Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835
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Clare County Library

Parish Kilmanaheen. Barony Corcomroe.


IT would be very difficult, nay almost impossible, to ascertain the number of vagrants in this parish. The greater number appear there on Sundays, and go round to the different shopkeepers after mass, who relieve them according to their means ; and Thynne, the shopkeeper, observed, that he counted them once or twice on these occasions, and that they could not have amounted to less than 70 or 80. Mendicancy has greatly increased in that part of the country, owing to several causes ; want of employment, for instance ; the increased popularity of the bathing-places on the Clare coast ; the cheapness of potatoes in that district, from the facility of procuring sea manure ; and the complete prostitution of the manufacture of freize and linens for home consumption : all these circumstances combined have caused a considerable influx of beggars into that and the other neighbouring parishes. Mulqueany, a small farmer, said, that many came there on their travels, and stopped when they found the country cheap. He never saw so many in his life ; and if he had half an acre of potatoes for the beggars, he could not give a handful to each person that called upon him. This poor man had about an acre of potatoes last year ; and he gave away so much, that he was obliged to purchase considerably more than he had been accustomed to do this year, on account of this great increase of vagrancy. Morrissy, the weaver, remarked, that all the weavers are worse off than the beggars. Many of his friends, who used to inhabit comfortable little houses, in or about Ennistymon, paying a rent of about 30s. or 40s. a year, have been obliged to sell them ; and after wandering about different parts of Ireland in search of employment, they have returned and taken up their abode there as lodgers, at 6d. a week, and are living in a most wretched state. He himself could not earn more than 2s. a week, and that is better than many of them. If he had work constantly, he might make out about 8d. a day, or 4s. a week. The Assistant Commissioners were informed, that this poor man’s children were so badly clothed, that it would be considered indecent for them to appear in school in that state. “Consequently,” as Martha Morrissy, their mother, said, “they are obliged to remain at home in idleness ; and God only knows what will become of them when they grow up.”

As to the class of mendicants who are relieved in the neighbourhood at this season of the year, they are principally strangers ; they come from a great distance, and many of them with the excuse that sea bathing had been recommended to them, as an infallible cure for all descriptions of pains in the bones (a common term made use of by the poor people to express weakness, or any other ailments they may be troubled with). They thus take Ennistymon on their road to the several watering-places. Others again are supposed, from their appearance and modesty, as well as from their youth and decent behaviour, to be the wives and children of labourers, and of persons holding an acre of ground or so, who, from absolute necessity, are driven to beg in a hard summer. With regard to this class of poor persons, Mulqueany said, “I really cannot help crying sometimes, when I see these poor girls standing at the door, shaking all over, and hanging down their heads, as if to avoid being seen ; and when you give them anything, they seem so thankful and grateful, that I know by their very manner they are deserving of our compassion. These poor persons are far too sensitive to approach any gentleman’s house, where they would probably be refused relief on account of their respectable appearance, or to visit even the houses of large farmers, who are known frequently to be in the habit of refusing these the most deserving objects, from their mixing so little with a class so inferior to them in importance ; and therefore, knowing so little about them, their support then principally falls upon us cottiers.” The wives and children of employed labourers and cottiers are not found begging there. Two small cottier families went away that year, the potato crop having been a failure in that district. One family consisted of six children, besides the man and his wife ; and they held about half an acre of ground. According to the testimony of several labourers and tradesmen, the cottier tenants and tradesmen are far more reluctant to beg than the labourers ; and it was well known that many of the labourers in the town were much worse off than several of those who are now begging belonging to the labouring classes. M’Namara, for instance, who had been used to superior comforts, and was an intelligent man, could read and write well ; was ready, as he expressed it himself, to work like a horse, as a labourer, at 8d. a day, when he had no employment as a weaver. He is not able to make by his trade, with the greatest exertion, 4d. a day throughout the year. He has a family of six children, besides his wife and an aged parent, whom he supports as well as he can, and that is badly enough ; and his old father says he must go begging soon, as he cannot get enough to eat to keep body and soul together. This has been the wretched condition of M’Namara’s family for the last three years. According to Mr. Nolan, there must be a great many broken down tradesmen amongst the great crowds of beggars who pass through Ennistymon ; but Thynne, the shopkeeper, said he did not think so. He frequently discovered impositions ; and a great many say they are tradesmen, because they think thereby to excite greater compassion. There were no servants either disabled or out of employment begging there. Carrig remarked, that if there was one class more able than another to economise, it is the farm servants while they are young, and provided they are prudent. The gentlemen’s servants too have great opportunities of laying by ; and he knew four of them in that parish who regularly sent their money to the savings’ bank at Ennis.

Upon the subject of the old men resigning their property to their children and going to beg, it was observed that they might, and frequently do, give it up so when they get old, reserving for themselves a small portion of land, just enough to produce food for their own consumption, and to enable them, by selling a little, to procure tobacco, which is considered quite indispensable in this country, both to old and young ; but then, when a very hard season comes on, and the family can scarcely support themselves the old person will go out.

Many labourers leave that part of the country for the counties of Tipperary and Kilkenny, to mow the hay, dig potatoes and reap the harvest. These are called “spalpeens,” and are induced to leave home on account of the higher rate of wages that they get there. Lysaght, a labourer, said, “It seldom amounts to a penny a day more than they would get in the county of Clare ; but one halfpenny, in addition to what we usually receive, would take us far away from home, even to where we subject ourselves to hard treatment ; for we are worse treated in those times by the farmers than the slaves in the Indies. A few dry potatoes, three times in the day only to eat, which we must swallow as hard as we can ; plenty of rough words, and a little straw, which is chucked into an outhouse or shed, just as you would treat a pig, serves us for a bed ; and in this way we must make ourselves as happy as we can for three long, long months.” Higgins also said upon this point, “About two years ago three men went from this parish to England, and they brought back good news ; there was work there, and they were well pleased ; they each brought back about 3l., and a secondhand suit of clothes, which they purchased there. I dare say more will go over next year, when the fright about the cholera in England has passed away, and when the other labourers hear that those men were so fortunate.” None of the labourers who go to the low countries ever beg.

It was thought by all present that no persons beg from choice ; necessity is the great cause ; and invariably, when the feeling of pride and independence is once lost, habit, and the profits arising from mendicancy, induce individuals to continue that mode of life in preference to steady work and industrious means of earning a livelihood. This remark, however, does not apply to the labourers’ wives, who are sometimes compelled, in unusual seasons of distress, to crave alms for six weeks or two months or so. They will always, however, stay at home while they can get on at all ; and besides, their husbands will not allow them to go out while they can procure work themselves. - (Keane.) - Daly, the innkeeper, said, “It is to the high rents and the taxes that they attribute being driven out to beg ; and very often they tell us that they were in opulence and comfort at one time. We are bound to believe them, as they are generally civil and inoffending, and because they address us decently.”

As to the quantity of meal and potatoes which an able-bodied beggar would be likely to collect in a day, it was agreed that, at the time of potato digging, they will often have four or five stone weight, at 16 pounds each ; but at that time they are plenty and cheap.

In summer they would do well if they could bring in a stone ; a middle aged man without children, according to Donoghue and others, can collect much more than he requires himself ; but a man and a woman with children will not have much to spare, as they require more than their own consumption, according to their numbers. “In this town,” said Thynne, “it is the single men and women who regularly sell their potatoes after coming home to the poor in their neighbourhood, and nobody has ever seen a beggar with a family disposing of what they have been enabled to collect. It is therefore quite clear that the least deserving objects are best off : the single persons eat as much as they require, and smoke a great deal, whereas a large family, who are in the greatest want, barely get more than is absolutely necessary for the day’s use.” There is only one car or public conveyance through the town, and the beggars occasionally get a few half pence from the passengers. Collections are also frequently made at the roman-catholic chapel for poor householders ; the regular beggars are aware of this, and therefore do not attend in numbers at the chapel doors to seek for alms.

Those single persons who are thus in the habit of disposing of their surplus collections, lay out their profits in buying quantities of tobacco ; those with families, therefore, are accustomed to lay up the profits of their surplus, fearing that they might not have enough at another time, when the weather might prevent them from going out as usual. Thynne said upon this subject, “I know five or six resident beggars, who regularly sell their surplus potatoes at the crane in Ennistymon, besides an indefinite number of strangers. I have observed some of these poor creatures buying cheap quilts at 2s. 6d. each, or other decent matters of the kind.” They do not often buy tea, and rarely if ever spirits.

The beggars very seldom say anything when they apply for charity. The real objects just stand at the door of the cabin, and the woman always knows what they come for, and what they want, and she gives them alms accordingly. Mulqueany said, that the only remark he hears them make is, that they have not broken their fast for 24 hours. Upon inquiry whether rags or dirt and misery were not often fostered for the purpose of exciting pity, more than one of the persons present indignantly replied, that the greatest number of the beggars could not help dressing themselves in rags, and that those very rags were all that many of them had to sleep in at night. Archdeacon Whitty also observed, that he is quite sure that 80 out of 100 of the children who apply at his house for charity, have not even the semblance of a pair of trousers, and it was only the day before that a boy, who was stark naked, appeared shivering in the cold, asking for relief. Lysaght also said, that an Irishman was far too proud to go about in rags, if he could afford to do otherwise. It was stated that it was only the “boccoughs” who had recourse to such practices as encouraging sores on their bodies for the purpose of exciting greater sympathy. There was a man there some time ago, who used to tie up his arm to make it look shrivelled, and in the evening he oiled it to give it its natural appearance and elasticity.

The families of mendicants, beyond all doubt, exceed five in number on an average. It rarely happens that a beggar gets married whilst leading a vagrant life ; they are more frequently reduced after marriage. Archdeacon Whitty said, that for 15 years he did not recollect a beggar’s marriage. There certainly are 10 vagrants in that parish who have bastard children. They could not speak for the strangers, but they suspect that many of the young women who are going about there with children have had no husbands. No mendicants have recently died in that neighbourhood, except from ordinary causes ; and Dr. Finucane said that they are in general a very healthy class of people, in consequence of the constant and regular exercise they take.

There can be no doubt that the condition of the beggar is far preferable to that of the regular labourer, and yet it seems strange that so few young able-bodied labourers attempt to avail themselves of the advantages of a vagrant mode of life. Shame, and the feeling of being outcasts from their homes and families, can be the only barrier against so tempting a change. In all the visits of the Assistant Commissioners to the abodes of the village beggars, they invariably observed that they are better supplied with pigs than their more unfortunate neighbours ; and several instances came under their observation of women with two or three pigs going out to seek relief from the public. The dunghills also in front of their cabins were invariably larger, and better stocked with manure, than those of the generality of poor labourers ; for, as Lysaght remarked, when the labourer is depending upon five or six months’ hire, the beggar can stick to his trade every day, bad and good.

Thynne observed, as to the extent of knowledge they have of each applicant, that “they know nothing indeed about them in general ; they suppose they are objects, and in want, and they give for the honour of God, and for the good of their souls.” Although the witnesses could not be got at first to acknowledge the mischief arising to society from the present system of mendicancy, they succeeded at length, with the assistance of the more reasoning individuals who attended the examinations, in extracting from their opinions, proving clearly that the present system of relief has, and must have a tendency to increase pauperism. All present agreed that a mendicant will never forsake a strolling life ; and according to Dogherty, he will never give it up ; his spirit is broken, he finds it an easier life than that of the labourer, and he is well inclined to remain in his degraded situation. They have always been found too to have every objection to work. And Daly said, “I have often given employment to boys who were begging, saving turf, &c., but I always found them go off after getting their bellies full.”

A night’s lodging is invariably given to the beggars by the poor labourers, or the very small farmers, and it was ascertained that few farmers holding more than nine or ten-acre farms would offer a night’s lodging, unless under very particular circumstances. The better description consider that they have performed their parts of the duty, by giving the mendicants the straw, which is then taken to the poor man’s house. It is clear, therefore, that the man who can least afford to be sick, or to have his little things carried away, is the very person who, from his charitable feelings, runs the greatest risk in catching any contagious diseases which may be prevalent, or of being robbed of his shirt, trousers or shoes, articles of the greatest value to labourers, and which they have frequently lost by thus harbouring mendicants.

The greater numbers of beggars do certainly wear the cast-off clothes of the farmers, who are much in the habit of giving them to the poor people when they are almost worn to rags ; “and bad enough they are then,” said Malone, “for we are too poor to give them away until they almost fall off of us.” In summer seasons the farmers give sour milk extensively, and many of the poorest of them, when potatoes are too scarce to give away, offer a drink of milk instead. There is little meal made in that district, and none given away. The relief afforded to the beggars is principally in potatoes, and the farmers prefer giving provisions to money, because the former is always close at hand, whilst the other is scarcely seen from year to year, except when they are making the rents up.

As to the inconvenience of beggars to the different orders of society, it was observed that the shopkeepers are certainly in some degree annoyed by their frequent visits to their shops and houses ; yet at the same time they agreed that it has seldom happened that an illnatured or abusive word has been applied to them. The richer classes in that district are few in number, and these persons, as usual, take the precautionary means to avoid the annoyance of visits from wandering mendicants. As to the proportion in which the different classes give charity, it was agreed on all hands that the industrious give all, and that the rich man’s donations in that part of the country would not keep five beggars from starving. The labouring men never refuse, if they have anything in the house to give away ; and Carrig observed, “I have frequently to collect at the chapel for desolate and sick people, and I often see the labouring man give a halfpenny while I cannot get one farthing from some of the rich farmers who attend mass on Sundays.” The day labourers cannot often give away many potatoes to the beggar, for he is worse off himself, but he lets him have a night’s lodging for the honour of God, and often fire to boil his potatoes.

It was found quite impossible to ascertain how much was given away by a farmer holding about 10 acres of land, for there was the greatest reluctance to answer the question ; and as Malone observed, “It is God only who knows what we give away, and it is not men’s business.” They could ascertain no instance of a person having given away so much as to be afterwards left destitute himself, by failure of crops or other emergency. The same difference of opinion was found there as elsewhere about the preference of giving a yearly sum to remaining open to the constant annoyance of beggars ; for while the shopkeepers on one side, headed by the benevolent Mr. Thynne, warmly expressed themselves in favour of a provision for the poor, as being the means of more fairly distributing the burthen at present so unequally proportioned, the farmers on the other side, excepting one or two of the most intelligent of them, dreaded the imposition of any fresh tax, conceiving themselves already assessed far beyond their means.

It was agreed that charity was generally given from the fear that the party applying was suffering from great want ; custom and religious feeling were another motive ; but according to Malone, the delight experienced by women in listening to the prayers of mendicants has the most powerful influence in urging people often to give beyond their means. It was well known in that part of the country, that the beggar who would say the longest and best composed prayers would inevitably meet with the greatest success in collecting alms. The Assistant Commissioners were assured by the roman-catholic clergymen and many of the people themselves, that if any provision was extended to the poor, the benevolent would no longer feel themselves obliged to relieve travelling mendicants ; and as Donoghue observed, “We would tell them we paid for their support, and they must go look for it to the others, who were managing the business.” Violence is never resorted to in that rural district to extort alms, and the mendicants are, generally speaking, quiet and civil. O’Reilly said the “boccoughs” will talk and scream, and make you give them something, and if you refuse they will often spit at you. Very few people now care about the beggar’s curse. A woman with child would certainly never refuse relief, let the person be ever so unworthy of it ; and Mulqueany said, “I know my wife always gives when she is big with child, and she says she must do it, or she would have a miscarriage.”

Diseases have frequently been spread through the country from the system of giving night’s lodgings to beggars, and fewer have been observed invariably in that district to break out in the poor man’s house. Amongst many recent instances of the bad effects resulting from this custom, the following was mentioned to the Assistant Commissioners : “A few days before that, James O’Brien took in a beggar woman, not knowing at the time that she was infected with fever ; he soon discovered it, however, for in 36 hours he was taken ill of it himself, and after a short illness died. His poor children took it one by one, and they were then lying at home with very little chance of recovery. The doctor is kind and attentive to them, and the parish priest, who is a good man, goes to them every day. A collection was made for the wife and children at the chapel the Sunday before, and if the family do recover they must live on the charity of their neighbours for a long time, as they have nothing left in the wide world to support them.” It had not been observed there, that the moral habits of the lower orders were injured by their association with beggars ; for though they might amuse the poor people by their different stories and tales, yet no mischievous effects can be said to have arisen in consequence of their fabricating any of them.

It seemed to be a very general feeling among all the better classes, that in addition to some relief for the impotent poor, a vagrant law would be necessary to repress mendicancy ; and Archdeacon Whitty observed, that if work were provided for all the able-bodied men who were then wandering about the world, he individually could see no earthly difficulty in strictly enforcing laws to repress vagrancy.

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