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Irish Eyes

By Mattie Lennon

One Hundred Years Of The Old Age Pension

“If there is one man that doesn’t look like a pensions’ officer, that man is a pensions’ officer.” (John B.Keane)

The Old Age Pension Act was passed one hundred years ago and implemented in January 1909. According to Economic Historian Cormac O Gráda it was, ” arguably the most radical and far-reaching piece of welfare enacted in Ireland in the twentieth century.”

It was paid on a graded scale at the age of seventy.

“ The act grants a pension according to a graduated scale . . . to every person, male and female, who fulfils certain statutory conditions, and at the same time is not subject to certain disqualifications.

The statutory conditions, as set out . . . , are:

  • (1) The person must have attained the age of seventy;
  • (2) must satisfy the pension authorities that for at least twenty years up to the date of receipt of pension he has been a British subject and has had his residence in the United Kingdom; and
  • (3) the person must satisfy the pension authorities that his yearly means do not exceed £31, In . . . the act there are Elaborate provisions for the calculation of yearly means, but the following may be particularly noticed:
  • (1) in calculating the means of a person being one of a married couple living together in the same house, the means shall not in any case be taken to be a less amount than half the total means of the couple, and
  • (2) if any person directly or indirectly deprives himself of any income or property in order to qualify for an old-age pension, it shall nevertheless be taken to be part of his means.

The disqualifications are

  • (1) receipt of poor-law relief (this qualification was specially removed as from the 1st of January 1911);
  • (2) habitual failure to work (except in the case of those who have continuously for ten years up to the age of sixty made provision for their future by payments to friendly, provident or other societies or trade unions;
  • (3) detention in a pauper or criminal lunatic asylum;
  • (4) imprisonment without the option of a fine, which disqualifies for ten years; and
  • (5) liability to disqualification for a period not exceeding ten years in the case of an habitual drunkard.

Since compulsory registration was only introduced in 1864 it was difficult to prove the age of anyone over 44 years old. Determining age was open to debate, a debate which, in the words of historian, Diarmaid Ferriter, “the Irish won handsomely.” Perhaps there was a generous helping of genetic memory around, for, a favourite bargaining line was, “ I remember the big wind”. (The Big Wind was in January 1839.) So, if you were born in, say, 1849 and you were toothless, toil worn with knarled joints and you had the right amount of elasticity in your conscience you would probably “qualify” for your five bob a week. Even if you had attained the half century and the years had been unkind to you perhaps you could, in the words of Louis MacNeice written many years later, “Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension”.

Samual Johnson defined a pension as, “Pay given to a State hireling for treason to his country”. Perhaps some of our more Nationalistic ancestors agreed with him but I could find no record of anybody refusing the pension on a point of principle. By February 1909, pensions had been granted to 4.1% of the population in Ireland as opposed to 1.1% in England. In 1910 38,495 pensions were revoked in Ireland and in 1919 the pension was doubled to ten shillings.

Ernest Blythe was a member of the IRB, the Blueshirts and the Gaelic League. He was a reporter with the North Down Herald and Managing Director of the Abbey Theatre. As Minister for Finance he granted funding for the Ardnacrusha Scheme but he will go down in history as the man who took a shilling off the Old Age Pension in the 1924 budget. (Perhaps he agreed with the sentiments expressed by Norvin Green, President of the Western Union Company, thirty years before, “It is not in accordance with the genius of our Government to pay pensions”.) The shilling was restored in 1928 but the pension was not increased again for twenty years.

So one hundred years on and if you are an OAP you may think your allowance is paltry but what is the Net Present Value of five shillings? And . . . if you are over 65 and male you are unlikely to agree with George Bernard Shaw that, “Old men are dangerous; it doesn’t matter to them what is going to happen to the world”.

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