|Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835|
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Clare County Library
WIDOWS WITH CHILDREN
THERE are about 27 widows in the parish. Mr. Sheehy did not consider the greater number of these to be in a more destitute condition than many of the labouring people. They are fortunate enough, generally, to retain possession of some small piece of ground ; and though their means are exceedingly limited, their penury shows itself rather in the inferior quality than in the diminished quantity of their daily food. They live on dry potatoes; and there is hardly an instance of their being able to keep a cow.
The only employments peculiarly calculated for widows are spinning and knitting, and at them they cannot earn more than 2d. a day, such as this occupation now is. It is open to them during the entire year ; but it is manifest that when potatoes are 1½d. a stone, they cannot procure more than would feed themselves ; and most of them have more than three children ; some of them more than five. The widow Miers gave the following account of herself : “I am the widow of a man who held one acre of ground when he died, 14 years ago ; all he left me was 7l. I had four children, two sons and two daughters. I was paying 2l. a year for the rent of a cabin ; and I thought it better to lay out my money in building one for myself than to continue under such a rent ; I did build one, and I pay 10s. a year ground rent for it, and for two perches of cabbage garden. My sons are not employed more than five months in the year ; they cannot get a bit of ground in the county of Clare to plant their potatoes, and they are obliged to take half an acre of ‘con-acre’ over in the county of Limerick at the other side of the Shannon. They collect dung during the winter, and buy some more, and in the spring they and one of my daughters take it over in a canoe which they hire, and plant their potatoes ; in the autumn they return and dig them, and bring them home across the water. All the time they are in the county of Limerick they live among the neighbours.” (The Shannon, where these poor people cross over, is at least 10 miles wide, exceedingly exposed to sudden and dangerous storms.)
Mr. Finucane is the only landlord in the parish who appears to think that the widows of the tenants have any the least claim on the landlord, who for years was supported by the rents which he drew from their husbands. This gentleman gives cabins and small gardens, rent-free, to several poor widows on his estate of Coolmean. The other landlords seem to neglect their tenantry exactly in the proportion of the value of those tenantry to them. The resident middleman, next to the small farmer, bears the largest share of the burden of the poor. There are no tradesmen in the town of Kildysart ; the shopkeepers are either small farmers or labourers ; those in trade of any kind, therefore, could not support the widows. The gentry never subscribed for this purpose ; and indeed there are not six living in the parish who can be considered as belonging to that class. It is not uncommon for some of the relations of a widow to send her a quantity of potatoes occasionally ; but they were unable to find an instance where any widow having children was supported in the house of a relation or connexion ; one, however, the widow O’Neal, who has no children, resides in the house of her half sister, but she is obliged to pay 3d. a week for her lodging ; she is admitted, however, to share the meals of the family.
A spirit of much kindness actuates the population towards widows, and much sympathy is entertained for them, especially while their deprivation is recent. In the course of a walk about the town that day (Sunday), the Assistant Commissioners were surprised at seeing about 15 men digging potatoes, and on making inquiries they were told they were doing it for the widow Nolan, and that this was the second Sunday morning which they had devoted to that purpose. Mrs. Nolan could hardly be called a destitute widow, for she possessed two acres of potatoes ; but her husband was lately dead, and it was thought that she could not long continue to hold her land. Mr. Sheehy afterwards assured them that this appropriation of the Sunday morning to such charitable purposes was very common, and that the same thing often took place on other church holidays. He said that when he comes across such things he turns away his head, and does not pretend to see them.
About five of the resident beggars are widows, having young children : and Mr. Dinan said that no one would be surprised at their begging who were aware of the misery they endured before they commenced asking for charity ; and he added, that they form the class who, in general, exhibit most aversion to mendicancy, partly because their distress has come suddenly upon them, and partly because, when once they begin, they can hardly, at any subsequent period, look forward to any other mode of gaining their livelihood. In this respect they differ from the wife of an unemployed man, who may always hope that the day of her husband’s obtaining employment is at hand. M’Mahon said he recollected one or two widows who were left with many children, and who, after struggling some time at home, and living nobody knows how, privately left their cabins, and have not been heard of since ; he supposed they are begging about in other countries. Major Ross Lewin observed, that prostitutes are rare in that parish, other than those who pass through as strolling beggars. Of these, many of them give themselves out as widows ; but they are not believed ; not a single widow there is known to have become prostitute ; but there is one who is rather elderly, to whom the public have given the character of a procuress. She was destitute when she commenced the trade ; but she has since been enabled to purchase a share in a turf-boat on the Shannon. “I observed,” said Mr. O’Grady, “that the children of a widow, from their mother not having any employment for them, are more likely to become indolent and lazy than the children of a labourer, who can, if he has nothing else, set them about collecting manure on the roads. Unfortunately we have no schools to withdraw them from idleness.”
There is hardly any material difference between the condition of the destitute widow with young children, and that of a woman with illegitimate children ; the former may get on the church list, which the latter certainly cannot. If a widow have a small portion of land, it will be gratuitously tilled for her, at least at first ; a kindness which is never shown to the mothers of bastards. “But,” said Mr. Sheehy, “we cannot call a widow who has land destitute : in other respects, both the classes of women who have been alluded to are upon a par, except as to character ; both live on charity, and are subject to the vicissitudes of such a precarious mode of subsistence ; at the same time more compassion is felt on all hands for the respectable poor widow.”
It would be quite impossible for the labouring man to
save anything ; he who has a little land occasionally lays by something,
but in most instances the expenses of the sickness which has caused the
death of the husband, absorbs any pittance which extreme economy has enabled
him to accumulate.
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