Times Past with Brian Gabriel

Poverty and Poor Law in 19th Century Blarney

The early years of the 19th Century witnessed a growing concern in official circles about living conditions among the poor and destitute. The rapid growth of population in Ireland led to miserable living conditions and overcrowding. This in turn increased the risk of the outbreak of epidemics. A number of select Committees began holding detailed inquiries from 1804 onwards into every aspect of the lives of the poor. The Commission of 1835/36 ‘Inquiry into the conditions of the poorer classes in Ireland’ gives an outline picture of Blarney/Whitechurch. The reports were compiled by submitting a detailed questionnaire to persons such as clergymen and magistrates in each parish. The replies were often at variance or contradictory coming from people of different religious and social backgrounds. Fr. Matt Horgan P.P. and Rev. Wm Crofts C. of I. completed the questionnaire for Blarney/Whitechurch. The questions were set under a number of headings. Foundlings: There were very few deserted children in most areas; Fr. Horgan wrote that there were none in Blarney/Whitechurch. Church or chapel collections usually sufficed to support the odd few. Pressure was often brought to bear on single fathers to help support the mother and child according to their means. They were sometimes sent by the Protestant vicar to the Foundlings hospital. Labourers: There were about 50 or 60 men who because of old age or illness had to be supported by their families. The labourers of Blarney/Whitechurch appeared to be slightly better off than in other local parishes. Beggars: The number of beggars was given as ten and they usually received potatoes as alms. When a family was very badly off a collection would be taken up for them at the church on Sunday. With regard to strolling beggars; in other words, the homeless, they were taken in by the poor people and given shelter for the night without charge. There were no actual cases of people dying of hunger since the poor were prepared to share what little they had. However, the death rate was very high due to malnutrition, disease and very bad housing. Housing: The Census returns of 1841 gives a fairly accurate estimate of housing standards. Houses were classified from 1 to 4, the latter being built of mud walls, thatched roof with a hole for a chimney and having just one room. The poorest people made do with rags or straw for bedding. Tables and chairs were of the crudest sort. The family pig often shared the limited living space. Invariably a manure heap of dunghill lay close to the front door. Fr. Matt states that he ‘obliged the people to whitewash their houses twice a year, remove the filth from their doors and get the farmers to supply fresh straw as required. He took a local census every fourth year and noted a decline in the numbers of small farmers due to their going broke. Rent for the houses/cabins was between £1-50 and £2 per year, depending on the size of the garden area. Labourers paid their rent by working for the farmers who supplied manure for the gardens and milk for the families. Land and the Landless: The local landlords lived elsewhere, with a few exceptions. They tried to rid themselves of the numerous small farmers, cottiers and squatters. Where possible they evicted families, levelled the miserable cabins and enlarged the holdings. The evicted people, the dispossessed, became ‘strolling beggars’, the most miserable class of all. Once evicted from their small holdings, they had no prospect of getting another place from a landowner elsewhere. Diet: The principal food of the very poor was the humble but abundant potato. Fr. Horgan: ‘Potatoes and salt, and sometimes a salted herring; the most comfortable have a couple of sheep to give milk. Goats are not allowed them. Their clothes for the most part, they make themselves, and of the worst sort. During the winter, milk was largely unavailable. When the old potatoes were all used up and the new crop was not yet fit for digging, a great many people went hungry. Potatoes and milk cost 3/= per week per head coming to about £7.80 per year. Work and Wages: A labourer earned about £10 per year, in kind rather than in cash but he could also work out the rent of a second acre of potatoes and feed two more pigs, making a profit. Only at harvest time was there enough work for all. Wages for labourers varied from 8d to 1/= per day, without meals. Women and children earned about 3d to 4d per day. Fr. Horgan: ‘No labourer can work more than 240 days in the year, deducting wet days, holidays, cultivating his acre of potatoes or cutting and saving his turf. At 1/= per day amounts to £12, only half of which he is paid in cash. His only other income came from the sale of his pig.’ Dairy Farming: Was confined to a few areas in the Parish. Fr. Horgan: There were two dairymen in Blarney/Whitechurch who bought milk at 5d a gallon in summer and 6d in winter. This milk was used to make butter which was sold in Cork with the buttermilk residue. £7 to £9 was paid, per annum, to those who could keep a cow in grazing. Emigration: The system of assisted emigration was evident in Blarney/Whitechurch. Landlords paid the removal expenses of voluntary emigrants in return for surrendering their smallholding. America, Britain and Canada were the usual destinations for many years. Law and Order: There was great unrest in many parts of Ireland over the injustice of the Catholic small holders being compelled to make tithe payments to the Protestant church. The Whiteboy Secret Society was one of the most prominent in violently resisting the system. The Courtbrack incident occurred when one man was shot and killed and another stoned to death by an angry mob. Legislation was enacted in 1838 which resolved this long-standing source of unrest. Pubs: There were five public houses in Blarney/Whitechurch and no ‘illicit distillation’. Savings: The nearest savings bank was at Cork city, founded in 1817. Facts and Figures: There were 246 houses and 1,754 persons in Blarney with an average of seven to every house. There were 60 farmers and all the rest labourers, only employed part-time. Whitechurch had a population of 2,646 with about the same averages of housing etc. These statistics were supplied by Fr. Horgan from his own 4 yearly census. The parish contained no bog-land or waste mountain. Most of the land was either pasture or arable. Blarney Dispensary: This dispensary district had a population of 4,000 people, extending in area from four and a half to six miles distant. The report of the Inquiry is quite critical of Blarney6 dispensary throughout. Its first paragraph comments on the miserable one-room structure which served both for dispensing medicine and examining the sick. The only furniture was a solitary chair, half the floor was of mud and there was a strong recommendation that another premises be obtained. Dunbulloge and Whitechurch Dispensary: This dispensary was located in Carrignavar and it served an area eight miles by eleven miles with a population of 12,000. It was situated in the centre so the attendant did not have to travel more than four or five miles in any direction. However, the dispensary area was considered too large. In contrast with Blarney the report is quite complimentary about conditions at the Whitechurch dispensary. The attendant was described as a gentleman possessing an M.D. degree and a member of the Edinburgh College of Surgeons. He was also educated in midwifery at colleges in Dublin and Edinburgh. The report states that the dispensary was neat and well-kept and stocked with an adequate supply of medicine of a very good quality. These drugs and medicines were kept under lock and key and used solely for the dispensary.

The above excerpts were taken from a much larger article titled ‘Poverty and Poor Law in 19th Century Blarney’ by J.J. Duggan and published in Issue No 1 ‘Old Blarney’ Journal. A limited number of ‘Old Blarney’ back issues are still available by contacting 087 2153216, bg1@eircom.net  or www.blarneyhistory.ie   or at the Monthly Lectures.