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.
In the decades before the Great Famine of the late-1840s numerous parliamentary inquiries were held into the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland. Political and social elites wished to understand the nature of Ireland’s seemingly endemic poverty in the hope of improving the social, economic and moral condition of the peasantry, as well as quelling the country’s tendency for social upheaval and political radicalism. The most significant of these inquiries was the Royal Commission for Inquiring into the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland (aka the Poor Inquiry). Chaired by the Church of Ireland archbishop of Dublin Richard Whately (1787-1863), the commission sat between 1833 and 1836, holding extensive public inquiries (akin to court sittings) in parishes throughout the country, supplemented by extensive correspondence with persons of significance across the island, as to the social condition of the poor in their locality. The printed output of the commission – totalling more than 5,000 pages of detailed information, witness testimonies and statistics – constitutes an unparalleled source for the study of poverty in the pre-Famine period. The Poor Inquiry reports tell us much about County Offaly (King’s County) a decade before the Great Famine. Continue reading