Pauperism: Poor Relief in Ireland—Some Suggestions

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(2) The Aged.

The return quoted shows about fourteen thousand of the Aged and Infirm in the Union Workhouse and to this number has to be added those of a similar class who appear in the return under the heading of "sick," owing to the fact that they are looked after in hospitals; on the other hand, it has to be remembered that there has been a steady decrease in the numbers of the aged in Workhouses since the introduction of Old Age Pensions, and as time passes a decrease from this cause will become even more marked.

No one who has ever visited a Union Workhouse with its pervading atmosphere of gloom, its prison-like aspect, its numberless and rigid regulations and the promiscuity of its inmates can leave it satisfied that it is, in any sense, a satisfactory home for the aged poor driven to spend their last years within its walls.

No attempt is made to classify the inmates, and so the respectable poor have thrust upon them the indignity of daily intercourse with those whose lives have been vicious and degraded. It may fairly be asked why should a respectable old couple who have met with misfortune and are not qualified to be recipients of the Old Age Pension, who have spent their lives together, be separated from each other in their declining years and placed in different wards in the Workhouse, and given in exchange the companionship of the most degraded of their sex.

To meet the claims of the old I would divide them into five classes and for each class suggest the following procedure:—

Class I.—This class to consist of the healthy aged in receipt of an Old Age Pension. I would leave these old people to be provided for by the Pension scheme. Natural affection, stimulated by five shillings per week, would, I believe, amply secure their welfare.

Class II.—The aged, respectable and healthy poor, not entitled to a pension,—chiefly because they have not yet attained to the age of 70. This class I would endeavour to provide for under the mixed scheme of voluntary and State charity outlined infra.

Class III.—The aged and infirm, entitled to a pension. These old people in some cases would have friends able and willing to look after them. If they had not such a resource, then I would pay their pension direct to the religious community to which they belonged, on condition that a suitable refuge were provided for them by their own church,—such a course only to be adopted at the request of the Pensioner, who would be given the option of having himself or herself enrolled as a member of Class IV.

Class IV.—Respectable aged and infirm persons not entitled to an Old Age Pension, or so entitled, and who chose to be enrolled in this class—the adoption of the latter alternative to involve the surrender of the Pension to the local Guardians of the Poor. For this class in every existing Poor Law District, the Guardians of the Poor should be authorized to provide Cottage Homes. These could be erected together so as to form a square or rectangle. The old couples would not be separated, but each old pair would have their own little home, and single old people could be given the option of choosing a congenial companion of their own sex to share a similar abode. The Cottage Homes to be divided into groups and each group to have attached to it a nurse to look after the wants of the old people. The only limitation on the freedom of the inmates of these Homes would be that imposed by reason of their own physical weakness; otherwise they would be free to go in and out as they pleased and to receive their friends when they pleased.

Class V.—The aged and infirm who had led vicious and degraded lives. These would be principally worn out veterans of the road—vagabonds and thieves whom age had put beyond the exercise of their respective professions. I think these people could best be looked after by the establishment for their accommodation of one `almshouse' in every county or perhaps group of counties.

(3) Lunatics and Epileptics.

Irish Workhouses contain over three thousand lunatics, maintained therein without any proper treatment being attempted to alleviate their miserable condition, and, in most cases, without any suitable accommodation. Thus the Viceregal Commission reports (par. 145):—

"As far as we are aware, the opinion is universally held that the condition of lunatics in practically every Workhouse is unsatisfactory. They are confined generally throughout the day in a small, bare, comfortless ward with an adjoining walled-in yard for exercise, and the attendants in charge are, as a rule, without any experience or training to make them suitable for taking charge of lunatics."

It is manifest that the Workhouse is no place for the feeble-minded. They are harmful to the institution and the institution is harmful to them. They ought all to be removed to their proper abode—the lunatic asylum.

Concerning Epileptics.—What has been said as to the unsuitability of Workhouses for the lunatics equally applies to the members of this class. One central institution ought to be erected in Dublin to meet their needs.

(4) Children and Mothers of Illegitimate Children.

To train up and maintain in Workhouses thousands of healthy children is, from a national, as well as from an economic, point of view, a suicidal policy. A Workhouse child very often finds a life abode in the Workhouse. A rearing in an institution, especially such an institution, does not develope the qualities of self reliance and moral courage necessary to wage successfully the battle of life; hence the products of the Workhouse environment usually drift back there again as to a natural home, and it is no uncommon thing to find three generations,—perhaps grandmother, mother and child—all in the same Workhouse. The bringing up of children in the Workhouse environment is thus an evil system which tends to perpetuate itself. Furthermore, I do not think the community has any moral right to expose innocent childhood to such an atmosphere; the ideals and examples of such a childhood are the scum of humanity. The Workhouse children are the wards of the nation; properly cared for they might, in many cases, grow up to become good citizens and a strength to the community; as it is they but furnish recruits to our gaols, workhouses and asylums. It is also worth noting that the annual cost of maintaining a child in the Workhouse is about £18 10s., while under the system of "Boarding-Out," which is pursued in some Unions, the cost per annum of the child to the ratepayer is only about £7 10s. It is a low estimate to say that there are 2,500 children now in Irish Workhouses who might be boarded-out at an annual saving of over £10 for each child. This represents an annual sum of £25,000 which might be saved to the ratepayers by the extension of this system, infinitely preferable as it is on other grounds. The complete removal of all children from the Workhouse would also result in the saving of an additional £9,000 per annum, which is the amount of the Parliamentary Grant paid in salaries to Workhouse Teachers.

Nearly one-half of the children in the Workhouse are illegitimate, and many of these are born there. Perhaps they are the first child of an unfortunate mother to whom the workhouse is, in her misfortune, the only refuge.

In relation to the mothers the Viceregal Commission (Par. 167) expressed the following emphatic opinion:—

"There is not any matter connected with our enquiry upon which we have formed a more definite opinion than we hold as to the unfitness of a Workhouse as a refuge or asylum for mothers of illegitimate children." A young girl who has made her first slip is, by this means, brought into a degraded atmosphere, and gradually losing her sense of shame, becomes like those she is thus brought into communication with. To meet the needs of such a class is, I think, primarily the work of the Christian Church. My suggestion is that every denomination should provide a Nursing Home for their own, and that the funds of these institutions should be supplemented by Government aid. The barrack-like Workhouse with its tainted associations and the chill hands of officialdom are not the instruments best suited to deal with a human soul in the dread agony which such a crisis often spells.

For the mothers of two or more illegitimate children, for those who, humanly speaking, are past redemption, there should be a Nursing Home available in every county—this Home to be available for all women unable to obtain admission to the first class of Nursing Homes. These Homes would also be nurseries for their infants, who would be kept there till of age to be boarded out in respectable cottage homes. A similar plan should also be followed with deserted children and children orphaned of both parents. There are many homes in Ireland where the presence of a child would be welcomed—the homes of childless married couples, of those whose children have grown up and gone away, and the homes of middle-aged spinsters. In such surroundings, no matter how poor, the child would be immeasurably better off than in the best of Workhouses. In Scotland there are practically no children kept in the Workhouse; they are all, if physically fit, boarded out. "Scotland is proud of her system of boarding-out," says the President of the Local Government Board for Scotland, and Scotland has reason for her pride.

The legitimate children in the Workhouse fall into two classes—the children of rogues and vagabonds and the children of the respectable poor compelled to find sustenance there. The first of these classes should be taken from their parents' control and boarded out on the same system as the illegitimate and deserted children. The second class, with their parents, ought to be provided for by the system of Poor-Relief administered in the manner we proceed to suggest and therefore should never know the Workhouse as a home.

(5) The Able-Bodied Poor.

Under this heading are included healthy old people past work and not yet of the age for the Pension, widows with children, families rendered destitute by some stroke of ill-fortune, and all others not covered by the suggestions already made, except Tramps and Vagrants. Poor-Relief for these classes ought to be Out-Door Relief, so administered as to give the smallest loophole for any extension of the system.

I would suggest—

(a)—That the present Poor-Law Guardians be abolished and in their stead every Poor-Law district should have its Committee of Guardians of the Poor appointed on a three-fold basis, viz.:—one-third of them to be nominated by the County Council, one-third by the Government, and one-third elected by all subscribers of £1 or more to the funds at their disposal.

(b)—That the funds to be administered by these Committees of Guardians of the Poor be derived from three sources corresponding to the sources of membership of the Committee—viz.: a County Council rate, a Government grant, and voluntary subscriptions, the Government grant in no case to exceed the amount received from voluntary subscriptions.

(c)—That this Committee of Guardians of the Poor should be all local residents and should be required to investigate every application for relief, and that they should have power to give relief either in money, food or clothing.

I believe that a Committee of Guardians of the Poor so constituted would be composed of the best people in the community, and that such a body would be above any pressure that might be brought to bear upon them to give relief where the circumstances did not warrant it. The further fact that a portion of the funds at the disposal of the Committee were derived from voluntary subscriptions would deter people not in real need from applying for relief; for there are many who are willing to take from the State what they would be ashamed to accept from charity. Again, the local knowledge possessed by the members of the Committee would also substantially aid them in the performance of their duties and in the prevention of fraudulent attempts to obtain relief for undeserving cases.

(6) Tramps and Vagrants.

For the men two labour colonies should be established, and for the women two Penitentaries—one of these institutions might be allotted to each Province.

With all these proposals carried out, our last one—the closing of the Workhouse—would have become a necessity, for all the present Workhouse inmates would then have departed to pastures new.

I cannot conclude this paper without acknowledging my great indebtedness in its preparation to the Report of the Viceregal Commission on the Poor-Laws (1906). Many of the suggestions contained in the paper are taken directly from this Report, which is a document worthy of the most earnest study by every Irishman interested in the welfare of his native land.


Sir George Nicholl's History of the Irish Poor Law.

1836—Third Report of the Royal Commission of 1833, appointed to enquire into the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland—with the evidence taken by the Commission.

1906—Report of the Vice-Regal Commission on Poor-Law Reform in Ireland ... ... ... Vol. 1.
Appendix to above ... ... Vol. 2.
Evidence taken before the Commission Vol. 3.

1909—Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress—Report on Ireland.
Minutes of Irish Evidence—Appendix Vol. 10. Reports on the effect of Outdoor Relief on Wages and the Conditions of Employment, by Mr. Thomas Jones —Appendix Vol. 17.
Statistical Memoranda and Tables relating to Ireland—Appendix Vol. 31.