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Chapter XXX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 3

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Mr. Nicholls found that the Irish peasantry had generally an appearance of apathy and depression, seen in their mode of living, their habitations, their dress and conduct; they seem to have no pride, no emulation, to be heedless of the present, and careless of the future. They did not strive to improve their appearance or add to their comforts; their cabins were slovenly, smoky, dirty, almost without furniture, or any article of convenience or common decency. The woman and her children were seen seated on the floor, surrounded by pigs and poultry; the man lounging at the door, which could be approached only through mud and filth; the former too slatternly to sweep the dirt and offal from the door, the latter too lazy to make a dry footway, though the materials were close at hand. If the mother were asked why she did not keep herself and her children clean with a stream of water running near the cabin, her answer invariably was - "Sure, how can we help it? we are so poor." The husband made the same reply, while smoking his pipe at the fire, or basking in the sunshine. Mr. Nicholls rightly concluded that poverty was not the sole cause of this state of things; he found them also remarkable for their desultory and reckless habits. Though their crops were rotting in the fields from excessive wet, and every moment of sunshine should be taken advantage of, yet if there was a market, a fair, or a funeral, a horse-race, a fight, or a wedding, forgetting everything else, they would hurry off to the scenes of excitement. Working for wages was rare and uncertain, and hence arose a disregard of the value of time, a desultory, sauntering habit without industry or steadiness of application. " Such," says Mr. Nicholls, " is too generally the character and such the habits of the Irish peasantry; and it may not be uninstructive to mark the resemblance which these bear to the character and habits of the English peasantry in the pauperised districts, under the abuses of the old poor law. Mendicancy and indiscriminate almsgiving have produced in Ireland results similar to what indiscriminate relief produced in England - the like reckless disregard of the future, the like idle and disorderly conduct, and the same prone- ness to outrage having then characterised the English pauper labourer, which are now too generally the characteristics of the Irish peasant. An abuse of a good law caused the evil in the one case, and a removal of that abuse is now rapidly effecting a remedy. In the other case the evil appears to have arisen rather from the want than the abuse of a law; but the corrective for both will, I believe, be found to be essentially the same."

There was then no test of destitution in Ireland. The mendicant, whether his distress was real or fictitious, claimed and received his share of the produce of the soil in the shape of charity before the landlord could receive his portion in the shape of rent. The burden fell almost exclusively upon the lower classes, while the higher classes, by means of their jealously guarded gates, and their vigilant watch-dogs, which scented a beggar at a distance, generally escaped. Some people apprehended that the cost of maintaining the poor would swallow up the property of the country, founding their conclusions on the abuses which prevailed in England under the old poor law; but Mr Nicholls found everywhere, after quitting Dublin, a strong feeling in favour of property being assessed for the relief of the indigent; and he came to the conclusion, as the result of his inquiries, aided by his English experience, that a judicious poor law system might be safely and beneficially established in Ireland. But it must not be expected to work miracles; it would not give employment or capital, but it would help the country through what might be called its "transition periods" - that season of change from the system of small holdings, con acre, and the minute subdivision of land, to the better practice of day labour for wages. The eager clinging to land and its subdivision into small holdings was at once a cause and a consequence of the rapid increase of the people, and of the extreme poverty and want which prevailed among them. It was not because the potato constituted their food that a kind of famine occurred annually in some districts of Ireland, between the going out of the old and the incoming of the new crop; but because the peasantry were the sole providers for their own necessities, each out of his own small holding; and being all alike hard pressed, and apt to under-calculate the extent of their wants, they thus often found themselves without food before the new crop was ripe. The clergy were generally found favourable to a poor law for Ireland, so also were the shopkeepers, manufacturers, and dealers generally; for they being on the spot were hourly subject to appeals for relief, while the gentry, resident or non-resident, managed to evade the infliction. That country suffered under a cycle of evils, producing and reproducing one another. " Want of capital," says Mr. Nicholls, " produced want of employment; want of employment, turbulence and misery; turbulence and misery, insecurity; insecurity prevented the introduction or accumulation of capital; and so on. Until this cycle is broken, the evils must continue, and probably increase. The first thing to be done is to give security - that will produce and invite capital, and capital will give employment. But security of person and property cannot co-exist with extreme destitution; so that in truth the reclamation of bogs and wastes, the establishment of fisheries and manufactures, improvements in agriculture and in the general condition of the country, and lastly, the elevation of the great mass of the Irish people in the social scale, appeared to be all more or less contingent upon establishing a law providing for the relief of the destitute." (For more details see this page)

Mr. Nicholls next applied himself to the solution of the problem how the workhouse system, which had been safely and effectually applied to depauperise England, might be applied with safety and efficiency to put down mendicancy and relieve destitution in Ireland. In that country the task was beset with peculiar difficulties. Assuming the principle that the pauper should not be better off than the labourer, it would be difficult to devise any workhouse dress, diet, or lodging that would not be better than what many of the poor actually enjoyed. But, on the other hand, the Irish poor were fond of change, hopeful, sanguine, migratory, desultory in their habits, hating all restraints of order and system, averse to the trouble of cleanliness; and rather than be subject to the restrictions and regularity of a workhouse, an Irishman, in health and strength, would wander the world over to obtain a living. Hence, no matter how well he might be lodged, fed, and clad in a workhouse, he could not endure the confinement. Consequently, Mr. Nicholls found in the state of Ireland no sufficient reason for departing from the principle of the English poor law, which recognises destitution alone as the ground of relief, nor for establishing a distinction in the one country that does not exist in the other; and the result of thirty years' experience has fully borne out the correctness of his calculations.

It was upon this very able report of Mr. Nicholls that the Irish poor law was based. After undergoing much consideration, it was finally adopted by the government on the 13th of December, 1836, and on the following day he was directed to have a bill prepared, embodying all his recommendations. This was accordingly done; and after being scrutinised, clause by clause, in a committee of the cabinet specially appointed for the purpose, and receiving various emendations, the bill was introduced on the 13th of February, 1837, by lord John Russell, then home secretary, and leader of the house of commons. His speech on the occasion was able and comprehensive. " It appears," he said, "from the testimony both of theory and experience, that when a country is overrun by marauders and mendicants having no proper means of subsistence, but preying on the industry and relying on the charity of others, the introduction of a poor law serves several very important objects. In the first place, it acts as a measure of peace, enabling the country to prohibit vagrancy, which is so often connected with outrage, by offering a substitute to those who rely on vagrancy and outrage as a means of subsistence. When an individual or a family is unable to obtain subsistence, and is without the means of living from day to day, it would be unjust to say they shall not go about and endeavour to obtain from the charity of the affluent that which circumstances have denied to themselves. But when you can say to such persons, Here are the means of subsistence offered to you - when you can say this on the one hand, you may, on the other hand, say, You are not entitled to beg, you shall no longer infest the country in a manner injurious to its peace, and liable to imposition and outrage." Another way, he observed, in which a poor law is beneficial is, that it is a great promoter of social concord, by showing a disposition in the state and in the community to attend to the welfare of all classes. It is of use also by interesting the landowners and persons of property in the welfare of their tenants and neighbours. A landowner who looks only to receiving the rent of his estate, may be regardless of the numbers in his neighbourhood who are in a state of destitution, or who follow mendicancy and are ready to commit crime; but if he' is compelled to furnish means for the subsistence of those persons so destitute, it then becomes his interest to see that those around him have the means of living, and are not in actual want. He considered that these objects, and several others collateral to them, were attained in England by the act of Elizabeth. Almost the greatest benefit that could be conferred on a country was, he observed, a high standard of subsistence for the labouring classes; and such a benefit was secured for England chiefly by the quest act of Elizabeth. His lordship then alluded to the abuses which subsequently arose, and to the correction of those abuses then in progress under the provisions of the Poor Law Amendment Act, and said that we ought to endeavour to obtain for Ireland all the good effects of the English system, and to guard against the evils which had arisen under it.

In the course of his speech, lord John Russell stated that he had made inquiry with respect to the amount of relief afforded to wandering mendicants, and the result was that in most cases a shilling an acre was paid by farmers in the year, and he calculated that it amounted on the whole to perhaps 1,000,000 a-year. Among those thus relieved, he said, the number of impostors must be enormous. It was not proposed, however, to prohibit vagrancy, until the whole of the workhouses should be built and ready for the reception of the destitute. A lengthened discussion then took place in reference to the proposed measure, in which Mr. Shaw, Mr. O'Connell, lord Howick, Sir Robert Peel, lord Stanley, and other members took part. The bill was read a first time, and on the 25th of April lord John Russell moved the second reading, when the debate was continued by adjournment till the 1st of May. Notwithstanding a good deal of hostile discussion, the second reading was carried without a division. On the 9th of May the house went into committee on the bill. Twenty clauses were passed with only two unimportant divisions. The introduction of a settlement clause was rejected by a majority of 120 to 68. The vagrancy clauses were postponed for future consideration. The committee had got to the sixtieth clause on the 7th of June, when the King's illness became so serious, that his recovery was highly improbable, and the business of parliament was consequently suspended. He died on the 20th of June, and on the 17th of July parliament was prorogued, so that there was an end for the present to the Irish Poor Relief Bill, and all the other measures then before parliament.

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