Living a life of poverty always brings unique and often unpleasant challenges, like those that the Irish poor experienced during the 18th century. The 1700s in Ireland's history is alternately referred to as the "Penal Era" and the "Age of Ascendancy." The two references aptly describe the difference in the lives of Ireland's Catholics and the Protestant English living in Ireland. Irish Catholics made up the Irish poor who constituted 80 percent of the population and owned less than one-third of the land. As the Protestant English landowners "ascended" to the gentrified class in the 1700s, the Irish Catholics descended deeper into lives of desperation and deprivation.
Scar Upon the Land
The state of Ireland's poor in the 18th century can be partly attributed to the devastation caused in the mid-17th century by the armies of Oliver Cromwell. The war that Cromwell waged against the Irish rebelling against English rule and the exiled Royalist supporters of England's King Charles I -- whom Cromwell had overthrown and executed -- went beyond conquering Ireland. Cromwell's armies employed "scorched earth warfare," burning land, crops and food stores in their wake. Ireland was always prone to intermittent famines. However, Cromwell's wounding of the land made it even more susceptible to future crop failures.
Protestant or Penalized
Catholics in Ireland were socially marginalized by the penal laws introduced in the late 1600s and early 1700s. The laws were designed to suppress the Catholic religion and strengthen the Protestant stronghold on Ireland's economy. Under the penal laws, Catholics were not allowed to vote, hold office or send their children abroad to be educated in Catholicism. Catholics who owned even small amounts of land were prohibited from willing their land to the eldest son, as Protestants did. The land had to be divided among all male heirs. This law in effect reduced each heir's individual land ownership to barely tillable plots.
Dependent on Potatoes
The Irish poor lived as tenant farmers on the large estates of absentee English landlords. Nearly all of the tenant farmer's crop was sold to pay rent on the land. The tenant family existed on potatoes, which they grew on their own small plot, buttermilk and, on rare occasions, herring. The soil, which was overworked, produced poor quality potatoes in insufficient quantities to sustain the family. The tenant farmer's housing was crowded and of poor construction. Families found it difficult to maintain even basic personal hygiene. These conditions led to epidemic infections and intestinal problems.
Workhouses: The Worst Fate
The Irish poor of the 1700s were not eligible for any public assistance and the only relief available to them came from charity and volunteer organizations. In 1772, the Irish Parliament set up 11 workhouses for the unemployed poor, but that was not enough to make a significant impact. Moreover, the conditions in the workhouses was so deplorable that only the most desperate of the Irish poor, or those who were forcibly taken off the streets, entered into workhouse service.
A Terrible Trade-off
The only education available to the Catholic Irish poor were the charter schools established by the Irish Parliament in 1733. The government's stated goal of these schools was twofold: to rescue children from abject poverty and free them from the restraints of the what the government considered a dangerous religion. Parents were told their children would be provided food, clothing, shelter, free education and instruction in the Protestant religion. Irish Catholic parents recognized the charter schools as a form of bribery and only sent their children during times of famine, withdrawing them when conditions improved. In 1788, a Parliament-sponsored committee investigating the charter schools found students living in deplorable conditions and treated essentially as slaves.