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.


CARROL, the labourer, observed, “that one day with another he did not see less than 40 beggars in the village and about the parish.” Sheils, the carpenter, also said, “that it was his opinion that there are 60, and sometimes more persons who stand about the caravans, and depend upon an odd halfpenny ; they have nothing else to depend on but what they get in charity. Seven beggars that he did not know at all called on him that day, for the very minute the door is open in the morning they will begin coming, and not stop till evening, and if they do not give to them they must face the country ; he knew there were double as many as there were some years ago ;” and Carrol said, “that they were ten to one what they were in his recollection.” The poorer class attribute the great increase of vagrancy to the ejection of tenants, and to the high price of land, which prevents each of them from having ground to plant potatoes, (provincially called “mock ground.”) Many of the higher and richer orders pass over the clearing of land as a cause, and say that the addition to the ranks of mendicancy are to be explained by the increase of population, by improvidence, and even by idleness. In confirmation, however, of the first class of causes, Sheils, the carpenter, said, that there were upwards of 200 inhabitants of the parish of Tomfinloe, who had not 20 acres of land amongst them ; and that the chief part of the labourers of the town had not a rod of ground. They find the utmost difficulty in procuring a lot of “con-acre,” and even the herd who shows it must get 1s. for every quarter of an acre. The landlords are well aware of this practice. M’Namara, the labourer, said, that upwards of 200 fines were quenched in Mahanish about nine years ago, and he counted from 10 to 15 families who then took refuge in Newmarket, and many of whom have since been reduced to beggary. Four or five families were driven from Ballygreen, and some of these are also now begging ; “these people,” said he “kept good kitchens of bacon, they rode good horses, and had nice milch cows, and were honest hard-working persons.”

The summer months there, as elsewhere, are the periods at which vagrancy is most common, particularly June, July and August. M’Namara observed, that numbers will struggle out until the summer, and then if there is anything like a scarcity, people will double and treble the price of potatoes ; they could buy them at that season last year for 6s., and in July last they were 1l. 2s. ; the trust sent them up to 30s. The man who has but a quarter of an acre finds his provisions run out by that time, and then he must take to the road. This district possesses a tract of rich alluvial land, extending along the shores of the Fergus. It is of almost inexhaustable fertility, and being extensively let out for the cultivation of potatoes, that root happens to be most abundant amongst the inhabitants. This land is called “the Corcasses ;” and Mr. Hackney, the intelligent Scotch steward of Sir A. Fitzgerald, said that it is a great inducement to beggars not only to roam through the neighbourhood, but even to fix their residence in it. This assertion was borne out by several beggars themselves, with whom the Assistant Commissioners conversed, and who told them that they stopped there, because the people were particularly charitable. The fertility of the soil of these parishes, therefore, is not without a drawback. Very few of the beggars resident in that parish are natives of the place. The Rev. Mr. M’Cullagh stated, that in the parish of Kilnasullagh, which touches the town of Newmarket, there are but two destitute persons, and he is obliged to fill up his church list, which extends to 30 individuals, with the inhabitants of the town. By far the greater number of mendicants are women from 30 to 40 years of age, and they have generally several children with them. “This morning,” said M’Namara, “a young woman of about 25 came to my door with seven children along with her, and they were crying and shaking, and what little clothes they had would hardly keep their bones from the wind.” The Rev. Mr. O’Brien remarked, that the Mendicity at Ennis has thrown a great many beggars on these parts. Though it was chiefly women who solicited the alms, yet it was remarked by all present that men often accompany them ; nevertheless the proportion of the women is greater, because many are widows, and many beg, because the wages of their husbands are not sufficient to support them and their children ; in the mean time the husbands are perhaps wandering about elsewhere in search of work. Sheils observed, that the husbands will not go inside the doors with shame ; they stay outside roaming about the road, or sneaking by the walls, or sitting by the road-side with their wives by. “The other day,” said Carroll, “a woman asked me leave to boil a pot of potatoes, and when she had done she called in her husband and children to eat them ; he looked pulled down with poverty, and indeed he had neither clothes nor flesh upon him.” There were scarcely any cottier tenants in the parishes to which the Assistant Commissioners extended their inquiry, except in Kilnasullagh, where Sir Edward O’Brien has a good many tenants of that description. None of this class are ever known to beg, and their condition is considered most enviable by those labourers who are without any land.

They come from all parts of the surrounding country, many from Connaught ; “these we know,” said Brasil, “by their speaking a kind of Irish which we do not understand. I often see people from the county of Cork that I know by their wearing blue coats ; they do be inquiring for “Tradree” (the tract containing the “Corcasses” above mentioned), the place where all the potatoes grow, and they all the time in the very place itself.” Brasil stated that an able-bodied man, setting out early in the morning, would get three or four stone of potatoes by begging ; but though he might do that at the present season, when they are plenty, yet he would not be so successful at another period of the year, when they were scarce. He certainly can thus obtain more food than he himself can consume, as he does not require a stone of potatoes at farthest for his own use. They sell them in bags, and may be they would bring them twice into town in the course of the same day. The beggar will sell them to the poor housekeeper who is much worse off than himself, and who will not go out. Dr. Frazer observed that they do not get much in general, except at fair times, when the farmers and cattle jobbers, returning after a good market, will scatter a good deal of money among them. Collon, the weaver, observed that they were all strangers who attended at the chapels for charity, and for the most part infirm persons ; the townspeople do not go there, because they would meet their own friends, and because they are so shabby that they would not like to be seen. Yesterday, at last mass, there were but four beggars, a blind woman led by her daughter, and three cripples : these all left the town after last mass. No beggars attend at the church, because the congregation always put their subscriptions into the poor-box. Keogh observed that he would give most to a person with a family, next them to an old cripple, and least of all to an able-bodied fellow who could earn for himself ; the able-bodied man would be sometimes refused, and in general would get but little ; whereas the family would always receive a good quantity at each house, and would certainly have most at the end of the day. They will generally sell their surplus potatoes, if they are resident, to get lodgings. If they are strangers, the money which is made by their sale of these collections is applied in paying for mending their shoes, &c. Sheils remarked, that the old women in Newmarket and such like towns, ask for tobacco in the house of God, and there was scarcely a beggar who did not spend a halfpenny each day in either that or snuff. It would not do for strange beggars to dress themselves well, but a resident one would do so if he could. Collon observed, that if two beggars were to come to him, he would certainly give to the badly dressed one in preference. If one was well dressed, unless he knew him, he would certainly take him for an imposter. The resident beggars of Newmarket are always ready to avail themselves of the clothes which are distributed by some benevolent persons in the neighbourhood, and in many instances appear decently dressed, while the strangers are observed to be generally clothed in heaps of rags.

“We often challenge them,” said Sheils, “on the plea of their begging, and they say they have no work at home ; others tell us they never left home until they had pledged the bed and bed-clothes from under them, or that they have been left widows with orphans by the cholera ; and indeed we have five or six widows from that terrible disease in Newmarket at present.” The only case of deception that occurred there was that of two beggars who pretended to be deaf and dumb ; they went about telling fortunes, and all the while they were acting as spies. Sheils said that they afterwards turned spies, and got some men hung at Ennis. He also said there were some known imposters who were very fond of exposing their sores, but they never heard that they produced any. At fairs, indeed, there were a good many fellows who, by the exposure of their infirmities, and by their importunity, succeeded in getting a good deal of money from the charitable and humane. “I have heard one of these chaps saying to another,” said Brasil, “I will not give you my daughter, because you have had but one crooked leg, and that would never earn enough for her.” Many of the poor creatures who are now going in search of food are quite unable to give their children anything like sufficient clothing against the severity of the weather. It is unnecessary for them to make them appear worse than their poverty keeps them.

The habits, generally speaking, of the strolling beggars are not dissolute ; “but at the same time,” observed Brasil, “I know no more ill-conducted fellows than the ‘boccoughs,’ who are a shocking bad set ; they drink, curse, fight, and set a bad example to the rest of the people.” “I am sure,” said the Rev. Mr. Coffey also, “that they like their sores, and I should not be surprised if they made them worse ; they break one another’s heads, but they have never done more in the way of outrage.” Gearan, a small farmer, observed, that he has known strong able-bodied beggars to come late at night to a labourer’s house and ask for a night’s lodging, which they would never be refused, and then run off in the middle of the night with many little things belonging to it. “And several times,” said Mr. Coffey, “people have asked my advice what they should do, in consequence of the depredations committed by vagrants.” The rich gentleman, the middle-man and the large farmer are exempt from these losses, because they are able to lock their gates at night and keep them all away ; whilst the poor labourers living on the high road not only materially contribute to the beggar’s support, but is actually, in addition to that, further exposed to losses which he can ill afford. Their habits are so inveterately idle, that they would never apply themselves to habits of industry, unless compelled to do so. Brasil said, “I have sometimes tried them at work, and they have made all sorts of excuses to get off. I remember once I offered a great big fellow work at harvest time, and he said he had no reaping-hook ; I told him I would lend him one ; and he then complained that he had something wrong about his knee, and that he should go to the dispensary to have it looked at ; I let him off, and from that day to this I have never seen anything more of him.” Gearan observed, that his neighbours told him they were stiff and lazy, and that many of them neither could nor would do anything. Keogh said, “There is Con Fennel, a beggar in this town, that may any day go to the poorhouse at Ennis ; he is not fit to do much, as he is at times subject to fits ; but yet he could be well employed, and would get it too, but he says he would rather be as he is, wending about asking alms. I am sure, however, that if he could get smoking there he would work well for them in that house.” The Rev. Mr. O’Brien observed that there might be some willing to go to America, but not many of the regular strolling beggars. M’Namara said that nobody goes from that part of the country to England for work, it is too remote ; but as for the vagrant, he never goes in search of any work anywhere, much less to England.

The mendicants are frequently accompanied by large families, but it has not been observed that they marry earlier than other members of the community ; and the Rev. Mr. Coffey observed, that he did not remember ever marrying two beggars. Dr. Frazer thought, from his experience, that many of the females going about had been farm servants who, having been disgraced by having had an illegitimate child, were obliged to leave their places and betake themselves to mendicancy, during which period they will frequently increase their families unlawfully, and he thought that large families were too often the result of thus reducing women to mendicancy. There are many of these mendicants, a happy and contented set of people, who live to a great age ; and when the cholera appeared, the doctor did not think there were more deaths amongst them than amongst the other people ; in 1817, however, the fever killed a vast number of them.

No effects prejudicial to morality have been observed from the habit of giving private relief ; but idleness no doubt is generated by the system of giving alms in general. Major Creagh observed, that the greater part of the vagrants who appear in this district are females, who mostly give themselves out as widows ; there is little employment for them, were they even willing to accept it. As for the able-bodied man who would wander about, he would hesitate to say that they have renounced industry through a preference for idleness and beggary ; distress has perhaps reduced them to mendicancy in the first instance, and they may have then continued it, from finding how easy it was to live by it. “When we have work to give,” said Dr. Frazer, “we do not require to look out for beggars to give it to, there are plenty of honest men about who want it more ; but I recollect offering a stroller work once at 6d. a day and his diet ; he took my offer, but he was a lazy fellow, and gave me very little value, and I was always obliged to look sharp after him ; on the fourth morning I found that he had marched off during the night, and he did not so much as wait to ask for his wages.”

A night’s lodging is seldom refused by labourers or small holders, but large farmers are observed to be more cautious in admitting strangers into their houses. Beggars go to them for straw to make their beds, and they hardly ever refuse them ; they carry this to the place where they get their night’s lodging, and the poor man who harbours them expects that they will leave it after them ; it is an object to him, as it serves to increase his stock of manure. Clothes are seldom given by the poorer classes, but there are many benevolent ladies in the neighbourhood who frequently distribute clothing to destitute poor widows and other distressed persons. Potatoes are the only food given in the way of relief. “Meal we do not give,” said Keogh, “because we never have it for ourselves ;” and Brasil confirmed this statement, by saying, that though he holds 70 acres of land, he scarcely ever eats anything but potatoes and milk. Milk is given by the farmers and those who keep cows just as readily as potatoes. The farmers always prefer giving food to money, because they have the former always by them, and do not miss it : and Gearan remarked that it cost much less trouble to get potatoes out of the ground than to get a fair price for them in the market. It depends on circumstances whether a beggar would prefer money ; if he is in a remote part of the country where he cannot dispose of what he gets, he would rather have enough to eat. “But I have remarked,” said M’Namara, “that a beggar about the town will give 10 times more blessings for a halfpenny than he would for potatoes or a sup of milk.”

There cannot be any doubt that the burthen of relieving the beggars falls nearly altogether on the lower classes ; on farmers and cottiers in the country, and on labourers and mechanics and small shopkeepers in the towns. Persons of these different classes with whom the Assistant Commissioners conversed appeared perfectly aware of the fact, and seemed to consider it as a matter of course, and in some degree as a duty, by the performance of which they hoped to benefit. Mr. O’Brien stated, that he has heard some of his father’s tenants complain that the situation of their houses, near a frequented line of road, was a decided injury to them, in exposing them more than others to the repeated calls of beggars, who were a constant drain upon them ; and a reluctance has been evinced on the part of some to build houses in places where they knew they would be liable to similar annoyance. M’Namara said that he knew full well that the poor man gives more than the rich ; for the gentleman has his gatekeeper, and he keeps his gates closed, and nobody can go up to his house to beg ; but the poor man’s door is always open.

There is no reason to suppose that their uncertainty in the quantity given leads to waste of the provisions. Those who give lodgings to the beggars carefully collect the refuse and skins of the potatoes, which they give to their pigs ; and the mendicants themselves, when they have more than they can require for their own consumption, invariably sell the surplus to the poorer peasants in the country, and to the distressed labourers in the towns and villages.

Keogh said, that seven beggars called on him the day before, with many children. There were no men, they were all women. It was a good many for that season or period, as no great number had called for the last two months ; they could not have got less than half a stone of potatoes, or a pound a piece amongst them. Gearan, who holds about 12 acres, added, “I am sure I do not give, one year with another, less than two barrels of potatoes, worth, as the times go, about 30s.” A small shopkeeper will give away about 2d. or 3d. a day on an average. There was no instance known there of persons being left destitute themselves from giving, who had only barely enough to meet any emergency that might occur ; but upon this subject M’Namara observed, “I have not known any one of any class of persons to be actually ruined by it ; but God knows that many a summer’s day, when the poor creatures come down from the hills in shoals, the wife could not bear telling the human beings like them to pass on, without some little charity ; and I have been even obliged myself to make her easy in giving too much, for the children were next day crying that they had not enough ; and it was only by borrowing a 6d. from a good neighbour that I was able to afford them a light second meal in the 24 hours.” Gearan also said, “I was talking yesterday to many of my friends on the poor laws, as I heard that two gentlemen had come to Newmarket ; and the talk amongst us was, what should be done about them. We had a long discussion on it ; and though we were all angry at having more taxes put down our throats, yet we all agreed that any little payment would be better than allowing the beggars to go about as they do. The old people should be well taken care of, and the others should be made to work ; and I am quite sure it would be cheaper to us all to pay a little something than to give as we now do. I know the farmers would grumble a little the first year, but they would scarcely know what they paid the second.” (The Rev. Mr. Coffey observed that Gearan was a most sensible man, that he was quite a leading man amongst the class of small farmers, and one of the most industrious of Sir Edmund O’Brien’s tenants.) Keogh also observed, “Is it not a shame that in this Christian country the poor old people should be obliged, winter and summer, to go about without shoes and stockings looking for their victuals ? It is these poor creatures I pity, many of whom have worked hard and long for us all, farmers as well as gentlemen ; and why should they not be more comfortable than the pigs and cattle, who are at least kept warm in winter ? The slaves, when they are old, must be supported by their masters ; so I have heard tell ; and yet in Ireland, when we get old and friendless, we must lie down in the ditches and die. I know well that what we give, from one end of the year to the other, we scarcely feel ; but if we thought that the poor of Ireland could be supported better than they now are, we would willingly contribute to it ; and I know for certain that there are very few in this part of the country who would object to bettering the condition of their poor.” Mr. O’Brien remarked, that though he was not in favour of the late English system of poor laws, yet he does not see why a mendicity should not be erected in Newmarket as well as in Ennis ; and he certainly could not conceive any objection to relieving the blind or aged ; in one word, “the impotent poor.” He thought that the petty sessions districts in the county of Clare might well and easily be made into unions, in which workhouses or “mendicities” might be established ; and even on occasions of emergency, such as the failure of the potato crop, he would propose that gentlemen of a district or county should be empowered to meet and subscribe for such an occasion ; and some power should be given to compel non-residents to contribute. When they ever got up such subscriptions, they invariably found that the absentees subscribed very little, and sometimes nothing at all. It was also his decided opinion that no person whatever should be enabled to take part in the management of any fund or institution of the kind, unless he was a subscriber ; and moreover he would not allow any clergyman of any persuasion to have any connexion with it, unless he was a rate-payer. Sheils, the shopkeeper, thought it would be much better to relieve the beggars in some workhouse than to allow them to go about as they do at present ; they carry diseases with them, and he knew whole families to be destroyed by it. The people who now give may just as well send what they had to give to a poor house, if they were sure that it was properly distributed among the poor. M’Namara, who was a labourer with a large family, wished the old people to be better taken care of ; and he would willingly give as much as he could for their sakes. The poor are increasing, and worse off they cannot be. Something must be done.

Though the beggars worry persons much in the towns, and follow them with prayers at markets and fairs, they are civil to the country people, and often say, “If you have it not, may the Lord help you to it.” The Rev. Mr. O’Brien thought that persons would not give to beggars, if they thought they had enough besides ; and Gearan stated that they were never forced to give from fear of violence ; they are not afraid of the beggars in that country, as he understood the people were in some other places. Dr. Frazer observed, that a foolish dread of the effects of the beggar’s curse influences many women to bestow charity. When he had found his yard full of beggars, and his servants giving to them profusely, and that he reprehended them, their answer was, “O, Sir, what would I do if they cursed me ?” He also confirmed what had been stated by the dispensary surgeon at Killaloe, that “letters” are frequently communicated by beggars to the lower classes, who harbour them at night ; and many remarkable cases occurred in the year 1817, where fever was extensively disseminated by vagrants ; and the presence of a young female vagrant in the town is often followed by the appearance of several cases of syphilis at the dispensary.

There is no mendicity institution for the district about Newmarket ; but the town stands on the high road between Limerick and Ennis, at both of which places there are such establishments ; it is about 12 miles from the former town, and 6 from the latter. Mr. O’Brien remarked, that the town was thus placed between two fires, and continues to be a place of resort for many who, from disinclination to enter the mendicity, have left their usual residences. It was stated above, that the condition of any beggars is at least equal to that of a large portion of labourers; and many of them are unwilling to enter a place where they could not be better off as to food and lodging, and where they would, above all things, lose their liberty. When asked upon this point, some of them explained their aversion, by pretending to believe that they would be permanently separated from their children, or that their religious observances would be interfered with.

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