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The following piece of private history that happened n Great Britain, is related by the late Dr. Witherspoon, in one of his sermons.
“A gentleman of very considerable fortune, but a stranger to either personal or family religion, one evening, took a solitary walk through a part of his own grounds. He happened to come near to a mean hut, where a poor man with a numerous family lived, who earned their bread by daily labour. He heard a voice pretty loud and continued. Not knowing what it was, curiosity prompted him to listen. The man, who was piously disposed, happened to be at prayer with his family. So soon as he could distinguish the words, he heard him giving thanks with great affection to God, for the goodness of his providence in giving them food to eat, and raiment to put on, and in supplying them with what was necessary and comfortable in the present life. He was immediately struck with astonishment and confusion, and said to himself, • does this poor man, who has nothing but the meanest fare, and that purchased by severe labour, give thanks to God for his goodness to himself and family, and I, who enjoy ease, and honour, and every thing that is grateful and desirable, have hardly ever bent my knee, or made any acknowledgment to my Maker and Preserver? It pleased God, that this providential occurrence proved the means of bringing him to a real and lasting sense of God and religion."
The following statements extracted from the “Report of the Commissioners,” who were sent to Ireland to investigate the state of the lower classes in that country, exhibit a picture of the effects of covetousness, combined with its usual accompaniment-apathy in regard to the sufferings of others, which would disgrace a Pagan land, and much more a Christian land.
These Commissioners appear to have conducted their inquiries openly and fairly. They held their sittings in upwards of one hundred parishes. They were sent through the whole of the four provinces of Ireland, and obtained information from all ranks and classes, from “the highest landlord, down to the lowest beggar.”
The details stated below, are only specimens of hundreds of similar details, equally horrible and revolting, which are scattered throughout a quarto volume of between four and five hundred pages. The answers to the questions put, taken viva voce, are printed verbatim, under the following seven heads. 1. Deserted and orphan children. 2. Illegitimate children and their mothers. 3. Widows with families of young children. 4. Impotent through age and infirmity. 5. Sick, poor. 7. Able-bodied out of work. 7. Vagrants.
1. The following extracts relate to widows with children.
They are seldom half fed, say a cloud of witnesses. One meal of potatoes a day, is the most they can expect, eked out with unwholesome weeds. Mr. Cotter, rector of a parish in the County of Cork, says, “One evening a parcel of workmen came to me for soup, which I was in the habit of giving. Some cabbage stumps that were thrown out of the kitchen were lying. The pigs and fowls had picked them almost quite bare. I saw myself six or seven of the poor women turn their faces to the wall, and eat the stumps the pigs had left. Peggy Kiernan, a beggar woman, says, the widows get, when at
work for the farmers, 11d. per day. They rarely beg in public, unless when their children are so young they cannot leave them.”
The Assistant Commissioners found widow Halloran working a quilt. She worked eight hours a day, and it would take her a week to finish it, and all she had bargained for, was one shilling. A man who happened to be standing
by, said he would not give
two pence a day, for what any widow in the parish would earn by her labour. Parochial assistance is unknown, and the question, whether the absentee proprietors who hold nearly the entire parish, ever contribute to the relief of those who pay them rent,—was answered with a laugh, that expressed astonishment at the thought of such a thing being entertained.
When the cholera appeared at Cork, a small hospital was established, and a few patients admitted into it. Notwithstanding the great dread that was entertained for the disease, three poor widows feigned sickness, in order to gain admission; one, the widow Buck, had two children. When these women were detected, they refused to go out. In the county of Limerick, there has been no widow driven by her necessities to prostitution, though one of these virtuous poor women states, that she lives in a hovel without a roof. “I have no house,” says she, “ but I got a few poles, and made a narrow shed, by placing them against the wall and covering them with loose weeds. The end is open to the air, and there is no door.” She expects, with her boy, to pass the winter under the same shed.
Even in the north of Ireland, where Protestants chiefly reside, similar privations are found to prevail. The following is a picture of a Londonderry widow.
The Assistant Commissioners visited one widow. She lived in a wretched hovel on the road-side, about half a mile from Dungiven. There was a little straw in a corner, which, covered with a thin linen qnilt, served as a bed. Over two or three kindled turf, a girl of about ten years of age, was bending, and a middle-aged woman was sitting, spinning, in the centre of the hut. She said that the girl was the youngest of eight children, and was only a month old, when, by her husband's death, she was left wholly dependent on her own exertions. None of the children were at that time able to assist her; and the only employment open to her was spinning, by which she could then make 4d. a day. By her spinning, which was gradually diminished to 2d. a day, she brought up her eight children, sending them out to service as they grew up. They are now married, or engaged in service. The three eldest married when they were under eighteen. They never," said she, "got a noggin of broth in charity; nor did a handful of potatoes badly got, ever enter my house. I always kept the roof over them, and prevented their begging." She never had any land; her landlord having taken froin her, that which her husband held; but he left her the house,
half of which was blown down, and in the remaining half, she still lived. She seemed cheerful and contented, but said, she had gone through unutterable hardships. “ Many a time,” said she, "a neighbour woman that lived with me, did not know that I had only eaten two or three potatoes that day, and, at night, I used to be up two or three times, when I could not sleep, thinking of my misfortunes, and looking out for the day-light to begin working.'
Widow M'Crow, another inhabitant of the north, stated, “The rain comes in through the roof of my hut. I sleep on the ground, which is constantly wet, and have not so much straw as would fill a hat. I have but a single fold of a blanket to cover my whole family. I have had it for eight years. My children are naked. I have a lump on the shoulder, for which I cannot get medical assistance.” It was agreed by all present, that few widows can be better than this
The gentry, says the Report, scarcely ever assist the poor widows, but the labourers will often work a day for them gratis in building a hovel. Some of these widows have too much pride to beg, and pine in hopeless misery, in some wretched cabin. In the single parish of Killaloe, in the county of Clare, the R. C. Priest speaks of sixty widows in this destitute state.
“I had not,” says Mary Slattery, "a sod of turf to warm a drink for my sick child. All I had to-day, was four cold potatoes. The rain comes down through the roof, and my lodger never slept a wink last night, trying how to keep the bed-clothes dry. As God knows my heart, I spent the night on the hearth-stone, crying and praying that God would look down on me and my children.”
As to laying by any thing when in employment, that is out of the question. “ No man,” says Mr. Donaugh, “ could lay up any thing for his old age, unless he have an old lease. In other cases, there is no chance of it."
The effect of this wretched life, and diet, is too apparent, and cuts off the sufferers before the usual period of human life. Labourers usually break down at the age of fifty-five, from the effects of scanty food, and exposure to the weather. The same is reported of mechanics. If there is a bridge to be built, there will not be a man above fifty-five upon it. Poverty bends their spirits and breaks them down. It appears from the evidence, that the custom of supporting their parents, which used to be the pride of the Irish peasants, is decaying fast, from the pressure of the times, and incapacity. Labourers supporting their parents, are often reduced to one meal of dry potatoes. It sometimes comes to counting the potatoes. Then, as the second family grows large, the daughter in-law begins to grumble. She will not see her children starved to feed her husband's parents. “Being always at home, she is apt to find her husband's father in the way, and you will see the old man cowering in the chimney, as if he were endeavouring to hide himself from her.” An old man says himself, “ the few potatoes I eat, sir, cannot do me good, for I am afraid they are grudged me, and what is more, I grudge them to myself, when I see so many mouths opening for them.” One witness states, that “the turning out of the father is so common, that the contrary is the exception."
The Rev. Mr. Gibson mentions the following case. " The wife and family of a man who had been respectable, died here of want, a short time since. They could not get any thing to eat at times, more than once in two days. They died rather than beg." Such cases, alas! are by no means scarce. Mr. Riley says, “two months ago,
I saw an old woman eighty years of age, going over the bridge to beg her breakfast. When she got to the top, she stopped to rest herself, and, when I came up to her, she was dead." Dr. Walsh, M. D., states, “ that in his parish in Kildare, many have died of actual starvation."
Yet, in a country where such scenes are daily passing, all the great land-owners are averse to the introduction of poor laws, and for this most selfish reason, that the principal burden of supporting the poor, would, (as it ought,) fall upon themselves. It is curious to remark, that the farmers and shop-keepers, in a word, the middle and producing classes of the Irish community, approve of some system of poor laws, while the gentry as decidedly set their face against any such system.
“ The gentry never give to beggars," says one of the witnesses, “high walls surround their demesnes, and a dog is kept at the gates to prevent the entrance of a beggar. Absentees, even in times of dearth, or infectious disease, send over no subscriptions."
They send over nothing but latitats and ejectments,” says the Rev. Mr. Burke. The evidence of Dr. M'Hale, R. C. Archbishop of Tuam, written by himself, is remarkable on this point. “The gentry,” says the Archbishop, “ scarcely ever subscribe regularly for their support: even in the seasons of appalling distress, (1832 and '34,) there were individuals of large fortunes, who did not subscribe one shilling. The burden is thrown by the affluent gentry on their poorer neighbours; orders are often issued by the proprietors of large mansions, not to suffer such a nuisance as a beggar, to approach the gates. I could name the persons. The general opinion is favourable to a provision for the poor, in case the burden do not fall on those classes that are already taxed for their support. It is in vain to make a pro vision for the poor, unless the property of the absentee, and the church lands are almost exclusively fixed with the amount; otherwise, such a provision would be no relief. All that could be gained by taxing the industrious classes, would be to make that compulsory which is now voluntary. If the properties of the absentees are taxed, and the church lands be re-appropriated to their original destination, a large fund, now lying idle, will be applied to the support of the people."