Rural Life: 1690 to 1845

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Rural Life: 1690 to 1845

Throughout the period 1690 to 1845 Ireland was predominantly rural. Though towns expanded or developed to meet the needs of what was a rapidly growing population and greater trade, since at least the mid-eighteenth century the great majority of Irish people continued to live and work in the countryside rather than in urban areas. In 1725 only about one-eighth of Ireland's total population of two million or so lived in the eight largest towns. Apart from Dublin and Cork most of these urban centers were small places. The smallest, Lisburn in County Antrim, had fewer than eight hundred houses (Cullen 1972). At that time much of Ireland's industrial activity was, in any case, rurally located, being concerned with processing agricultural products.

The problems created by prolonged population growth fell much more heavily on certain areas of the country than on others, and more on some classes of the rural population than on others. The traditional view of eighteenth-century Ireland is of a chronically depressed society, but as L. M. Cullen has shown, the wealth of the country as a whole—to judge by the value of its trade—increased considerably while other parts of Europe were as unfortunate, or more so, in the bad years that threatened all agricultural societies. "Bad harvests," he writes, "feature disproportionately in contemporary literature. Better harvests in the intervening years were often taken for granted"; and the particularly bad 1720s were "a period of prolonged agricultural depression everywhere . . . . Ireland's circumstances were not exceptional" (Cullen, Davis Lecture 1968, p. 11). When famines occurred—as in the periods 1728 to 1729 and 1740 to 1741—they did so when food was in short supply everywhere in Europe. The famine of 1740 to 1741, largely forgotten but proportionately as severe in its effects as the Great Famine of the late 1840s, caused the deaths of somewhere between 310,000 and 480,000 people (Dickson 1997). Even the lower death toll estimate is higher than that of the Great Famine, and the deaths occurred in a much shorter time.

Rural society was complex, with many gradations at every level. At the very bottom of the heap were laborers with no access to land. Some of them were employed as live-in servants on a pittance wage but at least with the security of bed and board. Others, called cottiers, were employed by the farmers when needed, paying the rent of their small potato gardens in labor rather than in cash. Worst off of all were those forced to rent each season, for cash, plots of potato ground called "conacre." Such laborers got whatever work and wages they could find by migrating seasonally to different parts of the country. By 1830 only one-third of the laboring poor could find steady employment (Cullen 1968).

Above the laborers were tenant farmers of various degrees. Most were smallholders living at subsistence level. On the eve of the Great Famine, the Devon commission report (1845) revealed, nearly one-quarter of all holdings consisted of a mere five acres or fewer. Another quarter were between five and ten acres; a similar proportion were ten to twenty. Farms of fifty acres or more, most of which were in the province of Leinster, accounted for less than 10 percent of the total of all holdings (Donnelly 2001).

Above the farmer class were gentry. Sir Jonah Barrington, who came from the top layer, famously identified three categories of gentry, in ascending order of gentility: "half-mounted gentlemen," "gentlemen every inch of them," and "gentlemen to the backbone" (Staples 1968, p. 31). From such people came most of the "middlemen"—holders of long leaseholds who typically lived on the profits from subletting their estates. Their numbers were declining well before the Great Famine, however.

The top of the pyramid of rural society was occupied by a small number of aristocrats and wealthy commoners, owners of freehold estates, who were leaders in county affairs and dispensers of patronage. Contrary to the popular view at the time and later, most of the major absentees were careful to maintain and cultivate their Irish "interests" and to keep an eye on their resident agents. The vast amount of estate correspondence generated by such men as the eighth earl of Abercorn shows that absenteeism did not necessarily mean neglect or oppression.

From the end of the seventeenth century through to the middle of the nineteenth century and even later, most Irish people lived in a countryside that has been aptly described as "a multitude of rural islands, each dominated by its Big House" (MacDonagh, p. xxx). A Big House was not necessarily a grand one, but some were, for the eighteenth century was the golden age of country houses in the classical style, from Castletown in County Kildare (begun in 1722) to Castle Coole in Fermanagh (started in 1793). Most so-called Big Houses were more modest in size and architectural ambition, however, with the gentry who owned them often acting as their own architects.

By contrast, housing conditions for the rural poor deteriorated as population continued to increase (though at a slower rate after 1815), as domestic industry declined, and as poverty in consequence became more widespread. The 1841 census figures show that on the eve of the Great Famine 40 percent of houses in Ireland (in some areas up to 75 percent) were one-room mud cabins without windows. The next class of dwelling, of two to four rooms with windows, accounted for another 37 percent. The furniture in these hovels was sparse, if any. One parish in County Donegal had only 10 beds, 93 chairs, and 243 stools among its 9,000 inhabitants (Cullen 1968).

More ominous still than the increasing impoverishment of the rural population was its growing dependence on a more or less exclusive diet of potatoes. But the assumption that this dependence was a fact even before 1800 is wrong. For most of the eighteenth century the potato, though widely cultivated everywhere, was not the only food: Even the poor ate oat bread in the months between potato crops (Cullen 1972). The reliance of the poorest classes on the potato increased as the population went on rising, however, to the point where a male laborer on average consumed twelve to fourteen pounds of potatoes a day and little else (Donnelly 2001). Fortunately, such a diet, if supplemented by milk, was remarkably nutritious. Recent research (based on military and convict records) shows that during the period 1770 to 1845 potato-eating Irishmen were on average taller than Englishmen, and concludes that they may have been healthier and better fed (Mokyr and Ó Gráda 1989, 1990; Ó Gráda 1991). This confirms the impressions reported by many visitors to Ireland at the time. But over-dependence by so many people on a single source of food, however good, would eventually prove fatal.

Lastly, two cultural changes affecting rural society are worth noting. The first was the growing presence and prestige of the Catholic Church, evident in the doubling of the number of parish priests between 1800 and 1845 (Cullen 1968) and in the part played by many clergy in O'Connell's campaign for emancipation. The second change was a marked decline in the use of the Irish language, from about 50 percent of the population in 1800 to about half that figure in 1851. By then, only 5 percent spoke no English (Cullen 1968).

SEE ALSO Agriculture: 1690 to 1845; Family: Marriage Patterns and Family Life from 1690 to 1921; Great Famine; Land Questions; Migration: Emigration from the Seventeenth Century to 1845; Migration: Seasonal Migration; Population, Economy, and Society from 1750 to 1950; Population Explosion; Potato and Potato Blight (Phytophthora infestans); Subdivision and Subletting of Holdings; Primary Documents: On Irish Rural Society and Poverty (1780); On Rural Society on the Eve of the Great Famine (1844–1845); From Narrative of a Recent Journey (1847)


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W. A. Maguire