Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835
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Clare County Library

Parishes of Tomfinloe, Kilnasullagh, Kilmaleary and Drumline.
Town Newmarket-on-Fergus. Barony Bunratty.


THOSE who are not farm servants, or employed at gentlemen’s places, will scarcely get an odd day’s work from November to March ; but Halpin observed, that it was in July that it went hardest with them : “Then, begad !” said he, “from the old potatoes being out, and the new ones not come in, we are put to it hard, and the work is not to be found. I know it is enough to drive us mad ; the little creatures (the children) will lie down and cry, while the wife will hang down her head and keep sighing, and there is no help for them ; one meal is as much as we can give, and we sometimes think the day too long to live for.” There is no regular fund to afford them assistance.

The wife and children in this part of the country would sooner die than go out to beg at any time ; the decent people will strive to do as well as they can, and stick to their walls to the last. “I have known one or two,” said Carroll, “slink away to the kind neighbours, where they will be helped, and then they will only get as much as will keep the life in them.” The Rev. Mr. Coffey observed, “these are the periods of the year when one cannot but be struck by the advantages which the beggar enjoys over the more independent and half-starved labourer ; while the one ekes out a miserable subsistence, the other will be found following his daily avocations, with a certainty of procuring as much as he may require for his own consumption, and a good chance of getting even a good deal more, which he can and does dispose of to that very class of people from whom he has probably received some share of the charity. It is this abuse, among many other things, which I do not approve of, which leads me to think that a stop should be altogether put to mendicancy, and relief afforded to those who are absolutely in a destitute condition.”

The Rev. Mr. O’Brien said that though distress had sometimes been extreme in this parish, yet it has never been followed by one of the worst effects which have resulted from it elsewhere, that of driving the women to prostitution. He knew of no such consequence ; but on applying to Shiels, the carpenter, on this point, who had been longer in the town than Mr. O’Brien, he said, that, in consequence of the eviction of tenants at Mahanish, which has been above alluded to, three girls of the name of Moran came to live in Newmarket ; one of them was the woman who was afterwards suspected of infanticide, and the other two have been or are prostitutes.

Major Creagh observed, that he had no reason to suspect able-bodied men of committing offences for the purpose of being sent to gaol for support, nor has he known robberies committed from destitution either.

The baneful effect of borrowing food upon usurious interest is not to be observed in this quarter to the same extent that has been described at Killaloe. The potato crop is peculiarly abundant in this district, from causes depending on the fertility of the soil ; and though the labourer may be often in summer obliged to buy potatoes, when he has not money in hand to pay for them, yet from there being more of the commodity in the market, he is less liable to be made pay an exorbitant price. The persons who actually take this unfair advantage of the poverty of the lower classes are farmers holding from 10 to 20 acres ; and upon inquiry as to what had been the overcharge this year, the Assistant Commissioners could not discover that a greater advance had in any instance been demanded than about 1s. in the pound.

There is no instance of labourers being employed solely to alleviate their distress by those who farm, more expressly with a view to profit. Sir E. O’Brien, who has an extensive cottier tenantry, paying their rents by labour, sometimes employs more than his improvements require ; and more particularly, he gives work to several old men, who may be considered in a great measure incapacitated by age. A labour-rate, in the true acceptation of the word, has never been in operation there.

The Rev. Mr. O’Brien thought it quite impossible for a man to save while his family was young, but when they grow up, and before they leave him or get married, he may perhaps do so to a small extent. In order to estimate the power of a labourer to lay by money, the Assistant Commissioners took the case of John Clancy, who may be considered rather a fortunate man, as he is employed for nine months in the year at a nursery. He has a family of five persons ; he pays 2l. a year for a small cabin, without any ground whatever ; he is obliged to take every year half an acre of con-acre potato ground, for which he pays at least 4l. His outgoings therefore for rent alone are 6l. To meet this, he has six months’ employment at 8d. a day, equal to 6l. 1s. 4d. ; three months at 6d. a day, equal to 2l. 5s. 7½d. It thus appears that he has but 2l. 6s. 11½d. remaining for the purchase of clothes, furniture and the repair of his house, which is never undertaken by the landlords. As for the potato ground, it is taken for a supply of food, and never with the intention of disposing of any part of the produce. The condition of this man is better than the average of labouring men, which required no further comment. In the opinion of Mr. Coffey, the lower and more destitute classes of labourers are the most prone to early marriages ; but he assigns as a reason, the desire of the parents to put their daughters out of harm’s way, and to secure them the protection of a husband in the event of their own deaths. But when we find that these early and improvident matches, by which an additional degree of wretchedness is entailed both on the husband and the wife, and on their offspring, are more especially peculiar to the indigent classes, it is permitted, without straining the premises, to conclude, that the destitution of these classes has in some manner rendered them reckless of the consequences of their precipitation.

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