Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835
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Clare County Library

Parish Kilfarboy, including town of Miltown Malbay. Barony Ibrickane.


THE opinions of several witnesses taken at different times almost entirely agreed as to the number of resident beggars. The Rev. Mr. Macguane and the Rev. Mr. Davoren both said that they amounted to about 15 ; and Mr. Kenney [recté Kenny], an extensive farmer, estimated them at about one to every ploughland in the parish, that is, about 20 ; but he added, that there is not one to the ploughland to which he belonged, that of Freagh, a deficiency, however, which is made up by the one in which the town of Miltown Malbay is situated. Some persons were disposed to attribute the very perceptible increase of vagrancy during the last few years, to the clearing of lands on the estate of Lord Egremont in that neighbourhood ; but on investigation, the Assistant Commissioners found, that though the operation of this system had been productive of abundant misery, none of those who have suffered under it have at least as yet betaken themselves to mendicancy ; but it was the general opinion that many would eventually be forced to it in the coming year, when they shall have spent the trifling sum that was allowed to them on their being dispossessed.

In summer the number of vagrants is considered to be increased at least tenfold, as compared with the winter months, partly because when potatoes become dear in the interior of the country, the beggars flock to that quarter, as being a place where that article is cheap, and more plentiful in consequence of the abundant supply of sea manure afforded by the coast ; and partly, said Molony, because Miltown being a bathing-place much resorted to, the number of those who came from a distance to live upon the charity of its visitors, keeps peace with the growing number of these visitors. “I know,” said Hehir, the innkeeper, “several instances where poor persons have come here begging from distant estates, in order to get some relief from their landlords, who spend some time here bathing in summer.” Mr. Clancy said, that by far the greater proportion of the mendicants are strangers ; he should say that there were at that moment upwards of 30 strange beggars rambling about the parish asking alms ; but if there be one in summer, there are at least 300.

Tipperary is decidedly the country from which most beggars come, particularly that part of it which lies to the north-west of the “Galties,” and is called “The Golden Vale.” They cross the Shannon at Killaloe, where the counties of Clare and Tipperary meet, and disperse themselves in all directions. Many other strollers have their permanent places of abode in the neighbourhood of small towns, where distress and the process of the ejectment system had driven many from the country parts. The city of Limerick also sends some of its inveterate beggars, whose faces are often recognized by the citizens of that town when they come there to bathe in the summer season.

The amount which an able-bodied beggar could collect one day with another is entirely dependant on the season of the year. “At present they are digging the potatoes,” said Kenny : “I have no doubt such a man would have four stone in his wallet at the end of the day ; but there are many days in summer, especially in scarce seasons, when, including what he consumes himself, he would not raise more than a stone.” Mr. Clancy observed that this remark applied chiefly to able-bodied vagrants, whether male or female, who had children ; for if alone, and young, they are not much pitied. There are, however, many of 60 and upwards, who, though not strictly able-bodied, are yet strong enough to travel a good distance in the course of the day, and to carry a good lot in their bags. These latter are the most successful as to the absolute quantity collected. It follows, therefore, from what has been just observed, that as a stone of potatoes is more than any man not employed in labour can consume in the 24 hours, there is no beggar, particularly of the description last mentioned, who does not get as much as his personal wants require. Upon this question being put, John Byrne, a labourer, exclaimed, with a laugh, “By God, master, if you ever look for an empty belly, you had better not go among the beggars to look for it, but among the like of us.” Mr. Hehir said, that he has heard some beggars express a regret that they had no chance with the public car which runs from Miltown Malbay, as it leaves too early in the morning for them to attend it. On its return, however, in the evening, it is followed by the resident paupers, but they are not often successful in getting anything.

The duty of giving alms almost always falls to the share of the woman of the house or her daughters, and their feelings are in favour of those who have families of young children. Still the increase of the quantity given does not bear an accurate proportion to the number of the applicants : what would be given to a family with children, would perhaps be double that given to a person with one child, but would not be doubled or quadrupled if there were three or more. Molony, the blacksmith, observed, that his wife was in the habit of giving more freely to the beggar with a family ; that when many call, such a person is always sure to get the best “maun” (alms), whilst if a single man came, she should only throw him a small handful.

When a beggar has collected more than he can consume, it by no means follows that he will waste it or even give it away, for he never fails, when he arrives at a village, to find purchasers for it ; and many poor persons who have no con-acre to furnish them with potatoes, consider it a great convenience that they can procure a small quantity from him. The vagrant sells his surplus without any concealment, and is often to be seen at the public crane weighing it out to those who want it. The money thus acquired is usually disposed of in the purchase of clothes and other necessaries. Maguire, the blacksmith, observed that beggars decidedly enjoy better food than the majority of those who relieve them ; for whilst the labouring man is confined to potatoes during the entire year, with the exception of very few festivals, “I often see beggars,” said he, “sending in their children to the baker’s shop opposite me to get loaves ;” they seldom buy tea, but they are never without tobacco ; and two or three of that class, when questioned on that point, allowed that, one day with another, they spent at least one halfpenny a day in procuring it. Resident beggars, whose faces are known to all, never show any disinclination to wear comfortable clothing when it has been given to them ; but, as Kenny observed, “they are seldom tempted.”

Vagrants do not find it necessary to have recourse to any deceptive measures for exciting sympathy when they solicit alms from the peasantry or farmers ; those classes are always willing to give that which alone the beggar seeks from them, namely, potatoes. There are a few vagrants who give themselves out as distressed tradesmen, who are rarely observed to ask for charity, except where they think they will get money, as at gentlemen’s houses, or from travellers, &c. Murrough said, “The mere country beggar comes up to the cabin door, and, standing on the threshold, he puts his children forward, and asks for something for the honour of God.” It was not suspected by any of the persons present that sores or deformities are ever produced or simulated for the purpose of exciting sympathy ; but they said when any one, by natural causes, became afflicted with any striking infirmity, it afforded a temptation (which was seldom resisted, if the person was in a state of poverty,) to make it an object for appeal to the pity of the public ; such persons profit accidentally by their ailments, and become a distinct class of mendicants, called “boccoughs.” They are well acquainted with the days on which fairs are held, and portions of almanacks containing such information have not unfrequently been observed in their possession. To such meetings they resort in great numbers, and they dispose themselves in the various roads leading to the town, and proclaim their woes in voices that generally indicate anything but delicacy of health. These also never look for food, money is their object ; and Dr. Costelloe observed that they were a serious annoyance on market-days to pregnant women, and are sometimes even malicious enough to frighten horses by suddenly protruding their crippled limbs in a crowd. The practice of innoculating with the small-pox matter prevailed very generally in that quarter, and they were not therefore surprised to hear that there were a few cases of blind persons, both young and adult, in the parish ; but those are not to be seen begging as often as might be expected, for persons of this kind turn their attention either to the bagpipes or the fiddle, and they have a complete monopoly of the music at wakes, weddings, and other merry meetings ; and in this manner, if they chance to be good performers, they pick up a very decent, though rather precarious, livelihood.
Mr. Davoren, the protestant rector, and a magistrate, observed that the resident beggars are not to be considered as a dissolute class, and that an ordinary vagrant had not been brought before him under the imputation of any crime, during a period of 20 years. These remarks, however, did not by any means apply to the “boccoughs,” who are notorious for their habits of drunkenness, and their frequent and successful attempts at fraud. One or two houses were pointed out in the village of Miltown where these persons are known to meet in numbers, both males and females, on the evenings of fair-days, and where they spend the nights in debauchery and gambling the gains of the day ; they carry packs of cards about with them, and often entrap the unwary countrymen at thimble rigging and other low games. Mendicants have been sometimes suspected of stealing potatoes, but not often ; there is little need of resorting to such means, when they are so abundantly supplied by the charity of the peasant. As to emigration, there was little reason to hope that the confirmed vagrant would be induced to adopt it. There is a remarkable reluctance on the part of the peasant to do so : either he is ignorant of the advantages to be obtained from it, and impressed with an unusual dread of the dangers of the sea, from having constantly before him on the coast of the county of Clare the prospect of a furious ocean on which no vessel larger than a canvass “corrack” or canoe is ever seen, except when on the verge of shipwreck. Out of 80 heads of families, lately dispossessed by the orders of Lord Egremont, on the lands of Freagh, not one was found willing to take advantage of a free passage out, and of a grant of land on their arrival. The confirmed vagrant is never known to go to England in search of work.

Very few female vagrants are without children, and the greater number are accompanied in general by a great many of them. Molony said, that if he were to speak from what he observed himself, when employed in the Government works in the county of Mayo, he would say that large families are rather the cause than the effect of vagrancy. In that county the peasantry are especially prone to periodical mendicancy ; and he has remarked that when a woman has several children she was sure to take a start of begging in the summer. The persons present all agreed that this remark applied, in some measure, to that district also ; and added, that they did not recollect any instances of young persons getting married while mendicants. “If they commence begging young,” said Murrogh, “it is because they find their father’s cabin too small for them, and they have no other place to shelter themselves.” Mr. Macguane said that he was inclined to think that the majority of children who accompany vagrants in general were legitimate, but that he has sometimes known beggar-women to have had several children by different fathers. On the whole, however, he did not think that bastardy was much more frequent among vagrants than among the labouring population. No remarks have been made even by the physician of the district on the relative mortality in the families of mendicants ; it is permitted to conclude, therefore, that it is not greater that the average of other classes, from the fact, that not one strange beggar has died in the parish during the last year, nor was one of them attacked during the prevalence of the cholera by that disease. Thomas Crowe, the oldest man in the parish, he being 96 years of age, was a mendicant.

On applying to the better classes, who were present at the inquiry, as to the fact, whether an able-bodied man could procure more by labour, or by begging ; a question calculated to elicit whether labour was justly remunerated or not ; the Assistant Commissioners found them very unwilling to acknowledge that the condition of the beggar, as to daily gains, was even nearly on a par with that of the labourer ; they represented that the labourer is employed but seven months in the year at farthest, and that only at an average of 7d. a day ; that he has to pay rent, tithes and taxes, and after all, that he has nothing to subsist upon but dry potatoes in most instances ; that on the other hand, the able-bodied vagrant with a family will, at a low computation and one day with another, collect two stone of potatoes, worth even when cheapest 3d., and often more ; and that he is altogether exempt from the items of expenditure which weigh heaviest on the labourer ; but they were unable to alter the previous opinion. Kenny and several small farmers and tradespeople decidedly said, that the beggar was better off ; and their admission did not arise from a contemplation of the above parallel, which was not drawn in their hearing.

The peasant or small farmer rarely, if ever, endeavours to ascertain whether the person who asks for alms is deserving of them or not ; and Mr. Macguane observed, that he was only surprised that the readiness with which charity was always given had not tempted half the labouring population in the parish to shut up their houses and take to the road. As to the preference for that mode of life, several present observed, that most of those who have practised mendicancy for some time, prefer the continuance of it to the resumption of habits of industry, from a well-founded conviction that, bad as it is, it is more profitable than working ; but it would be impossible to point out any, at least in this part of the country, who had originally resorted to such a disreputable mode of life from such a conviction ; however, let the causes of his becoming so be what they may, the vagrant, in nine cases out of ten, is found to be an incorrigible idler, and indisposed to exert himself in any way. Kenny observed on this point, that formerly when pressed by harvest, or otherwise, he at times engaged such persons to work ; he found, unless he was constantly looking after them, that they preferred lying in the ditches or sitting on the potato ridges to any kind of exertion ; at present, though he sometimes offers them work by way of experiment, he always hopes that they will not accept it, as he knows he would only be throwing away his money on them.

All parties agreed in the opinion, that the relief of beggars fell almost exclusively on farmers of every extent, and next on shopkeepers ; such persons, especially the former, being in every sense more open to, and more annoyed by, vagrants. Molony said, “The potato heap stands opposite every poor man’s door, and when a christian stands on his threshold and asks for alms, how can he be refused ?” Those who are possessed only of a potato garden, even the day labourers who have none, do not refuse their mite when asked “for the honour of God.” And Maguire observed, “You would see beggars enter the house of a poor man who lived near a gentleman’s gate, and go away after receiving charity there, never thinking of going up the avenue, as he knows full well that he would either find the gate shut against him, or that he would be told that there was nothing for him.”

Upon debating the question as to the quantity which a farmer with 10 acres of land would be likely to give in charity one day with another, the persons present agreed among themselves that such a man would give away, under the circumstances, about a stone of potatoes in the day ; in the digging season, however, he would often give a great deal more. And Keane observed, that those who have obtained the reputation of giving a good “maun” to the beggars are well known, and their doors are never passed by without an application. It is rather more difficult, however, to estimate the amount of the daily donations of a small shopkeeper, for to one he gives a bit of tobacco, to another a handful of salt, and to a third, who may appear sickly, a little meal ; but altogether, as Hehir and Owens observed, a small shopkeeper could not afford to give, and does not give away more in the day than 2d. or 3d. worth. These computations surprised some of those who were present, and who showed much reluctance to enter into them ; “lest,” as they expressed it themselves, “it should appear as if they were reckoning what they gave to Almighty God through the poor.” - “If all that be true,” said Molony (meaning the amount thus supposed to be given), “many is the man that at the end of a season would want what he gave away more than those he gave it to.”

As to the preference of a regularly yearly sum, Owens and some other shopkeepers said, that they would much prefer giving such, provided they were assured that it would not increase indefinitely each year, to being exposed to the annoyance of the present system of granting relief, and to the frequent certainty of being imposed upon. On the other hand, the farmers all cried out against the imposition of any fresh tax ; and Clancy swore, that it made his flesh creep to speak only of a new cess. Even he, however, after some time, listened to reason, and allowed that he would be a gainer by the alteration.

Importunity is not often resorted to to elicite alms, for refusals are rare, and the thought never occurs that the applicant is suffering from privation. “Last Monday,” said Keane, “a fellow came to my door whilst I was at dinner, and I offered him some boiled potatoes out of the dish ; he refused them, and was saucy enough, and the reason was, because he would rather have raw ones to sell them.” Mr. Macguane observed that charity is seldom if ever extorted by acts of violence ; and there are very few people now-a-days who care much for the beggar’s curse. Such, however, was not always the case, for when first he came to that parish, he received many complaints of the imprecations used by vagrants, and was often solicited to counteract the mischief which they were supposed capable of effecting.

As to the dissemination of diseases by mendicants, Murrogh says that he had been for 20 years in the habit of giving a night’s lodging to poor wanderers, and that he never had reason to repent so doing ; but he knows that all his neighbours have not been so fortunate, for some of them have missed both their lodger and their property when they awoke in the morning, whilst others had got into scrapes for what they had said incautiously before those whom they had admitted, who were acting as spies and informers. Doctor Costelloe said that he had often been able to trace to the above practice the spread of many disorders, and especially of fevers and many cutaneous distempers.

There is but one instance in the parish of an individual returning to domestic habits who had for some time followed a vagrant life. This man chanced to find a sum of money, and was induced to invest it in the purchase of a small house. In endeavouring to collect his rent for it from the several poor families to whom it was let, he by degrees became more and more stationary, until at last he gave up wandering altogether. He has since taken about an acre of land, which he tills himself ; and about a year ago he got married to a young girl who had a fortune of a milch cow. - (Molony.) - This however is a rare instance, for in general the vagrant finds it impossible to relinquish his vagabond habits, and ultimately forms one of a class quite separate from the rest of the community.

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