Life in the Rosses, Co. Donegal, in the 1890s

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2005), News, Volume 13

Anyone who has seen Brian Friel’s new play The Home Place should be interested in the descriptions of life in Donegal at the period of the play in the accounts of the Congested Districts Board. The board was set up by the British government in 1891 to improve conditions in the overcrowded western area. A survey was carried out by its inspectors, who were given guidelines on which to report and suggest improvements. The Friel play opens when the landlord family has returned from the funeral of a murdered neighbouring landlord. Though he is called ‘Lord Lifford’ in the play, we can presume that he was the notorious Lord Leitrim, who owned 39,094 acres of very poor land let in very small farms on the western seaboard of Donegal.
We must also remember that in rural Ireland in the 1890s there was no running water, no sewage system, no gas or electricity, and that on the western seaboard all cooking was done on a turf-burning open fire, where large iron pots were swung to and fro on a crane. The evidence of W.L. Micks, one of the board’s inspectors, to the royal commission on local taxation gives a graphic description of the condition of the people at this time:
‘In the congested districts there are two classes mainly, the poor and the destitute. There are hardly any resident gentry, there are very few traders and officials, but nearly all the inhabitants are either poor or on the verge of poverty. The workhouses and infirmaries in most of the congested districts, owing to the poverty of the people, are necessarily in a worse condition than similar institutions elsewhere in Ireland. Very little is spent on out-door relief. Moreover, there are very few indoor paupers. The people are very helpful to one another. The poor mainly support the destitute.’
Secondary sources of income, such as emigrants’ remittances and ‘spalpeen’ (migrant) labour, either in east Donegal or in Scotland, picking potatoes, were essential to the maintenance of any smallholding. Equally important were the industries—weaving, knitting, sewing, embroidery, kelp-making, sale of seaweed, sale of turf for firing—and donations from relatives in America.
Though all these sources were a help to many who could not live on the produce of their smallholdings, nevertheless in a good year some were little more than free from the dread of hunger. In a bad year, arising from complete or partial failure of the produce of their holdings, the people could be left in a condition of semi-starvation.
William Micks, the inspector who later wrote a history of the Congested Districts Board, reported that the Rosses on the western seaboard was a very overcrowded area, with 11,377 people in 2,226 families residing in the townlands of Annagary, Rutland, Dungloe, Maghery, Crovehy, Lettermacaward and Doochary, 94 of the families being in very poor circumstances and 84 having no cattle. He also reported that the dwellings were usually well whitewashed externally and internally.
‘Where there are only two rooms in the house the father and mother slept near the fire in the day-room or kitchen and the rest of the family in the other room, the males being in one bed and the females in another. The males got up first in the morning and went out of the room when dressed. In the Rosses cattle in many instances were housed at night at one end of the day-room, and the poultry often perched overhead . . . Conditions were improving with separate houses being built for the cattle and fowl.’
A typical family budget from the Rosses area showed annual earnings from the sale of cattle as £6, sheep £2, eggs £6, earnings in Scotland £10, at ‘the Lagan’ as migrant labour £6, knitting and sewing £7-10s, and the sale of butter, kelp, fish, etc. £2—in all, £43. The family spent a total of £42-15-5 on flour, tea (£6-1-4), Indian meal, sugar (£2-3-4), fish and bacon, salt and soap, oil and candles, clothing, rent, county cess (a form of rates), church dues and the purchase of young livestock. In addition, the family and their animals consumed potatoes, oats, straw, hay, turnips and cabbages, eggs and butter, milk, wool and turf to the value of £42-13-6.
Almost all the men, women and children in this district were migratory labourers. The men went to Scotland and the girls and children to farmers in east Donegal, Londonderry and Tyrone. Young boys and girls went to hiring fairs or ‘rabbles’ in Letterkenny, Derry, Strabane and Ballybofey, the area known as ‘the Lagan’, to offer their labour. It seems incredible today, but the wages they received varied from £2 to £5-10 or even £6 for a half-year. The inspector estimated that an average family brought home £16 a year.
All over Donegal the diet was vegetarian, mainly potatoes with wholemeal porridge or bread, and in some places Indian meal. The basic diet varied according to the relative prosperity of the families and the area or proximity to the sea. Fish, eggs, a very occasional chicken, milk, butter, cabbage and occasionally bacon were listed as additional items, but never all at the same time. In this area the inspector added a comment:
‘Notwithstanding the monotony of diet, the health of the people appears to be excellent and the appearance of physical strength among the young and middle-aged men and women is remarkable’.
In almost every report the inspector commented on the large amount of tea drunk and that its consumption was relatively new. It was also stressed that a disproportionate amount of the family income was spent on tea. One inspector, commenting on the Teelin district, which included part of Glencolumbkille, was especially critical, saying that ‘the quantity of tea consumed is out of all proportion to the means of the people, and the price they pay for it absurd’. In Glenties the over-consumption of tea was blamed for the fact that ‘the dispensary is crowded every dispensary day’.
Women’s skill with their hands generated a large part of the family income. In eastern and northern Donegal they worked at shirt-making, which involved both machine and hand sewing. In the Rosses women contributed by ‘knitting most industriously’. Their chief employers were the Messrs M’Devitt of Glenties, but during the six months from May to November larger numbers of the workers were absent as migratory workers at ‘the Lagan’.
The small amount earned by the sale of produce from the smallholdings was supplemented by fishing, sixteen boats and about 48 men being engaged in lobster-fishing from the Gweebarrra River to the Crolly River. About 170 boats on the mainland were employed in occasional fishing and in carrying seaweed and turf (the seaweed was important as fertiliser). Of these, only twelve were engaged in fishing and seventeen in carrying turf. Most of the fish caught was consumed at home.
At least in the Rosses the young people had a very active social life when they were at home. According to Inspector Micks:
‘They are famed for their love of dancing and they prefer the modern “round” dances to the old country dances. Their dancing assemblies, which are held in the winter or early spring, are of three kinds—“surrees” (clearly a corruption of soirées); meetings for charitable or other “raffles”; and “parties” held after a benevolent or friendly labouring assemblage. A “surree” is a profitable undertaking; it is notified that there will be a “surree” at a particular house and for each couple (young man and girl) an entrance fee of (say) eighteen pence is charged, the fiddler also being paid often as much as a shilling by each of the young men. The owner of the house keeps the entrance money for himself, and the refreshment (if any) is of the lightest and most harmless description.
Unlike other parts of Ireland, “make matches” were not common in the Rosses and there were no matchmakers. The people married early.’
All through the reports the inspectors commented on the credit system and on payment in kind or ‘truck’, which was prevalent all over Donegal. Under the heading ‘Suggestions as to any possible method for improving the condition of the people’, Inspector Gahan added:
‘One of the greatest pecuniary disadvantages under which the district labours is the system known as the “truck” system, or the “payment in kind system”. This system, which deprives the knitters of 3d. out of every 1s.6d. they earn, and the farmer’s wife out of 1d. on every dozen of eggs or out of 6d. worth sold, is the great strain on this south-west of Donegal, and means a pecuniary loss of many hundreds of pounds to the poor people.
The people cannot object to the system, as if they did the dealers would retaliate by refusing credit, or by increasing their prices. Also the majority of the people are too deep in debt to make any move in the matter.’
If some of his suggestions for improvement could be carried out, Mr Micks considered that ‘The Board may rely upon the industry and common sense of the people of the Rosses and Lettermacaward to take full advantage of any projects that are wisely conceived and honestly carried out in their interests’.
Though people’s lives all over County Donegal seem very harsh to us today, they were not as bad as in other areas of the western seaboard.  W.L. Micks considered that ‘In Donegal alone in the congested districts were there any home industries giving employment to women’. He also stressed that poverty was greatest in counties Mayo and Galway, and that Donegal benefited from the fact that the ‘commercial capacities of the people were well developed’.

Nellie Ó Cléirigh’s latest book is Hardship and high living: Irish women’s lives 1808–1923 (Portobello Press, 2003).

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