Rural Life: 1850 to 1921

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Rural Life: 1850 to 1921

Between 1851 and 1911 the urban proportion of Ireland's ever-declining population doubled. Even so, on the eve of World War I, only one-third of the people lived in towns with more than two thousand inhabitants. Despite rapid urbanization in the Belfast region, Ulster was still predominantly rural, though less so than Munster or especially Connacht. Even in Leinster the urban population was only 47 percent in 1911. Farming still accounted for the majority of occupied men, though the proportion had fallen from two-thirds in 1951 to 55 percent in 1911. Though not immune to the urban drift transforming Britain, western Europe, the United States, and Australasia, the Irish economy had retained its rural character to a remarkable degree. This anomaly was a by-product of massive emigration, which had enabled up to half of each generation to urbanize itself overseas rather than at home.

The character of rural life in postfamine Ireland was likewise shaped by emigration, which enabled the remaining labor force to exploit the land more efficiently. As the population shrank, the mean size of farms gradually grew, despite the persistent problem of "congestion" in Connacht and along the western seaboard. The continuous shift from tillage to pasturage raised profits and output per capita, but reduced the demand for labor. This factor, along with significant if unspectacular technological breakthroughs (such as the displacement of sickles by scythes), fundamentally altered the rural class structure. Paid laborers, already depleted by the Great Famine, lost out to farmers and their unpaid family assistants as agriculture became less labor-intensive. By 1912, 70 percent of the agricultural workforce was made up of family members, while less than two-thirds of paid workers were permanently employed. Though real earnings rose for those laborers who remained, the laboring class disintegrated. Even female service declined, except for the widespread practice of young girls spending a year or so on a neighboring farm before emigration or marriage. The concentration of farming into small family-based units, with low labor costs, was most marked in Connacht and least prevalent in Leinster. Yet throughout Ireland the pattern of prewar agriculture bore little resemblance to rural Britain, where farming was increasingly conducted by large landowners with substantial workforces.

Rural class structure lost much of its top as well as its bottom layer during the later nineteenth century. Tenant agitation, legislation, and economic setbacks accomplished what the Great Famine had failed to achieve, the emasculation of the landlord class. Though retaining their home farms and leaseholds, most landlords had begun to sell tenanted farms to the occupiers before 1914. Fairly generous state compensation ensured that such landlords were not pauperized, and many gentry continued to live beyond their means through reliance on bonuses and easy credit, facilitating their subsequent ruin in the aftermath of World War I and civil conflict.

For the mass of small farmers and their families, the half century after the famine was a period of cultural retrieval, whereby they salvaged much of the supposedly archaic style of life which the famine (according to the providential interpretation) should have destroyed. In much of rural Ireland the potato, far from being discredited, remained the major staple of diet, along with buttermilk and "kitchen" in the form of salted herring. Meat was seldom eaten except at festivals, even in rural Ulster where oats still reigned supreme. The enduring preference for potatoes reflected justified faith in their nutritional value as well as taste, and prevailed despite the fact that unblighted potatoes were now much more expensive to grow or buy. By the late nineteenth century imported foods and home-produced meats were more widely disseminated, yet the rural diet remained astonishingly simple and healthy.

This helps to account for the exceptionally low level of rural mortality, by comparison with urban Britain and America as well as urban Ireland. Statistics based on the frequency of deaths registered after 1864, though somewhat unreliable, suggest a gradual but steady decline up to the World War I. This decline, marked among infants, reflected the reduced incidence of many infectious diseases despite the alarming spread of tuberculosis. There was little variation in welfare between men and women, mortality being lowest paradoxically in the poorest counties of Connacht. Income is indeed inadequate as an index of human well-being.

Residential conditions gradually improved, as slate and stone or brick displaced thatch and mud. The greatest advance in housing benefited the few remaining regular laborers, many of whom were able from the 1880s onwards to rent excellent cottages subsidized by the state and local authorities. Farmers, whose houses were often older, less comfortable, and less up-to-date, resented both the extra rate-burden and the novel prestige secured by the humble laborer. Even so, in most of rural Ireland farmers lived in adequate if simple dwellings with two or three rooms, a chimney, and an expanding stock of furniture and delft. The pig-infested hovels celebrated in Punch had virtually disappeared. Whereas a growing proportion of city-dwellers lived in cramped and unsanitary tenements, the quality of rural vernacular housing was improving.

Intrinsic to human happiness and therefore to welfare is the support available from family and neighbors. By the mid-twentieth century, rural Ireland seemed to many of its surviving inhabitants, isolated by widespread "celibacy" (nonmarriage) and inexorable emigration, a lonely and abandoned terrain. Before 1914, however, Irish families continued to reproduce themselves quite efficiently, with remarkably high levels of fertility within marriage, and moderate though increasing celibacy. Illegitimate births remained unusual and the negotiated property "match" was still the normal form of marriage, though "shotgun" alliances were tolerated on the principle that it was better to marry than to burn. In 1911, when median completed family size in Britain and Australia was down to about two children, seven offspring remained typical in rural Ireland. These large families, made practicable by the prospect of emigration, provided a reserve of unpaid labor and, more importantly, of personal sustenance. Women, though ever more excluded from the paid labor force, derived enhanced influence and often satisfaction from their control of the expanding household economy. Mutual support among relatives and neighbors compensated for low income and deprivation of career options for those staying at home.

Between 1914 and 1920 rural Ireland experienced unexampled prosperity as a consequence of the European war. Irish farmers, hitherto struggling to compete with European and North American food imports in the British market, relished their comparative advantage as long-distance merchant shipping was curtailed. During the boom, which ended only in late 1920, farmers gained more than their laborers. Yet increased demand for tillage, along with state controls over food prices and farm wages, generated a minor revival of paid agricultural labor. The decline of the gentry, accelerated by wartime enlistment and losses, was crowned by land seizures, arson, and sometimes murderous attacks by acquisitive neighbors.

Since the late nineteenth century, state intervention had benefited rural welfare through housing subsidies, the work of the Congested Districts Board, and technical innovations fostered by the Department of Agriculture. Desperate to augment human capital and consolidate the home front, wartime governments proved even more energetic in fostering welfare. In a successful effort to reduce infant mortality, midwifery was professionalized, advice centers opened, and free milk supplied to schools. As the world economy slid towards recession, and as Ireland slipped into revolution, the impulse for reform faltered. Yet rural Ireland was a far richer, healthier, and more comfortable environment in 1921 than seventy years earlier. Remarkably, modernization had been achieved without sacrificing the simple yet satisfying ways of living that the survivors of famine had conspired so ingeniously to perpetuate.

SEE ALSO Agriculture: 1845 to 1921; American Wakes; Congested Districts Board; Family: Marriage Patterns and Family Life from 1690 to 1921; Great Famine; Indian Corn or Maize; Migration: Emigration from 1850 to 1960; Migration: Seasonal Migration; Plunkett, Sir Horace Curzon; Population, Economy, and Society from 1750 to 1950; Potato and Potato Blight (Phytophthora infestans); Primary Documents: From Narrative of a Recent Journey (1847)


Bourke, Joanna. Husbandry to Housewifery: Women, Economic Change, and Housework in Ireland, 1890–1914. 1993.

Guinnane, Timothy W. The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration, and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850–1914. 1997.

Kennedy, Líam, et al. Mapping the Great Irish Famine. 1999.

Kennedy, Robert E., Jr. The Irish: Emigration, Marriage, and Fertility. 1973.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. Ireland before and after the Famine. 1988.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. Ireland: A New Economic History, 1780–1939. 1994.

David Fitzpatrick