Poverty Before the Famine, County Clare 1835
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Poor Inquiry, Ireland



WE, The COMMISSIONERS commanded by YOUR MAJESTY “to inquire into the Condition of the Poorer Classes of Your Majesty’s Subjects in Ireland, and into the various Institutions at present established by law for their relief ; and also, whether any, and what, further remedial measures appear to be requisite to ameliorate the condition of the Irish Poor, or any portion of them;” having made very considerable progress in the arduous duties entrusted to us, are now enabled to lay before Your Majesty the large body of Evidence, which has been collected.

This Evidence solely relates to the first branch of the Inquiry, which is now complete ; namely, as to the modes in which the destitute classes in Ireland are supported, to the extent and efficiency of those modes and their effects upon those who give, and upon those who receive relief.

The Appendix (A.) contains Parochial Examinations relative to the modes of relieving,-

  Deserted and Orphan Children.
Illegitimate Children and their Mothers.
Widows having Families of young Children.
The Impotent through Age or other permanent Infirmity.
The Sick Poor, who in health, are capable of earning their subsistence.
The Able-bodied out of Work.
Vagrancy, as a mode of relief.
An examination relative to these subjects was made in one parish in every barony, in each of the following counties, seventeen in number :-


We take this opportunity of stating to Your Majesty,-

I. The difficulties which we have had to encounter both from the extensive and complicated nature of the subject itself, and from the peculiar social condition of the people of that portion of Your Majesty’s Dominions in which the Inquiry has been prosecuted.

II. The course which we have pursued in collecting information ; showing how far it is full and impartial, and therefore how far worthy of confidence.

III. The reasons why we are not yet enabled to obey Your Majesty’s Command to report, “Whether any and what further remedial measures appear to be requisite to ameliorate the condition of the Irish Poor, or any of them.”

I. As to the difficulties of the Inquiry.
The great proportion of the Population about and amongst whom the Inquiry was to be made, is constantly fluctuating between Mendicancy and Independent Labour. In whole districts, scarcely one of that class of substantial capitalist farmers so universal in England, can be found. The small resident gentry are but few, and the substantial tradesman is not to be met with at intervals of two or three miles as in England ; for there are but few towns of sufficient trade to create such a class. The clergy of the various persuasions, and the proprietors, when resident, are, in many cases, so much at variance with each other, or with the working population, upon political questions, that great caution was requisite in regard to the manner and degree, in which we could avail ourselves of their assistance. Similar difficulties existed with regard to the constabulary, from the frequent collision in which they are placed with the people ; and parochial authorities can scarcely be said to exist.

In an inquiry about a population, in which many of the ordinary distinctions of society are commonly merged in the same individual, and in an inquiry amongst a people the various classes of whom had long been at variance with each other, it became a matter of fearful moment to determine respecting whom the inquiry should be made, and from whom testimony could be received, which would not merely be impartial, but which would be admitted by all to be so ; the one requisite being as important as the other. We became quickly and painfully alive to the danger which would attend the slightest error in our procedure.

But great as were these difficulties, great as was the circumspection which they required, another and yet more formidable difficulty existed. Your Majesty had commanded us to determine “whether any, and, if any, what further remedial measures appear to be requisite to ameliorate the condition of the Irish Poor, or any portion of them.”

To determine what measures might be requisite to ameliorate the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland, required an investigation extending to almost the whole social and productive system ; for the poorer classes in Ireland may be considered as comprehending nearly the whole population ; and as no institution is isolated in its effect, it is impossible to decide upon the consequence of removing or creating one law or custom, without considering its connexion with every other. It became therefore matter of grave importance to determine whether so extensive an inquiry was practicable ; and if not, what portion should be chosen. It also became necessary and difficult to decide as to the order in which such an investigation should proceed.

On every side we were assailed by the theories of those who were born or had long resided in the country, and consequently might be supposed to have possessed good opportunity for ascertaining the soundness of their opinions. One party attributed all the poverty and wretchedness of the country to an asserted extreme use of ardent spirits, and proposed a system for repressing illicit distillation, for preventing smuggling, and for substituting beer and coffee. Another party found the cause in the combinations amongst workmen, and proposed rigorous laws against Trades Unions. Others again were equally confident, that the reclamation of the bogs and waste lands was the only practicable remedy. A fourth party declared the nature of the existing connexion between landlord and tenant to be the root of all evil ; pawnbroking, redundant population, absence of capital, peculiar religious tenets and religious differences, political excitement, want of education, the maladministration of justice, the state of prison discipline, want of manufactures, and of inland navigation, with a variety of other circumstances, were each supported by their various advocates with earnestness and ability, as being either alone, or jointly with some other, the primary cause of all the evils of society ; and loan funds, emigration, the repression of political excitement, the introduction of manufactures, and the extension of inland navigation, were accordingly proposed each as the principal means by which the improvement of Ireland could be promoted.

Having so difficult a question to deal with, and so many plausible solutions offered to us, aware that the public would be impatient of a second inquiry, we felt bound to use great consideration in selecting the subjects and the order of investigation. That many, if not all, of the alleged causes of evil did exist in a greater or less degree, was sufficiently evident ; and that good might arise from some of the remedies proposed, we were not prepared to deny. To decide, without careful investigation, upon the degree in which each might be productive of evil or of benefit, would have been at variance with the trust which Your Majesty had confided to us. We therefore determined that the Inquiry should embrace every subject to which importance seemed to be attached by any large number of persons.

II. We will now state the course which we have pursued in collecting information ; showing how far the evidence is full and impartial, and therefore how far worthy of reliance.

Our first act in the collection of information was to circulate a set of Statistical Questions. These Questions were sent to the Clergy of each persuasion, to the Magistracy, to the heads of the Police, and to such educated persons as had been named as able and willing to give us assistance. The purport of these Questions was to obtain an outline of the extent and nature of each Parish, the number of destitute Persons it contained, the number and nature of the Institutions for the relief of the Poor, the rates of Wages, rents of Cottages, &c. ; about 7,600 of these Questions were circulated, about 3,100 were returned, and the state of about 1,100 Parishes was described by them. Many well-informed persons in every part of the country were induced, through answering these questions, to send statements by which considerable insight was afforded upon many subjects of importance.

To obtain information sufficiently extensive in its range, and sufficiently impartial, by means of circulated Questions, was obviously impossible. As a Board, we could not pass from one district of the country to another, and receive local evidence, if the country was to be extensively visited, and if our inquiry was to conclude within any reasonable number of years. If each Member of the Board had taken a separate District, it is probable that each would have been more impressed by those circumstances which had been subjects of personal observation, than by those which had been collected by his colleagues, and consequently were to him only written evidence. To have contented ourselves with such information as we could obtain by Witnesses brought to Dublin would have been materially to lessen the chance of obtaining full and impartial information, not only as regarded classes of persons, but as regarded the various districts of the country.

It was obviously necessary, therefore, that others should be deputed to make local inquiries.
The difficulty, great under any circumstances, of selecting persons upon whom reliance could be placed was much increased by the peculiar state of society.

In a community which had long been divided into politico-religious parties, each regarding the other with jealousy and animosity, it was extremely difficult to find persons who would be able, even if they were desirous, to divest themselves of every partial feeling, nurtured as they had been in an anti-social state. And even when persons should have been found who really were themselves thus impartial, there was still a danger that they would be suspected of partaking of the prejudices with which their relatives, friends and connexions were known to be imbued.

On the other hand, to have left the inquiry to those who were foreign to the country, would have been to entrust it to persons ignorant of its peculiar social construction. The only mode of combining the national knowledge possessed by the one, with the impartiality almost certain in the other, appeared to be by joining in the inquiry a native of Great Britain with a resident native of Ireland.

In order to reap the fullest advantage possible from such an arrangement, we required that all Evidence should be taken in the joint presence of the Irish and English Assistant Commissioners. We likewise empowered either Assistant Commissioner to invite the presence of any person whose Evidence might appear to him individually to be important, and to put any question he might think pertinent to the Inquiry.

In order that the Evidence might be at once full and impartial, and be collected and registered in a manner perfectly satisfactory, the Assistant Commissioners were desired to adopt the following course :-

1st. To request the attendance of persons of each grade in society, of each of the various religious persuasions, and of each party in politics ; to give to the testimony of each class an equal degree of attention, and to make the examinations in the presence of all ; in fact, in open court. Not to allow any person to join in conducting the examination, and to state at the opening of the proceedings, that any statement made by an individual, and not impugned by any person present, would be considered to be acknowledged as at least probable by all.

2dly. To note down, at the time of examination, the replies given, or the remarks which occurred to him ; to register, as nearly as might be possible in the words of each witness, the statements which might be made ; to register the names of all the persons who attended the examination ; and before proceeding to examine another district, to send the minutes of the previous examination to the office of the Commissioners in Dublin, signed by both the Assistant Commissioners.

By the first of these directions, it was hoped, that as none are so conversant with those matters which peculiarly or chiefly belong to any class, as the members of that class, by receiving their Evidence, the Assistant Commissioner would possess himself of the most competent testimony ; and that by receiving the statement in the presence of other classes, not having the same interests or even having opposite interests, but possessing, from local connexion, sufficient knowledge of the circumstances of the witnesses, to determine its probability, the best security possible would be obtained that each statement would be worthy of credence, and that it had not been made solely with a view to a sinister and class interest ; that by refusing to allow any resident of the district to sit with the Assistant Commissioner, or join in the examination, the working classes would feel more confidence in the impartiality of the procedure, and would therefore speak without restraint. By the second head of direction, we hoped to provide against the possibility of misrepresentation through any of the circumstances being forgotten, or others which did not exist being inadvertently inserted ; by the words of each Witness being recorded as nearly as might be, to leave the evidence less open to misinterpretation, and in effect, to bring the reader more immediately in contact with the Witness ; by the list of persons who attended the examination being given, to enable the public to decide, whether each class was fairly represented ; and by the Minutes of Evidence being transmitted to the Board immediately after the examination, and the Assistant Commissioner not being permitted subsequently to alter them, to obtain a sufficient guarantee that they had not been adapted to the theories of the Examiner.

III. The reasons for not yet being able to obey Your Majesty’s Command to report to you, “Whether any and what further remedial measures appear to be requisite to ameliorate the condition of the Irish Poor, or any portion of them,” are perhaps sufficiently given in the fact, that we have not yet completed the second branch of our Inquiry, namely, that which relates to “the causes of destitution.” We feel, however, at liberty to make a more extended explanation, and we think such due to ourselves. We should be little worthy of the high trust reposed in us, did we content ourselves with deciding upon the extent and nature of distress, or upon the means of only present alleviation. We consider it fell to our duty to endeavour, if possible, to investigate the causes of the destitution which we discover, and to ascertain why classes of Your Majesty’s subjects are from time to time falling into a state of wretchedness ; why the labouring population do not provide against those events which seem inevitable ; why the able-bodied labourer does not provide against the sickness of himself or that of the various members of his family ; against the temporary absence of employment ; against the certain infirmity of age ; or against the destitution of his widow and his children, in the contingent event of his own premature decease : whether these omissions arise from any peculiar improvidence in his habits, or from the insufficiency of employment, or from the low rate of his wages. It would not even be sufficient did we answer, that the limited amount of employment and the rate of his wages will not permit him. It is our duty to carry the investigation further, and at least to endeavour to trace whether there be any circumstances which restrict the amount of employment or the rate of wages ; or in any other way offer impediments to the improvement of the people, which are such as can be remedied by legislation.

The principal occupation in Ireland being agricultural, our first attention has been directed to that branch of industry. We are informed, both through private communications, and through Parliamentary and other public documents, that there is much unreclaimed land in Ireland which might be brought into cultivation, and that land already under cultivation might throughout Ireland be more efficiently worked, and thus increase the demand for labour. We wish to ascertain to what extent these statements are well founded, and whether the evil is attributable to want of capital or to want of skill, and whether there are any circumstances which have deterred British capitalists from coming to Ireland, or have prevented the investment in agriculture of capital actually existing in Ireland ; and to what extent those circumstances have proved injurious ; in case the evil arises from a deficiency of skill in the tenantry, to ascertain whether there are any means by which a superior knowledge of agriculture can be diffused ; whether it be possible generally to introduce those systems which, in Down, Armagh, and in other counties are reported to have produced the most beneficial results, both to the owner and to the occupier.

Other causes of inferior cultivation have been assigned, upon which it is necessary to possess information. Some of these respect corporate lands, lands of minors, lands in litigation, lands held under custodiam, &c. ; and more particularly lands in possession of sub-landlords, whose interest is not sufficiently extensive to permit them to look beyond present gain, whilst the interest of the head landlord is too remote to induce him to lay out capital, the benefit of which could scarcely accrue to himself, even at a very distant time : others respect the conditions upon which the tenantry hold the land and buildings : others respect the means of communication, their absence, or their imperfect condition as creating an impediment between the grower and his market.

We are also about to inquire into the actual condition of the agricultural labourer as to food, clothing and habitation ; and the terms upon which he possesses con-acre ground or holds as a cottier tenant.
We feel that in endeavouring to prevent the existence of destitution, we shall more strictly fulfil Your Majesty’s Commission, than if we merely devised means for alleviating misery after it had arisen. We shall feel deep pain should we ultimately be compelled to leave to any portion of the Peasantry of Ireland a continuation of distress on the one hand, or a mere offer of charity on the other. Far more grateful would be the office of recommending measures by which the industrious labourer might have the prospect of a constant field for his exertions, with a remuneration sufficient for his present demands, and admitting of a provision against those contingencies which attach to himself and to his family. It is our anxious wish to do more than diminish the wretchedness of portions of the working classes ; we are most solicitous to place the whole of those classes in the greatest state of comfort which it may be within the reach of the Legislature permanently to provide, consistently with the good of the rest of society.

But even were there not that necessity which we are convinced there is for further inquiry to enable us to decide whether much of the now existing misery might be prevented, still we should be compelled to proceed in order to avoid recommending measures which might lead to new evils. We cannot otherwise tell what might be the effects upon those who are now able to support themselves, of any mode of relief which might be proposed ; how far such mode of relief to those who are destitute might increase the amount of destitution. These are not idle fears, but such cautions as necessarily suggest themselves to those who are acquainted with the effects produced upon the labourers in England, by the public provision for the destitute in that country. Looking beyond the physical condition of the working classes we also are desirous of guarding against the moral degradation which might follow in the train of measures benevolently intended, but ill-judged, when applied to a nation possessing the habits and being in the peculiar situation of the People of Ireland.

We cannot conclude this sketch of our proceedings up to the present period, without remarking that, having been appointed to inquire into the condition of that portion of Your Majesty’s Irish subjects, who are or may be considered as requiring relief, we have felt it our duty to devote our attention, in the first instance, to those classes in which distress was known or supposed principally to prevail. We think it necessary to make this observation, in consequence of our Evidence containing so few details as to the condition of the poor placed in more favourable circumstances. We know that there is a very large number of instances in which through the benevolent and judicious devotion of individuals to the personal superintendence of their estates, and the improvement of the condition of their poorer neighbours, much misery has been alleviated, and much wholly prevented.

  All which We humbly certify to YOUR MAJESTY.














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