British pension was fair game until we had to pay for it ourselves

Many of the claimants — who were watched by spectators, such was the novelty and the excitement — seemed a lot younger than 70 and there was concern also about the massive queues in some places.

In Ennis, the rush was such that a police presence was required to keep order

LAST week the Government approved designs for nine new stamps, including one to mark the centenary of the introduction of the old age pension in 1908 by the government of David Lloyd George.

The Government described this indication of an emerging welfare state 100 years ago as “a major social and political milestone in Ireland”, which is no exaggeration.

Economic historian Cormac O’Gráda has suggested it was “arguably the most radical and far-reaching piece of welfare enacted in Ireland in the 20th century”.

Although some had made the case for a means-tested pension to be paid at the age of 65, the British treasury balked at the potential cost of this, and it was decided instead it would be payable on a graded scale at the age of 70.

The pension, which had a maximum rate of five shillings per week, was payable to those whose incomes did not exceed £31.10 shillings per annum. Those whose income did not exceed £21 yearly were entitled to the full five shillings.

For the first time the state assumed

financial responsibility for family members through direct payment of cash. Prior to that the only assistance provided for the elderly was the Poor Law and the dreaded workhouse.

At the time of the introduction of the pension, many Irish who were not so elderly rushed to collect their payments.

In fact, so many people claimed the pension that the British government was flabbergasted.

The legislation that governed the pension came into force in January 1909 and by the following month, 177,000 pensions had been granted in Ireland, representing 4.1% of the population, compared with 370,000 people in England, representing 1.1% of the population.

Granted, the proportion of older people in Ireland was higher than England and there was more poverty in Ireland, but luckily for those wishing to chance their arm and brazen it out, compulsory registration of births only began in 1864, so determining age was open to debate, a debate the Irish won handsomely.

Bogus claims abounded and, as a result, the pension cost much more than planned. This ensured pension officials began to pay much closer attention to Irish claims. O’Gráda has highlighted the response of one Irish MP to this.

He described the officials as being in the “particularly foolish and not very admirable position of men who have done good by accident and now blush to find how expensive it is, and are trying to diminish the cost of the good they have done”.

Jeremiah Murphy, whose memoir about growing up in Kerry — When Youth was Mine, published in 1998 — recorded that when the fist pensions were paid, “all the old-timers, male and female, who were able to walk, collected the first payment. For many it was the last. Some celebrated the event by having a few drinks and were injured, while others contracted colds or pneumonia.”

This was true — it was a double-edged sword for some. In Roscommon, neighbours ferried “cartloads of aged female pensioners” to the post office and in Birr, Co Offaly, a 93-year-old woman fell ill on the way home from the post office, “not having been out of doors for many years before”.

But there seemed to be few as advanced in age as she was. Many of the claimants — who were watched by spectators, such was the novelty and the excitement — seemed a lot younger than 70 and there was concern also about the massive queues in some places.

In Ennis, where the post office opened at 7am, the rush was such that a police presence was required to keep order. Five shillings was not an insignificant sum of money in Ireland a century ago when labourers were not earning much more than 10 shillings per week.

O’Gráda cites contemporary newspaper reports of a Monaghan pensioner who waved his cap above his head and exclaimed “God save the king”, while in Dublin’s Dame Street, a couple in their 80s (or maybe not) blessed “the postmistress, the government and the world in general”. The Irish Times commented sarcastically in January 1909: “With fewer inhabitants than Scotland by a quarter of a million, Ireland has established claims to nearly 74,000 more pensions. This surely is a major tribute to the longevity of our race and to the healthy character of our much-abused climate”.

Of course, the party had to be spoiled — in 1910, 38,495 pensions were revoked in Ireland in comparison to 29,217 in the rest of the UK — but Ireland’s share was still 22.2% of those claiming by 1911, when there were 243,000 recipients of the pension in the 32 counties. In 1919, the pension was doubled to a maximum of 10 shillings a week.

In the same year, the rhetoric of the first Dáil decried the continued existence of the workhouses and promised to replace it with “a sympathetic native scheme for the care of the nation’s aged and infirm who shall not be regarded as a burden, but rather entitled to the nation’s gratitude and consideration”.

Unfortunately for the pensioners, this proved to be an empty promise and they were first in the firing line when it came to the harsh economic climate of the 1920s and the determination of the Cumann na nGael government to cut costs because so much money was being spent on the army and compensation for property losses as a result of the civil war.

The Department of Finance was aghast that in 1924, £3 million was spent on 124,000 pensions in the 26 counties of the Free State, representing nearly 10% of total government expenditure.

Regulations surrounding the pension were tightened. James Burke, the minister for local government, maintained that the days when the pension was “fair game because it was not the Irish taxpayer exclusively that was paying it” were over.

AS PART of Ernest Blythe’s budget in 1924, the pension was reduced to nine shillings, though this reduction did not apply to pensioners aged 80 and over.

That shilling was restored in 1928, but inevitably, it was the Blythe cut that was remembered partly because the same government reduced income tax from 25% in 1924 to 15% in 1926.

As noted by O’Gráda, “the damage done to Cumann na nGael was probably out of all proportion to the savings involved”. Blythe faced strong opposition within his own party over the pension cut, but dismissed the chorus of criticism, resorting to the defence that ministers for finance have used ever since when the economy is shaky — it is incumbent on them to say no. After the restoration of the shilling in 1928, the amount paid remained unchanged for the next 20 years.

Nonetheless, Fianna Fáil was able to capitalise on the unpopularity of Blythe’s decision and significantly extended entitlement to the pension and eased means test requirements from 1932 onwards, after which it became a less controversial issue.

It was just as well the pension was introduced by the British government in 1908 because it is inconceivable that a native Irish government in the 1920s would have introduced something so generous.

More in this section

Lunchtime
News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up