Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835
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Clare County Library

Parish Kilferagh. Village Kilkee. Barony Moyarta.


THE exact number of bastards could not be ascertained, but the opinion of all present was, that, considering the extent of the parish and the density of the population, the number was extremely small. The attachment of a mother toward an illegitimate child is very strong, and a case of deserting a child never occurs here. No case of infanticide or of finding a child dead has ever occurred in this parish within the knowledge of the witnesses. When the woman is brought to bed her friends generally apply to the father for some maintenance for the child, and if his means are at all adequate, he usually makes some provision for the offspring. Very frequently a feeling of honour and a desire to repair the injury done to the woman’s character, leads to marriage, and marriages under these circumstances have been observed to turn out happily.

Before the birth of the child wages are never granted, and then the sum seldom or indeed ever exceeds 3l. or 4l. This, however, depends entirely on the sum applied for ; the woman claims so much wages for the nursing of her child, and, if proved by the testimony of another witness, she will receive it.

The system of granting wages has not produced any sensible effect in increasing the number of illegitimate children ; they are rather on the decrease, though the population for the last four years has wonderfully increased.

The sum granted as wages is so small it could not induce any man to marry the mother of an illegitimate child, and such women seldom get any one to marry them, unless (which sometimes, though rarely, happens) a sum of money was raised among her relations as a dowry, to induce some one far inferior to her in condition to marry her. M’Inerny says, “The loss of character, when publicly known, deters any respectable person from being seen courting her ; besides, by her own sex she is looked down on as degraded.” The Rev. Mr. Murray says, “I have generally observed that bastards among the more respectable agricultural classes marry people of inferior families.” - “You ought to make some difference,” observed Kennedy, “between a male and female bastard. A woman will seldom or scarcely ever make a decent match, because she is not able to work her way in the world as a man can do.”

The reputed father is summoned to attend the petty sessions ; and then it is necessary for the woman to prove, by the testimony of a witness, either a promise on his part to maintain the child or some act of adoption, such as giving money for the child’s support ; the man also is allowed to produce witnesses to disprove the story told by the woman ; if he succeeds in doing so, the case is dismissed ; if he fails, the sum claimed is awarded against him. It has happened, however, that the case for the appellant has been clearly proved, and equally so that for the defendant, the magistrates then settled the case to the best of their discretion. The woman’s character is not taken into consideration ; the only thing required is, that she shall have her case clearly proved, and if she would do this 10 times over, she would be entitled to get relief.

If the reputed father is unable or unwilling to pay the sum, the magistrates can only issue a warrant against his goods ; his person cannot be touched, except by a decree from the quarter sessions ; the amount is awarded in one sum ; frequently a few days are granted to the reputed father to pay it. “This is done,” Mr. Studdart says, “because it would be cruel to force a man to pay a large sum at once.” To enforce wages, the acknowledgement of the reputed father is not necessary. “In fact,” observes Mr. Studdart, “they generally acknowledge the child long before they come to us ; the point we are called on to decide is, whether the promise to pay has been made or not.” No case has occurred here of a father absconding to avoid the payment of the sum awarded against him.

Women have never been reduced in this parish to beg, in consequence of their having bastard children ; they will sometimes get work in the fields in setting or picking potatoes, but seldom would a woman who had lost her character be admitted into a farmer’s family as a farm servant. Neither have such women become prostitutes in this parish. “But I am sure,” says Fitzgerald, “frequently the beggarwomen who come into this part of the country, have been obliged to leave home in consequence of their misconduct ; indeed, no complaint is so common, during the summer, as that they have been forced to fly from their own parishes owing to a ‘misfortune ;’ and no woman would admit this but one who had undergone great privation and hardship.” The Rev. Mr. Comyn further observes, “The very act of begging from infancy, coupled with the scenes the young children must be brought up in, of necessity renders them also loose members of society.”

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