Estate papers and the rural poor

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2011), Volume 19

Landed estate papers allow us to examine the lives of ordinary rural people in times of economic turmoil, and rentals, in particular, enable us to analyse the struggles of those on the margins of society, endeavouring to pay their rent and desperately trying to hold on to the small patches of potato ground on which their annual food supply depended. In the nineteenth century eviction represented a catastrophe for the rural poor, who might never regain a foothold on the land, yet, as the Mahon rentals of 1823 demonstrate, the margins between being able to pay your rent and the devastation of eviction were often slim and arbitrary. While in a European or British context the rural poor throughout Ireland were notable for their physical strength, and the relative abundance of turf meant that they were generally well heated, the backward nature of the rural economy in the west left the western poor inherently vulnerable to periodic bouts of extreme food shortage during the ‘hungry months’ of June, July and August, which marked the transition between the exhaustion of the annual supply of potatoes and the arrival of the new crop in late August and September. K.H. Connell has concluded that there were nineteen partial failures of the potato crop between the Great Frost of 1741 and the Famine of 1845, with food scarcity increasing in severity from the early 1820s onwards. While Cormac Ó Gráda has asserted that the nutritional and horticultural advantages of the potato resulted in the Irish ‘being better fed, better heated, and perhaps even happier than has been suggested’, Joel Mokyr has highlighted the intense vulnerability of the Irish poor and has argued that structural changes to the rural economy led to a sharp decline in the living standards of the poorest rural classes between 1815 and 1835.

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