Maurice Earls writes: Dublin’s Mendicity Institution recently celebrated its two-hundredth anniversary. Two centuries of assisting Dublin’s poor is certainly a worthy and commendable record. The institution, long known to its clients as “the Mendo”, was established on Hawkins Street in 1818.
Hawkins was the man who built the restraining wall alongside the south side of the Liffey, a wall which pushed the river back from the walls of Trinity College and allowed for reclaimed land around D’Olier Street and Hawkins Street to be used for building.
Part of the east side of Hawkins Sreet, it seems, was first used as a meat market. The Dublin Society, which became the Royal Dublin Society in 1820, succeeded the market and later the Mendicity Institution, which leased from the Dublin Society, took up occupation and stayed in the society building for a few years before settling at Usher’s Island. The current home of the Mendo is Island Street in Dublin’s Liberties. In 1822 the Royal Theatre opened on the same Hawkins Street site. Audrey Woods, the historian of the Mendicity Institution, tells us that on the opening night of the theatre a verse was read which told the history of the site.
Here once a market reared its busy head,
Where sheep, instead of tragic heroes, bled,
Soon Science came; his steel the butcher drops,
And Learning triumphed over mutton chops!
Again the scene was changed by Wisdom’s rule,
Want’s refuge then succeeded Learning’s School,
No more in streets the shivering beggar stood,
Vice found correction here and Famine food,
Morality rejoiced at Sloth’s defeat
And pity smiled to see the hungry eat.
The founding of the institution was prompted by the side effects of a major historical occurrence, one which was to shape both the city and indeed the entire country over the following 150 years. That epochal phenomenon was the collapse of the labour-intensive rural economy and its replacement with a model supporting only a fraction of the peasant numbers which had previously lived off agriculture.
The rural economy of the poor, along with the culture and society of the peasantry, began to collapse with the ending of the Napoleonic wars. The wartime agricultural boom evaporated; bad winters didn’t help but the most important factor was the ending of the European blockade which opened up a source of high-quality wheat from Eastern Europe, coming from areas which today would correspond to eastern Poland and Ukraine. Travellers today to towns along the Vistula, which carried the wheat to the Baltic coast, can see the remains of giant nineteenth century grain storehouses along the river. Following the defeat of the French, this grain made its way to Britain.
As one can imagine, more moist Irish grain was not in a position to compete and the growing industrial towns in England decided that Ireland would henceforth serve only as a source for meat, dairy products and, sometimes, labour. The subsequent shift from grain to pasture worked out quite well for those higher up the economic pyramid. But for the large and rapidly growing numbers near the pyramid’s base it was a disaster. Compared with tillage, cattle-rearing required very little labour. Moreover, successful cattle-rearing required extensive tracts of land, uncluttered with micro-holdings. Pursuing their economic interests, landlords began to push the peasantry off the land, thus beginning a process of disruption which would, within a few decades, lead to the dramatic population decline of the famine years and thereafter to a pattern of decline that was to last until the mid-1960s.
Many of the displaced rural poor of early nineteenth century Ireland headed to Dublin. City leaders had always been concerned to prevent the rural poor from entering the city. That, after all, was one of the functions of the city’s walls. The walls came down and in the course of the eighteenth century the city did experience a problem with incoming beggars, but it was one which was mostly contained. However, the tide which followed the ending of the Napoleonic wars was of a different scale and was recognised across the city as a deluge which constituted a threat to the very life of the city. A visitor described the scene:
The city presented a spectacle, at once afflicting and disgusting to the feelings of its inhabitants, the doors of carriages and shops, to the interruption of business, were beset by crowds of unfortunate and clamorous beggars, exhibiting misery and decrepitude in a variety of forms, and frequently carrying about in their persons and garments the seeds of contagious disease; themselves the victims of idleness, their children were taught to depend on begging, as affording the only means of future subsistence; every artifice was resorted to by the practiced beggar to extort alms, and refusal was frequently followed by imprecations and threats. Mendicity developed a violent character … the benevolent were imposed upon – the modest shocked – the reflecting grieved – the timid alarmed. In short, so distressing was the whole scene, and so intolerable was the nuisance, that its suppression became a matter of necessity
The Mendicity Institution was founded to address what was a potentially existential challenge to the second city of the empire. The number of leading figures across the city and across the sectarian divide who supported the institution is evidence of the fear which this growing influx of beggars inspired among property owners.
At one level the approach of the establishment was entirely pragmatic and based on rigorous organisation and structures. On another, it was moralistic and ideological. The mission was to clear the throng of beggars off the street. To this end it was necessary to let them know their activities would not be tolerated. Notices were posted and distributed to individuals begging:
Friendly Notice to all Beggars
If you are found begging in the street after this notice, you will be taken up and punished under the law, therefore if you really have no other means of sustenance, go to the Mendicity Asylum, you will get work and food. If you are unable to work you will be supported and if you have children they will be clothed, fed and educated. Then why disgrace yourselves, or cruelly expose your children to misery and ruin by continuing to beg.
The relief offered to beggars was essentially employment and the means to order one’s life in order to get employment. The underlying belief appears to have been that mendicity was a moral disorder which could be dealt with by enforcing moral probity through a combination of threats and assistance. There was no consideration of the underlying socio economic currents which were displacing the rural poor.
It seems also there was a belief that the problem could be eliminated quite quickly. Rev WA Evanson delivered an optimistic sermon at the Bethesda Chapel on October 11th, 1818:
The Mendicity Institution has banished from the city those hordes of beggars who had flocked from the remotest parts of the island, to join the depredators upon public bounty, and to dissipate with still greater rapidity of effect the moral virus of Mendicity. It has purified the highways of our Metropolis from a noisome crowd of importunate and vicious supplicants, and we can now pursue our accustomed occupations without disturbing assaults on our feelings or our purses.
Evanson was of course overoptimistic; the arrival of beggars from the countryside continued and the abject squalor of Dublin’s poor and their living conditions continued to amaze visitors from continental Europe. Indeed, it was not until the 1930s that significant efforts were made to reduce the city’s infamous slums, widely regarded as the worst in Europe.
Property owners in Dublin quickly gave up on the dream that the problem of the begging hordes would be eliminated. From the 1830s there was an exodus of the better off from the city centre and its relatively recently built fine houses. Suburbs, including Ranelagh, Rathmines, Rathgar and other similar areas immediately outside the city were developed as exclusive quarters where the rich would not be constantly importuned and where residents were safe from cholera and other diseases carried by the poor. The Mendicity Institution, nevertheless, carried on its work of assisting the unemployed poor.
In practical terms the institution’s objective was to reduce begging to a manageable level, that is to a level that would not interfere with the city’s everyday business. It was not in the business of alms-giving and, in fact, at that stage of its existence disapproved of alms-giving.
The institution offered a systematic method of dealing with the super-abundant poor and, in order to achieve its objectives, it was crucial that no one would be allowed to game the system. Power and control had to reside with the institution. As a result, a detailed enquiry into the bona fides of every applicant was undertaken.
Sarah Smith was one beggar who applied to the Mendicity Institution in Hawkins street for help and what follows is the detail of the enquiry into her status and character. In each case a question is followed by the supplicant’s answer and then the institution’s view of that answer.
Opinion on answer: Apparently.
How long resident in Dublin?
Four years. Born in Belfast.
Believed to have been so.
Can procure none therefore begs.
Said by A.B. and C.D. to be unwilling to work as they offered her light work which she refused.
Capabilities of work?
Can spin and use her needle a little; could not do out-door work.
Believed, in point of strength to be fit for any work.
With what implements provided?
Has a wheel at the pawn-broker, pledged for 2s. 8d. Has some needles and thread.
Earnings per week?
Uncertain. Never more than 6d per day.
Is known to have collected half-a-crown by begging; is reported to spend more than 6d per day at the whiskey shop.
Rent per week?
True; lodges in a cellar. Seldom in during the day.
Husband/wife- how employed? And where?
Soldier in the 61st regt. West Indies.
Believed to be true.
Earnings of above?
His pay, never remits any.
No means of ascertaining this.
Number, age and sex of children?
Three, the eldest eight years old, a boy – two girls, one four, the other three years old.
The eldest girl borrowed from a fellow lodger to assist in BEGGING.
Employment of above?
Brought up to begging.
Appearance of above?
Ill-clad and sickly.
Purposely ill-clad but stout in appearance.
Relatives? Any Assistance from them?
Has some in country/county of Galway; give no assistance.
Recommend enquiry by letter, as it is supposed they are ignorant of her way of life.
Possible cause of poverty?
Want of work.
Never endeavoured to find it.
Lodging, when white-washed?
Does not know.
Lodges in a cellar, hardly any appearance of ever being white-washed.
Clean or otherwise?
Very dirty and damp.
Number of family residing at home?
Two families beside her own, in all ten people.
References for character?
To A.G. and A.C. in Bow-lane
Saw them; they know nothing of her, except that she has often presented petitions; believe her to be undeserving.
What aid from charitable sources?
None except from street-begging.
Believed to be true.
A.B. Committee of Investigation
Despite the belief that Smith was work-shy, that she daily spent a significant sum in the whiskey shop, had never sought paid work and understated her ability to work, it is interesting that she was given help. It was probably impossible to find morally upright beggars whose lives were beyond suspicion. Sarah Smith’s wheel was redeemed from the pawnbroker by the institution and she was given work spinning. Here was a route for her from abject to respectable poverty if she chose to take it, forgoing the whiskey shop and the anarchy and freedom of the streets.
Dublin Outsiders, A History of the Mendicity Institution 1818-2018, by Audrey Woods with Eimhin Walsh
Illustration: The Mendicity Institution today