars passing by now than formerly, and that many of his neighbours who used in their day to work hard are now forced to beg. Curray also remarked, that he had travelled the barony for the last eight or 10 years, and he saw two to one more than he used. The poor creatures are turned out of their cabins and their ground ; their things are canted, and what have they left but to live on charity ? Hurley remembered the time when they were paid 13d. a day, and well treated ; and now they only get 8d. without diet, and that not regularly. Miers observed, that he was not employed more than half the year, and that he would be well inclined to work for 6d. a day. When the meal was distributed during the scarcity a few years ago, the people worked cheerfully during a long summer’s day for 3d. without breakfast or dinner. Mr. M’Namara said he would undertake to have 2,000 labourers ready by the next morning to work for 6d. a day.

Vagrancy is most common from the 1st of May to 15th August, but July is far the worst month ; in that month those who have potatoes left, said Hurley, think it too much to feed themselves. The potatoes are then getting scarce everywhere ; and it goes so far in this parish, that the priest is often obliged to tell the people from the altar not to give charity to strange beggars, for that it was enough for them to support their own poor. Though there are 20 persons in the parish whose only means of subsistence are alms, it by no means happens that each of these, or perhaps even one of them, calls on many individuals of the parish each day. Many of these resident mendicants are in some degree supported by their friends, and sometimes get as much in one day as will keep them for several ; but by far the greater amount is given away to strangers ; and Hurley said, that if they had only to give to their own poor it would be but little. Timothy Gorman, a small farmer, said, that he sees many days strong able-bodied fellows going about who would be able to work if they were willing ; but the greater number of beggars are women, with, for the most part, three or four children ; and he cannot help believing them when they tell him that they are widows, for out of 10 persons that would call on him, not more than one would be a single man, and he seldom sees even an old man. Sometimes he asks the women with growing-up children with them, why they do not send them to service, at a farmer’s for instance, and they tell him they must keep them to carry about the young infants. The Assistant Commissioners observed, that the practice of cottier tenants or employed labourers begging was very rare. They made many inquiries before they could discover a single instance of it ; but at last Miers said, he recollected having seen two cottiers of that place begging in the neighbouring parish of Kilfidane ; both were idle fellows, who were much given to drinking, but they still had decency enough to be ashamed to be caught begging at home. “There is Michael Nash,” said Miers, “who has no potato-ground; he earns only 6d. a day, and has a wife and seven children to support on that, and I never yet saw any of them begging, and I am sure I do not know how they avoid it sometimes. There is Jem Daly, too, with a large family. He takes his own boat up to Limerick with turf, and for going and coming, and spending may be days in Limerick, while the wind is against him, all he can earn is, perhaps, 2s. 6d. ; yet I never saw any of his family begging either.” Gorman, the small farmer, said, “I know some men of this neighbourhood who hold two or three acres of ground, and who go off to the strong farmers in Tipperary or Limerick to make their harvest : they save what they can to pay for their ‘mock ground’ at home, of which the rent is from 6l. to 8l. an acre. I know no able-bodied person going off from this place to beg ; but I know many who want employment sadly. None of the small farmers have been known to give up their property to their children for the express purpose of begging ; and though many are alive who have resigned their land to their children, yet there is but one such person in the parish who has been reduced to mendicancy : this was a poor old woman of the name of Bridget King. On the death of her husband, she gave up eight acres of land, a cow, and a horse, to her son. He soon got married to a girl who brought him a fortune of 60l. ; but she would not agree with his mother, and she forced him to turn her out on the highway. His uncle then gave the old woman a cabin ; but such was the spite of the daughter-in-law, that she induced him to have it thrown down. The poor old woman has now nothing to live on but charity.

“The greater number of the strange beggars that visit Kildysart come from the county of Kerry,” said M’Mahon, “and they are seen in crowds of a fair-day crossing the ferry between Cahircon and Spring Rice’s Place, at Mount Trenchard ; they pay nothing when they are coming over ; (if they have made a good day of it), they give the ferryman 1d., or some potatoes, if they have not collected any money ; they are for the most part natives of the country.” On the witnesses being asked how they could distinguish a countryman from a townsman, they said that they would readily know them by the latter wearing of gentlemen’s cast-off clothes, and especially by their speaking good English ; in the remote parts of this parish the English language is hardly if at all spoken, and many individuals are to be met who speak nothing but Irish.

Hurley observed, relative to the proportion of vagrants who are themselves the children of vagrants, “Joseph Nash came here begging with his two daughters ; he took the fever and died. Michael Hallaran gave his children a cabin ; and one of them since has had three children by several men up and down ; and both she and her sister have nothing to live on but begging. These two women are the only grown beggars in the parish, who are also the children of beggars. As to the strange ones, we cannot tell who they are.” As to the different classes of vagrants, some have become infirm through old age ; others are the widows of day-labourers who had not any ground ; and a few have been pauperized by being turned out of their farms. Margaret Carmody, a middle-aged woman, whom the Assistant Commissioners met begging, accompanied by three children on foot, whilst she carried two infants on her back, stated, “that she never asked anybody for as much as a potato until about three years ago ; up to that time her husband held a farm in Kilmurry, of M’Mahon, but he gave it up, and took of another about 10 acres, which at first had been vacated ; but the first night they entered on it the Terryalts came, and after beating him in a dreadful manner and breaking one of his arms, they swore him to surrender the farm ; he was then unable to get back his first farm, and since then they have had nothing to live on but charity.” They afterwards met her husband, who was begging on the same road with two more children, and he confirmed her story, by giving the same account.

Hurley observed, that they make a great difference between a large family and a small one, and he knew that the country people would often give a large family as much as half a stone of potatoes. He further added, “In the village we could not stand giving as much as some of the folks in the country do ; we have more beggars calling, and we must decide as well as we can what we have to give them ; but we always feel for a family of children.” At the post-office, perhaps, 40 or 50 persons will call in the day, and every one will get something from that house. Those independent persons sometimes say, when they have not got enough, “May you not get over this day twelvemonths ;” but most of the beggars pray for me, whether I give it or not, adding, “If you have not it for us now, you will have it some other time.” The men who look sickly, and who are followed by the young children, always get most alms. It is not usual for beggars to divide their families into different parties in winter, when provisions are plentiful ; but in a dear summer they often see them splitting (dividing) ; they will make one family into two and take different directions. And M’Namara said, “When we see an old man with a child, we suspect that there is a wife on some other road, or not very far behind ; and it often happens that she will call some time after her husband ; this is the kind of imposition most generally practised in summer ; and when my wife discovers this, she refuses to give a second time.” The best illustration of the feelings of the farmers upon the point of the relative quantities given to an able-bodied person and to an infirm one, was thus given by M’Mahon : “The able-bodied person I should not feel for; I would tell him (except perhaps in July, when the potatoes are exceedingly scarce for employed labourers) that he could turn himself to some employment ; to the old person I should always feel well inclined, and may be if the children were at their meals, I should ask him to come in and sit down, and share it with them.”

Doctor Geary observed that he never knew an instance of mendicants refusing to have their sores cured ; pregnant women are observed to be much averse to passing afflicted and diseased objects of the kind. But though they frequently complain of suffering much injury from them, and express fears that “what they carry will be the worse for it,” yet he could not recollect an instance where he had been able to trace mischief to such sights ; nevertheless he thought them quite capable of producing serious harm in women of weak and irritable dispositions. No offer has ever been made in that parish to afford asylums for the blind, crippled, deaf and dumb children of beggars. Hurley observed that it was only a trick of town beggars to take their children afflicted in that manner about in the wet and cold. And Gorman said, that sometimes in bad weather vagrants have asked him permission to leave their children in his house whilst their parents went about seeking for provisions for them. He also stated that “there is a class of beggars distinct from common wanderers, who pursue their trade mostly at fairs, and travel about from one such place of meeting to another. They invariably appear to labour under some infirmity, and are notorious for their audacity, and for the lusty voice with which they proclaim their misfortunes. They manage to collect a good deal from the charitable ; but the people are at length beginning to believe that they are for the most part imposters. Last fair-day we had a great many such characters ; and the morning after I had occasion to be up at four o’clock, before it was light, and on the hill above the town I met nearly 20 of them, with their asses and cars, which they had left at a distance during the fair ; and they were preparing to go off ; and even at that hour some of them were drunk.”

The Assistant Commissioners were not able to learn that any kind of beggars had been concerned in outrages on the person, but it was generally suspected that they acted as carriers of intelligence for those who took part in the Terryalt disturbances. Miers observed, that they would be the last people in the world that would be willing to emigrate ; they find themselves comfortable enough at home without the trouble of working. The common vagrant is never known to go to England in search of work.

Miers, Gorman and Hurley observed, “We have an impression that one class of beggars do hoard, namely, sweeps and tinkers, for whilst they are working, their wives are begging, and between them they must save something.”

Rev. Mr. Sheehy said, “Last winter I was on a visit with a brother clergyman in Wexford, and he delivered into my hands the sum of 70l., which had been given to him by an old beggar-woman on her death-bed, in order to be forwarded to her son, who was a poor idiot living on charity in the neighbouring parish of Ennis. This old woman had been in want of something to drink on her death-bed, and would not consent to procure it for herself, saying, ‘that she was without a penny.’ He gave the money to her son, but he has since understood that he has been duped out of it by his depraved associates in the town.”

Gorman observed, that many old women go through there with infant children that cannot possibly be theirs from their ages. If there be an old grandmother, however, in a distressed family, she will be apt to take the young children to beg whilst the son and the wife remain at home. “Last summer,” said he, “a woman passed through with six children, two of which, being young twins, she carried in a blanket behind her ; we afterwards however discovered that she had borrowed these from another beggar-woman who was unable to travel, having sprained her ankle, and who was confined to a man’s house who had taken her in through charity.” Mr. Sheehy stated that he had married but one beggar couple during the last five years, and both the parties were old. Many however of this class apply to him to marry them, but he is very cautious in complying with their requests, lest he should be accessary to their committing the crime of bigamy, otherwise he would be rather disposed to encourage their early marriages, in order to stop promiscuous concubinage, for he had much reason to suspect that most of the children of strange mendicants are illegitimate. Hurley observed, that previous to fairs he generally sees a great many hearty young women coming into town, who pretend to be begging for charity, but he knows them to be of bad character, for he sees them after it is dark walking about with young men. The mortality among beggars has not been observed to be either greater or less than in the ordinary classes of the population ; they generally live better than the labouring man, and vagrant beggars have in many instances attained a great age. Miers stated, that “this time last year a beggar-woman came here, and she was suddenly taken sick. Biddy Kennedy took her into her house, and gave her everything she wanted ; and when she died a small collection was made for her among the neighbours, and she was buried as decently as any person could be. She had plenty of candles burning at her wake, and the priest charged nothing for the mass he said for the repose of her soul.”
Hurly observed, that almost every beggar carries a tin can ; and in the summer, when milk is plenty, most people give it to them. In the winter this can serves to contain broth, cabbage, &c., and it is seldom to be found quite empty. Farmers prefer giving food to money, because they have not the latter so readily ; very little is left after paying the rent. Gorman observed, that most of the transactions in that district, between the labouring classes, were carried on without the aid of money, merely by the exchange of labour. Rent also, in many cases, was paid by giving work for it, for which a very low rate was allowed. Miers said, “that it was indifferent to the beggars there whether they got food or money ; they would rather prefer food there, because as there is not any market they cannot strike their own bargain for the provision.” Serjeant Scott said, “You will seldom see a young woman with children selling her potatoes ; it is generally the middle-aged, who have left off their work, and can scold and wheedle. This kind it is who generally sell to the police.”

Burke, the baker, said, that without any doubt the burthen of the beggars fell upon the small farmers, shopkeepers and labourers, because that class are more numerous and more in the way of being applied to. It presses more heavily on those in the vicinity of the village than those far off in the country. John Murtagh, a beggarman, said, that he would sell his chance of all he could get in the week from great gentlemen for 6d., but that he never comes away empty-handed from the poor. M’Namara said, that a labourer of his, of the name of Kelly, lives opposite to him. “When this man is digging his potatoes,” said he, “I see him throwing them into the open sack of the beggar, without even looking to see what was in the bag before. I am sure at that time of the year he often gives a stone to one person, and if the beggar humours him, perhaps two.” Even the labourers possessing no “mock ground” (con-acre), and who are obliged to buy their potatoes, never refuse alms ; however, it is more usual for such classes of persons to exercise their charity in giving a night’s lodging to the wanderers, a practice to which the upper classes of farmers are becoming every day more disinclined.

The fear that the individual seeking relief may be suffering under privation cannot often, except perhaps in summer or in scarce seasons, be the motive which induces the giver to accede to his request. Such an idea would be often checked by the appearance of the full wallet of the mendicant. The real motive is religious feeling, continued and supported to a considerable extent by habit, and by the custom of the district. Many of the labouring classes assured them, however, that the motive would cease as soon as any sure sources of relief were opened to the vagrant. “Under such circumstances,” said the Rev. Mr. Sheehy, “I would think it my duty to dissuade my flock from almsgiving. Females,” said he, “may be sometimes terrified into giving charity by a sturdy beggar when alone in the country, a class of vagrants which is gradually disappearing, and whose curse would not frighten a child now-a-days, though some people think a great deal of his blessing.”

“When beggars are refused,” said M’Namara, “though they may be sulky enough, they seldom persist in their demands ; and still less have they ever given reason to think that they ever had recourse to violence, in revenge for a refusal.”

As to dissemination of disease, Dr. Geary said, that a kind of tetter or running sore had frequently been propagated by beggars; and he has repeatedly known it to have arisen in that parish from intercourse with beggars, who in the poorer houses are admitted not only to the same room, but often to the same straw bed as the inhabitants. The dissemination of fever and small-pox is of frequent occurrence where vagrants have been lodged ; and amongst mendicants they find those mischievous individuals who contribute to the spreading of small-pox, by inoculating with the matter of that disease.

Parishioners have never been indicted in Kildysart for vagrancy, and it is much doubted whether the laws as they now stand would authorize it, except where the vagrant has been guilty of some crime. Both Mr. Scott and Major Ross Lewin agreed that it would be inhuman, and indeed nearly impossible to put them into execution, unless there were more alternatives offered to the beggar ; if there were such a support in a workhouse or otherwise, they say that there is not any reason to suppose that they would meet with any difficulty in putting repressive measures into operation ; and they add, that they have reason to think that the exertions of the magistrate in this respect would be seconded by the feelings of the people, who would soon see the advantage of being relieved from a source of imposition and fraud. Wandering beggars are often detected in petty larcenies, but they are not the class amongst whom destitution exists. Major Ross Lewin did not recollect a case of outrage attributable to destitution.

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