Objects of a Deeper Interest — Part 1
The extreme poverty and inequality in Limerick City in the 1830s
The 1830s were an especially desperate time for the destitute in Limerick. I refer specifically to the period prior to the enactment of the compromised Irish Poor Law of 1838 and its coercion of the poor into 163 workhouses across the island. The House of Industry (established in 1774 and funded by local taxes) provided many with shelter but it could not cope with the sheer scale of the destitution. In lieu of an adequate intervention by a laissez-faire government to alleviate their suffering, the possibility of amelioration or even emigration was slim.
Lacking political leverage, monetary relief or democratic franchise, their fate was all too often left to the whim of the market, the will of the landlord, or the charity of the philanthropist. They lacked power, or as Hobbes defined it, the “present means, to obtain some future apparent good.”
Catholic Emancipation had thankfully arrived in 1829, but as John Dorney has surmised, this reduced the franchise dramatically…
…the electorate in Ireland was actually radically cut so that Catholics would not dominate Protestants. In a population of circa 8 million, the electorate was cut from 216,000 to 37,000 men, as the property qualification for voting was raised from 40 shillings to £10 income per year.
How did the working class in Limerick respond to this situation? They observed. They studied. They organised. They rioted. They drank. They persuaded. They prayed. They stole. They worked. They created. They did not passively accept their situation and generalisations are not welcome here. Their efforts to get by and their humility and dignity, in the face of imminent destitution and elitist indifference, have been overlooked for far too long.
But we should not sentimentalise their lives. Food shortages, lack of employment, low pay, illiteracy, morbidly low purchasing power, an epidemic of cholera, and appalling living conditions, which encouraged the contraction and spread of such infectious diseases, meant that life could be “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
“I know of no town in which so distinct a line is drawn
between its good and its bad quarters...”
Henry D. Inglis (1834)
By the early 1800s the City of Limerick was sharply divided between rich and poor. As soon as the famous walls of the city were torn down in the 1760s, the wealthy and the middle classes started to move from the Irishtown and Englishtown (Oldtown) to the new spacious developments in the Newtown Pery district. This trend continued for decades until the Oldtown was predominately populated by the working class. While the Thomond Bridge and New Bridge physically connected the city together, they now also acted as community boundaries. This shift in wealth and affluence across the city is demonstrated by the following example.
Follow the Sedan Chairs
One of most opulent services in Limerick at this time was the sedan chair.
The sedan chair in Limerick was “an upholstered seat, completely covered in” which was carried by “two men between poles, who moved at a tolerable pace, in a kind of a trot, equal to perhaps four miles an hour.” They were used to convey the fully robed judge to court in Limerick until around 1809. Sedan chairs, like taxis today, needed a licence to operate and among their patrons were “ladies going to balls” and the wealthy who wished to move around town in bad weather. In the late eighteenth century the sedan chair stand was located on Mary Street, near the Exchange. But by 1830, the last year of their operation, the sedan chair stand was positioned on the corner of George Street and William Street in Newtown Pery. This ostentatious service had moved with its clientele, from the Oldtown to the Newtown.
While the difference was only 600 metres in measured length, in terms of living conditions it could not have been greater…
An eyewitness account of the poverty in Limerick City (1834)
In 1834 Henry David Inglis, the Scottish journalist and travel writer, visited Ireland and he published a book based on this sojourn in 1835. An interesting and invaluable piece of travel writing, it was very successful, leading to the publication of a fifth edition in 1838. What sets this travelogue apart are the observations Inglis makes, which showcase an astute sense of social justice and critical thinking. This is evident when he writes about Limerick City; the pathetic scenes he witnessed in the Oldtown were seared into his memory. Equally devastating is the contrast he draws between the extreme poverty and the great wealth/economic growth.
“…Exports have nearly doubled since 1822…”
Despite being instructed beforehand that the poor of Limerick city were in the most critical condition, he was shocked by what he found. He writes by way of introduction,
I found too dreadful confirmation of the very worst reports; I spent a day in visiting those parts of the city, where the greatest destitution and misery were said to exist. I entered upwards of forty of the abodes of poverty ; and to the latest hour of my existence, I can never forget the scenes of utter and hopeless wretchedness that presented themselves that day.
“The advance of the prosperity of Limerick, has been rapid and uniform.”
He describes the inside of these homes, filthy and without furniture.
Some of the abodes I visited were garrets, some were cellars; some were hovels on the ground-floor, situated in narrow yards, or alleys. I will not speak of the filth of the places; that could not be exceeded in places meant to be its receptacles. Let the worst be imagined, and it will not be beyond the truth. In at least three-fourths of the hovels which I entered, there was no furniture of any description, save an iron pot…
“…no table, no chair, no bench, no bedstead…”
They had no beds to sleep on, instead they had to content themselves with bundles of straw and some mats. Many of the inhabitants were malnourished, weak and emaciated.
...the inmates, were some of them old, crooked, and diseased; some younger, but emaciated, and surrounded by starving children ; some were sitting on the damp ground, some standing, and many were unable to rise from their little straw heaps. In scarcely one hovel, could I find even a potato…
In one which I entered, [I saw] two bundles of straw lay in two corners; on one, sat a bed-ridden woman; on another, lay two naked children, — literally naked, with a torn rag of some kind thrown over them both. But
I saw worse even than this. In a cellar which I entered, and which was almost quite dark, and slippery with damp, I found a man sitting on
a little sawdust…
“He was naked: he had not even a shirt: a filthy and ragged mat was round him: this man was a living skeleton; the bones all but protruded through the skin: he was literally starving…”
Inglis believed that his visit to these homes was representative of the general condition of this class.
In place of seeing, as I did, hundreds of men, women, and children, in the last state of destitution, I might have seen thousands. I entered the alleys, and visited the hovels, and climbed the stairs at a venture ; I did not select; and I have no reason to believe that the forty which I visited, were the abodes of greater wretchedness than the hundreds which I passed by.
“What a very handsome city this is!”
Next, Inglis wrote about the working poor in Limerick. Those who were perennially underpaid and overtaxed; thus slowly approaching outright destitution as their chance to improve their situation reduced incrementally.
…there was another class, fast approaching infirmity and disease; but yet able and willing to earn their subsistence. I found many hand-loom weavers, who worked from five in the morning till eight at night, and received from a task-master, from half a crown to four shillings a week. Many of these men had wives and families; and I need scarcely say…
“..that confinement, labour, scanty subsistence, and despair, were fast reducing these men to the condition of the others, upon whom disease, and utter destitution had already laid their hands…”
Many of these working poor would have been weavers based in Thomondgate and Garryowen, whose industry “English competition had completely annihilated.” Hundreds of them were “thrown out of employment” in 1835 and they responded by presenting a petition to the Corporation signed by 259 weavers. The Corporation agreed to put forward £50 towards helping some of these weavers emigrate to England. Plus ça change?
Confirmed by National and Local Sources
A few years later the Municipal Corporation Boundaries report concurred with Inglis’s account, when it judged that the “Old Town is one vast mass of dilapidation, filth and misery.” It alluded to the constant influx of the country poor, who were often evicted tenants and farmers, as it was only in the city that they could find..
“…at a cheap rate, something like a roof to cover them.”
Referring to the “very poor agricultural population” in the Liberties of the City, the report recommended that they be “exempted from a most oppressive degree of taxation to which they are at present exposed.”
While this national survey was surprisingly frank about such injustice, it was a report made by a local physician, Dr. Daniel Griffin, which ultimately confirms the plight of the poor. The doctor, whose brother was the famous writer Gerald Griffin, presented his paper on the mortality of the poor in his native city to the Statistical Society of London in 1840. It is often a shocking read. He described how the Oldtown…
…contains a multitude of narrow filthy lanes, and of houses falling to decay; inhabited, many of them, from garret to cellar, by a most miserable population..
This population included the
Ejected tenantry from the surrounding counties, who always on their expulsion make a run to the cities in search of food and shelter for their starving families.
Agrarian injustice was evidently heaping pressure on urban cohesion. Private charity in the city was left to pick up the tab for those made destitute by crop failures, the imposition of tithes and unscrupulous absentee landlords.
Griffin noted that many tourists who observed the “gay dresses of the more respectable portion” and the residents “whose business scarcely ever leads them into the older portions” were unaware of (or indifferent to) the desperation that existed in the Irishtown and were thus surprised to read reports of such in the newspaper. They had..
“…little conception how human life is wasting within a few hundred paces of their doors…”
Griffin’s research highlighted the horrendously high level of child mortality among the poor, with children aged under five accounting for 74% of the deaths. He believed that this was partly caused by the “closeness of the habitations — the numbers by which they are occupied — and the narrowness and filth of the lanes” but mainly by the extreme level of poverty in Limerick.
It is to be attributed principally to the state of destitution and misery of which the lower classes always live, and to their daily privations of the comforts and necessaries of life.
What happened when the destitute in Limerick were pushed to their absolute limits and decided to risk their lives to feed themselves and their children? The next article in this series looks at the Limerick Food Riot of 1830.
- John McGrath, “Riots in Limerick, 1820–1900”, Riotous Assemblies — Rebels, Riots & Revolts in Ireland, Sheehan and Cronin (ed.), (Cork 2011), pp. 153–175
- Dr. Daniel Griffin, An Enquiry into the Mortality occurring among the Poor -of the City of Limerick, Journal of the Statistical Society of London, January 1841. Paper read on the 14th November 1840.
- Henry David Inglis, Ireland in 1834: A Journey throughout Ireland, (London 1835)
- Paddy Lysaght, The House of Industry, Old Limerick Journal, Vol. 4, 1980
- Jim Kemmy, Housing and Social Conditions: 1830–1940, Old Limerick Journal, Vol. 24, Barrington’s Edition Winter 1988
- Susan Connolly, Health Services in Limerick in the Early 19th Century, Old Limerick Journal, Vol. 24, Barrington’s Edition Winter 1988
- John Dorney, Democracy in Ireland — A Short History, The Irish Story, 8th April 2013
- Maurice Lenihan, Limerick; Its History and Antiquities, Ecclesiastical, Civil, and Military, (Limerick 1866), p. 486
- James S. Donnelly Jr., Captain Rock — The Irish Agrarian Rebellion of 1821–1824, (University of Wisconsin 2009)