|Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835|
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VAGRANCY was stated to have increased in this parish, owing to high rents, low price of corn, and the want of employment for labourers. “Several families,” says Dixon, “have been ejected within the last three years in this neighbourhood ; and although they are not as yet reduced to the last stage of destitution, if employment be not given to them, which seems very unlikely at present, they must inevitably add to the already great number of mendicants belonging to Corofin and its immediate vicinity. These poor ejected tenants drag on a very precarious existence, and are sheltered by the farmers, who are in general very kind, and occasionally give them employment.” The exact number of vagrants was not, however, ascertainable, but they are very numerous, and mostly from the village of Corofin. Several of the farmers exclaimed, “that they were worried all day, and from morning to night, with the number who called at their houses.” The opinion, certainly, of several of the witnesses conveyed this impression, that the numbers who solicit alms in this and the adjoining parish cannot be less than 90 or 100. “It is not surprising,” says M’Namara, “that there should be so many beggars in this district, when you consider how difficult it is for a labourer to get any work at all.” Several labourers, with whom the Commissioners conversed at Corofin, were in the habit of going and returning, nearly seven miles daily, to work on a road at which they had been engaged for a short time, at the rate of 6d. a day in the winter, and 8d. in the summer, without diet. Soon after the arrival of the Assistant Commissioners at Corofin, the road, which had employed no less than 40 of these poor creatures, was finished, and the whole number was left without any employment whatsoever, so much so, that they assured the Assistant Commissioners that they were prepared at that moment not only to engage themselves, if the Government were inclined to offer any employment, but to bring with them at least 200 more, who would be happy to work hard for 6d. a day.
June, July and August are the periods at which vagrancy prevails most here, when there is little work, and scarcely any food in the country. “The mendicants relieved in this neighbourhood,” says Hickey, “are mostly our own ; and though this may seem strange, it can be easily accounted for : the name of property which this place has acquired, holds out no inducement to their flocking hither.” Vagrants are principally widows and children ; a few are the wives of distressed and sickly labourers ; and scarcely any are the wives of mechanics. Kenny says, “The resident beggars go about singly ; they leave their children at home, or send them to school. The strangers, from their circumstances not being known, invariably take their families along with them, in order to excite compassion.” The reason why women and children principally constitute the class of beggars seems to be, because the majority of the women are too infirm, and the children too young, to be profitably employed. No instance was known of a man earning his hire allowing his wife to beg, but there are four or five persons with long families, who sometimes are unable to provide for them, and then send out their wives to beg potatoes. This district is almost entirely agricultural ; yet it was admitted on all hands, that the weavers, who are a most distressed class of mechanics in this parish, are strikingly reluctant to seek for alms ; they will not beg until the last penny is gone. The cases are rare of small farmers making over their little holdings in their old age upon their children, and becoming beggars ; but there are many persons in the commons of Kilnaboy holding one or two acres, who were known to have transferred their property in that way, and to have become mendicants.
Most of the persons present were of opinion, that on an average, during six months of the year, two stone of potatoes in the day would be about the quantity collected by each beggar, and though several mendicants were in the habit of selling their surplus collections, yet a beggar with a family would scarcely procure more than sufficient for them. A labourer present quietly remarked, that “want is out of the question with the man that is satisfied to beg.”
The quantity given is proportioned to the size of the family ; the greater the family, the greater the compassion. When the family is large, strangers sometimes separate into parties, and beg in that way ; but the residents cannot be deceived thus, they are too well known. At any particular application, an infirm person will get more than an able-bodied, but the latter, though often refused, will have more to sell at the end of the day.
When beggars obtain more food than they can consume, they sell the surplus generally to poor labourers with large families, who are much worse off than themselves, but are too proud to be seen begging. These poor creatures are glad to have opportunities of buying small quantities of potatoes, which they could not otherwise get at the market. “We pay,” says M’Mahon, “rather more than the market price to the beggars, but this we do not mind or feel, because they will let us have as small a quantity as we want at a time.” What they procure by selling their surplus collections they expend in tea, and more frequently in tobacco, but never in spirits. Tobacco, they say, they must all get, of which they use a great quantity ; and they affirm they would rather die than be without tobacco. Very few of the mendicants can be said to dissipate their earnings ; this character applying more to the boccoughs, who frequent fairs and markets. “But,” says Dixon, “there cannot be a doubt that they enjoy advantages, nay, one may almost add luxuries, compared with the majority of the labouring classes.” The Assistant Commissioners, in support of this view, conceive it their duty to add, that not only in Corofin, but almost in every village in which mendicants congregate, which they duly visited, the general appearance and internal arrangements of the houses of professed beggars, betrayed a degree of comfort that was quite foreign to the habitation of the wretched but contented labourer. Whilst at Corofin, they were particularly struck with the immense heaps of manure that were piled up against certain houses in one of the back lanes, and upon inquiry it was ascertained that these were the abodes of many old women, who are well known as mendicants, and who daily leave the village in search of alms. These dung heaps are sold to the labourers who have not enough to manure their little con-acre, the mendicants not requiring it for themselves, though they collect manure in their wanderings. So far from observing any of the consequences of depravity in those houses, it is but justice to this class to say, that nothing but decorum and propriety was found in their dwellings, and so anxious were these mendicants to show how attentive they were to the education of the younger class of the family, that frequently the Commissioners were prevailed on by their solicitation to sit down, and hear the children read, and inspect their copy-books, which evidenced a regular attendance at school, and a laudable thirst for learning.
It is often remarked that beggars have larger families than comfortable people, yet amongst resident beggars here, the proportion of illegitimate children is not supposed to be greater than among the labouring classes, the latter being much exposed to danger at wakes, dances, &c. On the point of relative mortality, it was stated that many of the labourers died during the cholera, while comparatively few of the beggars were cut off.
It is not thought that a strong, hale, able-bodied man would obtain as much by begging as he would earn by labour ; but there is no doubt that the man who has plenty of work still left in him, yet looks a little sickly and weak, and is not very young, would find it a more profitable speculation to beg. The labourer has to pay 5l. for a con-acre, the rent of which he makes up by a pig and his labour. For the former, the price is so low it does not remunerate him, and the latter is precarious and uncertain. The beggar has no rent to pay, and is always sure of having enough to eat. There is no doubt that, all things considered, he is better off than the labourer with a large family, but in what degree it is not easy to ascertain.
The previous collection of a beggar is not inquired into, and alms are freely given to utter strangers. A night’s lodging is given to beggars by labourers and cottiers, but not by farmers holding above five acres ; and with regard to giving clothes, Hehir says, “If we had them we would readily give them ; but there is not one small farmer out of 30 that is able to dress his own children decently, and there are many of the labourers’ children that are obliged to stay from school because of the want of clothes.” Upon visiting the houses of the poor of this parish, and particularly at Corofin, the Assistant Commissioners were struck with the number of children most miserably clad, while several were in a state of perfect nudity. There cannot be a doubt that the labourers are worse off in this district than in any of the several parts visited by the Assistant Commissioners. According to the evidence, the superabundant number of labourers seems to be the cause. The principal relief given to beggars consists of potatoes, meal being seldom given ; and as many of the farmers as have cows give milk too, but no money. They have the food always at hand, but not the money, though the vagrant would prefer the latter.
There is no limitation to the quantity of food given. “No creature,” says Halloran, “that asks me, in the honour of God, that does not get some little of potatoes or milk : but the quantity mostly given is about four or five potatoes, weighing about two pounds.” Upon inquiring of witnesses whether any persons were supported by rich families as pensioners, all agreed that there was no such thing here. The Assistant Commissioners however ascertained that there were several persons materially assisted by the benevolence of Mrs. Bridgeman, the wife of the present member for Ennis, whose kindness towards the poor, and zeal in promoting education among their children is so great, both here and in her own immediate neighbourhood, that the Assistant Commissioners feel bound to mention this lady’s exemplary conduct. It was thought that some farmers give away as much as would enable them to diet an additional labourer, but no one could say that any of the shopkeepers gave as much as would enable them to support an additional workman.
The evidence given here fully corroborated that received and repeated in many other places, that the relief of the poor is borne by the poor themselves ; in other words, it is the class of small farmers on whom the burthen of supporting the poor principally falls, confirming the observation elsewhere made, that though individually the large farmer may give more in the aggregate, it would be found that the small expended, in proportion to their means, twice as much. As to the absentees, they neither appear to give nor to answer the applications which have been forwarded to them in seasons of great distress. “Twice,” said the Rev. Mr. Allen, “I applied, on the occasion of cholera, to certain absentee proprietors, and never even did I receive an answer to my letters.” The rich scarcely give anything as compared with the poor, even the mere labourers, who have nothing but a cabin, relieve the poor beggar. Assistant Commissioners were in several such houses when relief was given to beggars.
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