HC Deb 07 June 1867 vol 187 cc1740-6

said, he rose to call attention to the distress which, according to communications that had reached him, now prevailed in the Western portions of Mayo and Galway. The districts to which he referred extended from the town of Galway, along the Northern part of the bay, and the entire Connemara district, embracing all the islands and coast of Clew Bay as far as Westport and Newport, including the Arran Isles and the large island of Achill. The peasantry of this district occupied very small portions of land of indifferent quality, and since he first put a Question to the Chief Secretary on the subject he had received further communications and had seen statements in the public press describing the lamentable condition of the people. In the Clifden Union, as well as in other localities, outdoor relief was refused, although a gentleman, who had visited the workhouse, found the ninety-nine beds occupied by 153 inmates. The normal condition of the peasantry of that portion of Ireland was remarkable. In the best of times they were not well off; they had no security for the continued occupancy of their farms, and, in the absence of leases and of compensation claims, no incentive to improvement. He held a document, signed by sixteen Roman Catholic clergymen of the district, in which they stated that the condition of the people required immediate relief. They felt themselves imperatively called upon, having examined the condition of the large population of the district, to call the attention of the Government to the imminent danger in which these people stood of dying by starvation. The distressed people experienced great difficulty in getting outdoor relief from the Poor Law authorities, and were told, when they asked for it, that the workhouse was open. That was the condition of the people in the central portion of the district. In another part the people were living principally upon nettles, gathered in the fields. He did not wish to indicate to the House that the local authorities were wilfully neglecting their duties; he merely wished to call attention to the facts as they stood. Great difficulty was experienced in getting outdoor relief; while if the people went to the workhouse their land would remain uncultivated, they would be unable to pay their rent, and would become confirmed paupers, and a permanent burden on the rates. A little timely relief would enable these people to continue a life of industry; but this relief was withheld, and in one parish (the Rev. Mr. Corway's) it appeared that a poor person walked fifteen miles to and from the house of the relieving officer, but could get no aid. He wished to know if no steps had hitherto been taken in the matter; whether the Government were prepared to take any steps to discharge that first duty of a Government by preventing the people from perishing of want in a land where there was plenty? He would conclude by asking the Chief Secretary for Ireland, If the Poor Law Commissioners, or if he, as Chief Secretary for Ireland, received any communications as to the distress now said to prevail in the western portions of Mayo and Galway; and, if so, if his attention has been called to the difficulty experienced in inducing the local authorities to extend outdoor relief; or to the crowded state of the Clifden Union Workhouse; and, whether any steps have been taken to induce the local authorities to carry out the Poor Law Act in a spirit of generosity, or to prevent the evil consequences of their hesitating to do so?


said, it had been his duty, in consequence of the representations made to the Government, to institute accurate inquiries into the condition of the people in the district in question. It was quite true that considerable pressure had existed this year among the poor inhabitants of the district, caused by the lateness and inclemency of the spring, and by the fact that some of the people had been obliged to give to their cattle a portion of that sustenance which they had expected to be able to retain for their own use. A careful inquiry had been made respecting the state of the districts included in the Westport Union and Connemara. In the Westport district the people possessed, during the winter, a considerably larger number of cattle than usual. Therefore, at the end of the long winter, they found themselves not only with a much diminished supply of food, but with a larger number of cattle. The Government had directed the intelligent Poor Law Inspector to make inquiry into the state of things. He had traversed both districts. A gunboat had been placed at his disposal, and he had thereby had the opportunity of visiting any part of the coast where his presence might be required. With regard to the Westport Union, a meeting had been held of the Roman Catholic clergy, at which resolutions were passed, which were forwarded to him and formed the foundation of the iuquiry to which he referred. The Inspector found that the state of things in the Westport Union was, on the whole, satisfactory. The average rate levied in October last on the whole of the union amounted only to 1s. 9d. in the pound. In one electoral division of the union of Louisburgh it was only 1s. 2d., where a few years ago it was as high as 5s. In Oughterard it was 10d. In Kilmeenagh it was 1s. 4d. On Clare Island it was 1s. 8d. In the electoral division of Westport itself, the only division in which it was high, it was about 3s. in the pound. Notwithstanding that the rate was struck in October, the sum of £800 was still standing to the credit of the Westport Union at the bank, so that there was no indication of such an amount of pressure on the rates as the resources of the district were unable to meet. The workhouse itself contained accommodation for nearly 1,000 persons. On the 25th of May this year it had only 204 inmates. On the same day in 1865 the number of inmates was 180; in 1866 the number was 165. There were therefore ample funds and sufficient workhouse accommodation at the disposal of the guardians. There was an indisposition on the part of a large portion of the population to enter the workhouse. It was the habit of the people to submit to considerable privation before they took advantage of the relief afforded by the poorhouse. The Boards of Guardians in Ireland possessed, however, very considerable powers in administering outdoor relief. The attendance both of the ex officio and elective guardians in this district was regular, and the general business of the union was well-conducted. It rested with the guardians to say whether they thought it necessary, under the circumstances, to take advantage of those provisions of the law which authorized the granting of outdoor relief. He did not think it would be either prudent or wise for the Government to interfere with the representatives of the ratepayers, who were responsible for the proper discharge of their duties. The duty of the Government was to throw upon the Poor Law Guardians of the district the responsibility which naturally belonged to them, and not to interfere with their administration of the law. Great evils might arise from any direct interposition on the part of the Government, who would thereby assume a responsibility which they would be unable to discharge. That could only be justified when all other means had completely and entirely failed, and when the guardians and local authorities had neglected to perform their duty. From the letters he had received, it appeared that some of the large proprietors were fully awake to the distress that existed, but which they believed to be temporary, and had given orders for a considerable amount of drainage works, which would afford employment to the people. The distress could be met in a much better way by means of these useful works than by any other means. He was afraid that in the Connemara district poverty prevailed to a greater degree than in any other part of the West of Ireland. Some weeks ago he had directed inquiry to be made, and he had received a Report from Dr. Brodie, the Poor Law Inspector, stating that there was some appearance of distress among a large portion of the population. In consequence of this state of things, the Government had consented to set on foot three or four works in connection with fishery piers, that could be undertaken under an existing Act of Parliament; but which, in the ordinary course of events, would not have been undertaken for one or two years. These works, he believed, would give a considerable amount of employment, and help to mitigate distress. With regard to the actual state of things in Connemara, he had learned, within the last few days, that the Poor Law Inspector had visited that district. That officer, accompanied by the medical Inspector of the district, went to some of the islands near the coast; and though they certainly found considerable poverty there, the impression left on their minds was that there were no symptoms of fever or those other diseases which were the invariable accompaniments of severe distress. The people of the islands they visited seemed to be about as well clothed as usual, though that might not, perhaps, be saying very much. In one of the islands there was a considerable number of cattle. The Inspector took care to visit every family on these islands where it was likely that any distress existed, and he pointed out to the relieving officer three or four cases which he thought demanded immediate attention. In one place, on the main land, the Law Life Assurance Company was found to be giving employment to some 300 men, while there was work laid out for many more, the wages offered being from 1s. to 1s. 6d. per day, which was considerably above the ordinary rate of wages of the country. Many persons, however, did not appear to have availed themselves of the employment thus offered to them, for the reason that they were mostly small holders of land, who were not in a position at the moment to engage in work, being occupied with the tillage of their own farms. By-and-by, when their home work was finished, they would be able to do so. There had likewise been considerable preparations made for the manufacture of kelp. The Inspectors visited another part of the union, and found 200 men employed at the rate of 1s. 6d. a day. The Poor Law Inspector reported that the health of the people was good, and there were no symptoms of fever or dysentery in the district. Dr. Brodie visited the island of Innisboffin, where he found a considerable amount of poverty, but no actual privation. He found that exertions had been made by the proprietors to give employment to the people engaged in fishing, by agreeing to take all the large fish they caught off their hands, provided they took the payment partly in money and partly in meal. An English gentleman had also offered to purchase as many lobsters and shell-fish as could be caught. Dr. Brodie visited Ballinakill and Cuskilly, and in the latter he found there were 200 men employed at 1s. 6d. a day. On the same day Dr. Brodie met Mr. Robinson, the agent of the Law Life Assurance Company. That gentleman assured him that care would be taken to keep drainage and other works going, so as to employ all the people who resided on that company's estates. A very large supply of Indian meal had been imported into Galway, and twenty-five tons of that article were sent to Clifden two or three days ago in the ordinary course of trade. There were only 194 persons in the workhouse of that town, while there was accommodation for 800 or 1,000. There had been some complaints of an insufficiency of bedding in the workhouse of Clifden. He found, from a telegram received that day from the Poor Law Commissioners, that a considerable quantity of articles for bedding had been ordered from Dublin. He thought he had said enough to show that, as far as they could judge, the Poor Law authorities, the proprietors, and the great majority of the persons to whom they could look for the relief of that temporary distress were now doing much for that purpose. The Government felt that it would be overstepping the bounds of its duty if it held out to the inhabitants of those districts that it was its intention to provide for their support. The Government would continue to remind the persons connected with the locality of their duty in that matter. The House would be of opinion that the Government was taking a dangerous course if it created the impression that it would undertake duties which could only, with safety, be performed by the Poor Law authorities and the proprietors of the district.


said, he felt disappointed at the speech of the noble Lord who had just addressed the House, because he had expected to hear that the Government were about to do something to relieve the distress. The noble Lord said there had been a large importation of Indian meal into Galway; but he did not tell the House how the people, who were now starving, were to acquire means for the purchase of that meal. It was very well to say that the proprietors would buy all the fish that was caught; but the poor people along the coast were wretchedly provided with boats, and of course it was impossible they could extemporise boats for this occasion. The noble Lord said the state of the people's health was satisfactory, and that fever and dysentery had not made their appearance; but neither disease made its appearance in the first stages of privations. If the extreme poverty which existed was allowed to continue and increase, fever and dysentery would soon make their appearance. He trusted that although the noble Lord did not think it the duty of Government to support the people, he would effectively remonstrate with the Boards of Guardians upon the necessity for a faithful discharge of their duties.