This is a tale of Famine Ireland in a time when a Viceroy of the British crown ruled in Dublin and the peasant Irish were dying because they could not afford to eat. They called it a famine but there was plenty of food under British control and they refused to release it to feed the millions that starved throughout Ireland. There were beggars in the towns trying to get enough to feed themselves and their children, but they were not wanted and great efforts were made to remove them. As far as the authorities were concerned it was better to have those starving people out of sight and out of mind.
In the towns the authorities used the offices of the ‘Poor-House’ and the police force to considerably reduce the presence of the Irish peasant beggars. But, in the countryside and remote mountain areas ‘the beggar’ had become and still remained an institution. The peasant beggars abhorred the very idea of the ‘Workhouse’ because of its slave conditions and lack of hygiene, brutal discipline, and backbreaking work. The British put such abhorrence by the peasantry as their inherent stubbornness. It was said they preferred any amount of suffering to confinement, enforced hygiene, and the discipline involved. But, what free man does not prefer the fresh air and freedom to choose, rather than the bars of a jail and being beaten into submission. The following gives a view of the Irish Catholic Peasantry of famine times as seen by those paid allegiance to the British Crown.
It is often reported in commentaries of the time that the Irish poor are indifferent to the basic comforts of life, preferring a more barbaric way of life. It was said that they love freedom, sleeping under a hedge or under the sky eating what and where they can. They were said to be like the dog that preferred freedom and getting the odd scrap of food, to the good feeding and luxurious living conditions of his tied-up friend.
A wretched old beggar woman, decrepit and barefoot, appeared on the front-door steps of a house that she was in the habit of visiting. Those who would give her money would try to convince her to enter the poorhouse for her own good, but however delicately they approached the subject the old woman would reject any suggestion of entering such a place.
“Now, Biddy, it is all very well to go about the place in summer, but in this bitter wintry weather, would you not be better to go where you would have a good bed and shelter, be warm, fed, and comfortably clothed. It can’t be good for you to be shivering with the cold in ragged clothes, and always hungry. Sure, why not try it only for a wee while, you know, until summer comes back? Go on, Biddy, why not try the poorhouse?”
“The poor house!” she cried out angrily. “Sure I’d rather die than go there! I’d rather lie down under the snow at the side of the road and die! But sure the neighbours will help me. There isn’t one that will refuse me a seat by their fireside, or a bed for the night, or maybe a bite and sup of an odd time. And you’re going to give me something yourself, my lady, darling, you are! Don’t I see it in your face? You’re going to bring out the dust of dry tea and the grain of sugar, and the couple of coppers to the poor old granny. Ah yes! And maybe the maids will have an old cast-off petticoat to throw to her, for to keep the life in her old carcase this perishing day.”
It must be said that before the famine of 1845, which brought about a change in the food of the Irish peasant, systematic begging was an annual custom. Potatoes were then the sole food of the peasant classes, and the farmers paid their labourers by allowances of potato-ground measuring a half or quarter acre, and with seed to till it. Money, therefore, was not very often circulated among the peasantry. There was usually and interval of some six weeks between the eating of the last of the old potatoes and the coming in of the new potatoes. This was known as “The Bitter Time” and there was always some privation and distress to be suffered. In such times entire families might leave their cabin, locking the door behind them, and be seen walking the country roads, while the father would go ‘harvesting’ or getting work where he could. As the family went along the roads, stopping at every cabin on their route, a few potatoes would be handed to them, depending upon the stock the donors held. Often, by nightfall, the bag carried on the mother’s back would have enough potatoes to provide a good meal for the family. By such means they continued to survive until the new potatoes were fit to dig. At that time the cabin-door would be unlocked, and plenty of food to eat was once again the order of the day.
In those days, as well as the present, the charity of the poor to the poor in Ireland is widespread and very touching. The people of our country are famed for their good-natured ways and kindly impulses. Moreover, they attach a superstitious, almost religious value to the blessing of the poor, with an equal dread of their curse. There is a story concerning a fatal instance of the latter feeling, which occurred many years ago near the city of Limerick.
A young man fell in love with a girl, but she did not return his affection, and plainly told him that it would be useless to persevere in his pursuit, because she could never care for him. He was broken-hearted by his failure and, fleeing the country, he went to America. The young man’s mother had lost her only son, her pride and joy, and her only support. Being a widow she was maddened with rage and despair at what had happened. The bereaved mother gathered her things and went straight from the ship to the young woman’s house. There she knelt down upon the threshold and, stretching her arms skyward, she called down Heaven’s vengeance on the young girl. With frantic movements she called down terrible curses upon the girl’s head.
By the broken heart of her son; by the widow’s hearth made desolate; by the days and nights of lonely misery before her, she cursed the girl! The young girl was totally appalled by the widow’s bitter words and was superstitiously convinced that her terrible curses would grievously affect her life. She never recovered from the terror and the shock to her nerves of this vindictive assault upon her. The young woman’s health went into a rapid decline, haunted by the old woman’s dreadful curses, and her death confirmed the popular belief in such things.
We can now return to our subject of beggars. Although the use of Indian-corn meal and griddle-bread as articles of food in place of the exclusive potato helped reduce annual begging migrations. The other factors brought into play were an increased wage and the payment of labour in cash instead of kind. The annual scene of beggars moving along the roads soon disappeared, but beggars were still to be found, especially in the tourist season when they would once again be as numerous as flies in summer, and equally troublesome.
Once there was a party of English clergymen visiting Killarney’s beautiful Lake District where they were pestered by beggars, as most travellers usually were. These reverend gentlemen had, for greater convenience, decided to wear less formal clothing, except for one who preferred to wear his clerical outfit, with all its adornments. But, his choice caused him to be mistaken by the local peasants as a Roman Catholic priest wherever he went. He was very startled in the town of Tralee, when a girl threw herself down on her knees before him in the muddy street to ask for his blessing. The abject obeisance of the people to their priests in those days was not a sight to which an English clergyman was accustomed. He did, however, soon become accustomed to the position and even used it for the benefit of the entire group. They were tormented on one occasion the crush and cries of a crowd of beggars who followed them, and the English clergyman stopped quite suddenly. Drawing a line across the road with his walking stick, the clergyman told the followers, “Pass that mark, and the curse of the priest will be upon you!” In an instant the entire crowd of beggars had fled.
On another occasion this same clergyman used what he had learned in the cause of humanity. The party were travelling by jaunting car and, as they travelled up a steep hill, the driver began flogging the horse unmercifully.
“My friend,” said the clergyman, addressing the driver, “Do you know what will happen to you, if you do that, when you go to the next world?”
“O no, your Reverence. And sure how could I know that? What is it now?” pulling off his hat and looking very frightened.
“You will be turned into a horse, and devils will be employed to flog you, just as you’re now flogging that poor beast of yours.”
“Ah, don’t, yer Reverence! Don’t say that now! For the love of God, sir, don’t! And I’ll promise on my two knees to give him the best of treatment from this onward, and never to lay the whip into him that way again.”
For those of you who have witnessed the beggars in towns, you will undoubtedly agree that their remarks are often very caustic. They also indulge in personalities in a way more witty than polite, when they are unsuccessful in their demands. A late but very well-known Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, was remarkable for having a peculiarly shaped and very ugly nose. On one occasion while resisting the pleas of a woman for “a ha’penny for the honour of the blessed Virgin,” she turned upon him. “May the Lord forgive you! And may He may preserve your eyesight, for truly you have a terrible bad nose for spectacles.”
Another spiteful old hag of a woman came at a well known member of the aristocracy for alms, after following him down the entire length of what is now O’Connell Street. The baronet had tender feet, which with several other infirmities caused him to walk not to gracefully. “You won’t give it, won’t you?’ the woman cried out in an angry whine. “Well then, God help the poor! And look now, if your heart was as soft as your feet, it wouldn’t be in vain we’d be asking for your charity this day.”
“That the ‘grace of God’ may never enter into your house but on parchment!” was the terse and bitter curse in which another old woman gave vent to her wrathful disappointment. She knew that all writs were written on parchment, and had probably learned the formula with which they commence from cruel experience, “Victoria, by the grace of God, Queen, &c.”
There is, of course, the story of Captain Chevely and his meeting with beggars in Mullingar. When he was about to be quartered with his troop of men in the town, he was told by a friend that the place was infested with beggars. He was also told that his predecessor, the commanding of the previous troop, had been greatly annoyed by them. Chevely listened attentively and resolved to take measures to deal with the problem. On the night of his arrival at the hotel he summoned the waiter and said, “I am reliably informed that you have a great many beggars in this town.”
“Yes sir! We certainly have,” replied the waiter.
“I wish to see them all of them, collected together under the windows of this hotel. Do you think that could be managed?”
“Yes, if you wish, sir,” said the man, with the usual waiter-like readiness to promise everything under the sun, albeit he was a little taken aback by so unusual a request.
“Very well, let them be all here to-morrow at twelve o’clock precisely.”
It was a motley assembly of rags and wretchedness that was presented beneath the hotel windows the next day. The news had spread like wild-fire, and from every lane and alley of the town they came crowding in. There was the blind, the lame, the maimed, the aged beggars, deformed, idiots, and the idle in all their varieties. Curiosity and greed were equally on their minds, and the excitement of the eager crowd may be imagined. Then, when the captain appeared on the hotel balcony, a breathless silence came over the crowd.
“Are you all here?” he asked, “every one?”
“Every mother’s son of us, if it pleases your honour, except for Blind Bess with her crippled son, and the General.”
“Then call Blind Bess and the General,” instructed the captain. “I want you all here.”
“Sure enough, here’s Bess,” cried a voice, as a large fat beggar in the shape of a blind woman, with a sturdy cripple strapped on her shoulders, came in a hurry.
“And here’s the ‘General’ driving like a mad man up the street. But sure your honour won’t give him anything—a gentleman that keeps his carriage!” shouted a joker in the crowd. Coming along the street was a dilapidated old hand-cart, being dragged by a girl. It was covered at top with a piece of tattered oil-cloth, and from a hole cut in the middle of this protruded the head of ‘the General’, on which sat what remained of an old cocked-hat. The shrivelled face of the old cripple was half covered with a grizzly beard, and his rheumy eyes peered helplessly about in a feeble stare.
“Now,” said the captain, “ladies and gentlemen”. At this there was a murmur in the crowd, especially among the females.
“Ah then, bless his darling face, it is him that has the civil tongue in him, and knows how to speak to the poor!”
“There’s not a bit of pride in him. No more than in an unborn baby!”
“Sure anyone would know he was good man, you just have to look at him! Isn’t it written upon his features?”
“He’s no old misery like the one that was here before him, that old bastard never gave a poor man as much as a dog would keep in his fist.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, you are, I am told, all assembled here. I have requested your attendance in order to state that I have given, for your benefit, one pound to the parson, and one pound to the priest of the parish. And I further inform you that during my stay in Mullingar, not a single farthing beyond these sums will I bestow on any one of you!”
A howl of disappointment arose from the assembly, but the captain did not wait to note the effect of his words. He disappeared into his room in time to be out of reach of the chorus of abuse, which his enraged audience hurled at him after they got over their first surprise over—his speech.