|Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835|
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Clare County Library
IN this parish the usual clue to the number of bastards is wanted ; namely, a distinguishing mark after the entry of their baptism in the register kept by the catholic clergyman. The number of women to whom the ceremony of churching has been refused would in some measure have been a guide ; but the Rev. Mr. Coffey could not find his papers upon that point. The clerk of the petty sessions supplied, however, a list of the number of applications for wages for the nursing of illegitimate children within the last three years ; but the information thus obtained is only an approximation, as of course many cases of bastardy are never brought before the public. The number of such applications in 1831 was 13, in 1832 it was 15, and in 1833 it was 21. The parish never undertakes the support of illegitimate children. Instances of desertion are rare in it, and Mr. Coffey could not recollect more than one case during the last six or seven years. About a year ago, however, an attempt was made by a woman who left her child in a ditch, but fortunately a boy passing near the spot at the time questioned her as to her intention. She said that she was only leaving it for a few moments, and taking it up again she went away. It was afterwards ascertained, however, that she was successful in deserting it without detection, in the next parish of Clare Abbey. “In general,” said Molony, “women are fond of their illegitimate children, and seem grieved when the magistrates order them to give them up. In some few cases they have even preferred forfeiting their wages to losing their young one.” The Rev. Mr. Coffey stated that the crime of infanticide occurred but once since he came to the parish, a period of about nine years. A child was found in a drain that runs into Lough Gash. It was impossible to make any satisfactory examination of the body, as it was totally disfigured by water rats. The affair created a great sensation, and a woman was taken up and interrogated three times. Although a surgeon was of opinion that she had been recently delivered, yet she was ultimately acquitted of infanticide for want of evidence. The fathers of these children are generally too well inclined to escape supporting their own offspring. They will sometimes take the child for a short time, but they soon get tired of it, and return it to the mother after making a compromise, and agreeing to pay her something for nursing it. Subsequent marriages are seldom brought about on these occasions from a feeling of honour ; and the catholic clergyman does not press the matter unless there be equality between the parties. He considers that if there be much disparity, it is very unlikely that the girl could have become the dupe of a promise of marriage. Women who have had bastards sometimes apply at the petty sessions for wages ; and Major Creagh said that this practice has prevailed for the last 13 or 14 years ; the demand being made for services done, and expenses incurred in nursing the child. Wages are never awarded before birth of the child, nor indeed until sometime after it.
The general amount awarded varies form 10s. to 3l. It varies according to the character of the mother, but still more according to the circumstances of the father. Most applications are directed against farm-servants, they being most commonly the fathers of bastards ; and Dr. Frazer said he is surprised it does not happen oftener, in consequence of the promiscuous manner in which male and female servants are permitted by farmers to sleep together in barns and outhouses. And he added, that he has even known incest to be the consequence of this disgraceful neglect of decency.
Wages are never awarded beyond the time at which children are usually weaned ; never for more than two or three years, and therefore, observed Molony, one is not surprised to hear that no young man has been so mean as to marry a girl for so paltry a consideration. Some years ago, a mechanic did marry a girl who was in the receipt of wages for her illegitimate child, but as she was remarkably handsome, few thought that he was influenced by such a base motive.
Previous to the last two years, it was the custom with the magistrates to order a small amount of wages, even when no previous promise did exist ; they ceased to do so, however, when they found that the law did not warrant it : at present it is required that the applicant for wages shall produce proof that a promise had been made to her, or that the father has at anytime acknowledged the child by giving her anything for its support ; a promise is generally obtained at some unguarded moment, at a time when nothing is likely to be refused.
When wages are not granted, in general women who have had only one bastard are observed to be very cautious in their behaviour for some time at least, in the hopes of getting married to the men who seduced them.
A woman who can bring herself to destroy her child must be dead to all the feelings of nature ; and Mr. Coffey said he feared that the example given by the case of presumed infanticide, mentioned above, was not without its bad effects. The woman suspected had a sister who was observed to be in the family way ; a week after the discovery of the dead child, groans were heard in the house of the two sisters as of a woman in labour, and in a few days the size of the sister was remarked to have diminished, but no infant was forthcoming.
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