Poverty in Ireland-Abandoned wives
MRS. K. stands in the queue for Home Assistance.
"I feel like a beggar," she says. The office is crowded and as each applicant's turn comes the name and amount of assistance money is called out. There is no privacy, no dignity. "I cried the first time I came. I would go hungry, but I can't let the children starve."
So she must join the queue every week for the £4 10s. Od. which is her only income.
For Mrs. K. is a deserted wife. Since her marriage five years ago he husband, a skilled worker, has left her four times.
"I kept hoping he'd get it out of his system, that he'd come back to stay. The children pined after him, they'd cry for their daddy, and ask where he was. And they went mad when he came back, they were crazy about him. But then he'd start to drink all the money and one day he'd be gone."
The last time he left she was expecting her third child, The baby girl is four months old now, chubby and laughing. She does not know her father.
He is in England. When he first disappeared Mrs. K. contacted the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and with the help of the British NSPCC he was traced to London. He came back that time and worked for a while, but unknown to his wife he was running up drinking debts and once again he left her to face the bills.
He wrote occasionally from England and sent the odd £5-and then Home Assistance was cut off.
"They had me up the walls. I never knew where I was."
Assistance is paid only to those with no other source of income; it is not a permanent grant but is in the nature of a loan. If Mrs. K.'s circumstances improve sufficiently she is under a legal obligation to repay all she has been granted--or be brought to Court. In fact this rarely happens as so few recipients ever find themselves in a position to pay. But this totally inadequate grant carries with it the threat of repayment.
So the irregular, unreliable postal orders from Mrs. K's husband merely add to her insecurity.
He seems unconscious of the damage he does to his children and the deep hurt he inflicts on his wife. His sporadic returns home are a sad story of swallowed pride on the part of his wife, and half-hearted effort on his.
"He never said he was sorry. He never tOld me why he left, or what I did wrong. We used to be so happy, he would praise me to the skies and say I was too good to him. Can drink change a man so much ?"
He came back and Mrs. K. tried hard. But the drinking, the abuse, the empty pay-packets continued, and then he was gone again.
"I'm finished with him now. I can't stand the uncertainty of it. He thinks he can just come and go like a lodger. "
If her husband turns up again Mrs. K is going to bring him to court for desertion. She can get an affiliation order which means he must pay her a
maintenance grant. The maximum payable, irrespective of the husband's income or the number of children, at present stands at £4 a week. This figure was established in 1940. Adequate then, it is ludicrous now.
In the year ended 31 December, 1968 out of 42 maintenance orders granted against deserting husbands the District Court awarded the full amount in 27 cases. According to the Government Information Bureau a wife could take proceedings to the High Court which has inherent and unlimited jurisdiction, but this is hardly ever resorted to because of the costs involved.
Earlier this year, Dr. Patrick Hillery, then Minister for Labour, told the ISPCC that proposals were in hand to increase the maximum payable by a deserting husband to £7 10s. Od. a week plus £2 10s. Od. a week for each child under sixteen. The present Minister for Justice, Mr. Micheal O Morain,
has indicated that these proposals are included in the general scheme for a Courts Bill which he hopes to introduce early in the new year. Similar legislation was promised more than two years ago.
If, however, Mrs. K's husband returns to England and fails to pay, nothing can be done. There are at present no arrangements whereby a maintenance order granted by a District Court in Ireland can be enforced against a man living in Britain. A change in the Irish law would not be sufficient to improve this situation. Reciprocal arrangements enabling maintenance orders given in Ireland to be enforced in Britain, and vice versa, require British legislation as well as Irish. And since desertion is not a criminal offence the husband cannot be extradited.So under the present laws a man can simply disappear off to England and forget he ever had a wife and family. It's so easy. More than 400 Irish men deserted their families this year. The ISPCC, which is the only full-time case-work agency in the Republic, and whose figures show that desertion is the most common cause of cruelty to children, has had 428 new cases of deserted families reported to it since January of this year. There are at least that number of families already on its books. And this is only the tip of the iceberg when you consider that the ISPCC is only one-if the largest-of the agencies dealing with this problem. And remember too the numbers of desolate wives who struggle on proudly, alone, telling brave lies to relations and neighbours.
What kind of a society is it that produces so many men with the morals and sense of responsibility of children? "They seem to be totally unaware of their obligations," says Mr. Brian Callinan, Chief Executive Officer of the ISPCC. "At the first hint of trouble, like spoiled children they're off without a thought that they should do more than send the occasional postal order from England. And the wife, her morale at zero having been abandoned by the man who promised to share his life with her, is left to raise her family on national assistance."
"My husband's mother never said a word to him," says Mrs. K. bitterly. "She'd welcome him home and full over him as if he'd never done wrong. She never wondered if his children had bread to put in their mouths-her grandchildren." Her own family, her widowed mother and two brothers, help in any way they can. They cannot give her much help financially but they take her out, act as baby-sitters and give her constant emotional and practical support. Without them, she says, with the strain and worry she would have broken down. "And then what would happen the children ?"
As well as Home Assistance she receives the Children's Allowance which at present stands at the ludicrously inadequate rate of 10/- a month for the first child, 15/6 for the second, and 26/6 for each subsequent child. Apart from a few extras such as a couple of bags of turf a week and free milk for the children, this is all Mrs. K. has to live on.
And she's not the worst off.
She had been living in a condemned building off James's Street, but the Corporation, when informed of her case, provided her with a house in Crumlin for which she pays 13/2 a week in rent. The little house is bare but neat. The two older children play in the garden, the baby lies gurgling in her pram. They must grow up without a father. And still the wedding photograph stands on the mantelpiece. Plump and pretty, her young face smiling under the white veil, Mrs. K. stands proudly with her husband. Protectively, he holds her hand. And now five years, later, thin and worn, she lives only for her children.
Would there be less deserted wives, less fatherless children if desertion were not quite so easy? Would an irresponsible father think twice about running to England if he knew he could be extradited and jailed for it? \Vould a man hesitate before starting a second home if he remembered he would have to pay for them both?
The present situation does little to prevent the break-up of families. And already this year more than four hundred families have newly lost a father through desertion