Provision for Old Age and Destitution in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XXVI....continued

3. Provision for Old Age and Destitution.

Old age was greatly honoured, and provision was made for the maintenance of old persons who were not able to support themselves. When the head of a family became too old to manage his affairs, it was an arrangement sanctioned by the Law that he might retire, and give up both headship and land to his son, on condition of being maintained for the rest of his life. In this case, if he did not choose to live with his son, a separate house was built for him, the dimensions and furniture of which, as well as the dimensions of the little kitchen-garden, are set forth in the law. If the old man had no children, he might make over his property to a stranger on the same condition of due maintenance. Or he might purchase from the neighbouring monastery the right to lodge on the premises and board with the inmates: an arrangement common in England to a late period, where the purchased privilege of boarding and lodging in a monastery was called "Corrody."

As to old persons who had no means, the duty of maintaining them fell primarily of course on the children: or failing children, on the foster-child. A son or daughter who was able to support parents, but who evaded the duty, was punished. If an old person who had no children became destitute, the tribe was bound to take care of him. A usual plan was to send him to live with some family willing to undertake the duty, who had an allowance from the tribe for the cost of support.

In some cases destitute persons dependent on the tribe, who did not choose to live with a strange family, but preferred to have their own little house, received what we now call outdoor relief. There was a special officer called uaithne [oohina: lit. a 'pillar'] whose business it was to look after them: or, in the words of the law tract, to "oversee the wretched and the poor," and make sure that they received the proper allowance: like the relieving officer of our present poor laws. He was of course paid for this duty; and it is added that he should bear "attacks on his honour" without his family or himself needing to take any action in the matter—referring to the abuse and insults he was likely to receive from the peevish and querulous class he had in charge.

From the provisions here described it will be seen that the most important features of our modern poor-laws were anticipated in Ireland a thousand years ago.

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