The decades before the Great Famine witnessed a growing interest, in both Ireland and Britain, in the problem of Ireland’s endemic poverty. The sheer extent of poverty in the country and the very nature of that impoverishment – the relative lack of capital investment; an over-reliance on small agricultural holdings and a single staple crop; the complex and pervasive culture of mendicancy (begging) – were among the most striking characteristics of pre-Famine Irish society highlighted by foreign travellers and social inquirers. As outlined in a previous post on this blog(https://offalyhistoryblog.wordpress.com/2019/01/05/poverty-in-pre-famine-offaly-kings-county-by-ciaran-mccabe), a Royal Commission for Inquiring into the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland (aka the Poor Inquiry) sat between 1833 and 1836, and examined in considerable detail, the social condition of the poorer classes throughout the island. The resulting published reports, totalling more than 5,000 pages (much of it seemingly-verbatim testimony taken at public inquiries) illuminates more than any other source the experiences of the lower sections of Irish society on the eve of the Famine; fortunately for us, the Poor Inquiry collected evidence from witnesses in King’s County.
The Poor Inquiry investigated poverty and social conditions through two primary methods – firstly, by distributing a printed questionnaire to local elites in parishes throughout the country, and second, as Niall Ó Ciosáin writes, ‘the adoption of a novel methodology, the communal oral hearing’. In the latter case, two Poor Law Commissioners, attached to the central commission office in Dublin, travelled to towns throughout Ireland and held public hearings, to which locals were invited to attend and give evidence as to the social condition of the people in their locality. In the subsequently published reports of the Poor Inquiry, the questionnaires take up 409 pages, while the oral evidence presented at public hearings (much of it, apparently verbatim), totalled 793 pages. Crucially, while the information provided in the questionnaires was limited to the elites, the public hearings, held at hotels and courthouses, recorded evidence and testimonies from all social classes, from landlords to beggars. While we have few accounts of the dynamics of individual public hearings, a first-hand account of the Poor Inquiry’s hearing in Daingean in County Offaly (then called Philipstown in King’s County) was recorded in the travel account of Poor Law Commissioner Jonathan Binns.
Binns (1785-1871) was an English Quaker who served as an assistant agricultural commissioner on the Whately Poor Inquiry in the mid-1830s and travelled across Ireland in this capacity, carrying out investigations into the social conditions of the poor. Among the locations he visited in the course of his work was Philipstown (which we know today as Daingean); his description of the town in the mid-1830s makes for grim reading, and paints a picture of a town decimated by long-term decay, and the removal of its social, economic and political significance:
‘The town is well built, and was formerly a place of note. It contains a capital Court-house and Prison, a large Catholic chapel, and a small Protestant church. The Grand Canal, on which two passage-boats ply daily between Dublin and the Shannon harbour, adjoins the town. Previously to the [1800 Act of] Union, Philipstown returned two members to parliament, and was a place of considerable trade. Lamentably, however, are things changed now. It is robbed of its representatives – the assizes are removed to Tullamoore[sic] – its trade has disappeared – many of its houses are in ruins – its shops are falling into decay – and its population, as these signs sufficiently indicate, are poor and wretched. Although surrounded by miles of unreclaimed bog land, its inhabitants wander about the streets in search of employment, and find none.’
Binns’s account resembles the description of Philipstown in Samuel Lewis’s contemporaneous Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837): “The town has little to recommend it. In size and population it is small, and its situation, being nearly surrounded by bog, is extremely uninteresting.” Among the factors which contributed to the demise of Philipstown was the growing importance of Tullamore in the early- to mid-nineteenth century, as demonstrated in the construction of new civic buildings in the latter town, such as the county gaol and courthouse in the 1820s and 1830s. In 1833 Tullamore effectively replaced Philipstown as the county town when the county assizes, which had been held in Philipstown since the mid-sixteenth century, were transferred to Tullamore.
The Poor Inquiry examination at the courthouse at Philipstown commenced on 16 November 1835. A particular strength of Binns’s own personal account of the Poor Inquiry was the detailed outline of the work of the commissioners: where they held sessions and who addressed them. In many locations throughout Ireland, commissioners did not limit their work to holding sedentary sittings, but, rather, ventured out into the local community and inspected local social conditions for themselves; for instance, in Dublin city, commissioners personally visited some of the most notorious slum areas in the Liberties. The commissioners in Philipstown were no different. Binns tells us:
“In walking over the bog [just outside the town] we came to a cabin occupied by Barney Mangin, the walls of which were cut out of the solid moss. The roof slopes from the front towards the back, which is level with the surface of the moss, as shewn in the end-view annexed. Barney was a miserable, half-starved creature, and lived with his wife and two children in this cabin, paying for it, however, no rent. Window or chimney it had none, and the smoke found its way out at the door, and through the imperfect roof, which consisted of sods and turf. Mangain paid, last year, 20s. for one cwt. of meal on trust, when the market price was only twelve shillings.”
Among the most ubiquitous figures in pre-Famine Irish society, both in urban and rural areas, were wandering beggars (mendicants). Attitudes and responses to soliciting beggars were varied, complex and framed by interweaving influences of social class, religion, gender and a natural sense of empathy. On the one hand, beggars could be seen as deviant, work-shy, suspicious characters who spread gossip, sedition and infectious disease throughout the country; on the other hand, they could also be seen as sympathetic figures, whose poverty may not have been self-inflicted, thus marking them as ‘God’s poor’ and deserving of assistance. In Philipstown, Binns appears to have encountered beggars of both, in his view, moral and immoral character. For instance, he reflected on the practical complexities inherent in doling out alms to street beggars, and rightly identified most beggars as being women and children:
‘… the windows were frequently crowded with miserable women, carrying children upon their backs, and soliciting charity with pitiful lamentations. To relieve all was impossible – and to relieve only a few increased the number of those who begged.’
However, seemingly malevolent beggars did not escape his attention, with Binns noting: “The beggars in this district are very numerous; they sometimes pass through Philipstown, to the number of three or four hundred a day, are often tipsy, and circulate stories of malicious tendency.” Binns presented a regular trope of beggars who “occasionally amass[ed], by one means or another, considerable wealth”. A Mr Odlum, a wealthy businessman, relayed to Binns his awareness of a beggar who gave his own daughter £100. Nonetheless, Binns drew comfort from the significance of the work in which he was engaged and the long-term consequences of the Poor Inquiry’s investigations: ‘Under such distressing circumstances, my consolation was, that I was engaged in preparing a full and honest statement of their wretched condition, with a view to the introduction of legislative measures of relief.’
The inquiry was told that many of the local labourers were underemployed, although in some instances this underemployment was seen as being self-inflicted; some witnesses noted the work-shy nature and lack of motivation amongst many of the (largely Catholic) lower classes. According to a Rev Hamilton, presumably a Protestant clergyman, although not explicitly stated, “if it were advertised that a cricket was to walk across the street, crowds would collect to see it”. Binns, however, spoke about the people of Philipstown with great empathy. He stressed the dire impoverishment of the locality and its people, who would work for as little as four pence per day “if they could get it”. Their diet was of “the poorest description” and was barely sufficient to sustain life: “To use their own words, uttered with great pathos and feeling, – “We are only just breathing” – “Our eyes are only just kept open”.
• Jonathan Binns, The miseries and beauties of Ireland. Vol II (2 vols, London, 1837);
• Peter Gray, The making of the Irish poor law, 1815–43 (Manchester, 2009);
• Niall Ó Ciosáin, Ireland in official print culture, 1800-1850: a new reading of the Poor Inquiry (Oxford, 2014);
• Ciarán Reilly, The Irish land agent, 1830-60: the case of King’s County (Dublin, 2014);
• Chapters by Michael Byrne and Timothy P. O’Neill in William Nolan & Timothy P. O’Neill (eds), Offaly history and society (Dublin, 1998).
Dr Ciarán McCabe is an Irish Research Council postdoctoral research fellow at University College Dublin. His book, Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland, was published by Liverpool University Press in 2018. Ciaran serves on the committee of the Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society, and will deliver a paper to the society on Monday 23 September 2019 on the topic of ‘Poverty and Poor Relief in pre-Famine King’s County’ in the Offaly Heritage Centre, Tullamore at 8pm. Ciarán’s lecture will be followed by the Offaly launch of his book (launch by OHAS Honorary Secretary, Michael Byrne) and refreshments.