Employ,’ said Arthur Young, ‘don’t hang them.’ Unfortunately, Irish society was not sufficiently dynamic for the available employment to absorb its rising population. One of the major problems confronting Ireland in general, and the growing municipalities in particular, was the lack of any provision for the ever-increasing number of poor and destitute. The problem was appalling everywhere but it was particularly acute in the rapidly growing capital.

The Elizabethan Poor Law, 39 Eliz., c. 3 (Eng.), had made the English poor the responsibility of the parish in which they resided. But this law and its subsequent modifications did not apply to Ireland. This, however, did not prevent the Irish parliament from trying to enforce similar provisions. For instance, in 1710 the House of Commons declared that ‘the strict and due execution of the several laws in force in this Kingdom against sturdy beggars and vagrants and for confining the Poor thereof to their respective Parishes, would be a publick and seasonable service to this Kingdom.’

Parliament and the local authorities were well aware that the magnitude of the task of relieving poverty was beyond such institutional provision as the localities could provide. Hence they encouraged its supplementation by trying to create or sustain forms of outdoor relief. They were particularly anxious to discourage the sturdy beggar and support the deserving or unfortunate poor. To this end, 11 & 12 Geo. III, c. 30 and 15 & 16 Geo. III, c. 35, were enacted in the early 1770s to codify the many existing laws into a single statute. The preamble (15 & 16 Geo. III, c. 35) set out the official attitude:

Strolling beggars are very numerous in this kingdom: and whereas it is become equally necessary to give countenance and assistance to those poor who shall be found disabled by old age or infirmities to earn their living, as to restrain and punish those who may be able to support themselves by labour and industry, and yet may choose to live in idleness and begging; and it is just to call upon the humane and affluent to contribute to support of real objects of charity

Each county was to make arrangements to punish the idle and relieve the condition of the unfortunate, who, if they had resided for a year within the parish boundary, were to be licensed to beg and given a badge to indicate their virtuous necessity. The licence was to state the person’s name, place of birth, character and cause of poverty, sickness or misfortune. Children under ten years of age were to be inserted in their parents’ licence, otherwise they could be taken into care by the authorities: ‘that all poor children may as much as possible be prevented from strolling and may be put to trades or industry’. Fatherless or deserted children under eight years old found begging were to be sent to a charter school nursery and the rest to be apprenticed.

As soon as they possessed funds the counties were to build, at as moderate expense as possible, plain and durable houses of industry, which were to be divided into four parts: poor helpless men, poor helpless women, sturdy beggars, idle and disorderly women. Any man above 15 years of age found begging without a badge was to be put in the stocks for up to three hours for a first offence and six hours for a second or subsequent offence. Hardened offenders of either sex were to be tried at the Quarter Sessions; if convicted they could face transportation to the American colonies or, later in the century, up to two months’ imprisonment.

These efforts made discouragingly little impression on the problem. For instance, in 1764 a visitor considered that it would be ‘happy … if the method of parochial provision in England were introduced into this country, especially in the southern parts of it where the poor really are infamously neglected.’ Yet a decade later Young was approving Ireland’s lack of Poor Laws, for by this time early industrialisation in England encouraged a tolerant, even enthusiastic, view of labour mobility. In 1765 The Public Prompter and Irish Journal declared that:

Perhaps there is no city in Europe of equal extent and affluence [that] has so many public institutions and private provisions as … Dublin: and notwithstanding, an uninformed Stranger to judge of our humanity by the prodigious number of beggars that crowd our streets and the various objects of real or feigned distress … they are indeed an epidemic plague all over the Kingdom.

For some, begging was a profession. At the end of the century De Latocnaye wrote of Dublin that ‘it would be difficult to say too much in praise of the zeal and activity of the kind persons who have done their best for the suffering humanity of this city’, but he wondered whether this philanthropy was too concentrated in the capital, and whether ‘it would be better if it were spread over the country’. Poverty was universally visible, and observers felt that it was more acute than elsewhere in Europe.