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Poverty In Ireland Essay

Poverty and Poor Relief

1Throughout the nineteenth century, charity played an important role in supplementing an increasingly centralized and stringent system of state-run poor relief in the United Kingdom. Both private charity and government relief were premised on similar attitudes towards the poor and the causes of their poverty.  In general, the poor were deemed to be masters of theirown destiny, with poverty regarded as being a self-induced condition caused by laziness, improvidence and excessive reproduction.

2One of the most influential commentators on this topic was Thomas Malthus. The publication of his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 had provided a framework for discussing what were perceived to be the twin problems facing the United Kingdom – population growth and poverty.  In subsequent decades, the book (which went through many editions) provided an ideological prism through which British politicians and economists could discuss and debate various solutions to this seemingly intractable problem.1

3The Acts of Union of 1800, which had created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, meant that the newly enlarged parliament in Westminster assumed responsibility for welfare provision in Ireland. At the time of the Union, a major difference between Ireland and Britain was the lack of a national, state system of poor relief in the former. In Britain, state intervention in poor relief dated back to the sixteenth century. By the early nineteenth century, two distinct Poor Laws existed in Britain, one for England and Wales and one for Scotland, both of which recognized that the poor had a right to relief. After 1800, but more especially following the ending of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, a key question for the Westminster Parliament became whether a system of Poor Laws should be extended to Ireland. However, the relatively lax way in which the Poor Laws were administered in Britain was increasingly a source of concern to politicians and political economists.

4Indiscriminate poor relief, in Malthus’s eyes, perpetuated the cycle of excessive population growth and poverty, and, consequently, dependency. The ‘unreformed’ Poor Laws that were operative in England and Wales in the early nineteenth century, he argued, were too generous and ‘may be said therefore, to create the poor which they maintain’.2 To counter this, Malthus proposed a system of ‘less eligibility’, that is, that the relief provided and the circumstances in which it was provided had to be worse than what was available to the lowest level of independent labourer.3 Malthus died in 1834, the year that Poor Law Amendment Act (England and Wales) was introduced. Although a key objective was to make poor relief more regulated and more stringent, the right to relief remained.4

5At the same time that changes were taking place in the English and Welsh Poor Laws, attention was being given to the relief of poverty in Ireland and the need for a national system of poor relief. In 1833, the British government appointed a Royal Commission to investigate this issue, chaired by the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately, an eminent political economist. The Commission sat for three years during which time it carried out an exhaustive and detailed enquiry, which concluded that, for part of each year, two-and-a-half million Irish people lived in poverty. They recommended an imaginative system of public works and assisted emigration programmes to alleviate the situation.5 The government, alarmed by the implications of such extensive and expensive intervention, by-passed Whately’s report, instead appointing an English Poor Law Commissioner, George Nicholls, to travel to Ireland to judge if a Poor Law could be extended to the country. Following a six week tour of the south and west, Nicholls responded in the affirmative.6 Nicholls’s recommendations for a limited and centralized system of poor relief were welcomed by the Whig government. Consequently, on 31 July 1838, ‘An Act for the more Effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland’ became law.7 Although closely modeled on the amended English Poor Law of 1834, the Irish Poor Law contained three substantive differences. In Ireland, all relief had to be provided within a workhouse, with no outdoor assistance; there was no legal right to relief for the Irish poor; and there was no Irish Law of Settlement (which meant that paupers in England and Wales could only obtain assistance if they had established a ‘residency’ in the locality). The deterrent principle of less eligibility, as suggested by Malthus, underpinned both the amended English Poor Law of 1834, and the new Irish Poor Law of 1838.8

6The Irish Poor Law was implemented with impressive speed. The country was divided into 130 new administrative units, known as ‘unions’, each of which contained its own workhouse. By 1845, 118 of Ireland’s 130 workhouses were providing relief. These institutions were financed by a new local tax, the poor rate, thus placing the fiscal burden on local tax-payers and not the government. However, the catastrophe of the Famine not only exposed the limitations of these financial arrangements but also the limitations of the philosophies that under-pinned the operation of the workhouses.

7Although Malthus’s writings on Ireland were relatively sparse, frequently inconsistent, and even occasionally optimistic, they were often interpreted in a much cruder and more negative way. In regard to the Poor Laws, they were used as a crude barometer of poverty that deemed Ireland to be over-populated.More dangerously, during the Famine, Malthus’s teachings became a blunt blueprint for understanding the catastrophe and justifying the harsh policies and dogmatic attitudes of the British government.9However, if Ireland had been over-populated in 1845, a dramatic fall in population (it decreased by 50 per cent between 1841 and 1901) did not bring to an end either poverty or famine in Ireland. Nonetheless, Malthus’s influence continued long after the ending of the Irish Famine. Writing in 1988, historian Roy Foster judged the Irish Famine to be of less importance that the post-1816 economic slump, and referred to the tragedy as ‘a Malthusian apocalypse’.10 More recent scholarship, however, recognizes the complexity of the reasons for excess mortality, with political, rather than demographic, factors being a key cause.11

8Inevitably, the debates that were taking place regarding poor relief also spilled over into discussions on the role of charity and philanthropy in alleviating poverty. Charity, similar to poor relief, was based increasingly on a distinction between the deserving and un-deserving poor, the former being those who were capable of moral and social improvement if given assistance.12 Indiscriminate charity, it was agreed widely, did more harm than good.13 Consequently, most assistance was directed at those groups who were least able to help themselves - with children and the sick being at the forefront.

9Like poor relief, well-regulated charity was viewed by contemporaries as having a secondary purpose, it being a tool that could help to bring about not only the social improvement of the poor, but could also lead to social amelioration.14 Historians, however, have questioned this claim. Howard Wach, for example, suggests that charity not only reflected existing ‘hegemonic social relationships’, but helped to maintain these social divisions.15 In this way, he argues, charity consolidated middle-class hegemony.16 Ultimately, therefore, charity can be regarded as another form of political brokering among the elites, which fulfilled their own socio-economic needs, and not necessarily those of the poor.17Moreover, the charitable impulse and the theories that underpinned it extended beyond the borders of the United Kingdom, with British philanthropy becoming increasingly connected with the ‘civilizing mission’ that lay at the heart of the imperial project.18

10As was often the case, Ireland played a distinctive role within the United Kingdom, with both the official Poor Law and private charity reflecting national differences.19 Historian Margaret Preston has suggested that Irish philanthropy was also permeated by notions of race, religion and class, which deemed the Irish poor to be inferior to those elsewhere in the United Kingdom.20 The draconian Poor Law of 1838 helped to reinforce the idea that the Irish poor were less deserving than the poor elsewhere.21

11Irish philanthropy, inevitably, mirrored religious tensions in society, with many charitable organizations being controlled by a small elite group of middle class Protestant men. However, within private charity of all denominations, women, particularly unmarried women were prominent. As was the case elsewhere, Irish middle-class women ‘played a major role in providing charity to the poor and outcast’.22 Through this work, they gained an acceptable entrance from the home to society, giving them an influence beyond the domestic sphere. According to Frank Prochaska, ‘charity work did more than anything else to expand the horizons of women in the nineteenth century’.23 Much Irish philanthropy, however, was characterized by the same sectarian divides that permeated national and local politics.24 Interestingly, the involvement of women in Famine relief was unusual not only for its scale and diversity, but also because, for the most part, it cut across traditional religious divisions.25

12This chapter examines the largely un-examined role of private charity during a period of crisis for the Irish poor, that is, the Great Famine of 1845 to 1852. This brief overview provides some insights into the range of people who gave and their diverse motivations. It suggests that not only was this intervention unprecedented in terms of geographic range and the social, economic and religious diversity of those who gave, but that many of the ideological constraints generally present in giving charitable relief were subsumed beneath the more immediate desire to save lives.

Early Interventions

13Most of the charity given to Ireland was donated in the wake of the second, more devastating appearance of potato blight in 1846. Some money had been raised, however, in 1845, in response to what at that stage appeared to be a short term, if serious, crop failure. The donations came from two distant and distinct locations: Calcutta in India and Boston in the United States.

14News that blight had attacked the Irish potato crop first reached India in November 1845, although details about the extent of the loss were vague.26 Follow-up accounts in the local newspapers suggested (incorrectly) that over two-thirds of the crop had been destroyed. These accounts prompted English-born residents to organize a fund-raising committee.27 The Calcutta Committee was headed by Sir Lawrence Peel, an English judge, and Sir James Grant, an English Civil Servant, demonstrating that the fund-raising activities were not confined to people of Irish extraction. Although a number of Indians gave their support to the Calcutta Committee, membership was limited to British and Irish settlers.28 The Committee appealed to other Europeans and to the ‘native community’ to become involved in their philanthropic activities by making donations, making it clear that even the smallest amounts would be welcome.29 Donors cut across religious, ethnic and social divisions. They included soldiers (many of whom were Irish-born) serving in the British Army.30 A number of sepoys also gave.31 Donations from other Indians ranged from contributions from local (Hindu) princes, to ones made by some of the poorest groups in society. The latter included ‘Sirkars [book-keepers], Podars [book-keepers], Daitories, Peons Piyadus, [messenger or office boys or a native policeman], Burkhudasas, Coolies [unskilled labourers], Bheeties [water carriers] and Furrashes [carpet sweepers]. The donations from these poor Indians amounted to over 99 rupees.32

15To distribute the money raised in Calcutta, a sister committee was established in Dublin which, at the behest of the committee in India, included both Catholics and Protestants. Two of its most prominent members were Dennis Murray, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, and Richard Whately, the Anglican Archbishop. Throughout 1846, the Indian Fund distributed money in counties Galway, Limerick, Clare, Tipperary, King’s, Cork, Meath, Waterford, Mayo, Waterford, Kilkenny, Longford and Armagh.33 Most of the funding was issued directly to local parish priests, many of whom recorded their gratitude in the columns of the Irish newspapers.34

16Concurrently with the activities taking place in India, on the other side of the world, in Boston, money was also raised for Ireland, but the motivation and outcomes were very different. From the outset, relief efforts in this city were tied up with demands for Irish political independence, a committee being formed at the initiative of the local Repeal Association, who were supporters of the Irish nationalist, Daniel O’Connell.35 The Boston Repealers were led by American-born John W. James.36

17The motivations of the Boston committee were political. The food shortages in Ireland were cited as the most recent example of British misrule. At a meeting in early December, at which $750 was collected, one speaker claimed that due to ‘the fatal connection of Ireland with England, the rich grain harvests of the former country are carried off to pay an absentee government and an absentee propriety’.37 The fund-raising efforts were short-lived, however, drying up at the beginning of 1846 when it was suspected that reports of the distress had been exaggerated.38 Following the second failure of the potato crop, Boston became the centre of the New England Relief Committee, which was associated with the voyage of the relief ship, the Jamestown, in 1847.39

Quaker Relief

18Following the second and more virulent appearance of potato disease, a number of private relief organizations were formed with the intention of not simply raising money, but becoming directly involved in its distribution. The Society of Friends, or Quakers, were amongst the first to respond, despite the relative smallness of their communities in both Britain and Ireland. In the latter, they had approximately 3,000 members, but they were part of a worldwide community, which included many successful bankers and merchants, also engaged in philanthropy. Moreover, Quakers, together with Unitarians, were disproportionately prominent in the charitable world within the United Kingdom.40 The Quakers also had a reputation for involvement in campaigns for social justice (including the movement for the abolition of slavery),41 and they were respected widely because they did not seek to proselytize. During the earlier crop failures and subsistence crises of 1822 and in 1831, Quaker committees had been established in Ireland. In 1822, they had raised £300,000, two-thirds of which was used to provide immediate aid, the remainder being used for longer-term improvement projects.42 This pattern of intervention – trying to balance between the immediate and longer-term needs of the poor – was also evident after 1845.

19A number of Quaker communities in Ireland commenced providing food rations in the wake of the second potato failure. In Cork City, local Quakers had responded by opening a soup kitchen in the market. There, they installed a boiler capable of making 100 gallons of soup, a task that they planned to do daily for period of four months. The soup was to be made from, ‘the best description of beef, and good split peas’. Money for this purpose came from a combination of local donations from the public and monthly subscriptions from the Quaker community.43 Concurrently in Dublin, a small group of Quakers, concerned that the condition of the country was deteriorating and that the government’s public work schemes were inadequate to meet the demands for relief and to save people from dying, decided to respond in a more structured way. In mid-November 1846, Joseph Bewley convened a meeting in Dublin, which led to the establishment of a Central Relief Committee consisting of 21 members. Auxiliary committees were formed in Cork, Clonmel, Waterford and Limerick, which were also locations of Quaker communities.44 However, in areas where suffering was proving to be the most extreme, there were insufficient Quakers to form committees but a number of English and Irish Quakers volunteered to travel to those areas and establish relief networks. In general, these itinerant Quakers provided money for boilers and for soup - they recognizing that people needed immediate access to food. In keeping with their practical approach to giving relief, they also made provisions to provide the poor with much-needed fuel, medicine, bedding and clothing – items not provided by government relief.

20In addition to providing relief, the Quakers who travelled throughout Ireland after 1846 provided powerful eye-witness testimony as to the devastation and the wretchedness of the Irish poor. These first-hand accounts were an important counterpoint to the negative reports appearing in influential papers such as The Times and Punch, which were suggesting that the news of suffering had been deliberately exaggerated.45The Quakers’ reports in the newspapers provided an impetus for further charitable donations to be made. They also provided frank, and frequently critical, insights into the responses of the local landlords and the impact of British government policies. James Hack Tuke, a 26 year-old Quaker from Yorkshire in England, wrote a series of letters to the Dublin committee as he was travelling in the west of Ireland. Writing from north County Mayo he commented, ‘Human wretchedness seems concentrated in Erris; the culminating point of man’s physical degradation seems to have been reached in the Mullet’.46 He described the local people as ‘living skeletons’.47 Tuke published his experiences as a Visit to Connaught in 1847, which he had first sent as a letter to the committee in Dublin. In it, he gave an account of a number of heartless evictions by a local landowner, J. Walshe. Walshe retaliated by criticizing Tuke’s narrative and suggesting it was untruthful, which resulted in Tuke visiting the area again in 1848, to prove the veracity of his statements.48

21It was not just rural districts that were making claims on the Quakers. As was the case in any famine, food shortages put pressure on the towns and cities, as people swarmed into them looking for relief or employment, or a port from which to emigrate. Within Dublin itself, even before 1845, there was also widespread poverty and the potato failures increased the pressure on the city’s limited resources. The Quakers opened a number of soup kitchens, the main one being located near the centre of the city, at Charles Street, Upper Ormond Quay. Within days of commencing operations it was serving 1,000 quarts of soup a day. In March 1847, cooked rice was included on some days, due to the prevalence of disease; rice, it was believed, had beneficial medical effects.49 Following the opening of the government’s soup kitchens under the Temporary Relief Act in the late spring of 1847, the demand on private soup kitchens reduced drastically. However, a delay in official relief becoming available meant that the Quakers did not fully close their soup depots until July 1847.

22By 1848, Quaker funds were almost exhausted, reflecting the drying up of donations to Ireland following the (relatively blight-free) harvest of 1847. In August 1847 also, an extended Poor Law was introduced to Ireland which, for the first time, allowed for relief to be provided outside the confines of the workhouse. However, the fact that Poor Law relief was financed by local taxation put further stress on Irish resources, especially in areas where poverty was most extreme. Unfortunately, the potato blight returned to Ireland in 1848 and was most destructive in the west of the country. Clearly, the Famine was far from over as in both 1848 and 1849 the levels of eviction, emigration, disease and death – all indicators of extreme famine – changed little. Regardless of palpable suffering in Ireland, the British government publicly adhered to the principle that Ireland’s salvation depended on her being forced to rely on her own resources. Privately, however, the government appeared less certain. In June 1849, the recently knighted Charles Trevelyan (now Sir), the Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, wrote privately to the Quakers’ Committee in Dublin in which he acknowledged the ‘great distress which still prevailed’. To entice the Quakers to become involved again, Trevelyan offered them the derisory sum of £100 from Treasury funds. The response of the Friends was telling in terms of how they viewed responsibility for saving lives:

… after full deliberation we were of opinion that, in the event of undertaking the distribution of relief as heretofore, the sum which we could hope to collect would be utterly inadequate for such an object; that even if sufficient funds were placed at our disposal, we could no longer calculate on the assistance of many of our most efficient agents and correspondents, and that the relief of destitution, on an extended scale, should in future be entrusted to the arrangements which parliament had provided for that purpose.50

23When they ceased operations, the Dublin committee had received contributions in excess of £200,000. They had used this money to good effect. The Quakers were praised widely by contemporaries for their role in saving lives. Asenath Nicholson, an American relief giver who traversed Ireland in 1847 and 1848, witnessed the effectiveness of Quaker relief first hand. When visiting a Catholic convent in the west of Ireland, she observed how healthy the children looked, and was told, ‘The good Quakers … have kept them alive; all the clothes you see on them are sent through that channel.’51 The Dublin Freeman’s Journal praised not only the effectiveness of the relief given, but also actions of the men and women who had given their time so selflessly:

Their exertions have been taxed to the uttermost, involving a duty and responsibility such as never had been imposed on similarly constructed bodies in the history of the world... Testimonies of their promptitude and liberality have been afforded by all the representatives of local wretchedness; and it must be a consolation and a keen satisfaction to the minds of those gentlemen who have made such sacrifices of time and thought in the cause of charity, that their labours should be rewarded by the universal gratitude of their country.52

24The Quakers, however, paid a high personal price for what they had achieved in Ireland, with at least 13 of their members who had worked closely with the poor dying of ‘famine fever’ or ‘exhaustion’.53 Nonetheless, in the Transactions that were published in 1852, the Friends concluded that their interventions had not been a success.54 Such an admission was a melancholic reflection on the fact that, despite the tireless efforts of the Quakers and of other charitable organizations, and the generosity of those individuals who supported them, over a million people had died in Ireland.

25Although the Quakers had little direct involvement with the Irish poor after 1848, the impact of the Famine on Quakers who witnessed the misery and the death first-hand continued long after. The young James Hack Tuke, who had visited the remotest districts of County Mayo in 1846 and 1847, returned to Ireland during the Famine of 1879 to 1882. On the latter occasion, he implemented a well-financed emigration scheme, based on the lessons he had observed during the unregulated, and frequently deadly, exodus that he had observed in late 1840s.55

The British Relief Association

26While the contribution of the Society of Friends is generally acknowledged in the historiography of the Great Famine, the role of the British Relief Association has received relatively little scholarly attention. The latter organization, however, raised over double the amount of money donated to the Quakers, and it continued to provide relief in Ireland when other charitable bodies had left. Moreover, the agent employed by the British Relief Association, Count Paul de Strzelecki, proved to be an effective and popular champion of the starving Irish.56

27Although the idea of creating a fund-raising association based in London had first been mooted at the end of 1846, the first official meeting of the British Association for the Relief of Distress in Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland did not take place until 1 January 1847.57 As its name suggested, a portion of its funds (one-sixth) was to be used to help the Scottish poor in areas where the potato had also failed. The British Relief Association had largely been the idea of the successful Anglo-Jewish banker, Lionel de Rothschild, and he, together with his brother Meyer, played active roles in the day-to-day running of the committee. They were joined by some of the leading merchants and bankers in London, together with a small number of MPs. Their chairman was Samuel Jones-Loyd. At the first meeting of the Association, it was agreed that they would assist people who were beyond the reach of government aid and provide, ‘food, clothing and fuel, but in no case money … to the parties relieved’.58 However, as the extent of suffering in Ireland revealed itself, their approach became far more flexible, and money grants were sometimes given.

28What distinguished the Association from the other relief organizations operating in Ireland was that its members chose to work closely with the British government, in order to make the most efficient use of their resources. This arrangement proved to be particularly beneficial to government officials who, on numerous occasions, relied on the resources of the Association to financially support their own, inadequately funded, relief measures.59 Within only a few days of being established, the Association achieved a major publicity coup when it was informed that Queen Victoria was to give them a donation of £2,000. A few weeks later, the members were told that they were to be the beneficiary of the proceeds of a ‘Queen’s Letter’ that was to be read in Anglican churches in Britain, calling for prayer and donations for Ireland.60 In addition to receiving these donations, the Association proved successful in fund-raising not simply in the British Empire as initially expected, but throughout the world. In the year that followed its establishment, in the region of 15,000 individual donations were sent to the British Association, coming from all parts of the world and from diverse social and religious groups. In total, £470,000 was raised — far more than any other relief organization.

29The success of the Association was also due to the involvement and dedication of a man who had no direct connection with Ireland, but was Polish by birth. Count Strzelecki was an explorer and scientist who, since 1845, had been living in London. On 20 January 1847, according to the minutes of the Association, ‘a Polish gentleman of extensive travel had offered his personal services gratuitously to Ireland with a view of being useful to the committee’.61 The next day, Strzelecki’s offer was accepted and ‘the Secretary in informing Count Strzelecki himself, do thank him for his tender of service, and do write him to attend the committee tomorrow’.62 Following this meeting, Strzelecki immediately left for Dublin, in order to meet Sir Randolph Routh, chairman of the government’s Relief Commission. He then proceeded to counties Donegal, Mayo and Sligo where he had been asked to report on the condition of the population and to distribute a cargo of food on behalf of the Association.63 Strzelecki’s journey to the west of Ireland was not an easy one. The extreme weather of the winter of 1846-47 — a combination of snow, rain, hail, frost and bitter cold — hampered his movements. Undaunted though, when his carriage became stranded due to snow drifts, as occurred on a number of occasions, he proceeded to his destination on foot.64

30Count Strzelecki chose Westport in County Mayo as his base in Ireland. He immediately wrote to the committee in London:

No pen can describe the distress by which I am surrounded. It has actually reached such a degree of lamentable extreme that it becomes above the power of exaggeration and misapprehension. You may now believe anything which you hear and read, because what I actually see surpasses whatever I read of past and present calamities.65

31Despite never marrying or having a family of his own, Strzelecki felt particularly for the suffering of children. To ensure that they were direct beneficiaries of the Association’s relief, he pioneered a system of giving children who attended the local schools in Westport a suit of clothing and a daily meal. The scheme proved so successful that he extended it to the rest of County Mayo, and then to other distressed areas in the west. When, due to lack of funds, the project came to a close in the summer of 1847, over 200,000 children were being fed daily in this way.66

32Strzelecki’s role with the British Relief Association officially ended in 1848, but even after that time he continued to return to Ireland in a ‘trouble-shooter’ capacity. His compassion and generosity towards the poor were appreciated within Ireland:

Great credit is due to Count Strezelecki [sic] the benevolent Polish nobleman, who superintended the distribution of the remaining funds of the British ReliefAssociation during the last ten months in Ireland. He refused to accept any recompense, and defrayed several considerable expenses out of his own pocket.67

33Strzelecki was also missed by the people with whom he had worked so closely. Before he left Dublin, the Viceroy, landlords and clergy thanked him with a public address. The forty Poor Law officers to whom he had given much support presented him with a piece of silver plate on which their names were engraved.68 Praise for Strzelecki also came from the committee in London, on whose behalf he had worked so tirelessly in Ireland. In fulsome thanks, they acknowledged that his duties had required ‘great labour and anxiety, and a considerable degree of personable risk’.69According to an early historian of the Famine, William O’Brien, ‘the name of this benevolent stranger was then, and for long afterwards, a familiar one if not a household word, in the homes of the suffering poor’.70Nonetheless, when he died in London in 1873, his passing was not acknowledged in Ireland.

The Poor helping the Poor

34A general perception of Victorian philanthropy was that it was middle class ‘do-gooders’, perhaps supported by an aristocratic patron, using their resources to help an impoverished under-class. Their involvement was publicly recognized, with their names and the names of their donors listed in the national and local newspapers, most usually with the most generous donations at the head of the list.71 An interesting feature of charity given during the Famine is that individuals and groups who were themselves socially marginalized and economically impecunious acted to help others of similar background. Sadly, while their generosity was noted, their individual names were not recorded; their invisibility being a further example of how the poor were disregarded.

35There are many examples of poor people coming to the assistance of Ireland during the Famine, an early example being native Indians who donated to the Calcutta Fund, as outlined earlier. One of the smallest, but most remarkable donations came from convicts on board a prison ship, the Warrior, based at Woolwich in London. The prisoners had observed boxes in the dockyard being sent to Ireland, for the relief of the distressed inhabitants, and they asked if they could make their own contribution. Permission was granted, on the understanding that the donations were to be voluntary.72

36The donation by the Woolwich prisoners was especially poignant when placed in the context of the conditions in which they themselves were living. In January 1847, the radical MP for Finsbury in London, Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, had requested that a select committee be held looking into the condition of the Woolwich prisoners. He described the findings to be ‘both distressing and disgusting’.73 In the subsequent debate in the House of Commons, Duncombe pointed out that, even when dying, these men were viciously, and sometimes fatally, flogged. Furthermore, ‘the medical treatment was so brutal, both as regarded the treatment of the prisoners while living and after death, as to be a disgrace to any country calling itself a civilized and Christian country’.74 Nonetheless, these brutalized men collected, in small donations of pennies and halfpennies, 17 shillings for the poor in Ireland.75 Within a year of making their donation, all of the convicts on board the Warrior were dead.76

37A number of Native Americans contributed to Famine relief, including the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The Choctaw people had suffered at the hands of the American government, being forcibly moved from their native fertile lands in Mississippi to more barren land in Oklahoma, in 1832. The journey, remembered as the ‘Trail of Tears’, reflects the high mortality amongst those people forced to participate. The President at the time, Andrew Jackson, was of Irish descent. Despite their own suffering, degradation and poverty, the Choctaw people donated $174 to Irish Famine relief.77 A local newspaper, the Arkansas Intelligencer, noted the donations in terms that both racialized and patronized the donors:

What an agreeable reflection it must give to the Christian and the philanthropist to witness this evidence of civilization and Christian spirit existing among our red neighbours. They are repaying the Christian world a consideration for bringing them out from benighted ignorance and heathen barbarism. Not only by contributing a few dollars, but by affording evidence that the labours of the Christian missionary have not been in vain.78

38Neither the names nor the motivations of the Woolwich convicts and the Choctaw Nation who contributed to Ireland are known. Their actions, however, challenged accepted stereotypes about the nature of poverty, crime, charity and civilization.


39An abiding memory of private charity during the Famine is the cynical exploitation of the vulnerability of poor Catholics to convert them to Protestantism. Proselytism, referred to in Ireland as souperism (because the potential converts were allegedly offered free soup), had been in operation prior to 1845 and it continued beyond 1852.79 Before the Famine, it had largely been associated with evangelical Protestant groups that targeted specific communities, such as in Achill Island in County Mayo, Clifden in County Galway and Dingle in County Kerry.

40The repeated appearance of the potato blight after 1845 was viewed by many evangelicals through a providentialist prism, it being seen as retribution for the Catholicism of the Irish poor.80 It became, therefore, an opportunity to increase their activities. In a long article entitled ‘Scarcity’ that appeared in February 1847 in the British Magazine – a mouthpiece of the conservative section of the Anglican Church - the author cautioned against allowing Catholic priests to serve on relief committees. It accused them of ‘jobbing’ (showing favouritism), personally profiting by selling tickets to the starving poor and looking after their own friends.81 It concluded that, ‘there are few artifices to which they will not resort’.82 The writer also urged that charitable donations should be sent only to Protestant ministers:

…and by supplying him with funds, and provisions, and clothing, and seed, enable him to conciliate the affections of the suffering people to the Protestant church. It is, in fact, such an opportunity to doing lasting and extensive good as may never occur again.83

41More unequivocally, at the end of 1847, the Irish Relief Association –which had been involved in providing relief since 1846 – published a report that demonstrated that their activities had been underpinned by a proselytizing agenda.84 The writer explained that, ‘primarily, it is the duty of those who have received, to promulgate and bring men under the power and saving influence of the gospel of Christ’.85 The opportunity presented by the distress to bring the gospel to the Irish poor was explained:

Ever ready to sympathize in, and lend our aid to remunerate the spiritual condition of heathen lands in distant climes, surely we evidence a dereliction of duty, if we overlook the state of our native country, in which crimes, the result of its demoralizing condition, are daily recurring, which are unsurpassed in any heathen land.86

42The Report concluded that the blight and the consequent suffering had resulted in positive outcomes because of the opportunities they had created for proselytizing, proclaiming, ‘1846 forms an era which will be joyfully remembered throughout an endless eternity’.87

43While proselytizers formed only a small minority of relief-givers during the Famine, their activities and the publicity that they sought to bring to any instances of conversion served to overshadow the work of other Protestant relief, which was given without reference to the religion of the giver or of the recipient. Regardless of inflated claims made by proselytizing groups as to their successes, in reality they made little impact on the religion of the poor. However, in the short term their activities proved to be divisive within the communities in which they operated, and in the longer term, their involvement cast a deep shadow on the memory of private charity, and contributed to tensions between the main churches in Ireland.


44In the course of only six years, over one million starved to death or succumbed to famine-related illnesses in Ireland. Overwhelmingly, they were the poor who had been the subject of so much debate in the preceding decades.

45Much of the excess mortality was not inevitable but resulted from policy failures which, in turn, were based on inflexible and inappropriate views of the Irish poor. Charity had sought to assist in saving lives and filling the vacuum left by inappropriate government policies. The full impact of what this achieved is impossible to measure but part of the success is largely due to the fewer restrictions – legislative and ideological – that accompanied its giving.

46The Great Famine was not the first time, nor would it be the last occasion, when external philanthropy came to the assistance of the Irish poor during a subsistence crisis. However, in terms of its extent and magnitude, it was unique. While much remains unknown, and possibly unknowable, in terms of motivation and impact, there is no doubt that private relief was effective in saving lives even though this may have proved to be only temporarily. Moreover, private charity was not only involved in its own life-saving activities, the two main organizations – the Quakers and the British Relief Association – provided vital assistance to the government’s relief schemes. This intervention was most evident in 1847, when government relief changed from public works, to soup kitchens, to an extended Poor Law. During each transition, these two organizations assisted the government by providing interim relief and even direct support.88 On many occasions therefore, private charity, either by its own volition or at the request of the British government, intervened to provide a life-line to the poor. Finally, when dealing with victims of the Famine, private charity brought a degree of compassion and openness that was absent at many levels of government relief. Charity not only saved lives, it gave dignity to the Irish poor whose survival depended on it.

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A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick,[1] commonly referred to as A Modest Proposal, is a Juvenalian satirical essay written and published anonymously by Jonathan Swift in 1729. Swift suggested that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. His work encouraged positive development for those that suffered from famishment and financial maladies, and urged the aristocratic landlords to lower their taxes, so as to not further starve the country of its food and coin. This satirical hyperbole mocked heartless attitudes towards the poor, as well as British policy toward the Irish in general. The primary target of Swift's satire was the rationalism of modern economics, and the growth of rationalistic modes of thinking in modern life at the expense of more traditional human values.

In English writing, the phrase "a modest proposal" is now conventionally an allusion to this style of straight-faced satire.


Swift goes to great lengths to support his argument, including a list of possible preparation styles for the children, and calculations showing the financial benefits of his suggestion. He uses methods of argument throughout his essay which lampoon the then-influential William Petty and the social engineering popular among followers of Francis Bacon. These lampoons include appealing to the authority of "a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London" and "the famous Psalmanazar, a native of the island Formosa" (who had already confessed to not being from Formosa in 1706).

This essay is widely held to be one of the greatest examples of sustained irony in the history of the English language. Much of its shock value derives from the fact that the first portion of the essay describes the plight of starving beggars in Ireland, so that the reader is unprepared for the surprise of Swift's solution when he states: "A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout."[1]

In the tradition of Roman satire, Swift introduces the reforms he is actually suggesting by paralipsis:

Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither clothes, nor household furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.

Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, 'till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.

Literary Techniques[edit]

To ensure the success of his work, Swift employed several literary techniques that would prove extremely effective to his audience. The following techniques were used in his satire: understatement, hyperbole, juxtaposition, among several others.

To name his satire a "modest" proposal can be considered outrageous, as the subject content was purposely written with grotesque wordage. Perhaps the most obvious of literary techniques, it intrigued and baffled his readers.

Hyperbole is often used to evoke humor, but in this instance, it was used to make a point with strong language. Erasing the humanity of infants and referring to them as "carcasses, flesh, and meat" instead of "innocence" or "youth" efficiently defeated their significance to future generations.

Juxtaposition - a technique used to bring together two elements at odds with another - was implemented in Swift's subject matter when he combined the dire situation in Ireland with his outlandish solution.

Population solutions[edit]

George Wittkowsky argued that Swift’s main target in A Modest Proposal was not the conditions in Ireland, but rather the can-do spirit of the times that led people to devise a number of illogical schemes that would purportedly solve social and economic ills.[2] Swift was especially insulted by projects that tried to fix population and labour issues with a simple cure-all solution.[3] A memorable example of these sorts of schemes "involved the idea of running the poor through a joint-stock company".[3] In response, Swift's Modest Proposal was "a burlesque of projects concerning the poor"[4] that were in vogue during the early 18th century.

A Modest Proposal also targets the calculating way people perceived the poor in designing their projects. The pamphlet targets reformers who "regard people as commodities".[5] In the piece, Swift adopts the "technique of a political arithmetician"[6] to show the utter ridiculousness of trying to prove any proposal with dispassionate statistics.

Critics differ about Swift's intentions in using this faux-mathematical philosophy. Edmund Wilson argues that statistically "the logic of the 'Modest proposal' can be compared with defense of crime (arrogated to Marx) in which he argues that crime takes care of the superfluous population".[6] Wittkowsky counters that Swift's satiric use of statistical analysis is an effort to enhance his satire that "springs from a spirit of bitter mockery, not from the delight in calculations for their own sake".[7]


Charles K. Smith argues that Swift's rhetorical style persuades the reader to detest the speaker and pity the Irish. Swift's specific strategy is twofold, using a "trap"[8] to create sympathy for the Irish and a dislike of the narrator who, in the span of one sentence, "details vividly and with rhetorical emphasis the grinding poverty" but feels emotion solely for members of his own class.[9] Swift's use of gripping details of poverty and his narrator's cool approach towards them create "two opposing points of view" that "alienate the reader, perhaps unconsciously, from a narrator who can view with 'melancholy' detachment a subject that Swift has directed us, rhetorically, to see in a much less detached way."[9]

Swift has his proposer further degrade the Irish by using language ordinarily reserved for animals. Lewis argues that the speaker uses "the vocabulary of animal husbandry"[10] to describe the Irish. Once the children have been commodified, Swift's rhetoric can easily turn "people into animals, then meat, and from meat, logically, into tonnage worth a price per pound".[10]

Swift uses the proposer's serious tone to highlight the absurdity of his proposal. In making his argument, the speaker uses the conventional, textbook-approved order of argument from Swift's time (which was derived from the Latin rhetorician Quintilian).[11] The contrast between the "careful control against the almost inconceivable perversion of his scheme" and "the ridiculousness of the proposal" create a situation in which the reader has "to consider just what perverted values and assumptions would allow such a diligent, thoughtful, and conventional man to propose so perverse a plan".[11]


Scholars have speculated about which earlier works Swift may have had in mind when he wrote A Modest Proposal.

Tertullian's Apology[edit]

James Johnson argued that A Modest Proposal was largely influenced and inspired by Tertullian's Apology: a satirical attack against early Roman persecution of Christianity. James William Johnson believes that Swift saw major similarities between the two situations.[12] Johnson notes Swift's obvious affinity for Tertullian and the bold stylistic and structural similarities between the works A Modest Proposal and Apology.[13] In structure, Johnson points out the same central theme, that of cannibalism and the eating of babies as well as the same final argument, that "human depravity is such that men will attempt to justify their own cruelty by accusing their victims of being lower than human."[12] Stylistically, Swift and Tertullian share the same command of sarcasm and language.[12] In agreement with Johnson, Donald C. Baker points out the similarity between both authors' tones and use of irony. Baker notes the uncanny way that both authors imply an ironic "justification by ownership" over the subject of sacrificing children—Tertullian while attacking pagan parents, and Swift while attacking the English mistreatment of the Irish poor.[14]

Defoe's The Generous Projector[edit]

It has also been argued that A Modest Proposal was, at least in part, a response to the 1728 essay The Generous Projector or, A Friendly Proposal to Prevent Murder and Other Enormous Abuses, By Erecting an Hospital for Foundlings and Bastard Children by Swift's rival Daniel Defoe.[15]

Mandeville's Modest Defence of Publick Stews[edit]

Bernard Mandeville's Modest Defence of Publick Stews asked to introduce public and state controlled bordellos. The 1726 paper acknowledges women's interests and – while not being a complete satirical text – has been discussed as well as an inspiration for Jonathan Swift's title.[16][17] Mandeville had become famous with the Fable of The Bees and deliberations on private vices and public benefits in 1705 already.

John Locke's First Treatise of Government[edit]

"Be it then as Sir Robert says, that Anciently, it was usual for Men to sell and Castrate their Children. Let it be, that they exposed them; Add to it, if you please, for this is still greater Power, that they begat them for their Tables to fat and eat them: If this proves a right to do so, we may, by the same Argument, justifie Adultery, Incest and Sodomy, for there are examples of these too, both Ancient and Modern; Sins, which I suppose, have the Principle Aggravation from this, that they cross the main intention of Nature, which willeth the increase of Mankind, and the continuation of the Species in the highest perfection, and the distinction of Families, with the Security of the Marriage Bed, as necessary thereunto" (First Treatise, sec. 59).

Economic themes[edit]

Robert Phiddian's article "Have you eaten yet? The Reader in A Modest Proposal" focuses on two aspects of A Modest Proposal: the voice of Swift and the voice of the Proposer. Phiddian stresses that a reader of the pamphlet must learn to distinguish between the satiric voice of Jonathan Swift and the apparent economic projections of the Proposer. He reminds readers that "there is a gap between the narrator's meaning and the text's, and that a moral-political argument is being carried out by means of parody".[18]

While Swift's proposal is obviously not a serious economic proposal, George Wittkowsky, author of "Swift's Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet", argues that to understand the piece fully, it is important to understand the economics of Swift’s time. Wittowsky argues that not enough critics have taken the time to focus directly on the mercantilism and theories of labour in 18th century England. "[I]f one regards the Modest Proposal simply as a criticism of condition, about all one can say is that conditions were bad and that Swift's irony brilliantly underscored this fact".[19]

"People are the riches of a nation"[edit]

At the start of a new industrial age in the 18th century, it was believed that "people are the riches of the nation", and there was a general faith in an economy that paid its workers low wages because high wages meant workers would work less.[20] Furthermore, "in the mercantilist view no child was too young to go into industry". In those times, the "somewhat more humane attitudes of an earlier day had all but disappeared and the laborer had come to be regarded as a commodity".[18]

Landa composed a conducive analysis when he noted that it would have been healthier for the Irish economy to more appropriately utilize their human assets by giving the people an opportunity to “become a source of wealth to the nation” or else they “must turn to begging and thievery” [21]. This opportunity may have included giving the farmers more coin to work for, diversifying their professions, or even consider enslaving their people to lower coin usage and build up financial stock in Ireland. Landa wrote that, "Swift is maintaining that the maxim—people are the riches of a nation—applies to Ireland only if Ireland is permitted slavery or cannibalism" [22]

Louis A. Landa presents Swift's A Modest Proposal as a critique of the popular and unjustified maxim of mercantilism in the 18th century that "people are the riches of a nation".[21] Swift presents the dire state of Ireland and shows that mere population itself, in Ireland's case, did not always mean greater wealth and economy.[22] The uncontrolled maxim fails to take into account that a person who does not produce in an economic or political way makes a country poorer, not richer.[22] Swift also recognises the implications of such a fact in making mercantilist philosophy a paradox: the wealth of a country is based on the poverty of the majority of its citizens.[22] Swift however, Landa argues, is not merely criticising economic maxims but also addressing the fact that England was denying Irish citizens their natural rights and dehumanising them by viewing them as a mere commodity.[22]

The Public's Reaction[edit]

Swift's writings created a backlash within the community after its publication. The work was aimed at the aristocracy, and they responded in turn. Several members of society wrote to Swift about their feelings regarding the work. In a "private" reaction letter from Lord Bathurst (Henry Bathurst, 3rd Earl of Bathurst) to Jonathan Swift, Bathurst intimated that he certainly understood the message, and interpreted it as a work of comedy.

February 12, 1729-30:

"I did immediately propose it to Lady Bathurst, as your advice, particularly for her last boy, which was born the plumpest, finest thing, that could be seen; but she fell in a passion, and bid me send you word, that she would not follow your direction, but that she would breed him up to be a parson, and he should live upon the fat of the land; or a lawyer, and then, instead of being eat himself, he should devour others. You know women in passion never mind what they say; but, as she is a very reasonable woman, I have almost brought her over now to your opinion; and having convinced her, that as matters stood, we could not possibly maintain all the nine, she does begin to think it reasonable the youngest should raise fortunes for the eldest: and upon that foot a man may perforin family duty with more courage and zeal; for, if he should happen to get twins, the selling of one might provide for the other. Or if, by any accident, while his wife lies in with one child, he should get a second upon the body of another woman, he might dispose of the fattest of the two, and that would help to breed up the other.

The more I think upon this scheme, the more reasonable it appears to me; and it ought by no means to be confined to Ireland; for, in all probability, we shall, in a very little time, be altogether as poor here as you are there. I believe, indeed, we shall carry it farther, and not confine our luxury only to the eating of children; for I happened to peep the other day into a large assembly [Parliament] not far from Westminster-hall, and I found them roasting a great fat fellow, [Walpole again] For my own part, I had not the least inclination to a slice of him; but, if I guessed right, four or five of the company had a devilish mind to be at him. Well, adieu, you begin now to wish I had ended, when I might have done it so conveniently."[23]

Modern usage[edit]

A Modest Proposal is included in many literature programs as an example of early modern western satire. It also serves as an exceptional introduction to the concept and use of argumentative language, lending itself well to secondary and post-secondary essay courses. Outside of the realm of English studies, A Modest Proposal is a relevant piece included in many comparative and global literature and history courses, as well as those of numerous other disciplines in the arts, humanities, and even the social sciences.

The essay has been emulated many times. In his book A Modest Proposal (1984), evangelical author Frank Schaeffer emulated Swift's work in social conservative polemic against abortion and euthanasia in a future dystopia that advocated recycling of aborted embryos and fetuses, as well as some disabled infants with compound intellectual, physical and physiological difficulties. (Such Baby Doe Rules cases were then a major concern of the pro-life movement of the early 1980s, which viewed selective treatment of those infants as disability discrimination.) In his book A Modest Proposal for America (2013), statistician Howard Friedman opens with a satirical reflection of the extreme drive to fiscal stability by ultra-conservatives.

In the 1998 edition of "A Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood there is a quote from "A Modest Proposal" before the introduction.[24]

A Modest Video Game Proposal is the title of an open letter sent by activist/former attorney Jack Thompson on 10 October 2005. He proposed that, if someone could "create, manufacture, distribute, and sell a video game in 2006" that allows players to play the scenario he has written, in which the character kills video game developers.[1]

Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, which contains hundreds of private letters written by Thompson over the years, contains a letter in which he uses A Modest Proposal's satire technique against the Vietnam War. Thompson writes a letter to a local Aspen newspaper informing them that, on Christmas Eve, he was going to use napalm to burn a number of dogs and hopefully any humans they find. This letter protests against the burning of Vietnamese people occurring overseas.[citation needed]

The 2012 film Butcher Boys, written by Kim Henkel, is said to be loosely based on Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal. The film's opening scene takes place in a restaurant named "J. Swift's."

On November 30, 2017, Jonathan Swift's 350th birthday, The Washington Post published a column entitled "Why Alabamians should consider eating Democrats’ babies", by humor columnist Alexandra Petri.[25]



  • Baker, Donald C (1957), "Tertullian and Swift's A Modest Proposal", The Classical Journal, 52: 219–220 
  • Johnson, James William (1958), "Tertullian and A Modest Proposal", Modern Language and Notes, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 73 (8): 561–563, doi:10.2307/3043246, JSTOR 3043246  (subscription needed)
  • Landa, Louis A (1942), "A Modest Proposal and Populousness", Modern Philology, 40 (2): 161–170, doi:10.1086/388567 
  • Phiddian, Robert (1996), "Have You Eaten Yet? The Reader in A Modest Proposal", Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, Rice University, 36 (3): 603–621, doi:10.2307/450801, hdl:2328/746, JSTOR 450801 
  • Smith, Charles Kay (1968), "Toward a Participatory Rhetoric: Teaching Swift's Modest Proposal", College English, National Council of Teachers of English, 30 (2): 135–149, doi:10.2307/374449, JSTOR 374449 
  • Wittkowsky, George (1943), "Swift's Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet", Journal of the History of Ideas, University of Pennsylvania Press, 4 (1): 75–104, doi:10.2307/2707237, JSTOR 2707237 

External links[edit]

  1. ^ ab"A Modest Proposal, by Dr. Jonathan Swift". Project Gutenberg. 27 July 2008. Retrieved 10 January 2012. 
  2. ^Wittkowsky, Swift’s Modest Proposal, p76
  3. ^ abWittkowsky, Swift’s Modest Proposal, p85
  4. ^Wittkowsky, Swift's Modest Proposal, p88
  5. ^Wittkowsky, Swift's Modest Proposal, p101
  6. ^ abWittkowsky, Swift's Modest Proposal, p95
  7. ^Wittkowsky, Swift's Modest Proposal, p98
  8. ^Smith, Toward a Participatory Rhetoric, p. 135
  9. ^ abSmith, Toward a Participatory Rhetoric, p. 136
  10. ^ abSmith, Toward a Participatory Rhetoric, p. 138
  11. ^ abSmith, Toward a Participatory Rhetoric, p. 139
  12. ^ abcJohnson, Tertullian and A Modest Proposal, p563
  13. ^Johnson, Tertullian and A Modest Proposal, p562
  14. ^Baker, Tertullian and Swift's A Modest Proposal, p219
  15. ^Waters, Juliet (19 February 2009). "A modest but failed proposal". Montreal Mirror. Retrieved 10 January 2012. 
  16. ^Eine Streitschrift…, Essay von Ursula Pia Jauch. Carl Hanser Verlag, München 2001.
  17. ^Primer, I. (15 March 2006). Bernard Mandeville's "A Modest Defence of Publick Stews": Prostitution and Its Discontents in Early Georgian England. Springer. ISBN 9781403984609. 
  18. ^ abPhiddian, Have You Eaten Yet?, p6
  19. ^Phiddian, Have You Eaten Yet?, p3
  20. ^Phiddian, Have You Eaten Yet?, p4
  21. ^ abLanda, A Modest Proposal and Populousness, p161
  22. ^ abcdeLanda, A Modest Proposal and Populousness, p165
  23. ^Swift, Jonathan; Scott, Sir Walter (1814). The Works of Jonathan Swift: Containing Additional Letters, Tracts, and Poems Not Hitherto Published; with Notes and a Life of the Author. A. Constable. 
  24. ^"The Handmaid's Tale". www.goodreads.com. 
  25. ^Petri, Alexandra (November 30, 2017). "Why Alabamians should consider eating Democrats' babies". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 30, 2017. 

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