|Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835|
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Clare County Library
ABLE-BODIED OUT OF WORK
FROM the month of December until March there is nearly a total cessation of agricultural labour. It was attempted to ascertain from the persons present the number of hands unemployed during that interval, when Kearny exclaimed, “There is no use in talking about the proportion of employed to the unemployed. I hold some hundred acres of land, and I can tell you that there are absolutely none employed at that time, except upon their own account.” Again, from the middle of June until August, it is calculated that a man could not procure more than two days’ work in the week ; this latter season is by far the worst for the labouring man, because potatoes have then become scarce, and have reached their highest price, just before the digging of the early crop. The labourer is then not only restricted in the number of his daily meals, which fall from three to two, and sometimes even to one, but impending starvation compels him not unfrequently to anticipate his harvest, and to dig his potatoes when they are not only unripe, but unwholesome. There is no regular fund of any kind for the relief of periodical distress recurring from these causes, either arising from the labourers’ own contributions to benefit societies or from the benevolence of the wealthier classes.
Mr. Davoran stated, that he had never any reason to suspect that they or their families had ever committed offences for the purpose of being sent to gaol ; and he owned that he was the more surprised at this when he considered the contrast between the diet and lodging of the independent labourer, and the condition of the prisoners in the county gaol. Mr. Morony observed, that one could hardly expect that they would starve sooner than seek the shelter of the gaol by these means ;but still many did die of starvation in 1822, who were not known to have committed any illegal act.
Thefts of potatoes from the pits in which they are generally stored in the fields, are not unfrequent, but the offenders are seldom detected, as the offence is committed silently, and at night; however, suspicion rather falls on the evil-disposed. There were no cases of outrages on the person, arising from destitution.
As for the labourer who will not beg by means of his wife, or apply underhand to some friendly neighbour, there is no mode of existence for him when he is out of work, and is not so fortunate as to have any of his con-acre potatoes remaining, but to borrow potatoes on credit from some person who may be willing to trust him. - (Murrogh and Molony). He considers himself lucky if he finds such a person, though the interest which he is constrained to pay is always enormous, and rarely less than 100 per cent. per annum. The lenders are more generally middle-sized farmers than large ones : farm servants also who have been permitted to plant a portion of their master’s ground, are enabled to speculate in this manner, as they are always dieted in addition to their wages, and being generally unmarried, can dispose of all their produce. Several labourers concurred in stating, that the ordinary overcharge for potatoes under this system was one halfpenny ; that is, that when they were 2d. a stone in the market, they were charged 2½d. by the lenders for three months’ credit, which is at the rate of interest mentioned above. Mr. Maguane, however, observed, that on the whole this system was losing ground, and was at any rate not so extensive there as elsewhere, in consequence of the general abundance of potatoes produced by the application of sea manure.
With regard to improvident marriages, it appears that the labouring classes marry earlier now than formerly, and that their recklessness on this point has in some measure kept pace with their increasing destitution. “Of all people,” said Mr. Maguane, “I know none so prone to matrimony as farm servants, who have not only no provision for themselves or their probable families, but, being frequently strangers in the parish, cannot even look to a house to shelter them.” And Kearny observed, that he remembered the time when a man would not take a wife unless he got some fortune, however small, with her ; “but now,” said he, “it is no uncommon thing that a couple have not the amount of the clergyman’s fees between them, and the bridegroom is often obliged to pass his note for that sum.” It was remarked, that notwithstanding the increasing difficulty of finding the money, the sum now charged for performing the ceremony has risen considerably ; and Crow, the old beggarman, said that he was married for 15s. many years ago, while Murrogh stated that no labouring man would now be married under 1l. 8s. 6d., and that he knew persons who had not worked out that debt incurred by passing a bill, and which is often paid in labour, for 12 months after marriage. He said that he was not acquainted with any labourer past the age of 40 who had remained a bachelor.
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