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1838 in Ireland

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Events from the year 1838 in Ireland.

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  • ✪ Deaf People and the Irish Poor Law, 1838-1920: Issues and Themes in Historical Research
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  • ✪ 31st December 1759: Arthur Guinness signs a 9,000 year lease for St. James's Gate Brewery


I want to start off by thanking the Irish Deaf Research Network for the opportunity to present today. I begin with one of the most well known images of an Irish workhouse, depicting the entrance gates, at the height of the Irish Famine. To me, this represents what most Irish people immediately envisage when they think of a workhouse, but it also represents a particular time in a particular situated context - - in this case 1840s Ireland at a time of hunger, death, and despair. Such images can lead us to conclusions that are misleading about the totality and overall nature of this institution around the country over the 80 years it was in existence, and assumptions about deaf people's experiences in workhouses can be similarly misleading. So this is what I'll be focusing on in my presentation. There is a historiography from the UK and Ireland on financial and structural relationships between boards of guardians and deaf schools. This is also a focus within my PhD work, but for my presentation today I want to talk more specifically about the experiences of deaf paupers who spent time in the workhouses. Before we begin, we must be conscious that the workhouse system and the nature of poor relief, as begun in 1838, did not remain static. Workhouse functions, the composition of their population, how long paupers stayed there, the reasons why they entered - all these things shifted and developed over the decades, and this effects our study of deaf paupers. We must also bear in mind that the system saw in practice a lot of decentralization, with each local board exercising a great deal of autonomy, often clashing with the central government body - the Poor Law Commissioners or the Local Government Board - that oversaw the system, and this enabled regional differences to evolve in how the Poor Laws were administered. So here are some basic facts about the workhouse system. The core tenet of the system was 'less eligibility'; this idea intended that conditions in the workhouse would be comparatively worse than conditions for any paid work outside, to dissuade people from entering, and persuade them to seek employment. We must hold on to this fact; workhouses did not scoop up people, just for the sake of incarceration. For one thing, this would be far too expensive. The Poor Law Guardians were an elected body. The workhouses were funded by a public local tax - the poor rate, and so Guardians wanted to economize wherever possible, to be less of a burden on the local ratepayers, and get reelected. However the Great Famine severely tested this entire system to breaking point. There were massive mortality rates and overcrowding in the workhouses. However, after the Famine, numbers entering the workhouses dropped and became far more manageable, and the institution changed and evolved going forward. So how did the workhouses change? Post-Famine we see workhouse populations with much higher proportions of the elderly, the sick, and people with disabilities (including deaf people). There was also a large proportion of admissions of homeless 'casuals' who wanted shelter for the night; Boards of Guardians, through new legislation, began to take on more of a role in public health. They established a medical dispensary system, local infirmaries and workhouse hospitals, which eventually would become free for poor people to use. There is a quite limited historiography on the experience of deaf people in workhouses, and very few of the authors that do write about the topic use primary sources. As a result there are some myths that I see being expressed or assumed about this topic, that I feel are necessary to challenge - for example the myth that deaf people were 'sent to', 'committed', or forced to be in workhouses. However, this isn't the case at all. Put simply, nobody was 'sent' to a workhouse in Ireland. In order to be admitted to the workhouse, you had to apply. The Board of Guardians would quiz you, almost like an interview, and people were often turned away. Once you were admitted to the workhouse, if you gave the authorities 3 hours notice, you could leave again. Even this represents harshness, painting all Victorian institutions with the same brush of oppressive Foucauldian 'discipline' can sometimes obscure, rather than illuminate, the richness that workhouse records can represent for the historian. These factors challenge notions of the workhouse as being yet another type of coercive 'total institution' like prisons or mental hospitals. Another myth - that deaf people were in workhouses just 'because they were deaf'. This is sometimes assumed and even stated in deaf historiography, but has no basis in fact. Deaf people, like hearing people, entered the workhouse themselves, for a wide variety of reasons, including those that are shown here. Here is an 1847 legal provision specifically allowing for people with disabilities (including deaf people), the elderly and other groups to receive 'outdoor relief' in the form of money or food, rather than having to come into the workhouse. Given this, I argue that being aware of historical context makes the study of deaf paupers more interesting; bringing deaf lives to the surface in a broader sense, as we explore their agency in entering, negotiating, surviving within, and leaving the workhouse. However, none of this takes away from the fact that some deaf paupers, left with no position, employment, family or institutional support outside the workhouse, could remain within, sometimes for decades, as we shall see. The actual numbers of 'deaf and dumb' paupers in workhouses were always rather small, but what is interesting to look at is how many deaf people were in workhouses out of the entire deaf population of Ireland as a whole, and compare this to the proportion of the general population that were in workhouses. As we can see here from these early census figures, a far greater percentage of the deaf population were in workhouses compared to the population in general. You can see the death percentage here in red, and in fact, as you can see in these early years, this became more, and not less, pronounced. Early campaigners for deaf education would often point out the number of uneducated deaf people who ended up in the work houses; they stated clearly that giving deaf children education would equip them with skills to enable them to support themselves, and thus in future prevent them from having to enter the workhouse and being 'a burden on the rates' which was a phrase that was used quite often. As the number of deaf schools and educated deaf people rose, we might expect to see the proportion of educated deaf people in the workhouse remaining low, and that deaf people in the workhouse would mostly be uneducated. But as we can see, the percentage of educated deaf workhouse inmates increased in this early period. This may partially have been a side effect of the numbers of deaf people who received an education, but it does show that simply receiving an education was not a guarantee for a deaf person that they would not at some point need the workhouse. As we can see from these figures extracted from the 1901 online Census of Ireland, the proportion had in actual fact increased by 1901 to almost 50% of the Deaf inmates of the workhouse. Put simply, by 1901 a deaf person in the workhouse was almost as likely to have gone to school as not. However, we should remember the changing function of the workhouse through this period. By this time, in 1901, a major function of the workhouse was to provide free hospital and medical care. In fact, of the 103 deaf inmates identified in the 1901 Census in workhouses, one-third of them - 33 - were actually in the workhouse hospitals. Therefore, they were not necessarily inmates of the workhouse because of dire poverty or homelessness. One pattern that we do see is deaf people who spent many years in a workhouse, and often died there. You can see an example from Ireland here. It is worth mentioning that this was not simply the case in Ireland; an 1861 Parliamentary report looked at paupers in English and Welsh workhouses who had been there over five years. The report lists details of over 230 deaf inmates, with one woman - Martha Tonks - having spent 55 years in the Bermondsey workhouse. However there are other distinct patterns of admission to be seen - among them deaf people who entered the workhouse for a short time, but repeatedly, and sometimes over many years. Here is one example. Here is another example - this time the admissions take place over a period of 35 years. In Bessie's story, we see how the Deaf experience of the workhouse could be strongly gendered, and I have located several deaf women who had children in workhouses while unmarried. We can talk briefly also about how the Poor Laws' effects on deaf people were regional in nature. The work of historians such as all Olwen Purdue and Mel Cousins, among others, has looked at how poor relief and workhouse care in Ireland could differ from region to region. If we look here at this graph, showing admissions to St. Mary's and St. Joseph's schools in Cabra's first 30 or so years, and how many pupils fees were paid by boards of guardians, we can see a regional dimension. This graph illustrates how generous the guardians were in unions, by each province, in paying for deaf Catholic children to go to Cabra - and as we can see, Ulster guardians were markedly less generous in this aspect of relief. These are some of the primary sources I'm examining, but one major concern is identifying the population or community or cultural group that we want to study within these sources. Obviously we're all familiar with the cultural model, the 'capital D' Deaf community, that Deaf studies takes as its primary focus of inquiry. At a basic level, it is the members of this group - in the mid-19th to early 20th century - that we want to look at; but does an Irish deaf 'capital-D' community exist in this period? Until the turn of the century, according to the Irish census, most 'deaf and dumb' people were uneducated, and would not have shared a common deaf schooling experience. What of the nature of Ireland as an overwhelmingly rural country? Can we assume a deaf community existed anywhere outside Dublin or Belfast, or perhaps Cork and Limerick, in such a rural nation, where the numbers simply did not exist to support it? This leads to difficulties; who is it that we are looking for? This has led me to propose a very rough, inelegant description of the individuals that I want to look at, which we can see here. However, in practice, matching this with how labels, descriptions and terminology for such people were used in the period were looking at, becomes complex. When we look at the primary sources, the terms used in this period of Irish history to describe members of our target group can pose problems - and also please note that these terms are often considered extremely offensive today, which adds another layer of complexity complexity to these discussions. Let's look at the terms in turn. 'Deaf and dumb' - this term was of course widespread, and commonly understood, but it did not necessarily refer to refer to signing ability. The phrase 'deaf mute' was used in a similar way as 'deaf and dumb', and there are some indications that it was preferred by deaf people themselves, rather than 'deaf and dumb', and Graham O'Shea mentions this in his work. The word 'Dummy' was a frequently used colloquial shorthand in Ireland for 'deaf and dumb', although it was also used in official records well into the late 20th century, especially outside Dublin and Ulster. However there are indications that this word did not refer exclusively to 'deaf and dumb' people, but also on occasion, people who could not speak, but could hear. The word 'dumb' on its own is a complex term. It did not always mean dumb only; it often referred to people who were 'deaf and dumb.' In my research, I find this term so commonly used to refer to my target group members, that any individual that I find described as simply 'dumb' I include in my study - unless I find other information specifically mentioning that they are able also to hear. And finally the word 'deaf'. We see people often being described simply as 'deaf' in the sources. However upon further investigation, this almost never matches our own conception of a culturally Deaf person. Almost always, someone described as 'deaf' in this period will be hard-of-hearing or late-deafened. ironically enough, this is the one category we could safely exclude from consideration, if we only wanted to look at users of a sign language. However, exceptions always remain. What complicates matters even further is how individual deaf workhouse inmates, prisoners or patients were described over time and across different institutions in wildly different ways, covering all the labels we have discussed and others. Someone described as 'deaf and dumb' in the 1901 Census may be described simply as 'dumb' in 1911. In fact, even if we wanted to rely on a unifying feature such as a common deaf school experience, there is still variance and complexity. Take the 1911 Census and St Mary's Deaf School in Dublin for example. Most child and adult pupils in St. Mary's on the 1911 Census return were described as 'deaf and dumb'. However there were also numbers of pupils that could hear and could speak, also listed. Annelise Kusters, Dai O'Brien and Maartje de Meulder raise the possible anachronism of using 'Deaf' as a label when looking at deaf history; they propose a more inclusive use, generally speaking, in Deaf studies, of 'deaf' to describe physical characteristics, and then adding elements to this such as the phrase 'deaf signers'. Use of techniques like this may offer a way to describe my target group that is as inclusive as it needs to be. It is still complicated however by the fact that the source is used typically are vague about whether a person is or is not a signer, and what form of sign language they used. Let's now see an example of this varying use of labels and descriptions, and what it might tell us about how deaf people were conceptualized. Here we have some details about a Cork deaf pauper named John Reilly, and I'm indebted to Graham O'Shea for his assistance with this data. Let's have a closer look at what indoor relief registers for the Kinsale workhouse actually record about Reilly. Reilly's deafness and ability to speak is recorded in different ways in the register books for the workhouse. There are two different columns used to record this information: one for 'disability' of the paupers, and the other column is for more general 'observations.' Many entries for John Reilly did not mention his deafness or ability to speak at all, but we can be reasonably sure that these entries are for the same individual - matching age, address and so on. His deafness and inability to speak is not recorded consistently, as we can see. A total of about 25% of entries for John mention his deafness or inability to speak; they mentioned this in the 'disabilities' column of the register books. But we can also see a larger proportion - 38% - of entries for John recording him as 'able', for able-bodied. 24 percent of entries for John mention 'able' but mention his deafness - in the 'observations' column. So Reilly, a deaf signing pauper, is viewed, described, conceptualized and recorded by workhouse clerks in a number of different ways over the years. Significantly he's often categorized as 'able-bodied', while happening to be a non-speaking signing person. Now perhaps clerks were overworked or felt the information unnecessary to record each time, but I still find this inconsistency interesting. Deaf signing paupers were possibly somewhat of an in-between category for poor law authorities - not quite 'disabled' enough to not be able bodied, and certainly described in this case as a 'dumby' - but not 'disabled' in the sense that poor law authorities might have formally defined it at this time. That deaf inmates may not have been viewed as fully 'disabled', and sometimes as able-bodied, is somewhat borne out by the fact that deaf inmates in workhouses were sometimes given unofficial jobs around the house. Often they would be placed in charge of inmates with intellectual disabilities, for example. Deaf women are also mentioned as being nursing assistants, although towards the end of the 19th century, workhouses moved away from using non-trained medical staff. Board of Guardians newspaper reports often mentioned the praise that some Guardians had for deaf inmates, and praised them for their usefulness; however in the same breath, Guardians could also make fun of them. Cases of deaf paupers being given menial work that others would not do, can also be found. A major theme coming out of my research into this topic is, perhaps obviously communication. We see deaf applicants to the workhouse write notes to the Guardians, as well as signing and gesturing in order to be admitted. We also read accounts of disciplinary hearings where deaf paupers with no interpreter or unable to read or write, could not plead their case. We see glimpses of what medical care was like for deaf inmates when communication was hampered. One exciting aspect of newspaper coverage is that letters and notes from deaf paupers to Boards of Guardians or the Local Government Board are often read out at meetings and printed in newspapers in full. This gives us a window not just into literacy levels, but the voices and experiences of deaf paupers themselves. There is little indication that deaf inmates were more violent than their hearing counterparts, but we do see examples of rule breaking and violent behavior, often punished by the workhouse master by withholding food, or placing them in a cell for up to 24 hours. More serious infractions could lead to a court hearing and a prison sentence. However in cases such as these we very rarely find out the deaf inmates side of the story, and it seems that they were able to communicate it very infrequently in any case. Intellectual disability and mental health issues arise quite often in the sources. Deaf inmates were often placed in the so called 'idiot ward' of the workhouse, and sometimes behaved violently towards inmates and staff. They could be committed to the local lunatic asylum but would often be sent back as 'not insane'. This was common - shunting of 'problematic' deaf individuals from institution to institution, including deaf schools, prisons, asylums, but more often than not, back to the workhouse again as a fallback solution. Olwyn Perdue points out that women with illegitimate children, or pregnant outside marriage, could use the workhouse as a place of refuge. As we have seen with Bessie Beers, deaf women could also take advantage of this. But other gendered aspects of the workhouse experience placed deaf female paupers in a uniquely vulnerable position. Many cases can be found where they became pregnant while inmates of the institution, with accusations from other inmates - or themselves made through sign or gesture - - that a workhouse staff member such as the master, schoolteacher, porter etc. was the father. This could be highly scandalous to the local community, and sometimes warranted an investigation by the Poor Law authorities. But ultimately in most cases evidence from deaf women in these inquiries was either impossible to obtain due to illiteracy, or lack of an interpreter - or their evidence was not accepted as valid by inspectors. Thank you!






  1. ^ "Steamship Curaçao". Archived from the original on 24 December 2010. Retrieved 2011-02-02.
  2. ^ Moody, T. W.; Martin, F. X., eds. (1967). The Course of Irish History. Cork: Mercier Press. p. 375.
  3. ^ Augustus Burke – Artnet
  4. ^ ABERCORN: James Hamilton[permanent dead link]
  5. ^ Thomas Drew – Dictionary of Irish Architects
  6. ^ thePeerage
This page was last edited on 18 September 2019, at 16:32
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