Snapshot of a parish before the Famine

Published in Features, Issue 5 (September/October 2021), Volume 29

An analysis of the 1833 tithe records of Derrygrath, Co. Tipperary.

By John Keating

The tithe records for the civil parish of Derrygrath, South Tipperary, account for 3,713 of the 3,777-acre map area (cottages on under one acre are not recorded). The records were compiled in 1833 and include details on the size and cropping pattern on each holding in the decade before the Famine.

Derrygrath is located between the towns of Clonmel and Cahir and in 1833 was held in 110 holdings. From the census of 1831, the population was 1,286 in 207 family units residing in 187 dwellings. The average number of occupants per household was 6.88 and the population had increased from 1,145 in 1821 (+12.3%). The parish is rural, without a village settlement then or now.

Late eighteenth-century shift to tillage

Derrygrath lies in the Golden Vale, in an area of flat to undulating lowland with dry, fertile, loamy soil overlying glacial tilt. The soil is generally suitable for all agricultural uses. Prior to the 1770s, the land was largely used for the grazing of sheep, cattle and horses. From around 1770, however, land use gradually shifted to tillage, which was encouraged under the Corn Laws and by high grain prices throughout the Napoleonic wars until peace was achieved after Waterloo in 1815.

The sharp fall in grain and livestock prices after 1815 affected living standards. On the Dublin market, the average price per cwt (50kg) of wheat in the period 1812–15 was 17s 6d but had decreased to 11s 6d for the period 1821–5. Similar 30–50% falls in the prices for oats, barley, sheep, cattle and butter saw farm incomes halved almost overnight. Rents were not decreased. Prices for farm produce remained generally depressed until after 1835, when they began to increase.

The price slump brought poverty and hardship along with fierce competition for land, as families sought to secure the vital potato patch. Incidences of rural disorder, agrarian strife and political agitation increased as farmers, cottiers and labourers all sought to protect their respective interests. On the political front, farmers in Derrygrath were active participants in the anti-tithe campaign of the 1830s, as records show 91 in default for 1831.

Tillage was much more labour-intensive than pasture, but surplus unemployed labour was readily available. With an increasing population, labourers had a vested interest in ensuring that farmers continued in tillage, as land under potatoes and cereals could provide more food dry matter per acre than could any grazing system. Despite low prices, tillage continued to expand after Waterloo, as the land had more people to feed. The relative allocation of land to tillage and pasture for six parishes in the neighbouring barony of Iffa and Offa East for 1834, as reported by R.C. Simington, was that tillage represented 55% and pasture 45% of the area. The situation in Derrygrath was different.

Farm structure

Of the 110 farm holders in the parish of Derrygrath in 1833, 27 tenants held holdings of under eight statute acres (five Irish acres), while a further 45 held farms of between eight and 25 acres. Of those 45, 28 held between eight and fifteen acres and seventeen held from fifteen to 25 acres. Overall, 72 (65.5%) of the tenant holdings were under 25 acres (Table 1). The significance of this is that, when blight struck in the late 1840s, research shows that it was farms of under 25 acres that proved most vulnerable and contributed most to the one in four tenants who left or lost their holdings during the Famine.

Thirty (27.2%) of the tenants held farms of between 26 and 100 acres. Of these, sixteen held from 26 to 50 acres, while fourteen held between 51 and 100 acres. Seven farmers held more than 100 acres and, together with the demesne farm, occupied 1,385 acres, or 37.3% of the total parish area. These were the only farmers with more pasture than tillage on their holdings, and even within this group four tenants had more land allocated to tillage than to pasture.

Above: The civil parish of Derrygrath, between Cahir and Clonmel, Co. Tipperary—over 40% of the land was devoted to cereal production, which was labour-intensive, involving mowing, gathering, sheaf-tying, stooking and raking, as depicted (bottom) in this 1840s image by Henry Stephens. (The book of the farm, vol. III)

Commentators at the time did express concern at the small size of many holdings and worried about the reliance of the people on the potato. Yet smallholders operating a tillage system could, with careful management, family labour and spade cultivation, feed their family, pay the rent and enjoy a somewhat more secure living than that of neighbouring cottier and landless families.

Crops grown and yields

Analysis shows that in 1833 one in every five acres in Derrygrath was used to grow potatoes. On farms of under 50 acres, the average area sown to potatoes ranged from 26–37% (Table 1). The extensive quantities grownwere required to feed large families, to have surplus for livestock and to have seed for the following season. Wheat was the main cereal crop and was sown on approximately one third of farms under 50 acres.

On the 27 farms under eight acres, the total area of pasture was fifteen acres on ten farms, with one farmer accounting for a third of this. Only 26 of the 45 farmers with 8–25 acres had areas in pasture ranging from 0.4 to 7.25 acres. This would seem to indicate that few enough smallholders kept a cow (or cows), and even fewer a horse.

On those farms of 26–50 acres, 402 of the 552 acres held were under potatoes and cereals, while on holdings of 51–100 acres 718 acres of potatoes and cereals were grown on the 990 acres farmed. When fallow is counted as tillage, tillage accounted for 80% of the land farmed by both groups. The area under grass ranged from 4.5 to 12 acres on farms of 26–50 acres and from 4.5 to 37 acres on farms of 51–100 acres. The 37 acres of pasture were an exception. The tenants on these holdings likely kept a horse, some cows, cattle or sheep, but tillage was the main enterprise.

On the eight holdings of over 100 acres each, 523 acres (37.7%) of the 1,385 acres held were used to grow potatoes and cereals. Excluding the demesne farm, where just seventeen acres of wheat was grown, the tillage area increased to 47.4% of the tenanted area. Clearly, in Derrygrath in 1833 pasture was not gaining ground on tillage, despite some shift in the relative economic returns in favour of pasture.

The tithe surveyor noted the quality of husbandry applied on each farm in relation to crops grown. For tillage crops, the husbandry was generally noted as good. In contrast, the level of husbandry applied to grassland was noted as middling to poor, particularly on farms with small areas of pasture. Clearly, the attention and skills of farmers and their labourers were focused on the potato and cereal crops grown. Only one farm was recorded as having a crop of kale, and there was no reference to the growing of turnips, mangolds or any other green crop.

Cereal crop yields in the 1830s were low in comparison to current expected yields of 2.5–4 tonnes per acre. Expected average yields per statute acre were approximately 12.6cwt for wheat, 13.7cwt for oats and 17.2cwt for barley. Yields are based on the first national recorded yields from a decade later, but the technology had not changed (Table 2). Thanks to the care lavished on the potato crop and the dominance of the high-yielding Lumper variety, reports that average yields in the 1830s exceeded five tonnes per acre (12–15 tonnes per hectare) are realistic.

All farmers in Derrygrath grew at least one cereal in 1833, and 21 grew some of all three. Wheat was grown on 100 of the 110 farms, oats on 78 and barley on 31 farms. This was different from the national picture, where oats were by far the most widely grown cereal. On individual farms, the area under wheat ranged from 0.8 to 71 acres, with twenty of the 110 farmers growing in excess of fifteen acres each. The cereals were generally grown for sale to pay the rent and clear liabilities.

Potato supply and consumption

Contemporary reports confirm that individuals on a potato diet consumed enormous quantities on a daily basis. On average, an adult working male ate 6.4kg of potatoes per day, while adult females and children aged 11–15 years consumed 5.1kg per day. Younger children consumed on average 2.2kg per day. Thus a household of two adults, three older children and two children under eleven years, depending on the potato for 75% of their diet, would need 8.5 tonnes of potatoes annually for home consumption, and more where potatoes were fed to pigs, poultry, cattle or horses or required for seed for the following year’s crop. To meet this demand, 718 acres of potatoes were grown in Derrygrath in 1833; based on a yield of 5.2 tonnes per acre, 3,734 tonnes of potatoes were available.

In the absence of a demographic breakdown of the 1,286 residents, let’s assume that one third (429) were males over sixteen years old, one third (428) were females over sixteen years old and one third (429) were young people under sixteen years old, divided into 149 aged 11–15 years and 280 under eleven years. Based on potatoes comprising 75% of the diet, the quantity required per adult male is 1.752 tonnes or a total of 752 tonnes. For the adult females and children over eleven years some 806 tonnes were required, along with 168 tonnes for children under eleven years old. In total, an estimated 1,726 tonnes were required for home consumption.

Nationally, about two thirds of the quantity required for human consumption were fed to pigs, poultry, cattle and horses. As tillage was the main enterprise in Derrygrath, however, the amount fed to livestock may have been closer to 50% or 863 tonnes. To this must be added seed for the following year’s crop and an allowance for wastage and spoilage of approximately 850 tonnes. This gives a total demand of 3,439 tonnes and an apparent surplus of 295 tonnes, but any reduction in yield owing to weather or disease would quickly turn this surplus into a deficit, as could the commercial sale of potatoes outside the parish. Twelve farmers did grow in excess of fifteen acres of potatoes each, whether as conacre for neighbours or with a view to commercial sale.

Population pressure and hunger for land ensured that people were prepared to live largely on a potato diet. Fortunately, potatoes contain carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins and, with milk or buttermilk, provided a balanced if monotonous diet.

Above: The ruins of the church in Derrygrath—closed for ecclesiastical use in the sixteenth-century Reformation. The surrounding cemetery continues to be used.

Social and economic situation

Of the 187 houses occupied in 1831, 124 were held by farm tenants (twelve tenancies were in joint names) and 63 by undertenants, cottiers and landless labourers. Those 63 families depended on securing a conacre plot on which to grow potatoes either through purchase or by bartering their labour. Poverty was endemic and the extent of underemployment nationally was quantified in a government report in 1836, which concluded that no fewer than 585,000 labourers were unemployed for 30 weeks of the year. Derrygrath had labourers in this predicament (60 chiefly employed in agriculture and 79 in other activities), and when not in regular employment they and their dependants were impoverished.

The failure of agricultural prices to rebound after 1815 eroded the prosperity of earlier decades. By 1833 the tithe records for Derrygrath confirm the existence of a weak farm structure, with half of the 110 farms of less than fifteen acres each. While the 38 farmers with holdings of 25 acres or more could be regarded as secure or comfortable, they accounted for few of the 187 households, comprising the 207 family units, recorded in 1831.

The ongoing reliance on tillage farming is reflected by the fact that, on the 102 farms of 100 acres and under, just 17.8% of the total area farmed was in pasture. Wheat, grown on one in every four acres, was the main cereal crop. The tillage system used did produce the food required to support the increasing population and did employ the 60 farm labourers recorded in the 1831 census, at least for part of each year. As throughout the country, however, it was ‘potato culture’, with one acre in five devoted to growing the crop, that allowed the system to persist. The tithe records of 1833 for Derrygrath further confirm that pasture (32.7%) was not gaining ground on tillage (61.9%), with 5.4% in fallow between tillage crops. Despite this, when blight destroyed the potato crop in the 1840s, the reliance on tillage farming did not serve to save the population, which fell sharply from 1,329 in 1841 to 942 in 1851.

John Keating is a graduate of UCD and previously worked with Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority.


Tithe Applotment Records, National Archives of Ireland. (Derrygrath is misplaced under Derrygalvin, Co. Limerick.)

G. Ó Tuathaigh, Ireland before the Famine 1798–1848 (Dublin, 2007).


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