Beggars and begging were ubiquitous features of pre-Famine Irish society, yet have gone largely unexamined by historians. Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland explores for the first time the complex cultures of mendicancy, as well as how wider societal perceptions of and responses to begging were framed by social class, gender and religion. The book has recently been unlatched by Knowledge Unlatched, and the ebook can now be accessed for free. We spoke to author Ciarán McCabe about this recent publication.
Firstly, could you tell us a bit about Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland and what compelled you to focus your research in this area?
I have been interested in the history of poverty and welfare for a number of years, and the topics of begging and vagrancy kept coming up in the sources, but there was no substantial study of them. I think I was initially attracted by the language used by contemporaries to describe “study beggars and idle vagrants”! The sheer ubiquity of beggars in the pre-Famine period was fascinating to me: they were everywhere and constant. They were found in large numbers in both urban and rural areas, and they were inevitably commented on by foreign travellers, albeit with some literary gloss sometimes applied to their account!
When researching this topic during my PhD at Maynooth University, I decided to explore how charitable societies, civil parish bodies and the various churches dealt with mendicancy. And this facilitated the approach I have taken in Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland, wherein I consider societal perceptions of beggars and begging, and then responses to the problem – (begging was usually seen as a problem!). I also consider the other side of the giver / receiver exchange, and explore the motivations and experience of alms-givers.
The book explores different ways in which beggars were seen: as spreaders of disease; as work-shy idlers; as conveyors of gossip and political sedition; as a drain on the benevolence and Christian generosity of a mostly impoverished population. But, they could also be seen as engaged in a perfectly legitimate, fundamentally human act: asking assistance of one’s fellow man. When factors such as gender, social class and religious background are considered, it becomes a fascinating, yet complex, topic.
In a nutshell, Chapters 1-3 consider the broad topic of mendicancy: how can we define who was a beggar and what was begging; how and why were many contemporaries so eager to enumerate the numbers of people begging; and the disparate ways in which beggars were perceived.
Chapter 4 explores the short-lived mendicity society movement (there were more than fifty anti-begging societies established throughout Ireland between 1809 and 1845), while Chapter 5 looks at how parish vestries regulated begging through a badging / licencing system.
Chapters 6 and 7 respectively examine Catholic and Protestant approaches to mendicancy and discuss differences and similarities in perceptions and responses.
You highlight the lack of historical study into begging in pre-Famine Irish society. Why do you think this topic has been somewhat overlooked?
I think that the seeming lack of sources – especially sources from the perspective of the soliciting beggar – did not lend itself to considerable attention from scholars. I trawled through archives and libraries throughout Ireland and Britain finding material relating to begging and beggars in Ireland, and in some cases came upon sources which had not been used before, while in other cases, I asked new questions of well-worn sources.
The historian Caitriona Clear has written about beggars and vagrants as having “at best, a walk-on part in Irish history”, which I think is perfectly accurate. In social historians’ studies of the pre-Famine period beggars are usually mentioned, but have been left as ubiquitous, yet not terribly important, figures. My book broadens out the question beyond just the people engaged in begging and considers the practice of begging itself, as well as the significance that begging played in wider social and political reforms, such as the introduction of the Poor Law into Ireland in the late-1830s. But also, it looks at how a study of mendicancy informs changes in other developments within Irish society – the evolving experiences of poverty and welfare; the emergence of statistical and social inquiry in the early- to mid-nineteenth century; societal responses to disease epidemics; the changing function of the parish vestry as a unit of local government.
How does this volume pave the way for future research on the topic?
Among the topics I explore is the changing role of the civil parish vestry as a local government entity and a provider of social services, such as the care of orphans and deserted children, the provision of coffins to poor parishioners and the regulation of begging through a badging system. The parish gradually lost these powers throughout the mid-nineteenth century and this loss, I think, represents a substantial change in community power-brokering and interdenominational relations, especially in urban parishes, which is a much-neglected subject.
My book also makes considerable use of the published reports of the Whately Poor Inquiry, which sat between 1833-36 and examined in considerable detail the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland a decade before the Famine; their final output comprised more than 5,000 pages of reports. While numerous historians have made great use of the Whately Inquiry material, I still found new questions to ask of the sources. I think that the inquiry’s reports are wonderful sources that other scholars can return to as well, bringing new interests and asking new research questions.
The book uses a range of sources including case studies. Are there any sources which particularly stood out to you which you could discuss further with us?
The most enjoyable sources to work with were ones which opened up new perspectives on the history of begging, vagrancy and the relief of the poor. I started my research by considering these topics within the broader history of criminality, but the research evolved away from this angle and towards considering the responses of charities and churches. As such, it became a study of begging and alms-giving within the wider sphere of charity. The sources which facilitated this approach included Presbyterian kirk session minute books, the manuscript records of the Methodist-run Strangers’ Friend Society, the Society of Friends’ monthly meeting minute books and, for a Dublin case study, the papers of Archbishop Daniel Murray, who served as the Catholic archbishop of Dublin between 1823 and 1852.
Most interesting of all, though, were the vestry minute books of parishes from across Ireland. With some exceptions, these were all consulted in the Representative Church Body Library, Dublin. The parish vestry was a gathering of (male) householders in a parish, to consider the levying of local rates (a parish cess) to fund particular items of expenditure for the coming year. The minutes reveal that, from the 17th into the 19th centuries, parishes’ role was not limited to ecclesiastical matters, but extended into social matters – for example, the support of foundlings, orphans, widows and, in some fascinating instances, the operation of a system of licenced begging. Local ‘deserving’ beggars, who were known to the authorities, were issued with copper or tin badges, which served as a licence to solicit alms in a public place. The beggar who did not possess a badge could, therefore, be labelled ‘undeserving’ and duly refused alms. The parish vestry minute books are a much underused body of sources for Irish social history tell us much about the public operation of power and community tensions, as well as attitudes towards poverty and welfare, in this period. I was fortunate in being pointed in the direction of the vestry minute books by the late Dr Caroline Gallagher of Maynooth University.
As valuable as the vestry minute books are, they are best considered alongside contemporary newspaper reports of the annual Easter vestry meetings. These reports, especially for parishes in large urban centres such as Dublin and Cork, reveal much more about these meetings than the administrative records. Journalists’ accounts reveal to us the debates, arguments and (occasional) boisterousness which went unrecorded in the minute books.
What are you going to be working on next?
At the moment I am a postdoctoral research fellow at University College Dublin, funded by the Irish Research Council’s Enterprise Partnership Scheme. My project examines the survival strategies of working-class women in Dublin city between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, and is associated with Dublin City Council and its new museum at 14 Henrietta Street. Among the topics I am exploring are the position of charwomen in Dublin’s unskilled labour force, women’s use of pawnshops, Dublin’s second-hand clothes markets, and the social and cultural relevance of the ubiquitous ‘open front door’ in the city’s tenements.
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