Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835
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Clare County Library

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


BOTH Kenny and Maguire estimated the number of widows having families of young children, and without any support but their own earnings, at about 30. Murrogh said that, speaking from those about him, he would say that they were by far the most wretched portion of the community ; there are none of them who have more than two meals a day, and their poverty in summer often reduces them to one.

The only permanent employment which a widow of this class can find is in spinning or knitting. Maguire, who sometimes purchases the produce of such occupations from them, said, that they never could make more than 2½d. or 3d. a day, and that, though willing to work, many of them cannot obtain this pittance from the want of funds to purchase either wool or the necessary implements to work with. “A shilling,” said he, “would enable them to begin with, but as for that matter, they may as well want a pound, for they can get neither.”

The Assistant Commissioners found the widow Halloran employed in making a quilt ; she worked eight hours a day, and it would take her a week to finish it, and all she had bargained for was 1s. She said she could do the job sooner if she could work after sunset, but she could not afford a candle. It may thus be estimated what the value of that industry is which could not afford the outlay of one halfpenny on candlelight to pursue it. This poor widow was considered a dexterous needle woman in her branch, and yet she allowed herself, that she would be satisfied to work in a farmer’s house at it both by daylight and candlelight for her food, and the comforts of a good fire to sit by, without any wages at all. They asked her what would become of her children while she thus laboured gratuitously and she answered, that whatever the charity of the neighbours gave them would go farther amongst them when she would be absent herself. A man who happened to be standing by, said that he would not give a halfpenny a day for what any widow in the parish would be able to earn by the labour of her hands. In fact, every person to whom the Assistant Commissioners spoke upon the subject, said that it was absolutely impossible for any woman to maintain herself and her children by her own exertions. Parochial assistance is unknown ; and the question whether the absentee proprietors, who hold nearly the entire parish, ever contribute to the relief of those who pay them rent, was answered with a laugh that expressed astonishment at the thought of such a thing being entertained. Morrogh, who was a tithe valuator, and knew the circumstances of every holding in the parish, declared that he never knew an instance where a widow was spared either in tithe or rent : they were unable also to ascertain that a single widow had either ground or a cabin rent-free ; and several whom they visited appeared, at least in proportion to the misery of their habitations, to pay a higher rent than others in their vicinity.

In common with the rest of the agricultural population, a widow, who does not beg, seeks her only certain means of support in the acquisition of a small piece of con-acre ; but even this she finds difficulty in obtaining, as she cannot find sufficient manure for it, and though paying a high rent, she has no remunerating return. The young men of the neighbourhood will dig her potatoes for her in the autumn, sometimes on a Sunday morning before mass, but it is not usual with them to set them gratuitously. To compass that portion of her tillage, it is not uncommon for a widow who has young children to send two or three of them, day after day, to work for some one of her neighbours in weeding ground or tending cattle ; and for a week’s labour of her children in this manner, she considered herself amply repaid by the labour of an able-bodied man for a single day. - (Molony.)

Kenny observed, that let the endeavours of a woman of this class be what they may, he knew full well, that there are many days on which she cannot possibly procure sufficient food without appealing to the charity of those about her. Out of regard, however, to her relations, who do not acknowledge her claim upon them, she will do this privately at first ; she will next go to a remote part of the parish ; and at length she will not hesitate to go where she thinks she will meet with most success. Mr. Maguane did not think that the demoralization of begging, coupled with necessity, ever led to such an extreme as prostitution; at least he did not recollect an instance of a widow having an illegitimate child. The influence of mendicancy is often more perceptible on the children than on the mother, for as she considers it to be her interest to carry them about with her as a means of exciting commiseration, they become accustomed to habits of idleness, and from their youth are peculiarly liable to impressions of vice. As they grow up, they are generally able, both males and females, to obtain engagements as farm servants ; but it has been observed, that the latter are the most frequent victims of seduction amongst a class of domestics peculiarly exposed to that danger. Their illegitimate offspring, Mr Maguane considered as likely to prove worse subjects than others, even under favourable circumstances, and thus he has known the poverty of an individual entail the worst of consequences even on her descendants.

About six widows are to be found among the 13 persons who participate in the money collected at the protestant church ; they are all roman-catholics, and it is not thought that any attempt has ever been made to withdraw them from their faith. It must at the same time be allowed, that 2s. a year, the largest sum received from this fund, does not offer any great temptation to hypocrisy. As to relief given in this manner being a tax on one persuasion for the aid of the poor of another, Mr. Kenny observed, “that though it might appear so, yet the people of that other persuasion were taxed to raise a church over the heads of the first.”

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