Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835
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Clare County Library

Parish Kilmanaheen. Barony Corcomroe.


THERE is scarcely any employment for labourers from Christmas-day until St. Patrick’s-day, the 17th of March ; and then again in July they have nothing at all to do. When Higgins, a labourer, was asked what he generally eat during these months, he said, “I give you my word and honour, I was working the whole of this day upon a dry potato, which I had at 11 o’clock, and I had nothing more until I came home, when it was duskish.” And upon Mr. Daly, his employer, being appealed to upon the truth of this man’s statement he exclaimed, “Nothing was ever more true than what he has said ; and I can add, that I believe a great many labourers in the town of Ennistymon are just now living upon exactly the same scale.” Lysaght, another labourer, said, “Frequently, during the summer, I can only afford two meals a day, and these scanty ones. During the hard long days of last summer, an odd day on and off, I was working for an estated man the whole day upon one pennyworth of bread without any kitchen, and at the end of the day I would get 10d. for my hire ; potatoes were then 4d. a stone, and I had seven, besides myself, at home.” There is no fund of any kind out of which the labourer might receive assistance during these periodical seasons of scarcity, and of want of employment.

The wives and children of those out of employment sometimes go away about the beginning of July, and remain out until the beginning of August ; and this they must sometimes do, according to Higgins, or starve. When Finn was asked whether, under such circumstances, a certain portion of the population must not become habituated to mendicancy, he sharply replied, “Sure, you know she would never leave the little family ; it would pinch her too much to the heart.” There were no instances known there of women with families being abandoned by their husbands, nor of the young girls being driven to prostitution from want.

Lysaght said, when asked whether the poor were ever known to commit thefts in order to obtain the shelter of a gaol, “I know there are many who would stretch themselves down and die sooner than commit a shilling’s worth of crime in order to get into prison ;” and all the witnesses agreed that they had never known an individual who committed an offence for that purpose.

The system of obtaining provisions on credit is not so prevalent in that district as it used to be formerly, owing to the numerous cases of insolvency. Such is the distress of the labouring population in that part of the country, that no labourer is ever allowed now to take his potato crop off the ground until the rent is paid, or good security given for it. He never would be permitted to do so on his own responsibility. This observation applies more to the ordinary class of labourers than to those who are in the employment of farmers and landholders ; “and these,” as Mr. Daly said, “are few indeed.” According to Carrig also, the condition of the working and labouring population was so bad that worse it could not be ; and he was afraid to say that they would hazard anything to better it, and of course they are always open to excitement and temptation.

In answer to the question whether one class are inclined to marry earlier than another, Mr. James Keane, a farmer, said, “The women always want to get married because they are so poor, and they know they are open to temptation. I often hear the people say, we must get this poor girl married soon, to get her out of harm’s way.” It has also been invariably remarked there, that those who have a few comforts marry later in life than the generality of the poor people.

In illustration of the great anxiety of the labouring population in general to avail themselves of work whenever employment is to be had, Higgins, the labourer, mentioned an interesting fact to the Commissioners, which was allowed on all hands to be correct. “In the year 1822, (a period fresh in the recollections of the inhabitants of that country,) when they were making a road there, the overseer worked some of the best labourers too hard, and they were obliged to discontinue working for the day. No sooner, however, were they dismissed than another set of men, who had long been watching the work, offered themselves with the greatest joy, and willingly accepted so small a remuneration as 2d. for a quarter or a half a day ; and even had they been turned off, there were plenty more standing by quite ready to fall into the gang.”

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