Town Life from 1690 to the Early Twentieth Century

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Town Life from 1690 to the Early Twentieth Century

From the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth century Ireland had few cities or towns of real consequence, but some of them were important in their own right. By 1690 Dublin, the capital city, had already become the second largest city in the British Isles, with a population of about 50,000. As the seat of government and the law courts, it proved a social magnet for the gentry, especially during the parliamentary seasons. Its port dominated the Irish Sea region. Cork was also a considerable city, with 41,000 people by 1750. Its port serviced the Munster provision trade, victualling European fleets on the Atlantic trade routes. Other ports, notably Waterford, Limerick, and Belfast, were expanding rapidly to dominate their hinterlands. Drogheda and Galway had both been important ports in the early modern period. Kilkenny was the most influential inland city.

The Eighteenth Century

Irish towns were all products of the English legal and administrative system even when they were significantly different in economy, culture, and society. Granted charters of incorporation by the English Crown, they had fallen under the control of the new Protestant landlords and merchants during the Cromwellian period. These landlords promoted their welfare, represented their interests in Parliament and on county grand juries, and championed them against interference from government, clergy, and neighboring landlords. To provide local government, they devised or adapted various agencies such as market juries, manor courts, and parish vestries. Many corporations, however, could not cover everyday expenses. In Ulster, for example, the town of Strabane attempted to apply fees paid by residents to become freemen (to trade in the town), quarterage (a charge on those who were not permitted to become freemen or full citizens, usually Catholics), and any other fines to provide basic services such as lighting and employing watchmen. When Catholics in many towns refused to pay quarterage, the judiciary ruled that it was not lawful, and so by the 1780s town corporations had to abandon their demand. Two decades later, Belfast was advised against raising money to finance secular projects through the local parish vestry of the Church of Ireland. In the last resort, then, the quality of town government depended on the interest of the patron in the welfare of his town and often on his generosity.

It depended also on the readiness and ability of a middle class made up of merchants, professionals, and craftsmen prepared to share some of the burden of local government. As every town needed regular supplies of provisions from the surrounding countryside, weekly markets had to be properly organized and administered by market juries and local courts, both for farm produce and for textiles. In the first half of the eighteenth century the landlords and their agents struggled to cope with bad harvests and epidemics, but in the second half of the century better harvests of cereals and potatoes (originally described as "the winter food of the poor") and improved communications by road and canal eased the supply problem. As seasonal fairs attracted dealers from a distance to purchase local surpluses, notably cattle and other farm stock, many towns provided facilities for monthly "fair days." These occasions generated excitement among the local populace, with horseracing, sport of all kinds, dancing, and faction fighting. In the county towns innkeepers relied for some of their custom on the excitement generated by the twice-yearly assizes and the quarter sessions. They provided accommodation for horses as well as for their riders, and toward the close of the eighteenth century they began to hire out not only horses but postchaises for travelers, and provided regular stops for mailcoaches. A great network of roads was constructed throughout Ireland under the supervision of the county grand juries, linking the market towns and attracting the poor to raise cabins on the town approaches.

The Irish parliament adapted reforms from London to cope with the social problems of the rapidly expanding city of Dublin. The best-known institution, which survived for almost a century, was the wide-streets commission in 1757, armed with sufficient powers and funds to drive long, straight thoroughfares through the maze of streets. In all the provincial ports gentry and merchants speculated in acquiring and developing building property. In 1786 Parliament instituted a police force of 750 men for Dublin, and in 1792 it allowed the majority of the county grand juries to form their own. These grand juries already maintained county jails. In 1765 Parliament made initial grants to three Dublin hospitals and encouraged grand juries to establish county infirmaries and dispensaries, laying the foundations for the Irish medical system. In 1772 it ordered them to erect houses of industry to provide work for the destitute. Dublin and Belfast followed the lead of Edinburgh in establishing chambers of commerce to promote their commercial policies. The middle classes, tradesmen, and craftsmen became active in founding voluntary charitable societies and community enterprises for the care of the old and sick, the provision of clean water, and the maintenance of fire brigades. The hallmarks of this urban society were the assembly room, the theater, and the Masonic lodge.

The Nineteenth Century

By 1800 the populations of Dublin and Cork were about 180,000 and 60,000, respectively. Hearth-money returns for the same year record that Limerick, Water-ford, Drogheda, and Belfast each contained about 3,000 houses and were twice the size of Kilkenny and Newry. Only ten other towns contained more than 1,000 houses each.

By the Act of Union in 1800 the London parliament had assumed responsibility for dealing with the social problems of Ireland. The removal of restrictions on the civil rights of Catholics by the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 involved them in politics and local government. A year previously, an act had given the middle classes in Irish towns the opportunity to elect commissioners responsible for paving, lighting, and cleaning their towns and providing a fire service and a night watch. At first, many of the smaller towns rejected it, not wishing to undergo any additional taxation, but they were finally induced to elect town commissioners and undertake improvements by an act of 1854. The London parliament, tackling poverty, sickness, ignorance, and faction fighting, gave new powers and responsibilities to the new town commissioners. It was significant that the headquarters of the new poor-law unions, the new model schools for training teachers, and the new main constabulary barracks were based in the provincial towns. Dublin and Belfast became the twin hubs of the new railway and shipping networks.

A characteristic development in many nineteenth-century Irish towns was the growth of the institutional sector of the Catholic Church, which established chapels, schools, hospitals, seminaries, and convents, especially in the diocesan centers such as Thurles, Killarney, Mullingar, and Ballina that had great new cathedrals. These institutions were staffed by members of religious orders. Many of the clergy organized religious confraternities to instruct their people in the tenets of the faith. They were active also in politics and in the Gaelic Athletic Association, whose growth paralleled the rise of non-Irish spectator sports such as soccer, rugby, and athletics.

By 1900 the towns were setting the new agenda in Irish life. They provided their communities with cheap entertainment and information in popular and local newspapers, theaters, and music halls. The poor had acquired a taste for tea with sugar, white bread, and margarine. Both Dublin and its rival, Belfast, attracted many people from the country, but their death rates matched those of any British city. The task of making them fit for their inhabitants was left to the twentieth century.

SEE ALSO American Wakes; Family: Marriage Patterns and Family Life from 1690 to 1921; Great Famine; Indian Corn or Maize; Migration: Emigration from the Seventeenth Century to 1845; Migration: Emigration from 1850 to 1960; Population, Economy, and Society from 1750 to 1950; Population Explosion; Potato and Potato Blight (Phytophthora infestans); Towns and Villages


Crossman, Virginia. Local Government in Nineteenth Century Ireland. 1994.

Cullen, Louis M. The Emergence of Modern Ireland, 1600–1900. 1981

Daly, Mary E. Dublin: The Deposed Capital, 1860–1914. 1984.

Harkness, David W., and Mary O'Dowd, eds. The Town in Ireland. 1981.

Maguire, William A. Belfast. 1993.

Maltby, Arthur, and Jean Maltby. Ireland in the Nineteenth Century. 1979.

William H. Crawford