Review of Lindsey Earner-Byrne’s Letters of the Catholic Poor: Poverty in Independent Ireland 1920–1940 by Lisa Godson

Lindsey Earner-Byrne. Letters of the Catholic Poor: Poverty in Independent Ireland 1920–1940. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. ISBN: 9781107179912 

Reviewed by Lisa Godson, National College of Art and Design, Dublin

Lindsey Earner-Byrne’s Letters of the Catholic Poor is deeply valuable for the study of women’s history in Ireland. Based on more than four thousand begging letters written between 1922 and 1940 to the Archbishop of Dublin, most fundamentally it provides a way of hearing directly from women about their lives, and their strategies for dealing with their circumstances. Of the letters that Earner-Byrne researched, she reckons that a little over 40 per cent were written by women, 30 per cent by men, a quarter by priests and a tiny number signed by a husband and wife, although ‘in reality many were probably joint enterprises.’ (6)  Regardless of authorship, most of them are deeply telling about family life, gender roles and the construction and perception of ‘the poor’ more generally. Poverty affected women disproportionately, with a crude hierarchy of those at risk being ‘widows, mothers with large families with absent or unemployed fathers, children, the sick and single elderly women’ (17).

An important aspect of the publication is the way the author sets the core primary material within a broader European context. She explores how this particular collection of letters are coherent with European and English precedents, with remarkable similarities across centuries of what is termed ‘strategic writing’ from below in terms of ‘how their authors “told” poverty and negotiated within the confines of their respective societies’ (13). Organised across six chapters, the first addresses ‘The Social Setting’ of poverty in the Irish Free State, with the subtitle taken from one of the letters: ‘Is this a Civilized Country?’, a question that hangs over much of the chapter. It traces how the cost of the years of upheaval preceding and following the establishment of the new State was largely borne by the poor. It details the destructive impact of conflict and how the dismantling of the British administration in Ireland often led to deprivation, for example by loss of income due to the closure of firms that had been important British army suppliers. Drawing on literature, memoirs and the archives of charities such as the St. Vincent de Paul, the author outlines a bleak picture of unemployment, hunger, nakedness and thousands living in absolute poverty. The Irish revolution had mainly benefited the Catholic bourgeoisie, and the new government treated those with least money with a mixture of paternalism and suspicion. The concept of ‘deserving and undeserving’ poor had long been evoked under the British regime, and with independence there was an ever-more elaborate taxonomy of discrimination. 

In Chapter 2 ‘Artefacts of Poverty’, the focus is on the materiality of the letters. Earner-Byrne conjures up the archival encounter with these objects wonderfully well, describing them as written on ‘letter-paper, copybook page, the backs of envelopes, postcards, and bill paper; in ink, pencil and crayon’ (1). Following the recommendation of Thomas Sokoll to read such sources aloud ‘so we can hear the voices of the past’ (79), she draws attention to the ways accents are replicated on the page, with Mrs MD referring to her ‘husbant’ and the ‘Tird’ (rather than ‘Third’) Order of St Francis, the sodality he was a member of. Such religious bona fides were often invoked by letter writers, as outlined in Chapter 3 ‘The Poor Make Their Case’. ‘To beg successfully’, the author argues, writers ‘had to employ all the social skills of a negotiator, all the cultural savvy of a poet and the creative stamina of a storyteller’ (91). With typical sensitivity, she draws out how the writers not only tried to argue that they were appropriate recipients of charity according to contemporary social values, but also ‘their experience of living under the burden of those values’ (92). Some of the letters are stunning in their elaboration of suffering. With others, it is the brevity which shocks, as with Mrs Eileen D., a mother of five children who wrote in 1931: ‘I my self is only after getting out of a very sick bed after child berth which I am glad to say is Gone to God above’ (78). Throughout the volume, extensive extracts from the letters mean it is not only stories, but specific phrases that stay with the reader long after the book is closed.

From the letters and the response to them we can read how historical subjectivities were constructed in terms of class difference, not least through the middle class ‘hidden poor’ in Chapter 4. Those letter writers habitually identified their distress as temporary and craved discretion, such as the mother of ‘four Foxrock orphans’ who was a prolific correspondent with the Archbishop over many years. Like her peers, she projected a future where her family would take their place as nation builders, asserting ‘my children are the coming women + men of Ireland’ (137). The Church often invested in upholding social status, with comparatively large sums sent out by the Archbishop, for example to cover private school fees. The final chapter of the book ‘The Cost of Poverty’,  describes the ‘vetting and vouching’ processes, usually undertaken by priests to identify just how deserving supplicants were. This details how clerics could be ‘confidantes and advocates’, but also how they could ‘exercise their significant social and moral power to tame women and ensure that they toed the social line’ (238). Within the social imagination of the Irish Free State, Earner-Byrne tells us, ‘women, widows and children were the accepted victims of the patriarchal social structure and represented relatively uncomplicated cases for charity’ (5). However, the consequences for those who didn’t toe the line could be dire, including forcible separation from children and institutionalisation.

In the acknowledgements of the book Earner-Byrne gives fulsome thanks to David Sheehy and Noelle Dowling, the former and current archivists of the Dublin Diocesan Archives. She also mentions the current Archbishop of Dublin who ‘has ensured that the diocesan archives are an open resource at the disposal of all those interested in understanding the history of Dublin and Roman Catholicism in Ireland’ (viii). At a time when access to the archives of religious congregations and institutions is so uneven and the history of many women’s lives remain hidden, this commendation is vital. But as Letters of the Catholic Poor amply demonstrates, to fully people the past we need to understand not just about people’s lives and perspectives, but their knowledge. This wonderful book skillfully and carefully places that knowledge at the centre, and is a priceless contribution to the history of class, religion, gender and everyday life in Twentieth Century Ireland.

Lisa Godson is programme leader of the MA in Design History and Material Culture at the National College of Art and Design and is Visiting Research Fellow in the School of Histories and Humanities, Trinity College Dublin. Her edited books include Making 1916: Visual and Material Culture of the Easter Rising (2015); Modern Religious Architecture in Germany, Ireland and Beyond (2019); Uniform: Clothing and Discipline in the Modern World (2019). Her monograph How the Crowd Felt. Religion, Memory and Ritual in the Irish Free State will be published in 2021.