Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835
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Clare County Library

Parish Kilferagh. Village Kilkee. Barony Moyarta.


THE number of infirm persons destitute through age bears but a small proportion to the population of the whole parish, and certainly does not exceed in number 40. Of these, three or four beg openly ; the rest, too proud to seek their livelihood openly from the neighbours, go by stealth into the houses of those to whom their circumstances are best known, and, together with the scanty support granted to them by their nearest relations, eke out a miserable subsistence. “I cannot conceive,” says the Rev. Mr. Murray, “anything more deplorable, more heart-rending, and in a Christian country more to be reprehended, than the condition of some of those poor creatures, who, bowed down to the ground by old age and infirmity, toil from the door of one sympathizing neighbour to another, by their appearance, I might almost say, extracting charity from those whose means do not allow them to satisfy even their own wants ; yet I know these old people would rather die than have it said that they entailed disgrace on their families, by becoming regular beggars.” And Mr. Vandeleur adds, “To such a class of persons, to their comforts and their wants, peculiar attention ought to be paid. What possible abuse can there be in making the affluent do that which is almost exclusively left to the poor ?” M’Donnell says, “The rich do not know anything about the poor ; the gentlemen who own property live away, and leave it all to us poor people.” There are not more than six assisted by the church collections. The sums collected at the roman-catholic chapel are devoted to paying the debt incurred in erecting it. A little after 50 is the age at which they begin to break, and generally about 60, the two-acres cottiers, who are by far the most numerous class, “throw down the spade.” The weavers, of whom there are but few, owing to their hard-working habits, and the bad ventilation of their houses, may be said to be incapable of any great exertion after 55. “And I think,” observes Curry, “the son takes the place of the father about that time in the field.” Almost all the weavers in this part of the country have small holdings, and cannot earn more than 5d. a day even if they had full employment ; yet as this is the lot of but very few, their chief dependence is on agriculture.

The old people generally reserve some part of the farm or holding, together with a cabin, for their own use ; but sometimes they have transferred the entire to their children, and then they take up their abode with the last married child, who is supposed to have less to do for himself, owing to his having no children, when such a determination is come to by the old parent. M’Mahon “supports an old father 78 years of age, and many a time I am hard pressed to get him tobacco, and a rag to cover his nakedness ; as for the food, he always shares whatever is going with us, and that, thank God, we are able to give him.” As an illustration of the difficulty felt by the younger branches in supporting their aged parents, Philip O’Brien says, he has “two sons, willing as any in the parish, to support him ; they have each six children, though they are both still very young, and if they could get eight months regular employment in the course of the year, at 8d. a day, they would be as happy as princes, and make me as comfortable as I could wish. I am now 70 years old, and would still handle a spade as well as any one, and do easy work ; but the neighbours have too many friends of their own to look after, and will not employ me at half wages, because I am considered past labour. I live generally with the youngest boy, who has an acre of muck ground (con-acre), and even with this, for it is bad land, he is obliged to buy provisions from the beggars; and last summer, in July, for three days we had but three scanty meals. As for clothes, this coat which I have on has lasted me for the last eight years, and when one of the arms had worn off, one of the water guards seeing me going about on a cold winter’s day, said it was a shame that a poor old Irishman should not be as well off as a pig, and bought me some baize, with which one of the good neighbours mended it. As for shoes, I have had none to wear for the last two years, and last winter twice I cut my foot so badly that the doctor told me if it did not heal soon, there would be danger of the leg being taken off.”

His sons, two able-bodied handsome young men, dressed like their father, in rags, approached the Assistant Commissioners with tears in their eyes, and, in a tone of voice that carried conviction to the heart, said, “that if things did not get better they must certainly turn him out.” - “Yes,” exclaimed the father, “I know well, my boys, that a poor old man like me is a great burthen, and I shall have nothing to do for it next coming summer but to go and travel.” Upon being asked, if there was a poorhouse for the aged and infirm, whether he would go in, - “to be sure I would,” he answered, “what else can I do ? and is it not better I should hide my face than bring disgrace on my family, and let all the world know what Philip O’Brien was come to at last ?” The Rev. Mr. Murray stated “that this was not a rare case in this part of the country ; you may travel,” he adds, “through this parish, and you will find 20 as bad as poor O’Brien’s.”

When old persons have no relations, they go about among the neighbours and get a meal here and there ; and this is not called begging, they are termed askers ; but it often happens that by degrees they degenerate into regular mendicants, and go into some strange parish. When M’Donnell was asked if the young labourers subscribed for the old, he replied, “I am sure every labourer in this parish would do so if he had 8d. a day regular, if it was proposed to him by the priest ; for how else are we to know what it is for that we are to subscribe ? he is our only friend, and to him we must look for every kind of advice.” When the Assistant Commissioners asked him whether a gentleman who showed an interest in his tenantry, and lived amongst them, would not be able to carry such a plan into effect, - “to be sure he would ; and why not ? we would be willing to do anything for those to whom we belong, who could come and live among us and treat us like free-born men.”

Very few have emigrated from this parish, and no instances are yet known of persons sending remittances here. “The loss of the ships from Limerick last year has panic-struck many who were speaking about bettering themselves in America.”

There is no subscription fund among the gentry. “It would be a rare thing,” observes Shillogh, “to see the rich doing anything for the poor in this country ; and what can the gentleman who has almost all the parish know about it ? he has no house here, and it is difficult to remember when we saw his face.”

On the average, 7l. a year is collected at the church, the greater part of which is given by the strangers who come to Kilkee during the bathing season. It is divided amongst some of the poorest and most infirm people with large families, and sometimes among women with children who are passing through as beggars. Even this small sum thus distributed is supposed to cause a great influx of beggars from the county Kerry ; and this circumstance gave rise to a regulation which enforces the production of a certificate, signed by respectable persons, that they are proper objects, and come here for the purpose of curing their complaints.

The general feeling of all present was decidedly in favour of a provision for the aged poor ; and when it was observed that the general practice of smoking indicated the possession of some money further than was necessary for the support of life, Dr. Regall observed, “that as things are, the poor ought to have tobacco to assist in the digestion of their present food ;” and Mr. Vandeleur remarks, “I have frequently conversed with the different farmers on my estates, and the impression on my mind is, they would strongly favour a provision for the infirm poor, if they did not imagine that a very heavy tax would ultimately fall on their shoulders, and that the gentlemen and rich people would be exempted from bearing their just proportion.”

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