Review of Begging, Charity, and Religion in Pre-Famine Ireland

Begging, Charity and Religion in Pre Famine Ireland

Ciarán McCabe

Liverpool University Press, 2018

9781786941572Reviewed by Victoria Anne Pearson

Who are the deserving and undeserving poor…? This question is still at the heart of public debate. However, Ciarán McCabe’s new work highlights how fundamental this question has been to the social conscience of modern Irish society for successive generations. His exploration of begging, charity and religion in Pre-Famine Ireland widens the scope of who exactly are the poor in 19th century Ireland. The historiography surrounding Irish class division in this era, has been, traditionally, concentrated on the rise of the middle class or, at the other end of the spectrum, the extent of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy.  Scholarship on the working classes in urban areas or the labouring class of rural Ireland has grown in recent years, yet there is still much to be done. McCabe’s work in revealing the high level of agency among the poor opens new questions and areas of exploration in the field. The idea that the poor were a homogenous category, destitute and drifting, is challenged to uncover that the poor where a multi-layered, complex group who used the skills and opportunities that were at their disposal to provide for themselves and their families and indeed, assist others in their communities who were in need.

Significantly, this study investigates the strategies that were often employed to elicit charity in private individuals and charitable groups. McCabe outlines that these strategies were not a method to defraud but were intergenerational survival skills known and used among certain sections of society. The argument that these skills were often employed by artisan craftsmen and skilled tradesmen, who were affected by economic hardship, reveals the shifting nature and inner workings of societal infrastructures that were swept away by the Famine. This might seem all too obvious; we have long accepted Irish historic economic instability. However, conventionally, we have looked at how calamity affected the poor, neglecting to investigate how the poor, themselves, responded to economic turmoil. It is here that McCabe’s study comes into its own; outlining the cultural practices and prevailing attitudes that defined the response to an endemic shared hardship. The emphasis on the association of mendicity with women and children allows McCabe to show how it was acceptable or even encouraged, at times, that woman and their dependents would use begging, hawking and offering their services to supplement their income, even if support from the family’s main bread winner was still forthcoming. The hard-hitting evidence outlined by McCabe in regards to the extent of mendicity among children can be a difficult read. The human story that comes through is unescapable, particularly, the example of a mother who stationed her three children, all under the age of ten, daily, on College Green paints an upsetting image.  However, cruel as this might seem to a modern audience, the need to pass these survival skills to the next generation could not be avoided in a precarious employment market. It was acceptable, then, even expected that children would be taught and shown how to best employ strategies to incite the most sympathy so that they could, one day, have a method of providing for themselves and dependents. Mendicity is, therefore, is not always the last resort but a careful learned approach to dealing with life’s difficulties.

Indeed, McCabe’s work not only gives invaluable glimpses into the response of the individual to social conditions in a time long before the creation of the Welfare State but also examines the corporate response of private charities, religious groups and where possible, the State to the level of poverty in Ireland. McCabe contends that the response of the various religious denominations was not merely proselytising but a co-ordinate effort to institute guiding moral philosophies that were gaining mass popularity in this era. The corresponding and, at times, competing philanthropic efforts outlined by McCabe in distinct chapters demonstrate, clearly, the extent that the issue of giving charity to the deserving poor was at the forefront of the Irish moral economy. However, the division of the chapters between to the two main Christian churches, Protestant and Catholic, does emphasis, and rightly so, the sectarian division on which Irish society defined itself. McCabe’s sophisticated deconstruction of the stereotypical prevailing attitudes of the industrious Protestant in contrast to the idle Catholic is most potent in the analysis of the extent of the work and political influence of the Dublin Mendacity Society. McCabe’s work is centred on years that the mendicity social movement flourished in the three decades that followed 1815 and focuses, mainly on the capital. It is understandable, therefore, that McCabe would focus on the immediate response to poverty as embodied by Mary Aikenhead and the Sisters of Charity and their work with Daniel Murray, Archbishop of Dublin. However, the Catholic Church’s more determine and long term solution to the circumstances of the poor was, undeniably, the much earlier advancement of the Roman Catholic Poor School national movement as pioneered by Nano Nagle, Edmund Rice, Catherine McAuley, among others. Religious congregations with an educational impetus were not dispersed in their charitable work but working towards a long term missionary design. The emphasis on obair lámh in the Poor School curriculum assisted in securing future employment. Education, therefore, is understood, by the Catholic community, as the pivotal pathway out of poverty. It should be noted, however, that McCabe’s study is, essentially, regionally based; concentrating on the capital city where the issues surrounding poverty were most visible when the Irish economy entered a harsh recession in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars.

In this, McCabe’s study exposes the need of additional scholarship and further analysis of mendicity, poverty and philanthropy in other regional communities and economies. McCabe, like Connolly and Geary, provides an important foundation for potential research and a thorough reassessment of Pre-Famine Ireland. McCabe initiates a much needed shift in focuses from the urgent response to a humanitarian crisis in the wake of the potato blight to a comprehensive analysis to how Irish society tackled the challenges and instituted a framework to meet the needs of the most vulnerable on a daily basis. In this way, McCabe’s book is essential reading when considering the ways an analysis of class, gender and religion in Pre-Famine Ireland illuminates how a growing sense of social awareness not only surfaced in this period but shaped the way Irish society would define and advance itself into the modern era.



Victoria Anne Pearson is a PhD candidate with the School of History, University College Cork. Her research focuses on the life and work of Bishop Francis Moylan, 1735-1815, a significant figure in the emergence of a renewed and reinvigorated Catholic community in late Eighteenth Century Ireland. Victoria graduated with a BA (First Class) from UCC in 2003. She was an UCC Research Scholar at Washington College Maryland in 2003/2004.  From 2007-2013, Victoria worked in various tutorial and advisory roles with visiting students at UCC and was, for a time, the Co-ordinator of the International Summer School in Irish Studies.  Her first article, ‘We Saw A Vision’: The Cork Charitable Society, 1791-1815, was published in the 20th edition -2019 of History Studies, the Journal of the University of Limerick History Society. Recently, she chaired the Institutions of Confinement and Care: Ideal and Reality panel at the Prison, Asylums and Workhouse: Institutions in Ireland Conference 2019 in PRONI, Belfast where she also presented a paper on Francis Moylan and his role in the establishment of Roman Catholic Poor School education as part of the Religions, State and Institutional Voices discussion. She was awarded the Royal Historical Society Post-Graduate/ECR bursary by the conference organisers.  Victoria delivered a talk on Francis Moylan’s close collaboration with Nano Nagle in Nano Nagle Place, Cork and  for Cultures Night Dublin 2019 on Nano Nagle, The Jesuits and Social Innovation and is due to be a panel participant on NVTV’s History Now show presented by Dr. Barry Sheppard scheduled to be broadcast in October. Victoria currently lives in Derry City and works in Ulster University.