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.


THE roman-catholic clergyman could not supply the Assistant Commissioners with any definite information with regard to the number of destitute widows with young children here, but said that it must be very considerable, and that all widows of the working classes must be, more or less, in that condition ; they cannot, however, be said to be worse off than any other persons of the poorer classes of the community. Though destitute, still there are many labourers equally so, when out of employment ; both classes are often reduced to one meal a day, and this of dry potatoes, which is the general diet of all orders of the labouring population.

Spinning and knitting are the only employments open to widows ; at these they can never earn more than 3d. a day, and that will not give more than one meal of potatoes to a woman with four children. In harvest time they may possibly procure a few days’ work in the fields, but they are often unable to take advantage of the opportunity, having to attend to their infant children. They are to be seen picking up the small potatoes that are often left after the gathering in of the crop ; with these they feed a pig, which in most instances is looked upon as their only means of paying their rent, often as high as 30s. a year, for a miserable little cabin 10 feet square, built of stones without mortar, and thatched with potato stalks. They are, in general, observed to be industrious poor people, and sometimes more so than when their husbands were alive. Major Creagh stated that widows pay him his rents more regularly than anybody else, under the same circumstances.

A widow is not considered to have any claim on the proprietor of the estate on which her husband had worked ; neither do shopkeepers consider themselves bound to afford any relief to the widows of those whom they have employed. Mr. O’Brien said that he did not believe that his father, Sir Edward O’Brien, gave any assistance to the widows on his estate ; but on the Assistant Commissioners afterwards visiting the habitations of the poor there, they found several widows, who said that they had their cabins rent-free from Sir Edward ; but as to giving them any ground rent-free, that is unheard of ; such a practice would be a direct loss to the landlord, in consequence of the great competition for land ; but perhaps the cabins alluded to could not find other tenants.

Trade in Newmarket is limited to a few petty shopkeepers, and they certainly could not afford to support the widows of those who worked for them. Whatever relief is given by the gentry, is generally directed to widows, but it is very partial. There is a school for work in the town, in which embroidery of a superior description is executed ; but women with children are unable to work at this school, because it requires more cleanliness than can be expected from one who has any children to take care of ; none but young girls are in consequence employed, and their work is engaged by a shopkeeper in London beforehand, who has laid the schoolmistress under an obligation not to dispose of any of it except to him.

The young men of the parish frequently assemble of a Sunday morning to dig the potatoes of a poor widow, and this though she may not be in a very destitute condition. Collon said, that three years ago the widow Burke was turned out of the house she held in another parish ; she got a small bit of ground in this, and all the neighbours assembled of a fine day and built her a cabin, and left her nothing to do but to get it thatched. The labouring classes never subscribe, except under very rare circumstances.

These poor women are no doubt often driven to beggary ; but the residents of the parish generally seek relief from their friends, without becoming professed mendicants ; others, without endeavouring to bear up against their poverty, quit the place at once, and go beg elsewhere. The Rev. Mr. Coffey observed, that it would be hard to say whether any poor widows had turned prostitutes through destitution ; but there are some instances where girls who have had illegitimate children have left the parish, and gone to neighbouring parishes, where they are known to be passing themselves off as widows with orphans ; some of those who give themselves out as widows in Newmarket, and have but doubtful characters, may be under the same circumstances. The children of these women are amongst the worst behaved and turbulent that can be found.

There are generally about 20 widows on the church list of Killnasullagh ; but with the exception of two protestants, who get 30s. each, none of the rest, who amount to 28 roman-catholics, get more than 10s. a piece in the course of the year. No competition has ever arisen with a view of making proselytes ; nor has it ever been attempted to apply this fund for that purpose ; nor have persons been known to act with hypocrisy through the hope of being relieved by the two congregations.

There is no general poor-box, and the only definite source of relief, besides those just mentioned, is what remains of the fines levied at the petty sessions, after a certain sum has been sent to the county infirmary. This fund never rises above 6l. or 7l. in the year, and it is divided among the poor of the town, at the discretion of the magistrates.

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