Poorhouses

"There is no god, the oppressors say,
To mete us out chastisement."

These splendid monuments of Ireland's poverty number no less than one hundred and thirty, and some contain a thousand, and some two thousand, and in cases of emergency they can heap a few hundreds more. Before the famine they were many of them quite interesting objects for a stranger to visit, generally kept clean, not crowded, and the food sufficient. But when famine advanced, when funds decreased, when the doors were besieged by imploring applicants, who wanted a place to die, that they might be buried in a coffin, they were little else than charnel houses, while the living, shivering skeletons that squatted upon the floors, or stood with arms folded against the wall, half-clad, with hair uncombed, hands and face unwashed, added a horror if not terror to the sight. Westport Union had long been celebrated for its management, its want of comfort, in fire, food, lodging, and room; but stay and die, or go out and die, was the choice. Making suitable allowances for a rainy day—the house undergoing some changes when I visited it—there then appeared little capital left for comfort, had the day been sunny, and the house without any unusual upturnings. The "yaller Indian," here, was the dreadful thing that they told me, "swells us and takes the life of us;" and as it was there cooked, it may be scrupled whether any officer in the establishment would select it for his food, though he assured the inmates "he could eat it, and it was quite good enough for a king." These officers and guardians, many of them, were men who had lived in ease, never accustomed to industry or self-denial, having the poor as vassals under them; and when the potato blight took away all the means of getting rent, what with the increased taxations and the drainings by a troop of beggars at the door, they found themselves approaching a difficult crisis, and to prop up every tottering wall new expedients must be tried. Many of them sought posts of office under government, and were placed in the workhouses to superintend funds and food; and it will not be slander to say, that the ears of government have not been so fortunate with regard to the "slip-shod" honesty of some of these gentry, as in the two thousand which the writer of the Crisis mentions.

When the poor complained, they were told that funds were low, and stinted allowances must be dealt out. Nor did the mischief end here; in proportion as the houses were crowded within, so were the purses drained without; and beside, in proportion to the purloining of funds, so was the stinting of food and the extra drains upon the struggling tradesman and farmer.

An observer, who had no interest in the nation but philanthropy, going over Ireland, after traveling many a weary mile over bog and waste, where nothing but a scattering hamlet of loose stone, mud, or turf greets him, when he suddenly turns some corner, or ascends some hill, and sees in the distance, upon a pleasant elevation, a building of vast dimensions, tasteful in architecture, surrounded with walls, like the castle or mansion of some lord, if he knew not Ireland's history, must suppose that some chief held his proud dominion over the surrounding country, and that his power must be so absolute that life and death hung on his lip; and should he enter the gate, and find about its walls a company of ragged and tattered beings of all ages, from the man of gray hairs to the lad in his teens, sitting upon the ground, breaking stones with "might and main," and piling them in heaps—should he proceed to a contiguous yard, if the day be not rainy, and find some hundreds of the "weaker vessels," standing in groups or squatting upon their heels, with naked arms and feet—should he go over the long halls, and in some inclosure find a group of pale sickly-looking children cowering about a vast iron guard, to keep the scanty fire that might be struggling for life in the grate from doing harm—should he stop at the dinner hour, and see these hundreds, yes, thousands, marching in file to the tables, where was spread the yellow "stirabout," in tins and pans, measured and meted by ounces and pounds, suited to age and condition—and should he tarry till twilight drew her curtain, and see, in due order, these men, women, and children led to their stalls for the night, where are pallets of straw, in long rooms (they are sorted and ranged according to sex) to lie down together, with neither light of the sun, moon, or candle, till the morning dawn, and call them again to their gruel or stirabout, to resume afresh the routine of the preceding day—would not this uninformed stranger find all his opinions confirmed, that this must be the property of a monarch, who has gathered these hetereogeneous nondescripts from the pirates, highway robbers, and pickpockets of his subjects, and had inclosed them here, awaiting the "fit out," for transportation!

But listen! This honest inquirer is aroused by being kindly informed that this great mammoth establishment, with all its complicated paraphernalia of boilers, soup-pots, tins, pans, stools, forms, tables, and pallets, together with heavy-paid overseers, officers, matrons, and cooks, are all the work of Christian benevolence! and that the building itself cost more than would a comfortable cottage and plot of ground sufficient to give each of the families here enclosed a good support. And further, so unbounded is the owner's benevolence, that over the Green Isle are scattered one hundred and twenty-nine more like palaces! rearing their proud turrets to the skies, furnished within with like apparatus, for tens of thousands, so that every Paddy, from Donegal to Kerry, and from Wicklow to Mayo, may here find a stool, a tin of stirabout, and pallet, on the simple condition of oathing that he owns not either "hide or hoof," screed or scrawl, mattock or spade, pot or churn, duck-pond, manure-heap, or potato-plot, on the ground that reared him, and simply put his seal to this by pulling the roof from his own cabin. Should the inquirer be at a loss to conjecture how, when, and where this wide-spread philanthropy had a beginning, he is cited back to the good old days of Elizabeth and James, when the zealous Christian plunderer, Cromwell, prepared the way to parcel out the island, and entail it forever to a happy few, who found a race of people who would dig their ditches, build their walls, lay out their parks and ponds, for a penny or two a-day, and above all, could be made patiently to feed on a single root, and live in mud cabins, or by the side of a rock, or burrow in sandbanks, who would "go at their command, and come at their bidding and beside, for the unleased patch of ground, where they grew the root on which they subsisted, they paid such a rent as enabled the masters of the soil to live and fare sumptuously at home, to hunt the hare and deer over the mountain and glen, with lady, dog and gun, or to travel in distant lands. With all these appliances, they had lived on, sending care to the winds, till, from generation to generation, they found these "hewers of wood and drawers of water" had become so multifarious that, like Pharaoa's frogs, they encompassed the whole land, covering bog and ditch, crying, "give, give," till dinned and harassed with the undying clamor, they were moved to provide food and shelter in palaces of stone and mortar, where all care of food, raiment, and lodging is at an end, and they have only to eat when they are fed, lie down when bidden, rise and put on their clothes when the morning gives them light, and once a-week say their prayers in the church or chapel, as their conscience dictated, without leaving the proud roof where they are fed and housed!

These palaces certainly in this respect stand pre-eminent over every other portion of the earth, and tell the true story of Ireland's strange management more than volumes of essays would do. To pauperize men, women, and children, in sight of, and walking over a rich uncultivated soil, as is Ireland, and shut them up, with no other crimes than that of compulsory poverty, where they are fed, clothed, and lodged at the governor's option, inclosed with bolts and bars, like felons, with no more freedom than state prisoners have, is certainly a strange comment on liberty, a strange comment on the family relationship, which prohibits all intercourse between parents and children, except a few hasty moments one day in seven. The workhouses in Ireland are many of them well managed on the principles as they are established; but, as an overseer in one of the best conducted ones said, "I have been here many years, and have seen the workings and effects of a poorhouse, and can only say—the best that can be said of them—they are prisons under a different name, calculated to produce a principle of idleness, and to degrade, never to elevate, to deaden in the human heart that rational self-respect which individual support generates, and which should be kept up; and may I never be doomed to die in a poorhouse."

Nor is this all. The unreclaimed bogs and waste hunting grounds tell, that in no country are poor-houses such an anomaly as in Ireland; and the Irishman who is willing to work, and is employed there, has no moral right to be either grateful or satisfied that he has exchanged even a mud cabin of liberty for a palace walled and locked, where his food is measured and doled, where his family are strangers to him, and all the social interchanges of life are taken from him wholly. Though a man may be "a man for a' that," yet he cannot feel himself one; nor does he seldom, if ever, regain that standard of manly independence which belongs to man, whatever his future lot may be.

Read "Annals of the Famine in Ireland" at your leisure

Annals of the Famine in Ireland

Read Annals of the Famine in Ireland at your leisure and help support this free Irish library.

This book still has the power to shock and sadden even though the events described are ever-receding further into the past. When you read, for example, of the poor widowed mother who was caught trying to salvage a few potatoes from her landlord's field, and what the magistrate discovered in the pot in her cabin, you cannot help but be apalled and distressed.

The text of this new edition has professionally been reset and an index added to the paperback.


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