The Old Age Pension
The old age pension was first paid in Ireland in 1909. The rate was five shillings.
In the later years of the nineteenth century there was considerable public debate about the need for the State to provide pensions in old age. Evidence began to accumulate that old age was one of the prime causes of poverty. Joseph Chamberland was an advocate in the 1890s of pensions for the aged. A Royal Commission to study the proposal was set up in 1893 but the members were unable to agree on a suitable scheme. A member of the Royal Commission on “Poor Law Relief and People Destitute from Old Age”, gave extensive evidence to the Commission pointing out among other things that although pauperism was only 8% among those under 65 years, it was 25% among those over that age. It was originally intended that it should be paid to all of a low income when they reached the age of 65 years but one of the things that held it up was that some members found it difficult to accept that it should be paid to single women. In 1899 the House of Commons appointed a select committee to report on “the best means of improving the conditions of the aged deserving poor”, it came down conclusively in favour of a non-contributory system of old age pensions. Old Age pensions had been proposed in the Parliament at Westminster from the late eighteenth century and, indeed, the idea was one of the benefits that had been hoped for in Ireland after the Act of Union but it was not until the Old Age Pensions Act was passed in 1908 that it became a reality. When the Act was finally passed it only applied to those over 70 years, both men and women, who otherwise had an income of less than £21 per annum. Another restriction was that those receiving it should not have a criminal conviction for at least 20 years previously. The proof of age proved a difficult one as most people over 70 in Ireland at that time would not have birth certificates and the first reliable Census in Ireland was not taken until 1841. It was decided that a proof of age would be that the person applying could remember the ‘Night of the Big Wind’, which was a hurricane which struck the country with devastating results on January 6, 1839.
On January 9th 1909 non-contributory Old Age Pensions were paid for the first time in Ireland. The amount was five shillings per week, equivalent to about 32 cents in Euro, but at a time when average weekly wages would have been around £1 per week or €1.26 in current money, it was quite a considerable addition to the incomes of poorer families in the area who would have been struggling to support the elderly members of their household. In these times there were no nursing homes or homes for the elderly. There was no home help or carers allowance.
The United Kingdom was not the first country to pay an Old Age pension, this honour fell to New Zealand, which also was the first country to give women the vote, who paid a pensions to those over 65 in 1899. Australia followed in the next year and there was also an early pensions scheme in Germany where the ‘Iron Chancellor’, Count Otto Von Bismark, is credited with producing a workable scheme before his dismissal by the Emperor William II.
The pensionable age in Ireland remained at 70 until after we joined the European Common Market in 1973, when it was reduced to 66 years for men and 65 years for women. Reports at the time tell us that the local Pensions Officer interviewed people in groups at halls where things like birth, baptismal and marriage certificates would be asked to be produced. The money was paid weekly at Post Offices, a practice which continues up until the present time. The implementation of the Act in Ireland caused controversy in England, as 4.1% of the Irish population were in receipt of pensions compared with 0.72% in England. The high level of Irish claimants was due to the distorted demographic structure arising from death and emigration following the Famine.
The old age pension scheme was amended and modified by various subsequent acts, mainly by easing the limitations in regard to means, but its principle has remained unchanged. The maximum rate of pension was increased to 10 shillings in 1919 and, except for the period 1924 to 1928 during which it was 9 shillings, it remained at 10 shillings until 1948. The Blind Persons Act 1920 extended the pension to sightless people over 50 years subject to an assessment of their capability for work. The old age pension was a welcome addition to the low levels of income in Ireland at it’s time of introduction.