Irish Roots

June 13th, 2011

John Grenham


A perfect example of the worm's-eye view of history that genealogy enforces lies in the records of the Reproductive Loan Fund. These are the only remains of a micro-credit craze that swept Ireland in the 1830s and 1840s. Hundreds of local loan funds sprang up, essentially identical to the micro-credit banks in operation today in places like Bangladesh. The theory was that a small loan of seed-capital, personally guaranteed by neighbours, would fund some venture to repay the loan and more (hence "Reproductive") and thus help to lift the borrower out of poverty

One reason for the craze was the neat fit with Victorian nostrums about self-help and the free market and the deserving poor. But the vast majority of people in the schemes were subsistence farmers or landless labourers with almost no connection to the money economy. Even before the Famine, many local funds were having great difficulty getting their money back, and the catastrophic wave of distress between 1845 and 1849 finished most of them off. Their records vanished with them.

The exception was the Reproductive Fund. It was run from London, and its records were recalled there when it ceased operation in 1848. After the Famine, between 1851 and 1853, local policemen were sent to see what had happened to the borrowers (and, presumably, the money). Their reports dispelled any idea of trying to recover debts. The Fund was wound up and, eventually, its accounts made their way into the Public Record Office in Kew.

They would be valuable if they only recorded the pre-Famine names and addresses of the 60,000 or so borrowers and guarantors. But the post-Famine police reports give an unbearably vivid before-and-after picture of the suffering that visited individual households, recording death, emigration and destitution in family after family, townland after townland. This is history at its most intense and personal. The records are imaged and searchable at movinghere.org.uk.

Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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