Poverty in Ireland-Small farmers & vagrants
A farm in Connaught
There are 43,000 farms of between five and fifteen acres. Another 130,000 are between fifteen and fifty acres-almost two-thirds of Irish farms are in the small farm bracket. By John Feeney, Dan Ruddy and Vincent Browne. Published in Nusight, November 1969.
. Thirty-eight per cent of farms are owned by people over 65. .
. Agricultural labourers in Leinster average about £10 per week; elsewhere it is slightly less. Young migratory labourers earn an average of £6 per week.
. Even though rural women marry later than the national average, they have more children than do women in urban areas-women in rural areas who marry between 35 and 40 have an average of 2.5 children.
. Expenditure in the agricultural sector has risen twice as fast as production in the last thirty years.
MOST OF THE extreme poverty which characterised Irish rural life thirty years ago has disappeared. This is mainly due to the unprecedented rate of emigration from rural areas. Since 1910 the number of farms of every size has shown a slight drop except farms of thirty to forty acres which have increased. There remain, nevertheless, 43,000 farms of a mere 5-15 acres which is below subsistence size on any type of land. Another 130,000 farms vary in size from 15-50 acres. Almost two-thirds of our farms remain in the small farm bracket. The main effect of the Land Commission has been to increase marginally the size of small farms and to keep them at a level of subsistence while international agricultural production and transport become increasingly more competitive on the British market.
The annual profit of a farm of thirty acres is about £650 a year. A farmer can make more if he is in a position to specialise in a crop with a high profit rate. This is possible for farmers of sugar-beet or market farmers near Dublin or for farmers under contract to Erin Foods. Other small farmers have to depend on dairy farming.
It can be seen that small farmers are not wealthy.There is usually no possibility of multiple wage earning by a family even though the Department of Agriculture bas admitted that a small farm is only capable at best of fully employing two people. But even if this annual income is small other factors must be considered. Firstly the income of a farm is re-invested by an enterprising farmer. Cattle farming requires a heavy investment since cattle while profitable are expensive. This is also one investment which requires investment in winter feeding stuff to supplement locally grown hay. To qualify forimprovement grants this investment must be undertaken every year.
Insecurity, poverty and debt
A farm of thirty acres in saleable terms can be worth at least £15,000 but the family working it, at an ordinary rate of efficiency, can be living in relative insecurity, poverty and debt. This problem becomes worse when farms drop below thirty acres. A farmer of twcnty acres has to invest heavily in winter feeding if he wishes to make any profit from his. farm. Also in order to make full use of state loans he has to choose between improvements to his house and his farm since he could not possibly pay both back, and in some counties loans for farm improvements are given on considerably more attractivc terms than are grants for house improvements.
Small farmers have no spare money. This entails an acute shortage in consumer goods. The amount of cash available as such is not sufficient to purchase anything except food and rough clothing which is necessary for the work of the farm.
Thirty-eight per cent of farms are owned by pcople over the age of sixtyfive. As the size of the farm decreases this averagc increases. This is due to a number of factors. A farm of under twcnty acres can only gainfully employ onc person and cannot maintain any other male members at a subsistcnce level. The decrease of males in farms under fifteen acres is over twice that of fcmales, in farms over fifteen and under thirty acres the decrease of males is one half higher, but in farms of over thirty acres the decreasc of females is greater. In small farms the usual family grouping is of two aged owners and of female dependents looking after the house and helping during the summer on the farm.
Aged small farmers
The problcm of agcd small farmers has further ramifications. Many farms lose their male workers and then rapidly lose their productivity as the holder feels the onset of old age. His necds, by this time, are minimal and farmland is allowed to degenerate. This creates a poverty-stricken existence for female dependents and occasional mentally h:mdicapped or unenterprising male dependents who need better nutrition content and more entertainmcnt than their parents. The efforts of the Government to affect this problem have been weak. Their latest feeble attempt to do something is their pension scheme for aged holders which has becn taken up by nineteen farmers out of about 120,000.
Government subsidies for such families havc also had the effect of demoralising people needlessly. The unemployment bencfit is only given to dcpendents if they are totally unemployed which further chains the dependents to the farm and forces them not to consider themselves as useful contributors to the farm.
As a farmer gets older he increasingly relies on grazing as it depends less on heavy labour.This depreciates his stock of cattle since he has no winter feeding stuffs. The quality of the land which is worse in congested counties such as Doncgal, Mayo and Kerry deteriorates even further with lack of attention which further lowers the farm income.
Such deterioration can reach extrcme stages. With the emigration of a whole family contact with outside sources diminish and frequently death of agcd people in rural areas is due to exposure, complicated by malnutrition and bronchitic conditions nurtured in bad housing conditions. The State does very little about this since it operates a static welfare system and if a farmer has no traditional contacts with the welfare peoplc (which is probable for a farm owner) he will be ignored. There are regular cases of peoplc being found sevcral weeks after their death in rural areas and clearly travelling wclfare officcrs are absolutely essential.
Even though cases of extreme poverty do not occur frequently, a form of social poverty does. Sincc farmers have little readily expendable income there is little social life for farmer's families. An average working class youth under twenty-one spends three times as much on entertainment than does his rural counterpart. Working class females spend more than five times as much. Thcrc is an acute shortage of social life in somc rural areas. \Vith the breakdown of local communities the amount of expendable money available has failed to attract alternative social activities. Thus there is a lack of money, and a lack of outlets for what money there is in rural areas.
This problem is exacerbated by the gerontocracy which reigns in the land. The sole controller of the family's finances tends to be unsynpathetic to expenditure of money on any social activity which has arisen in the last thirty YCJrs.
The plight of women
The lack of women in rural areas has causcd an imbalance in population between men and women which considerably adds to the social problems of rural Ireland. Before the holder of a farm dies the heir may be in his late middle age. Bcfore this he could have had no opportunity to marry and on coming to his estate has little possibility of finding a woman. This flight of women from the land is caused by the lack of employment for them and their unsuitability for heavy, manual farm labour. But it is also caused by the open exploitation of women by small farmers. Even on a relatively large farm, life for a woman is not too attractive. She is employed as temporary labour in the summer, has to keep an unsuitablc house clean and has little social life. Furthermore even though rural women marry late they have more children than women who marry in urban areas. Women in rural areas who marry between 35 and 40 have an average of 2.5 children. If they marry earlier in their thirties they have an average of almost four children, while if they marry in their late twenties they have an average of five children. This means that women have a dreary life and in their middle age are still burdened with the problems of rearing children.
Therc arc few labourers but equally thcre are few employers. The rural labourer works for quite wealthy farmers, but is not organised in trade unions and the government has been recalcitrant in stipulating an adequate minimum wage.
The average wage for agricultural labourers in Leinster is about £10 per wcek. In other areas it is slightly less. This average is only slightly higher than the minimum wage of £9/10/0. Young labourers are genuinely exploited. They arc often migratory labourers from small farms and earn an average wage of £6 per week. Sometimes they earn as little as £4 a week for very heavy labour. It is difficult, however, to asccrtain how exploited this group are. Many receive free houses and own land of one to five acres and may only receive a few pounds a week. He is, however, always a tied man and cannot at any stage break the contract with his master without losing his land and his wages.
It is difficult to sce how family life can be radicaUy altered on small farms. Such farms due to mechanisation givc less employment than hitherto. There is no prospect of them becoming economically buoyant even if they remain viable. The Buchanan Report while it is aimed chiefly at creating large centres of profitable labour does offer some hope. Large industrial towns on a diffused basis would supply a source for seasonal labour. They would offer unfavourably to discipline and order, and vagrants are brutalised by the conditions they must endure. They are too well acquainted with hunger, cold and loneliness to be otherwise. Their way of life and the sole consolation for it, drink, ensure that they are unable to better their condition. Their position is peculiarly self-defeating. The availability of cheap wine or meths make the wino-the alcoholic vagrant-insensible to the physical and mental debilitation he is undergoing.
Long nights spent in cold doorways or rat-infested abandoned houses are too destructive of even the sturdiest of constitutions for there to be much hope of integrating the vagrant intO society. Rheumatism and arthritis are contracted easily, and the numbers of crippled, deformed vagrants that may be flushed out of demolition sites are evidence of the kind of lives they lead.
Vagrants are also more susceptible to police activity. The variety of charges that vagrants lay themselves open to by their manner of livingvagrancy, loitering with intent, mendicity, causing a nuisance-and their need to resort to petty thieving, only secure their isolation and continued impoverishment.
In terms of vagrancy Ireland has a dismal record.The extensive social displacement that has been inflicted on succeeding generations of Irish families has increased the likelihood of vagrancy amongst them and the less competent have fallen by the wayside. No one knows how many vagrants there are in Ireland. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which is one of the most active organisations in this field, believes that there are in the region of 1,000 homeless men sleeping rough in Dublin each night. These would by no means all be vagrants, and the process of natural selection probably ensures that for the majority their ill-fortune is transitOry.
Larry Masterson, head of the Simon Community, another organisation which deals extensively with these people, estimates that in Dublin there are in the region of two to three hundred vagrants a night in winter, five hundred or so in summer. Of these, he guesses a quarter or so to be of such serious social inadequacy that the problem cannot be measured in just material need.
It has been impossible to get any figures for the rest of the country. One can make reasonably informed guesses, but they are in fact no more than that. There are, unquestionably, many hundreds of vagrants. The inability of the Gardai to estimate how many prisoners they had last year of no fixed abode removes one likely means of estimation.
Vagrants: our response
There are a variety of organisations which give some kind of assistance to vagrants. The normal agencies of of government-sponsored welfare are largely helpless when dealing with people that only live on the periphery of society.Most of the voluntary organisations expect the vagrants to come to them for assistance, and large numbers do. There are various charitably sponsored hostels in Dublin to deal with such vagrants, varying from the Iveagh Hostel, which deals with merely homeless men and the class of' vagrants reconciled to institutional existence, to the St. Vincent de Paul Night Shelter and the Legion of Mary Morning Star Hostel.
St. Vincent de Paul's Night Shelter in the year up to August 1968, gave accommodation to 28,602 guests, and provided 73,000 meals. There are 100 beds in the hostel, but during the summer time the hostel is empty. There is no charge, but guests can only stay a fortnight, after which time they must leave.This means that during the summer months, the hostel is considerably under-employed. The hostel only provides relief from extremes of hardship, and necessarily is restricted in its ability to actually help. The principle which the society has successfully maintained of allowing free accommodation and free meals to vagrants is one that has made this hostel for more popular amongst the vagrant class than any other.
The Morning Star hostel works on the assumption that the men it helps are recipients of government assistance. Quite obviously this does not apply to a large section of the vagrant community. As the Legion of Mary itself claims" The Morning Star provides accommodation comprising supper, bed and breakfast at a charge of 3/6 per night for homeless men who are for the most part not fit for the ordinary labour market and live on allowances such as Home Assistance, Disabled Person Allowance and Unemployment Assistance." Whilst the Legion deals with men who genuinely need assistance, it is not specifically associated with vagrancy. It claims that it never turns a man away. There are elements of regimentation essential to any such community which are unpopular amongst men used to the freedom of the streets. Of the 150, or if necessary, 200 men it can handle, a sizeable proportion will be recognisably vagrant, but the nature of their problem runs beyond the prospect of a bed at night.
The Legion of Mary also runs two hostels in Dublin for women, the Regina Coeli and the Sancta Maria. The former has 120 resident adults, forty children. The cost is 3/6 a day for bed, breakfast, dinner and supper, and the circumstances of the women vary considerably. The two main categories are unmarried mothers and homeless women" in varying degrees of distress." This does not, then, deal specifically with vagrants, but it is possible that vagrants are included. The other hostel, the Sancta Maria, does deal with vagrant prostitutes and other women in need of assistance, but the Legion refused to disclose any information about it.
The group that such hostels are particularly meant to cater for, prostitutes, are scornful of the Legion hostels, and of the religious evangelism in them. In this respect, at least, the Legion are not successful. Nor can they be expected to be, with more grace than professionalism on their side.
A rather more opulent organisation is the Iveagh hostel, which, at a charge 46 of 5/9 a night is almost beyond the vagrancy bracket. Meals are extra. Vagrants may go here, but mainly homeless old men use the hostel more than the absolutely destitute.
Two notable organisationsaside from religious orders - arrange for the distribution of food to the destitute. The more established-and the largest-is the Catholic Social Service Conference, which last year provided 2,460,869 meals for its twentytwo centres. The Conference is concerned with all kinds of poverty, and consequently does not divide into types the recipients of the assistance it gives.It gave 90,473 special meals, for example, and 85,096 pints of milk for a daily average of 390 mothers on its assistance rolls. These would not be vagrants, but it does indicate the type of work the conference does. The fact that 6,742 meals a day were distributed shows that in the mass of deprivation that characterises large sections of the Irish population, the vagrants are numerically small. It is impossible to calculate how many free meals were given by religious orders.
The second group, almost totally concerned with vagrants, is the Simon Community. It has a soup run in Dublin, which it serves by going round to the known centres where vagrants sleep, providing them with soup and bread. The help it can give is limited. Its members are mostly university undergraduates, although they have had the gratifying experience of having vagrants assist them in the distribution of their soup. The Simon Community is still in its nascent stages, and any judgement on its success--or otherwise-would be premature. However, they do recognise that large numbers of vagrants may only be helped by assistance being actually brought to them, rather than to allow them to voluntarily exploit facilities that are made available.
Vagrancy in Britain
However, the picture is incomplete without reference to England. Anton Wallich-Clifford, head of the Simon Community in England, believes that some forty per cent of vagrants in England are Irish. The next largest percentage is Scots: the smallest, English. Similarly, the highest percentage of Britain's law-breakers are Irish. Seventy-seven per cent of all vagrants are Catholic, which probably means that not merely is Ireland producing first-generation vagrants, but Britons born of Irish stock have a greater tendency to vagrancy than those of English sr.:>ck. The causes for this of course are not racial but social, since Irish families until quite recently have formed the very lowest socioeconomic group in Britain. The high percentage of Scots and Irish does re-emphasise the importance of social displacement in the production of vagrancy.
Wallich-Clifford believes that the majority of alcoholic-vagrants are Irish, and that eighty per cent of the recidivistic prisoners, the majority of whom again are Irish, are of no fixed abode. This only substantiates the corelation drawn earlier between petty crime and vagrancy, and presumably this obtains as much in Ireland as it does in England. It is as difficult to assess the numbers of vagrants in Britain as it is in Ireland, and WallichClifford is very critical of figures which he believes dramatise unnecessarily a position that he considers already bad enough. Although claims are made for ten times this number he believes there are some 13,500 vagrants in Britain and about five hundred in London. These, of course, would not be transitory down-and-outs or dossers, but hard core vagrants. There are then, by his figures, five and a half thousand Irish vagrants in Britain. The more spectacular estimates that are conjured up by other sourcesincluding the Salvation Army-would inevitably increase the Irish numbers, and if a looser definition of vagrancy is used, then Wallich-Clifford's numbers must fall very short. The four hundred thousand social inadequates that the Salvation Army reckons lives in Britain would necessarily not possess the attributes peculiar to the vagrant, but such a number may be considered to be living in the distress that is a possible prelude to irretrievable vagrancy. The most disturbing aspect of British vagrancy is that a considerable majority of young vagrants are Irish. This could mean that conditions which cultivate vagrancypotential are being reduced elsewhere, but not, apparently, here.
The weaknesses of vagrants are unattractive. They may drink methylated spirits, petrol, embalming fluid, even take boot polish, for a mental escape from the harshness of their condition. Their failings ensure that they do not live far beyond the line of survival, and their isolation renders them as incapable of enjoying any provision made for their betterment as they were of preventing their decline The problem is psychological and social, and while the mechanics of modern society do not allow for the heterodoxy of the inadequate, it is a problem that will endure.