Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835
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Parish Kilferagh. Village Kilkee. Barony Moyarta.


SPEAKING of the number of beggars in this parish, Hare says, “I do not suppose I have ever seen four of our residents begging.” As to the strollers, both the Rev. Mr. Comyn and Shillogh estimate them in one ploughland of the parish, one day with another throughout nine months of the year, to be not less than 30.

The parish is very extensive, and it is stated that there certainly are as many as 100 going about asking for alms during the greater part of the year. In summer, during the bathing season at Kilkee, when there is an influx from all parts of the country, the Rev. Mr. Curry is positive the number of strolling beggars coming to the salt water cannot be under 200, one day with another, during the months of June, July, and August. “They follow,” observed Shillogh, “the quality then.” Curtil remarks, that the facility of getting turf, which abounds in this parish, and the ease with which solkane (a preparation of sea-weed) can be procured, materially increase the influx of beggars into this parish; and he has heard them observe, that this is altogether one of the best parishes in county Clare for them to come to.

In summer, when provisions are scarce, many of the poor people who are too proud to beg, and would rather starve than be considered regular beggars, are often reduced to one meal of potatoes mixed with pressagh (a kind of wild mustard), the use of which is very injurious to the health. “The consequence is,” adds Hare, “that many of the children get very sickly at that season ; and illness will most frequently be found in those houses where ‘pressagh’ is obliged to be used.” Shillogh observes, “The beggars have been much increasing for the last three or four years. The markets are getting every year lower and the rents higher ; the village is increasing in size, and the bathers more numerous ; added to which, the facilities of getting from Limerick to Killrush [sic] by the steam-boat, owing to the kindness of the owners, who will generally give their passage to the poor going to the salt water gratis, when their grievances (their wretched condition) are made known to the captain. All these things send a great number of strange beggars from all parts of the county Limerick and Kerry to this parish.”

In June and July, when the provisions are exhausted and little work to be had, “then it is,” said Hare, “the Kerry people come here in swarms. They cross from the county Kerry to the county Clare, where they continue begging until their potatoes are fit for digging.” “In this parish the beggars are all strangers ; and it is really wonderful,” said the Rev. Mr. Comyn, “what shifts our people make rather than beg in summer. There are several dispossessed families living on a hill near me, many of whose children are quite naked, and others wretchedly clad ; and as for food, no animal can live on a worse description. Although it would be advantageous for these people to go out and beg, I am sure they would all rather starve than allow it hereafter to be said that either themselves or any of their children had been mendicants.”

In the course of the summer weavers and other mechanics are sometimes found begging here, nor does any greater reluctance to beg characterize them than others who are equally reduced. Gentlemen’s servants also come here occasionally seeking relief from their former masters ; these are in general observed to be great cheats, and frequenters of punch-houses.
Curry says, “It is the county Kerry people send their wives and children here while their potatoes are growing, and indeed it is hard upon us, for there are always long families, and how can we refuse the poor creatures ?” Hare adds, “In the summer season, when the bathers are here, a great many beggars come here from the town of Limerick ; we know them by their language and general appearance.”

Shillogh states, several mendicants have settled here from other places, but there are none of these now begging. Janet Armen and the Walshes came here some time go as beggars ; they are now industrious, honest people. Beggars generally however go home to their own country ; and out of the 100 mentioned before as seeking relief here, not more than three have remained for six months.
The native beggars of the parish, four in number, have been obliged by misfortune to beg. Two of them are too old to work, and the other two have met with accidents and are disabled. They have no relations or friends able to support them. Curry says, “It is almost always poverty and misfortune that send them out at first ; but when they have once taken to begging, they find it easy work, and will not readily give it up. In this parish there are many would rather starve than beg.” The Rev. Mr. Comyn observes, “There are many families ejected from their holdings ; they are driven to towns ; they soon find they cannot live there ; they then take to begging, and their doing so is not noted. This will often explain why in most places the natives of a parish say they produce no beggars.”

As to the comparative quantity given to an able-bodied and an infirm beggar, the able-bodied, unless potatoes are plentiful, will get but little ; whereas the old and infirm will be kindly treated. John Daly, an able-bodied beggar, when asked how much he had collected, replied, “All this blessed day I have been walking about the parish, and I have not been able to collect more than is in my bag.” The quantity was weighed, and was exactly 1½ stone. Soon after an elderly man appeared, and stated he had been out only two hours, and only on the high road from Killkee to Kilrush ; his bag was extremely full ; he acknowledged not less than three stone ; but he said he had several orphan grandchildren, and he did not think he would be able to sell more than one stone, which would enable him to buy tobacco.

The beggars generally buy tobacco, and sometimes shoes, with their surplus collections. Both Daly and the old man generally had enough to buy tobacco. Daly said, he would rather go without his breakfast any day than without his pipe. The old man said he had pains in his bones, and he should die if he were not allowed to smoke ; he generally consumed 1d. in the course of the day. When asked how they got their clothes, the old man said he mostly got them from a kind farmer. But Daly saved a little of his earnings, and now and then bought some rags to cover his nakedness. “If they were well dressed,” said Hare, “they would not surely be so well entitled to charity ; the poor person with his skin exposed must always get more.”

On the point of beggars being reluctant to have their sores cured, inasmuch as their exposure creates compassion, Dr. Ryall says, he has generally found them unwilling to submit to any cure. As there is no asylum here for maimed or blind persons, it cannot be stated whether vagrants would be willing to permit their children to enter such an institution. Dr. Ryall, however, mentions, that there are a great many blind people in this parish, owing entirely to the practice pursued by a class of travelling inoculators of small-pox, who have done a vast deal of mischief, and ought certainly be prohibited by legislative enactments.

There are many decent, honest people going about as vagrants; but the poor here complain very much of the numerous thefts committed by the strollers. “It was only the other day,” says M’Mahon, “that I let a decentish looking fellow come into my house near the roadside, and lay down his wisp of straw near the fire, which was the best place my poor cabin could afford him; and I will tell you what he did for this kindness ; he robbed me of a new pair of shoes, the only ones I had been able to buy for the last nine months by my little savings, and the shirt which I had put out to go clean to mass the next day (Sunday), was also missing.” The Rev. Mr. Comyn confirmed this statement, by saying, “My parishioners come frequently to me to know what they are to do, as their clothes, which they generally lay out to dry, are taken away. This is principally what I have to complain of in the present system of mendicancy, which is going on, more or less, the whole year through.” With regard to beggars hoarding their earnings, Shillogh says, “that when the currency was changed, beggars came in crowds to get their tenpenny pieces changed for shillings.” Simon Curry “had known more than one instance of beggars saving money ; but the most notorious case was that of a man now living in the next parish ; his wife would be away, wandering up and down in strange countries, where nobody knows her, and where, from her civil manners and decent appearance, she would often collect a great deal more than she wanted. I knew her husband well, and a more comfortable-looking chap I think I seldom saw ; but no wonder, for Peggy the knowing one, as we used to call her, would, to my certain knowledge, every now and then come home to her husband with a pound note, which she would get by selling everything she would receive from the Christian neighbours ; this money he would lend to the poor at what I consider great interest.” Whilst Curry was relating this story, a beggar-woman, who was attentively watching the proceedings, suddenly pushed in her head, and cursed him violently for “telling tales, and not minding his own business.”

With regard to beggars dying of starvation, Bolen, a labourer, says, “I never heard of any beggar starving ; it is more likely to happen to one of us, who are often hard driven in summer, if sickness comes upon us ; ‘faith, I believe the beggars never die, for I see many of them at the salt water quite crooked with age, and these people I have seen here year after year for the last 20 years.”

The Assistant Commissioners addressed this inquiry, conceiving it to be one of the most important, to 37 labourers living on different roads within a circuit of two miles of Kilkee, and in no one instance was there the slightest degree of difference from the following remark made by M’Donnell : “Though the beggar may not earn more by begging than he would by honest working, I’ll warrant you his life is a far easier one than that of any of the 37 labourers to whom this question was put. What has the beggar to care about in this world ? he has no taxes, no tithes, and sure he has no outgoings at all. The beggar has a hard trade of it when the potatoes are scarce ; but even then he can get enough to eat, and is better off than the labourer, who must buy his potatoes as well as he can, and can get no employment of any kind.”

With regard to getting clothes from the farmers, Haly, the beggarman, says, “I am sure there is not a farmer that would not give the beggar clothes if they had them to spare.” The principal relief given by the farmers consists in potatoes. If a disabled man applies during harvest, he will get a handful of corn or a little flax seed ; in short, whatever the farmer has. Milk is given in summer to old people, or if there be a very large family ; but now in November there is scarcely any among the farmers. Mr. Studdart is certain that three-fourths of the farmers in the parish of Kilferagh do not possess a cow. As to farmers preferring to give food to money, M’Narney says, “They have not the money, and it is the custom to give food ; moreover, they have no coin small enough to divide among so many applicants.” Haly, the beggarman, says, “We would rather get the money, because it is easier to carry it than a bag of potatoes ; and how can we do without tobacco ? and how could we get that without money ?”

The average size of the farms in this parish is about six acres ; and it is considered by all present, that the burthen of supporting the strollers falls on the small farmer, who can least afford it. The only resident gentleman is Mr. Studdart, a middle-man ; and the owners of the soil, who live away, completely escape the annoyance and the severe tax which those least able to afford it are obliged to bear. “The rich man,” observes Haly, “will not allow the beggar into his house nor into his kitchen ; the servant will keep him off ;” and Curtil says, “Often when I meet a poor person he will ask me if there is any kindness towards the beggars in such and such a large house, meaning a gentleman’s house.” Daly, the beggarman, says, “If it was not for the poor people, such as poor farmers and labourers, we should starve. What do the gentlemen care for us, and how can we get at them?”

Upon Curry and M’Donnell being asked the question, the latter replied, “It is such as we must all do for the strollers. I have half an acre myself ; I pay a heavy rent, and I give the beggar as much as I can.” Daly, upon hearing this, with tears in his eyes, remarked, “The great God above knows it is true what Curry has said, and they will get their reward for their charity. I have gone to M’Donnell’s when he had scarcely food to put in his own belly, and he has always welcomed me like a good Christian.”

A variety of causes seem to influence the majority of persons to give to the beggar. Though a fear that the applicant is suffering from great privation may find a place in the train of ideas which accompany almsgiving, yet it is admitted by all, that custom and religious feeling have more effect in awakening charity, agreeably to the remark made by Kennedy : “It will never lessen what I have given in the honour of God ; and it is a great delight to me to hear the beggar say good prayers in honour of my soul.” The Rev. Mr. Comyn says that the certainty of relief being at hand for any beggar would, as he thinks, remove that feeling of duty entertained by the community now as the necessity of relieving mendicants.

As to the influence of the beggar’s curse, Hare says, “We are getting too enlightened to mind such things in these days ; but I am quite positive the fear the women have of being cursed makes them give to ‘boccoughs,’ who have always a pack of oaths ready to make use of as they think best.”

Dr. Ryal states that he has no doubt fever is spread by the system of giving a night’s lodging, when it breaks out in a district; he has frequently seen the bad effect of mendicancy in communicating a disease called “tetters,” which is very common among the beggars.

The petty sessions are occasionally held during the summer months at Kilkee, and no punishments have been inflicted for vagrancy ; neither at Kilrush, where the magistrates sit once a week ; neither is it thought that it could be done, unless relief were extended to the really deserving objects. Mr. Vandeleur says, “I do not think vagrancy laws could be enforced unless relief were given to the impotent poor ; but it is absolutely necessary that we should soon have some means in our power to repress vagrancy. Mendicancy, as it exists, is injurious to the morals of the poor ; and particularly in a town of the size of Kilrush, one cannot but be struck with the bad consequences that result to those who give lodgings to beggars, as they carry about disease, and frequently rob the poor people. Almost all the petty larcenies that have lately been committed there, and brought before us as magistrates, have been clearly traced to strolling mendicancy.”

There is no house of industry nearer than Ennis, a distance of at least 20 miles. Several beggars were examined as to whether they would go into a house of industry ; and they all expressed the greatest horror at the idea, as they said, of being deprived of their liberty. One or two of them said, “they knew well what it was ; they had heard their friends screeching and calling out for help when they were to go to the Mendicity at Limerick and would such places be recommended to them ?” One of them said, he knew he would never hear mass there ; in fact, there was no excuse left untouched, and all the cruelties which report has assigned to the management of mendicities were pictured to their minds in the most exaggerated horrors. The following is the history of Tom Haly, at present a resident mendicant of Kilkee : “I was born and reared at Birshill [sic], in the county of Tipperary, and worked with Mr. Gowing as a labourer for 5d. a day, from whom I held one acre and a half of ground, the rent of which I used to work out by my labour. With him and with others I was employed about 42 years, and I am now past 74. I have a wife and children, who are all in employment, except the eldest girl, who has the falling sickness ; one son gets 5s. a quarter from a farmer, and the others get 6s. 6d., and, as God is my judge, they cannot afford me a stone of potatoes. When I first came to this parish, I was able to work and to pay my little calls by my labour.” When he was asked what induced him to come from Tipperary to Kilferagh, he replied, “I was turned out of my little holding by Mr. Gowing, because I was not able to take a large farm of 20 or 30 acres when he was getting rid of the small cottiers. I wandered up and down the country then till I chanced to fall in with a kind farmer, who gave me work as long as he had anything for me to do. When that was over, myself and the creatures (the children) were necessitated to beg, and we travelled a long, long way, and at last we got to Kilkee, where we knew the quality would be. Blessed be the Lord, however, the strangers were good ; and as I was still able to work, I got labour and a little piece of work ground (con-acre) ; but the work was so severe I could not stand it long, and when the Almighty God was pleased to deprive me of my health, I was ashamed to beg with those whom I had worked, so I left this place and went to a friend of mine in the county of Tipperary, who gave me 10s., and then I bought a little ‘bannow’ (a little pig) with which to pay the rent of my lodging. I begged my way here to my wife ; I have now sold the pig to pay up the calls, and do not know how I must pay the rent, excepting depending on the great God and the Christians.” (He meant he would receive it by begging in the summer, when the gentry resort to Kilkee.) “I used to get a trifle from my eldest boy before he was married, and that he did at 18.” When asked why his son married so early , he said, “My conscience would not allow me to forbid him, because she was blasted by him when they were living as farm servants in the same house. I would not like to go into a poorhouse, because I do not know the course of things there, and I do not think I could live without a start (a walk) now and then. I do not think I should be allowed a smoke of tobacco, all the comfort I have had of late, and I would rather die than do without the tobacco.”

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