Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835
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Under the dry and official title of The First Report from His Majesty’s Commissioners for Inquiring into the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland comes an enormous amount of opinion, reminiscence and description of life by ordinary Irish people in the early nineteenth century. This book presents the section of that long document which deals with county Clare. It is rare to be able to listen to the voices of people anywhere in the past with the clarity that this report allows and it is particularly rare for the ‘hidden Ireland’ before the Famine. Here, however, was an occasion in the 1830s, when a wide variety of people in eight parishes in Clare gathered in a courthouse, a hotel or even in the open air to offer their views on poverty and the social action which was, or could be, taken to deal with it.

The nineteenth century was the first great age of social inquiry by the state, and Ireland was no exception. It was the subject of innumerable investigations throughout this period, due to a large extent to the growing economic and social crisis in rural Ireland after about 1820. Grain prices declined, the textile industry collapsed outside north-east Ulster (the weavers of Ennistymon are described in the report as being completely destitute) and population continued to grow. The result was a society of massive unemployment, tiny landholdings and large-scale poverty. This poverty struck all observers at the time, and contemporary accounts are full of descriptions of poor housing, lack of clothing and enormous numbers of beggars. In the summer months in particular, before the potato harvest, tens or even hundreds of thousands of people would take to the road temporarily.

The subject of Irish poverty was given added urgency from the state’s point of view by the fact that provision for the poor in Britain was being vigorously debated and criticised at the same period. Many ratepayers in Britain felt that the system there had become too costly, and that one of the reasons for this was a massive influx of Irish poor into cities like Liverpool and Manchester. This focused attention on the fact that Ireland, unlike Britain, did not have a poor law system, and that tackling the problem of Irish poverty was therefore a necessary part of dealing with British poverty.

It was also clear, however, that Irish conditions differed substantially from those in Britain, and a series of commissions of inquiry into Irish poverty was established during the 1830s. This report of 1835 was the result of the longest and most comprehensive of these inquiries. Whereas earlier commissions had confined themselves to interviewing a selection of witnesses from the upper strata of society, usually in Dublin or London, this one took evidence and opinion from everyone, landlords and beggars alike, in the areas where they lived. The commission was chaired by Richard Whately, Anglican Archbishop of Dublin and also an economist who had taught at Oxford, and also included Daniel Murray, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin. It chose seventeen counties, including Clare, and inquired into one parish in each barony in these counties (see map, inside front cover). Each parish was to be investigated by two Assistant Commissioners, one Irish and one English, to try to have a mixture of familiarity and objectivity. They took lengthy testimony from hundreds of witnesses, which, according to their instructions, was to be recorded ‘as nearly as might be possible in the words of each witness’. It is this evidence, printed as an appendix to the Report, which is reproduced here.

In the end, after almost two years of investigation, the commission produced its recommendations, which included large capital investment and education programmes. These stood little chance of being implemented in the climate of the time, as the debate on the poor law in Britain was partly about attempting to reduce welfare spending rather than making large outlays. The government instead introduced into Ireland a workhouse system on the British model, something about which the 1835 commissioners were doubtful. The great achievement of the commissioners was in fact their report, which for many parishes is so thorough and so lively that it is almost as if a tape recording had been made of an animated discussion.

However, although the report lets us listen to ordinary Clare people before the Famine as few other documents do, we must be careful about taking its contents as a straightforward reflection of their opinions, experiences and ways of talking and discussing. The testimony as we have it is shaped by two factor: the way in which the spoken word became a written or printed document, and the circumstances under which people gave their evidence. In other words, to what extent does the report contain what witnesses actually said, and, as far as it accurately reflects what they said, how do we know whether what they said was true?

As regards speech, a large part of the report consists of summaries of evidence, synthesised and smoothed by officials, rather than people’s own words. At the same time, however, there are many sections which appear to be direct transcriptions of the speech of witnesses, often colourful and pointed stories. Even here, we have to be careful about accepting these as authentic ‘voices’. The forms of English used by witnesses are unusually ‘correct’, and contrast strongly with the syntax and vocabulary reported by novelists or tourists at the time. The only witness in Clare who sounds authentic in this respect is James Brasil, a farmer from near Newmarket-on-Fergus. Here he is, for example, describing travelling beggars from Cork: ‘They do be inquiring for ‘Tradree’, the place where all the potatoes grow, and they all at the time in the very place itself.’ It may even be that some of the witnesses spoke in Irish which was then translated, a common practise in courts at the time, and one which would result in correct English.

Overall, though, the commissioners and their assistants appear to have been scrupulous about reporting what people said, and what must have been the slightly charged atmosphere of the occasion is often vividly conveyed. In Kilkee, for example, Simon Curry, a nailer, told the story of a beggar who hoarded money and then became an extortionate moneylender. Then, ‘whilst Curry was relating this story, a beggar woman, who was attentively watching the proceedings, suddenly pushed in her head, and cursed him violently for “telling tales, and not minding his own business”’.

The question of how the testimony was influenced by the selection of witnesses and the circumstances under which they spoke is a more difficult one. To a late twentieth-century eye, the clearest way in which the selection of witnesses influences the testimony is in the domain of gender. Nearly all the witnesses were men, whereas it is clear that poverty affected women far more than men. There is a section in each parish report about widows, for example, but not about widowers, whose situation was far less precarious. Moreover, informal relief of poverty was also a female domain, and it was farmers’ or labourers’ wives, rather than their husbands, who gave alms to travelling beggars. According to Denis Hurley, a Kildysert shopkeeper, farmers ‘really do not know how much goes out of their houses in charity. If they were to stay at home one long day in summer and watch all that their wives give away, they would soon alter their way of thinking’.

When the commissioners spoke to beggars, these were usually women, and the report contains many accounts of their experiences by individuals such as Margaret Carmody in Kildysert or Judy Minahan in Killaloe. Indeed, the commissioners seem to have gone out of their way to speak to as wide a variety of witnesses as possible. They visited the beggars’ quarters in most towns, and in Corofin went inside their houses to hear the children read their lessons. At the official hearings, witnesses came from all classes, from landlords to beggars, with farmers, shopkeepers, labourers, artisans, clergy and others all present.

At the same time, this wide range of selection in itself probably shaped the testimony, since witnesses may well have been careful to say only what would be agreeable to those who might have had some power over them. It is very likely that farmers were influenced by the presence of their landlords, labourers by the presence of the farmers who employed them and from whom they held their small plots, beggars by the presence of those who gave them alms, and all groups by the presence of the clergy. All this suggests that we should be wary of any apparent consensus among witnesses of different classes on any issue. Indeed, bearing this in mind, what is likely to strike the reader of the report is the variety of opinions recorded, the extent of disagreement between witnesses, and the clear expression of different types of conflict within rural society.

What emerges is a picture of a complex society, united and divided in many different ways. It is united at the bottom of the social scale, with labourers and the very smallest farmers sharing practically everything they had with wandering seasonal beggars, who were often labourers and cottiers themselves in their areas of origin. Indeed it is said again and again that the standard of living of labourers is little different to that of beggars. From more comfortable farmers, with twenty or more acres, there was less benevolence, and the report contains many instances of farmers selling potatoes on credit during the summer at exploitative rates of interest, a practice condemned from the pulpit by Father Sheehy of Kildysert, for example.

Ties of family and blood are also not as strong or as uniform as might be expected. There is frequent reference, for example, to the practice of older parents, having made over their land to their children in the expectation of being supported by them, leaving home at times of shortage to go begging, and often never returning. ‘Shame wears away’, according to Laurence Doherty, a labourer from near Ennistymon, ‘and everybody knows that an old man or woman will have more comforts by going among Christians than if they stopped with their own’.

From time to time, the witnesses speak of poverty and charity in ways which give us glimpses of their larger worldview. As one witness in Kilmanaheen put it, ‘the delight experienced by women in listening to the prayers of mendicants has the most powerful influence in urging people often to give beyond their means. It was well known in that part of the country, that the beggar who would say the longest and best composed prayers would inevitably meet with the greatest success in collecting alms’. Here we are in the presence of ideas of social responsibility and action which are far removed from those of the late twentieth century. The voices of ordinary men and women, coming to us through the pages of this report, offer us vivid glimpses of the world in which our ancestors lived.

Niall O’Ciosain

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