Social Problems

The eighteenth-century was marked by terrible poverty. At the Reformation in England the poor had been made a charge on the parish in which they resided and forbidden to wander beyond it. In Ireland there was no such universal provision, and the poor often wandered the country looking for work or begging. Attempts were made to distinguish between the worthy and unworthy beggar by a system of badging. Nowhere was the problem more pressing than in the capital where, in 1703/4, 2 Anne, c. 19 (0081), established the Dublin Workhouse to employ and maintain the poor. To this was added, in 1727, 1 Geo. II, c. 27, the Foundling Hospital to provide for orphan and destitute children until they were of an age to be apprenticed. Many died before they reached this age.

Contemporaries, though accustomed to high infant mortality, were appalled; during the 12 years 1784–96, 25,253 children were entered on the hospital’s admission records and 11,253 of these died. The London Foundling Hospital, founded a decade later than the Dublin one, had similar mortality in the mid-century but by its close this had fallen to 17 per cent. The Paris Foundling Hospital had a rate more comparable to the Dublin one. The MPs, alerted by Sir John Blaquiere (0162), were deeply shocked and in 1797 the hospital was reorganised and placed under the supervision of 13 lady governesses, including the Duchess of Leinster and Lady Castlereagh, the wife of the Chief Secretary (2009). Wives often played an important supervisory role both on the estate and in more public offices.

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Members of parliament, apart from serving as Justices of the Peace, were prepared to give honorary service and devote time and energy as well as financial support to all manner of public and private schemes for national improvement, both social and economic. Some, but not all, of these schemes offered incidental patronage for the member’s locality. For example, a seat on the Linen Board (0132) – founded in 1710 to encourage the development of the linen industry – was a much sought-after and prestigious honour. It also brought patronage and the ability to bring employment to one’s neighbourhood. There were numerous parliamentary investigations, particularly into prisons, education and charter (government sponsored) schools, as well as other public institutions. Nevertheless, most well-meaning schemes failed, although it is doubtful whether Ireland’s failures were worse than those in similar societies.

As in most pre-industrial countries, work was seasonal and there was a pool of labour that not even seasonal migration within the country or over to England could absorb. City occupations might have appeared less affected by seasonal variations, although there was always the problem of famine scarcity, but they tended to be more affected by transient slumps and booms, while unemployment was socially more dangerous there because of the concentration of the unemployed. In some places these factors led to combinations, an early form of trade union. The rural linen industry offered some solution to these problems but, as the depression of the early 1770s showed, even this was not immune from recession. Social control was primitive and in the last resort depended on the army, a situation that gave rise to the Volunteer movement during the American war when the army was required overseas.

The problem of law and order was a continual concern of MPs. At the beginning of the century this was at least partly connected with the aftermath of the war and the problem of the dispossessed, and at the end of the century with economic pressures on a rising population that had insufficient employment or outlets. Recent studies have shown that, compared with similar pre-industrial societies such as in Brittany and the Languedoc, Ireland was not particularly violent even when compared with North America, to whose mentalité it contributed so much. Dr Garnham points out that ‘the intimate and often inseparable links that existed between England and Ireland conspired to make the comparison of the two nations inevitable and accepted. The result was the propagation of the perception, especially among outsiders, that Ireland was an inherently violent society.’

But the divergence of England and Ireland in the nineteenth century – one an industrial, the other remaining an agricultural society – has also created a retrospective impression. By 1800 the intellectual ferment of the eighteenth-century, the philosophy behind the outbreak of the American Revolution and finally the outbreak of the French Revolution, with its emphasis on the rights of man rather than the sanctity of property, boiled over into the 1798 rebellion; failure to resolve these and underlying local issues led to the Act of Union.