Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What To Do About the Poor?

In 1834, John Martin was living in Dublin, studying medicine at Trinity College. Dublin was a fine town then with wide streets, lined with shops selling luxury goods for the rich merchants and property owners who lived in fine houses around St. Stephen's Green. A different and darker Dublin existed down the dark alleys behind the grand houses. There the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the aged, lived in hovels, and basements unfit for human habitation. The wealthiest men of Dublin had little compassion for the misery of these people who were only visible when they crept out of their dark holes to beg.

A visitor from England, Henry Inglis, came to Ireland with his wife to see with his own eyes what Ireland was really like. The fact that he had his wife with him opened doors for him that might have been closed under the suspicion that he was a government spy. He was horrified by what he saw, and said so in a book he wrote on his return to England. In it he said "that the individuals whose charity prolongs for a little the existence of these miserable objects of their compassion, are not the individuals throughout the country whose improvidence, harshness, sordidness, and neglect, have contributed to swell the mass of pauperism, - nor those who possess the chief property in town, - nor those who are best able to help the indigent; and that, in those circumstances, it becomes an imperative and a sacred duty - alike urgent by the demands of humanity and the requirements of religion, to provide by legislative enactment, for the support, on equitable principles, of the aged, impotent, and infirm poor of Ireland."

John always considered that it was his responsibility as a landlord to care for the poor who lived on his property and in his neighborhood. Though his part of Ulster had a veneer of prosperity, neat cottages of weavers, bleach fields where the products of their work were stretched out to whiten, he knew that in the far corners, down overgrown lanes, there were people who were too sick or too old to care for themselves. The Martin family had always seen to it that they had food, and warmth. John continued to provide the same kind of help and in addition, he treated their sicknesses and provided medicine to ease their pain.

Sadly, Ireland had too many people without health or work, and too few John Martins. Parliament had first noticed the "poor problem" in Ireland in 1829. But nothing had resulted from the debate held then. On March 19, 1835. an Irish landlord, William Smith O'Brien, MP for Limerick, rose to present a resolution that Parliament should provide relief of the "aged, helpless, and infirm" Irish. To support his resolution, he quoted from Henry Inglis's eyewitness account of what he saw in Dublin. "I entered upward of 40 of the abodes of poverty; and to the latest hour of my existence, I can never forget the scenes of utter and hopeless wretchedness that presented themselves that day. Some of the abodes I visited were garrets - some were cellars. Some were hovels on the ground-floor situated in narrow yards or alleys. Let the worst be imagined, and it will not be beyond the truth. In at least three-fourths of the hovels which I entered, there was no furniture of any description, save an iron pot; no table, no chair, no bench, no bedstead - two, three, or four little bundles of straw, with one or two scanty and ragged mats, were rolled up in corners." In these terrible places, there was no sign of food at all.

Such distress should have produced uniform sympathy and support. But that wasn't the case. Some members of the House of Commons argued that the situation in Ireland was much improved, referring to the prosperity of County Down and County Antrim as evidence. Besides, a Poor Law would "destroy the sympathies of all human beings for one another, and the feelings of the poor toward each other." Daniel O'Connell was the natural leader of the Catholic part of the population. So he might well have been expected to support O'Brien's resolution. But he did not. One of the reasons he offered was that workers who were poor because there was no work would not be helped. Then he continued, "He feared that the effect of the introduction of poor-laws in to Ireland would be to make youth careless, and manhood reckless, if there were a certainly that old age would be provided for. It would ... be the cause of depriving poverty of its remunerating quality, of loosening the close ties of social life, and inducing callous hard-heartiness to the necessities of relation. At present, the poor of Ireland were remarkable for their attention to their aged and infirm parents."' He concluded that the report on Irish poverty which the government had approved should be presented before any kind of poor law should be created.

The MP for Cork, Poulett Scope, agreed with O'Connell's analysis. "it was as notorious as that the sun shone in the heavens, that distress and starvation overwhelmed the country. In times of famine, instances of actual starvation were not unusual. The reason why they were not more common was, that the poorest individual would and did share the very last thing he had with a fellow sufferer, rather than allow such a person to die from sheer want." The "let's wait for the report of the commission on Irish poverty" argument prevailed and Smith O'Brien withdrew his resolution. As John read the report of the actions in Parliament in the Newry Commercial Telegraph, he could not have dreamed that Smith O'Brien would become a friend.

Most of another year would pass before Parliament again debated help for the poor in Ireland. The report on Irish poverty had been presented by then. On February 9, 1836, Sir Richard Musgrave, MP for Waterford, summed up what the report had concluded. "No document that was ever laid upon their table showed a greater amount of suffering, misery and destitution."

Now the argument turned on what Parliament should do about it, not whether they would act at all." Smith O'Brien had ideas about how the help should be offered. Administration of aid should be as local as possible. Emigration of extra Irish should be promoted by Parliament, and paid for through public funds. Parliament should also fund land reclamation projects to employ more of the Irish who chose to stay. Only then should houses for the poor be built.

This debate was cut short with a government promise to bring in a bill of its own. The leadership might have intended for the promised kind of quick action to take place. But the death of King William intervened, and another year passed before the Whig Prime Minister, Sir John Russell presented the government's law for the Irish poor. There was little dispute about the necessity for such a law, and general agreement on what the form should take. Ireland would be divided in some fashion into Poor Law Districts, the purpose for which was to tax the landlords in the area to support the poorhouses that they intended to build for the elderly, sick and disabled. Half of the Poor Rate, as the tax was called, would be paid by the landlord. The other half would be paid by the tenants on his property. Poor laborers with holdings of less than 5 pounds in value would be excluded from the tax. There would be no funding for workers who wanted work but could not find it.

John, for one, opposed having the British government create this new tax on the land, one that would increase as the needs for poorhouse support increased. But another concept expressed during the endless hours of debate was that any local supervision of the law would be corrupted by favoritism. So the entire program of support for the poor would be run by the same men who administered the English Poor Law with the addition of one man from Ireland. This control was supposedly necessitated by local officials who tended to play favorites, a slander that certainly caused much angry conversation in Loughorne.

During the debates, there were things said that John agreed with. Sir John Russell explained that Ireland was caught in a vicious cycle. There was little capital in the country, so there was great unemployment. That led to violence and crime, which in turn led to insecurity. Little capital would flow into Ireland without the promise of security for investments. And so the downward cycle continued. One Irish MP made clear how strongly John and his friends and neighbors felt about a poor law. "A very strong sensation was excited by the present Bill, in the north of Ireland... Persons of different creeds and politics who scarcely agreed upon any other question, agreed that this measure would operate most injuriously." Without a provision to make absentee landlords share the burden, it would never be popular.

As the debate neared its predictable conclusion, one member denied that the deplorable state of Ireland was in any way affected by the Penal Laws directed against Catholics and Presbyterians, which had been enacted by previous parliaments. That was too much for Mr. Wyse. "Religious and political differences, ignorance, and physical destitution," were amongst the principal causes of Irish poverty. Penal laws had created the structure and practices of Irish society which created political division, ignorance and physical destitution. "Was it not notorious that a country in which there was a constant war going on between rich and poor - in which there was no intermediate or middle class to separate them - in which the rich feared and the poor hated - was one of the disorganized, the most perilous, and naturally the most destitute which could well be conceived? Was it possible that this should not be the case, when two races and two religions - distinct, if not opposed - were placed front to front - where the rich were of one race and faith and the poor of another - where every means were taken to keep up this opposition and hostility - was it possible... that in such a state such a war should be in constant and most injurious action?"

Nothing anyone said stopped the steady progression of the bill. On April 30, 1838, the House of Commons passed the Poor Law for Ireland. On July 9, the House of Lords followed suit and the bill became law for Ireland. John Martin would now face a large increase in his taxes in the best of times. In times when occupancy of the poorhouse was high, his taxes would be increased still more

Just two months after the passage of the Poor Law, implementation began. Newry was selected as the first place for the law to be activated. Two assistant commissioners were dispatched from Dublin to explain that the poorhouse they planned to build there would cost L8,000, money which would be loaned by the British government. The plan for Newry was that the poorhouse would be completed by the end of the following summer, a plan over a year too ambitious. The commissioners didn't return until the spring of 1839. By that time, the Poor Law Commissioners had divided the area into Poor Law districts. Each of these districts would elect one member to the Board of Guardians who along with some appointed members would supervise the poorhouse. Loughorne was placed in the Ouley Poor Law District. When the election was held there, John was elected Guardian. This was his first small step toward a life in politics.

Birr Workhouse

Sources: Birr Historical Society; (search for Newry), Newry Journal series on workhouses and Poor Law; Newry Commercial Telegraph, April 6, 1839; Hansard Parliamentary Debate, March 19, 1835, Feb. 9, and March 3, 1836; May 1, 1837, Feb. 12, 16, 19, March 2, 16, April 30, and July 9, 1838; Ireland in 1834: A Journey Throughout Ireland, by Henry D. Inglis; Tour Round Ireland, Through Seacoast Counties, in the Autumn of 1835, by John Barrow Esq.

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