Victorian Times

The turn of the century from the 1800’s into the 1900’s brought many changes to the family life in rural Ireland. Life had been so restricted on the land where the vast majority of the population had to make a living. Money was as always most important, its primary use being to pay excessive rents to land lords. The change that made it possible for the people to own their property was a major development. The old mud cabin with its grass roof with a hole in it to allow smoke to get out and small or often no windows was replaced by the stone built cottage with a proper thatched roof. The owner could quarry his own stones, fell trees and prepare his own timber, very little money changed hands, and rather one tradesman repaid another with the exchange of service or produce.


   The natural talents of Irish men and women that had remained dormant by suppression for centuries under the land lord system returned to the surface when freed from the restrictions imposed on the people. They became less dependant on the potato, the grain crop provided straw for thatch and fodder for the cattle. The oats when milled, gave flour for bread and food in porridge. The miller, often being rewarded with a share of flour, which he in turn sold on. The development of roads, canals and railways produced many men qualified in the art of stone masonry and carpentry to mention just a few trades. It was remarkable that people who could neither read nor write could build to perfection carts and other vehicles including the wheels. Cart and barrow building, wheel wrighting, black smithing furniture making and tool making meant that many farmers could equip their holdings without great financial outlay. The money that beforehand had been used to pay the exorbitant rents could now be used to provide a better life style and enlarge and develop their property. Under the old system any improvements to property meant that the landlord increased the rent or in many cases evicted the tenant. Taxes were based on the size of windows in a house, so very small windows were fitted in Irish homes.


Markets, cattle fairs, and co-operative creameries founded about 1890 provided the landowner with a fair price for his milk. While at the same time milk was churned at home to supply home made butter. Some of this could be sold in the markets along with eggs, home made jam and vegetables. Turkeys and geese were feed and sold at Christmas to provide some small luxuries at that time. Work that required a large labour force on the farm was done by the Mehall system, where by all the neighbours came together in turn to cut and save the turf and the hay. Threshing the corn was done by hand using an instrument called a flail. It was made of two lengths of hazel each about four feet in length and joined by the supple skin of an eel. Men worked in pairs with a third feeding the sheaves of straw on to a large door removed from its building and placed on the floor of a barn. The coming of the power driven thresher replaced this skill. Crop planting, mowing the meadow by scythe, harvesting the crop, cutting and saving the turf are but some examples of how the work was done with the minimum of financial outlay. Extra crops could be produced and extra turf cut, these were then sold to the residents in the villages or in the market.


With the introduction of machinery to the land. Farmers who had acquired mowing machines, ploughs, hay shifters and large carts hired themselves and their equipment out to other farmers for pay. They would also collect all the milk from an area and transport it to the creamery. For local merchants they would transport goods from the docks and railway stations to the shop stores. Many farmers supplemented their incomes by shoe making, harness making, thatching, stone wall building, carpentry including boat building furniture and coffin making. Until the introduction of the paraffin oil lamp, light was provided by the home made rush candle. Some employment could be had for both women and men in the big houses, conditions were not always the best and the wages low.


Young boys and girls were hired out to large land owners to labour on the property. This was a cruel system. Cattle fairs were held in most towns and villages, two times a year in September and in March there were Hiring Fairs. Young people encouraged usually by their fathers would attend these fairs where they would present themselves for inspection by the owners of large farms to be hired out for a period of six months for the sum of about £6-00 payable at the end of the term. Generally living conditions were poor; they would sleep in the barn or on a loft in another out house. Food was not of the highest quality, the work had to be done in all kinds of weather conditions. Nearing the end of the six months hire period some cruel landowners made life so difficult for the young people that they had to leave thereby forfeiting their wages.


Many of the young people who stuck with this form of slave labour and did collect their wages used the money to pay their passage to England, America and Australia. It should be said that there were many good employers who treated the hired staff well. When established in a foreign land the young people sent money home to their parents to help pay the rent on the farms. They also sent money home to pay the passage of brothers and sisters to join them in the land of their adoption. One shrewd Irish mother who sent many of her children abroad had her own security method. She knew the sort of crooks who would be at the docks and on the ships ready to rob a traveller. So she sewed sovereigns and notes into the garments that the young person would be wearing, warning them not to touch the money until they had become settled with their family abroad.  Then it was to be used to pay their way while they found work and a place to live. The first priority of the emigrant after they had found work was to save and return the money that had been given them to start a new life.


Some of these emigrants by their hard work and success would return home and purchase farms of their own; there was one case locally where a mature man who came home purchased the farm where he has slaved for a pittance in his youth. On source of income was that of the brewing and sale of poteen, although illegal well made poteen paid the rent for many a family. In the later part of the 19th century business came within the reach of ordinary people, the shebeen was replaced by licensed public houses which in many cases doubled up as the local grocery and hardware store. Little shops sprung up in rural districts to meet the requirements of the population. Many young men joined the army or police, these were secure and pensionable jobs, retirement was possible at a reasonably early age. A good trade could be learned in the Army, many retired army men became postmen.


Until the demise of the laded gentry work was to be found on the estates as labourers, gardeners, stable hands, butlers, coachmen and with the advent of the horseless carriage men were trained as chauffeurs. Such employees where house in separate quarters or in the gate houses at the entrances to the Big House. One drawback about this was that when employment ceased or the occupant died, the family had to vacate their home. About the turn of the century (early 19 hundreds) public housing was introduced by the local government authorities, these basic but comfortable homes were known as labourer’s cottages on council houses. The county council built them and the rent was modest, the tenants were often employees of the council who worked to maintain the ever growing network of roads. Railway workers were also tenants, although the railway companies had their own house many of them at level crossings where the occupants controlled the gates when trains were due. In Belleek the Pottery Company had two sets of terraced houses for their workers.


With the building of the national schools in the mid- eighteen hundreds young people got the chance of an education, indeed many teachers held night classes for adults. Schools gave employment to young women who were excellent teachers, they also taught many crafts to the young girls of the area. These crafts were to stand them in good stead when they sought employment at home or abroad. Local ladies would supply to the rural women pieces of linen with a pattern stamped on it. In their own homes the women would embroider the work, this was a highly skilled art and for each piece would the women would get about one shilling. Of course the ladies who supplied the material would get considerable more for the products.


Travelling tradesmen were an important part of the community, they were basket makers who in returned for weeks lodgings and food on the farm would make a supply of baskets and creels and other wares from sally and hazel rods. A donkey with two creels fitted to a straddle was used to bring the turf home from the bog. The travelling tinsmith was another welcome tradesman, he moved from place to place with his family, their home being a horse drawn wagon. His products were used in the kitchen, in the byre for milking and bringing water from the well. Many a good drink of tea was had from a tin porringer while working in the bog or hay field. Tailoring and dress making were other highly skilled trades.


So far it has been mainly the male labour force that has been mentioned, the women of rural Victorian Ireland played no less a part in the development of the country than did their male counterparts. Queen Victoria died in January 1901 aged 81 years having reigned for 63 years. The Irish women produced much of the clothing for all members of the family and indeed in some cases for relations and neighbours. They produced wool, tweed and linens, designed and made garments which were suitable for both work and social events. Emigrant families sent home parcels of clothing and these items were altered and adjusted, then put to good use by children and adults. Those who were lucky enough to possess a sewing machine set up as dressmakers for members of the community. Many house had orchards and other fruit trees in the garden. The housewife could make a selection of jams which she sold to supplement the irregular income. A shrewd manager she held a secret cash reserve which often tided the family through difficult times.


The young girls of the family became well educated and trained as teachers, nurses, secretaries, shop assistants, dress makers, housekeepers and so on. The needs of the family were simple; they could get by on little money. The introduction of the old age pension was a big help to the elderly and they were no longer a burden to a young couple rearing a family. With machinery coming more and more into every day use the local blacksmith adapted quickly and soon could service mowing machines, ploughs, general farm machines including the potato spraying machine that now combated the dreaded blight. The push pedal bicycle became a popular means of transport as did the motor vehicle. Irish people showed that they could hold their own in a rapidly developing world.