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I’m planning a live launch of A Purgatory of Misery next month. I created a Facebook event and have been putting up daily posts about Irish history.
I was going to repeat them here but I hit on a better idea. A quiz!
If you know the answers it won’t take you long. If you don’t, you will find them over on the event’s FB page.
Unfortunately it’s not interactive. I’ve researched several quiz widgets but WP requires me to upgrade to the business version in order to install them.
Here are your questions. You can enter your answers in the comments if you want to show off.
- Workhouses were introduced into Ireland by the 1838 Poor Law (Ireland) Act. How many were built in this first phase?
- The book launch is to be held in a former workhouse. It is one of how many additional workhouses that were authorised for construction during the famine?
- The book’s title is taken from a speech by whom?
- 1848 saw rebellions across Europe. What was the name of the Irish man who led the Chartist rebellion in England?
- My co-author’s ancestor was one of how many orphan girls shipped from the workhouses to Australia?
- One of those girls is an ancestor of which former Australian Prime Minister?
- Name the Island off the coast of England where St. Patrick founded a religious community.
- What is the title of my historical novel based on the Norman invasion of Ireland in the 12th century.
- In which century did the brother of a Scottish king invade Ireland during an earlier famine?
- Name the English poet who took part in the bloody siege of Smerwick.
All the answers can also be found, along with many more shocking facts, in the book. If you can’t get along to the launch – and I know most of you are too far away – you can download the e-book here for Kindle and here for all other e-readers.
Reading about the famine that afflicted Ireland in the years 1845-52 is to discover story after story of the horrors that ensued. The families found naked and dead huddled together in some filthy hovel; the evictions that left other families to seek shelter in ditches and under hedges.
It is also to enter the strange world of statistics. Did a million die, or more? Did a similar number emigrate? We have census figures for 1841 and 1851 which show a fall in population of around two million. Some have tried to interpolate what was the likely increase in population over the 5 years from 1841 to 1846 when starvation really began to bite. It is then that the possibility of up to 3 million reduction in population begins to look possible. And no-one can be certain of the accuracy of the census figures to begin with.
Without in any way wishing to belittle the significance of such a monstrous figure, I want to know more about the 6 million or so who survived. How many of them went through 7 years of suffering, losing parents, siblings, off-spring? How many were sufficiently well endowed with material goods to continue to thrive? How did they respond to the appalling conditions they must have witnessed?
One of the biggest contributors to the number of deaths was not starvation but disease. And infectious diseases like Cholera, Dysentery and Typhus did not confine themselves to the hungry. There is a considerable number recorded deaths among doctors, priests and others tending the sick.
I think it fair to suppose that, faced with such a tragedy today, most ordinary citizens would react in two ways. First they would launch a fund raising effort to help and, second, they would institute a political movement with the aim of forcing the government to take appropriate action. Where, I wonder, was the 19th Century equivalent of the Occupy movement?
There was one such organisation – the Young Ireland movement. And it did attempt to mount an armed rebellion. This was quickly quashed by the British government. Why did that not galvanise a much larger section of the population, in the way that the internment and execution of the 1916 rebel leaders did 70 years later?
There were, too, many donations of money from many different quarters, including Queen Victoria.
I have concluded that the story that I want to tell is that of those who lived through the horror and survived. One such individual is Captain Arthur Kennedy. You can read a lot about him here on the County Clare Library Service website. In brief, he was appointed as Poor Law Inspector, responsible for ensuring that the Poor Law Union that covered a vast area of County Clare from its base in the Kilrush workhouse, was operating properly.
He arrived there with a young family late in 1847 and remained for 2 1/2 years. His reports were published as a Parliamentary Blue Book, from which the Clare Library Service website has many quotations. He seems to have been at loggerheads with the Board of Guardians and its chairman, Colonel Crofton Vandeleur who owned most of the town.
What the published reports, and the material on the Library website, much of which is based on contemporary newspaper articles, does not say is anything about the family’s domestic situation. Where did they live? Assuming the children attended the local school, how did they relate to the other pupils, given their father’s job and the fact they were outsiders? Did the Kennedy’s socialise with Vandeleur and the other Guardians? What, in fact, was life really like for a middle class family thrust into the heart of an unfolding nightmare which they were duty bound to try to alleviate?
I have spent the past year gathering generalised background material to provide a context for what I believe could be an enlightening historical novel based on the life of The Poor Law Inspector. Now I need to start writing. I also need to visit Kilrush in order to glean what information I can about the lives of the 70% of those who resided there in 1845 and survived the next 7 years.
The third of my series of posts on poverty examines the transfer of poor laws from the British mainland to Ireland.
The Dublin House of Industry was established in 1772 to care for vagrants and beggars. In times of more general distress, the work of this and similar institutions in other cities was supplemented by ad hoc provision by the parishes raising funds by subscription. Reading accounts of the conditions that prevailed in the early 1780s, for example, it is clear that the response to widespread food and fuel shortages that occurred consisted of a combination of fire-fighting with limited financial resources and attempts by the government in Dublin to control markets and prices. Such attempts were actively opposed by merchants who often combined to frustrate philanthropic actions such as the donation of 2000 tons of free coal from the mine owner Sir James Lowther.
In addition to fund raising appeals by the parishes and government’s attempts to control markets and prices, some landlords offered alternative employment to workers displaced by such events as the failure of the flax crop in 1782 that had left weavers unable to ply their trade. In rural areas many communities took the law into their own hands, waylaying cartloads of grain destined for the cities.
According to James Kelly (Kelly, James. “Scarcity and Poor Relief in Eighteenth-Century Ireland: The Subsistence Crisis of 1782-4.” Irish Historical Studies, vol. 28, no. 109, 1992, pp. 38–62. www.jstor.org/stable/30008004.), “Acts of benevolence by landlords and clergy, and donations to institutions like the Houses of Industry, were vital for the control of distress in late eighteenth century Ireland. … In Dublin the House of Industry was the most important agent of relief, but it worked with local committees and was heavily reliant on donations…. while in the countryside landlords, wealthy farmers and clergy were indispensable.”
Note, however, that whereas there were numerous workhouses in England and Wales there were only a handful in Ireland, even though poverty and famines, or near famines, were much more common there. After the Act of Union at the commencement of the 19th century, the government in London considered various ways of tackling this problem which was beginning to effect social cohesion in England. A growing number of poor Irish families were migrating to England. Whilst they were not able to take advantage of the poor relief available there until they had established 5 years residence, their presence was perceived as a threat to both wages and social order.
(Astute readers will note a similarity between English attitudes to Irish immigrants 200 years ago and present day resentment towards migrants from Eastern Europe in England and from Mexico in the USA.)
Education was seen as one important way of ending poverty, by equipping individuals with the skills to enable them to obtain work. During the second half of the 18th century a number of Protestant organisations established schools in Ireland. Catholics had been banned from providing education as part of the policy of suppressing the old religion. Once the ban was lifted, Catholic schools also began to appear. Unlike the Protestant schools, however, these did not receive government support. By the 1830s, the government decided to establish a National school system which would be multi-denominational, run by committees containing both Catholic and Protestant members.
Although this put Ireland ahead of the mainland in terms of state funded education, Ireland was not progressing economically or socially. A number of government initiated surveys and reports were commissioned but their recommendations were generally deemed to be too costly to implement. One such commission, headed by the Protestant Arch Bishop of Dublin, recommended that the poor law, as established in England, would not work in Ireland because of the lack of available work. This was unacceptable to the authorities in London who sent George Nicholls, one of the commissioners responsible for administering the poor law in England, to look at the situation in Ireland.
In an earlier post I described how the English regarded themselves as superior to the native populations of the lands they conquered. However well justified this attitude might have seemed given the evident successes achieved by English Soldiers, Seamen and Scientists, it looks today like extreme arrogance. The modern liberal view is that a person’s ethnic origin has no bearing on his or her intelligence or ability to acquire useful skills. This was not so in the first half of the nineteenth century. The English establishment viewed the native Irish in exactly the same way as they viewed the natives of Africa.
The remarks of the poor law commissioner, George Nicholls, illustrate this perfectly. “They seem to feel no pride, no emulation; to be heedless of the present, and reckless of the future. They do not … strive to improve their appearance or add to their comforts. Their cabins still continue slovenly, smoky, filthy, almost without furniture or any article of convenience or decency … If you point out these circumstances to the peasantry themselves, and endeavour to reason with and show them how easily they might improve their condition and increase their comforts, you are invariably met by excuses as to their poverty …’Sure how can we help it, we are so poor’ … whilst at the same time (he) is smoking tobacco, and had probably not denied himself the enjoyment of whiskey.”
(I have offered a possible explanation for the apparent indolence of Irish paupers based on recent studies in Neuroscience.)
His conclusion was that a new poor law should be enacted for Ireland which should include the provision of a network of 130 workhouses and that these institutions would not be permitted to provide relief other than within their walls. It was felt that this would deter all but those deemed to be the most deserving people from claiming relief. Each workhouse would have space for 800 persons, would be administered by a Board of Guardians and financed by a local property tax.
This policy was quickly implemented. When the potato crop failed in the second half of the 1840s this network of workhouses became the bases from which relief would be administered. They would prove to be utterly inadequate to perform the task, although, in fairness to the Boards of Guardians, the majority did their best with the limited resources available to them.
The second of my series of posts on poverty examines the evolution of poor laws in the British mainland.
Prior to the reformation – the switch, over large parts of Europe, from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism – the poor were looked after by the monasteries. The funding for this came from the patronage the monasteries received from the land owners and from the tythes paid by farmers. Whilst the old, the sick and the disabled were provided with food, shelter and healing, the able bodied were provided with work, either in farms that formed an important part of the religious community or on building construction and maintenance.
For the able bodied individual who could not find work near his place of abode the only alternative was to travel to a place where there was work available. Others might travel from place to place plying a particular trade, or offering a service, moving on when the demand for the service in a that area had been satisfied.
Throughout this period there were years when crops failed causing famine. Epidemics of disease occurred from time to time. The ‘Black Death’, the plague that devastated Europe in the 14th century, for example, reduced the population by 30%. Wars, too, took their toll on populations, although they also provided a source of income for those who chose, or were forced, to join one or other of the many armies that took part. With the men away fighting the bulk of the labour necessary to grow food fell to the women. Wars were often responsible for the failure of crops. This was sometimes a deliberate act of destruction, perpetrated as part of the campaign. At other times it was the consequence of the absence of farm labourers meaning that insufficient crops were sown.
The destruction of the monasteries that followed the Reformation meant they were no longer able to carry on the work of alleviating poverty. In Britain, it now fell to the Parishes to administer poor relief under the first of a string of ‘poor laws’ that were introduced and amended throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.
In order to qualify for relief you had to be able to prove a connection to the parish from which you were claiming. If you were a stranger, you would need to travel to the parish where you were born or where you could demonstrate a long term affinity. Such relief, when applied to individuals deemed capable of work, was conditional upon the individual undertaking some form of work in return. It was funded by levying a rate (property tax based on the notional value of the property) on the landowners of the parish.
By the 18th century this idea, that assistance must be earned by performing work, had become well established. After all, someone else’s labour had created the food, clothing and shelter with which you were being provided. It was only right that you should perform some service in return.
For those not completely indigent, survival depended on payment received in return for their labour, whether as agricultural labourers or in the factories appearing in the growing industrial centres. The balance between wages and the price of food and other necessities became an important factor influencing the extent of poverty.
The practical manifestation of the principle of work in return for relief for the indigent was the workhouse. The first of these was established in Bristol at the end of the 17th century. The movement grew throughout the 18th century as the larger parishes, and groups of small parishes set up similar institutions. By 1776 there were over 1900 such institutions in England and Wales, housing an estimated 100,000 individuals, most of them children, sick or elderly.
Coming next: The Poor Law as Applied in Ireland
To see my post about Victorian Britain’s sense of superiority click here.