In the 19th century, alongside the tragedy that was the Great Famine, the people of Ireland were already familiar with their crops failing and imminent starvation. Prior to the introduction of the Poor Laws and the building of the Workhouses, there was no place for the poor to go for relief, and it would be years before the introduction of the old age pension. Due to these circumstances, our great grandparents would have been familiar with ‘beggars’ walking along the byways and boreens of county Donegal.
Prior to the opening of the Workhouses and Asylums, there were few places for people to go for help. In 1836, a report from the Commissioners of Inquiry regarding the conditions of the poorer classes in Ireland was published. This report gives us an insight into what life was like for the poor in Ireland several years before the Famine, and includes a section on the Parish of Clondehorkey which includes the town of Dunfanaghy entitled “Vagrancy – as a Mode of Relief”. It says:
“It is impossible to ascertain the number of vagrants here; there was, however, an apparent increase of vagrancy last year, most particularly which Mr. Harper, a farmer, attributed it to the failure of the crops. From April to August is the period of the year at which vagrancy is most common; their own stock of potatoes being exhausted; the poor people are obliged to have recourse to mendicancy. The majority of traveling beggars (who generally consist of old people), and women with tribes of children, go to strange parishes to seek alms; shame prevents them from remaining in their own parishes. When employment is scarce, the labourer’s wife starts on a begging tour and leaves the husband to support themselves as well as he can. It is a common practise with the cottier tenants (having set their potatoes) to wander about the country seeking alms. There are also many beggars who had been farm servants; but very few tradesmen, as they show the greatest reluctance to beg and suffer the greatest privation before they do so. There have been no instances of small farmers in this neighborhood having transferred their property to their children, in order to adopt a vagrant life.”
Destitution is generally the primary cause, but laziness often induces mendicancy. It depends on the season, the supply of food in the country, and the tale he tells of the state of the family behind him, whether a sturdy beggar can obtain much more food than he consumes; but in most cases they obtain more food than they can obtain themselves.
Those who can afford to do so, generally increase the quantity they give in proportion to the number in the group, though every poor giver can only give a trifle in either case; they seldom separate in order that different members of the same family should apply for alms to the same individuals, they find it more in their interest to remain in in groups so as to excite pity. Among discriminating persons there is always a difference made in favour of the infirm; nevertheless, the able bodied may get more in the day from visiting more places; and their having children to take about aften prevents beggars from getting so much as they otherwise could, as they cannot travel so much as when unencumbered.
The plea of those persons who seem to be able to work always is that they cannot get the work.”
There are some instances of beggars encouraging the appearance of rags, dirt, and lameness, in order to excite sympathy, some, who state they were shipwrecked sailors, are in the habit of producing forged certificates.
A Mr Hugh O’Donnell, speaking of the poor in the area, is quoted in saying: “they are forced to beg and it is only when they and their children are half starved, that they do beg”. The poor of Dunfanaghy were not of the dissolute habits and were never known to have been concerned in any outrages on persons or property. “I have seen” Hugh continues, “ a poor woman with only one child dividing her meal with another who had five children”.
Mr. Harper, the farmer referenced in the report, relates the following from his own account of witnessing beggars: “I knew one case where a woman having only one child of her own appeared with four and she admitted afterwards to me that she had borrowed them”. A local man named Mr Stewart states that he frequently saw the same children coming with different individuals to his father’s house.
Our own Wee Hannah Herrity, whose story you can hear in our exhibition, took to begging towards the end of her life. She was not ashamed for begging, as she recognised that for many people this was their only means of survival during these harsh times.
Alm = Something (such as money or food) given freely to relieve the poor distributing alms to the needy.