Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

now, which, he is poor Lawsvlishment

wants, is the abundance of capital, and our author is of opinion, that the hope of improving Ireland must almost entirely depend on the supply of these deficiencies. As to the influx of capital into that country, nothing can now prevent it, according to our author, but the disorder and insecurity which, he is pleased to anticipate, would result from the introduction there of Poor Laws. He treats the opinion, that improvement would follow the establishment of those laws in Ireland, as a chimera. Improvements, he very properly observes, must originate with the upper and middling classes. Through them alone can the mass of the inferior orders be acted on. Hence, it is not to be expected that a measure exclusively affecting the lower classes can produce that amelioration in their condition, which can proceed only from those that are above them in the social scale. Great uncertainty and alarm, our author contends, would follow the introduction of Poor Laws into Ireland, inasmuch as the owners of property there, would find themselves subjected to all the chances of a system which, once established, could not be withdrawn, and which would give rise to upnumbered and indefinite claims. Another great objection, he says, to the introduction of the Poor Laws into Ireland, is the abuse to which their administration is liable. The distribution of the poor funds would, in Sir John Walsh's belief, be a source of bitter contention in that country, and questions would be continually raised in the litigious spirit of the people, which would give rise to endless controversies, and tend to prolong that quarrelsome spirit which has been so long the bane of the Irish nation. But we will not follow our author through the details of his argument. We concur with him that the Poor Laws, such as we now find them to erist in England, are inadmissible in any country, still more so in Ireland. The real question after all is this,-can any modification of the Poor Laws be applied to Ireland with a probability of benefit to that country?

Sir John Walsh empries the vials of his wrath against the evils of the English system; he justifies his indignation by irresistible argument : but that Ireland would be injured by a limited introduction of these laws, is certainly not proved by the worthy Baronet, although it is boldly asserted. We have little hesitation in saying, that no man in his senses would think of subjecting any country to the same system of Poor Laws, as that which now prevails in England. Every body feels and deplores the fatal error which was imperceptibly acted on-that of extending relief to other objects than those which were particularly specified in the original Poor Law of Queen Elizabeth. For the long series of years that parocbial relief, in compliance with that law, was confined to the disabled poor, no complaint was heard; and if the same principle had been since kept steadily in view, the country never would have learned to regard the Poor Laws as a grievance. But those laws were made to administer to the promotion of population; they were intentionally directed to that object, it being ignorantly assumed, that, to increase the number of the people, was to add to the wealth of the country. We are astunished to find that this delusive doctrine was honoured by the support of no less distinguished a person than Mr. Pitt, who wished to make it the policy of the nation, that “where there was a number of children, relief should be made a matter of right and honour, and that those who had enriched their country with a numerous offspring, had a claim upon its assistance for support.” To give relief to able bodied paupers who chanced to be out of work, became then a matter of course. Nay, the custom was in full force even after all its baneful consequences had been demonstrated by unanswerable reasoning. Mr. Malthus distinctly showed, that there was a tendency in population to extend itself beyond the ratio of the means of its support, and that the system of Poor Laws which gave subsistence to able bodied persons, who could find no profitable employment, very considerably stimulated this law of population. We have literally nursed and petted this class of paupers with the most preposterous spirit of indulgence. Instead of leaving them to the operation of those natural checks which would restrain their accumulation, and, consequently, prevent the necessity for extended relief, we have, by means of philanthropic justices, and tender-hearted overseers, established, to our cost, a host of sinecure paupers, which, but for this cruel clemency, never would have existed. The folly did not end here. The race of able-bodied paupers was still further pampered by the parochial legislators. If corn rose in price, the allowance to the poor was proportionably increased. The vicissitudes of times and seasons affected not their abundance : the approach of a famine even had no terrors for them : whatever befell the rest of the world, the parish would take care of its paupers, and see that they had the luxury of an ample ineal; whilst some of the persons, perhaps, who contributed to find it for them, thought half a one an indulgence. It is upon record, that so far did this blind indulgence proceed, that labourers, during the periods of scarcity which marked the close of the last century, received, in many instances, parish allowance, far exceeding in amount what they used to earn in a given time when fully employed. But as if this mode of administering the Poor Laws, was not sufficient to multiply paupers; as if the overseers were absolutely alarmed lest a plentiful succession of destitute claimants on the public should be wanted, what in addition did they do? In a great part of the kingdom they singled out those paupers who had the good luck to have bred up fresh paupers to “enrich the state,” as objects of especial favour ; so that between two able bodied persons, engaged in parish employment, whenever a difference in the amount of the allowance took place, it was not made in favour of him who did most work, or did it best, but in favour of the married man who

had most burdens to support! Mr. Strickland in his Discourse on the Poor Laws, observes, “ that so successfully have labourers been taught, that when married they have a right to demand work, wages, and a house, or parish support in some other shape ; that when a single man is refused by the overseers, subsistence, or work, it is not unusual to hear him declare that he will marry and fir them then!With such scenes before him, who would con. descend to remain an industrious, hard working peasant? Who would not rather aspire to the rank of a married pauper, to be supported in indolence, to be exempted alike from the chances of a suspension of profitable work, or from the effects of a rise in the price of provisions ?

Such is the nature of that fatal misunderstanding of the Poor Laws, which has been the source of so many monstrous regulations, 80 many vicious customs, destructive of the moral character of the lower classes in England. By it have the objects of want and misery been incalculably augmented : by it have the earnings of the honest and industrious been handed over to the idle and profligate : by it has a vast confiscation of property been, from time to time, effected, to the loss of the most deserving, and the aggrandizement of the most worthless. How, then, can a rational man be calumniated by the imputation, that he entertains the hope of seeing any country put under the ordeal of the Poor Laws, such as they now are executed in England ?

But if we are satisfied that had no such perversion of their principle, as we have described, taken place; that had the substantial injunction of Elizabeth's act been exclusively followed, then the Poor Laws would have operated beneficially for the country; if we are satisfied of this as regards England, we certainly cannot but desire to see the same simple principle applied to Ireland in the assurance that its adoption will be followed by the best consequences. It is, then, in plain language, for no more than a legal provision in Ireland for those who are naturally disabled from providing for themselves, that any person pretending to judgment and experience would contend. Let us ask those who, like Sir John Walsh, hold up their hands against a Poor Law in any shape in Ireland, as if they would avert a national curse, if they are aware that already a virtual poor law is in existence in that country, and has been in operation from time immemorial ? Do they know that an immense number, or, to use the language of Mr. Sterne Tighe, in his examination before a Committee of the House of Commons,-a number,“ quite inconceivable,” of the Irish population, subsists on private charity alone? This is the fact : the poor there are as regularly and unremittingly furnished with necessaries from the spontaneous bounty of the comparatively afluent, as though the supplies had been extorted through the medium of a legal assessment. All the substantial characters of a Poor Law are actually established in Ireland ; the pecuniary burden is certainly felt there ; all the hazards arising from providing idleness and profligacy with a resource in time of need, exist there. Then there is abundance of squalid misery in that country; its population far exceeds the number to whom food, as the product of their own labour, is accessible: the repetition of improvident, thoughtless, and, in their effects, deplorable marriages, is unparalleled ; a shadow of moral courage or manly independence is not to be heard of amongst the lower classes. We do not hesitate to say, that no sense of a claim of right to relief on the part of those classes, could add any thing to the tendency existing at the present moment in Ireland, to an increase of the destitute population. What then, in the name of common sense, is there to be apprehended from the introduction of Poor Laws into Ireland, particularly in the modified form of which we have spoken ? Nothing evil, we are sure, is to be feared, but some probable advantage, as we will endeavour to shew, to be anticipated.

The Poor of Ireland, we have seen, are supplied at the expense of the other inhabitants, not with rates, but with those things which rates are given them to purchase. Is there any power of superintendence over the paupers so as to limit their demands and ascertain their wants ? None whatever. It is obvious that the charity which prompts a man to give relief, will prevent him from being over nice in scrutinizing the merits of the object. In point of fact a great deal of charity is bestowed in Ireland, sometimes very superfluously-often very mischievously, with reference to its consequences. And this must be the case where the poor are supplied upon impulse, without any concert amongst the donors, and without any investigation : great impositions must take place on the one hand, and great individual sacrifices on the other. How can such a state of things be corrected except by the institution of some tribunal which will be able to detect and expose unjust claims; which will be able to fix the most proper objects of benevolence; which will give some sort of useful system to that heedless charity, which, by its precarious flow, too often defeats its own most cherished purposes ? Again, on whom does the burden fall of maintaining the poor in Ireland ? On all alike--that is to say-on every inhabitant according to his means? No such thing. In most districts the whole weight of supporting the poor falls exclusively on a few. The “Beggars” very speedily ascertain those residences in their neighbourhood where they are likely to meet with a favourable reception, or where they may be almost sure of a disappointment. With just attention to an economy of their time, they never fail to avoid the one, and to frequent the other. They have a vast resource, too, in the moral and religious feelings of the substantial farmers in Ireland, which is the class most of all preyed on by the mendicant race in every country. Amongst that agricultural order in Ireland, there exists a traditionary pride of hospitality, which the Beggars find of extreme practical utility: its members are, more or less, under the immediate influence of a religion, which sets a high value on the giving of alms, on the clothing of the naked, and the feeding of the hungry. As every affluent person is not of the same kind disposition, and may not be induced, from feeling or calculation, to act with the same liberality towards his needy fellowcreatures, it is evident that the supply of necessaries to the poor, must be very different from different persons. Is it fair, then, we ask, that the support of the poor should be charged in this partial way? Is it right that one man shall gain an exemption from a certain expense, because of his hard-heartedness, and another be made perhaps the victim to it, because of his benevolence ? A burden shared by numbers becomes light to individuals, but placed on the shoulders of a few, it is a disproportioned weight, and must be permanently oppressive.

Neither does this tax, directly or indirectly, ever reach the headlandlord ; it falls not upon the land, but upon the occupier exclusively; it is never contemplated when the amount of rent, which a tenant will have to pay, is fixed; no allowance whatever is made for it, as there is for legal charges, such as tythes, government taxes, county rates, &c. Here then is another signal motiye why the law should interfere, to redress the uneven pressure, to extend its inconvenience to all, and to equalise the contribution--since the obligation to contribute is equal--for the maintenance of the disabled poor.

We have a fourth reason for thinking that a legal provision, substituted for the present indiscriminate aid afforded by private charity, would be extremely politic. No matter how far individual benevolence may go in relieving the wants of the poor, the ostentation of poverty is still kept up in most parts of Ireland in all its disgusting obtrusion. The traveller, who walks the streets of Dublin, or indeed who visits any of the towns or considerable villages in that kingdom, has generally to make his way through a double file of human deformities in the character of supplicants : their appearance revolts him less than their impudent solicitations; compliance will undo him; the smallest token of an intention to capitulate will give heart to his assailants; they will hunt him, until he at length resolves, in his despair, with half the wealth he has at command, to buy off his fetid pursuers. All who have not visited Ireland must of necessity set this down as an exaggerated description, but in truth the features of the original are mollified in the picture. The grievance of vagrant mendicity is a national one in Ireland; it is permanent; it is nearly universal; it would be endured in no part of the world except where habit had subdued the elastic human mind to its use. In France and Italy, we are well aware, the chariot of the tourist is often surrounded at the postes, with a crowd of squalid beggars. But this is a concerted thing; the few vultures of those foreign kingdoms congregate in the quarters where the wealthy prey is wont to make his flight;

« ZurückWeiter »