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Many of Stafford’s Irish immigrants came from an area of about 20 miles radius round the town of Castlerea in Co. Roscommon. This week’s post looks that area before the Famine because it was the terrible conditions there that led to the migrant connection between Castlerea, England and Stafford.

Castlerea is about 32 miles north-west of Athlone and 40 miles north-east of the city of Galway and is close to the borders of north-east Galway and south-east Mayo.  Today the landscape of the area is unremarkable, even monotonous. In the low-lying hollows raised bogs developed and spread to cover large parts of the district. Outside the bogs there was fertile land, and the lowlands east of the River Suck on the edge of the district contained some of the best grazing land in the west. Nevertheless much of the area was of inferior quality – bog-strewn, treeless and gloomy. Today the district seems quiet, remote and thinly populated, but it was not always so. In the first half of the nineteenth century the Castlerea district was densely peopled and home to thousands of poverty-stricken families.

The key to this situation was the land system. In the seventeenth century the assertion of Protestant dominance over Ireland after the rebellion of 1641-52 and the Williamite victory in 1690 meant local Catholic landowners had all or substantial parts of their estates confiscated, the land going to Protestant adventurers, officers and soldiers, incoming Catholic landowners who had been dispossessed in the east of Ireland and, finally, merchant families from Galway city (the so-called ‘tribes’). Many of the surviving Catholic families, though not all, later became Protestants. By the early nineteenth century most landlords in the area cared little about their land as long as rents continued to roll in. Where landlords were absent the management of their estates was usually put in the hands of agents or the land was rented out on long leases to middlemen.  Agents were often incompetent, corrupt and oppressive and many lazy landowners adopted the second course, and renting out blocks of their land on long leases to middlemen. For the mass of the population it was a pernicious system. In 1832 local writer Isaac Weld wrote:-

“the principal cause of distress [in Co. Roscommon] may doubtless be traced to the injurious practice of granting leases for long terms. …. Landlords in chief have lost power and control, being little more than receivers of rents on their estates. …. It is by the petty landlords that the mischief is done; themselves under-tenants to others, perhaps three or four deep, and in many instances but little removed from the condition of those whom they oppress or grind.”[1]

The middleman system meant a hierarchy of tenants with each layer paying the profits of the layer above. After 1815 the Castlerea district, in common with much of rural Ireland, entered a period of acute economic and social crisis. At one extreme in the Castlerea area there was a relatively small number – perhaps 2,000 – of commercial farmers whose fortunes were determined by the market economy of Britain and Ireland.[2] They occupied about one fifth of the land.  At the other extreme vast numbers of people – about 250,000 – lived in a more or less subsistence economy. They desperately needed land on which to grow basic foodstuffs, above all potatoes. The two groups interacted. The farmers and landowners needed the labour power of the subsistence peasants whilst the latter needed wages or labour service to pay their rents, tithes and for goods and services. Barred from the best land, they had to compete for the poorer lands, bog margins and bogs not occupied by the commercial farmers.

There was a hierarchy of tenants in the competitive struggle for scarce land. This is that can be demonstrated by families whose members later settled in Stafford. In 1825 Darby Dolan rented 78 acres in Tibohine parish to the north of Castlerea.[3] This was a substantial holding, and Dolan was probably doing quite well. He doubtless sublet some or all of it to those doing less well. In other words, Dolan was a middleman and the Dolan family could well have been local power brokers. It was this that meant the immediate landlord of most Catholic sub-tenants was likely to a fellow Catholic. In contrast, in 1833 Patrick Cuncah, or Concar, rented 88 acres south of Castlerea in Boyounagh parish.[4] It was a similar-sized holding to Darby Dolan’s in Tibohine but here the similarities ended. Concar was part of a “company” of tenants who leased land in partnership and were part of the clachan and rundale system of communal farming settlements that had expanded in the west of Ireland since the seventeenth century. The system was both a response to, but also helped sustain, Ireland’s massive population growth since it allowed dense occupation of marginal land based on the intensive production of the potato for food and turf from the bogs for fuel. As the population rose land holdings in the clachans were divided and divided again and new clachans established on even more marginal areas.

Potato plots and cabins, Co. Roscommon (Illustrated London News)

Potato plots and cabins, Co. Roscommon (Illustrated London News)

In the nineteenth century landlords began to break up the system and replace it with direct leases to individual small-holders. In 1833 Thomas Raftery & Co. continued to hold 23 acres in partnership in Kiltullagh parish west of Castlerea but Pat and James Raftery leased 31 and 32 acres individually, and most of the extensive Raftery clan’s holdings in the parish were individual.[5] At Cloonfad in Tibohine parish four members of the Corcoran family were also individual tenants of five or six acre small-holdings. Co-partnerships could be of minute size. In Moylough parish, Walsh & Co. rented just four acres between them in 1837, but that in turn was bigger than the minute plot rented by John Featherstone at Knockroe in Castlerea in 1832 – just one fifth of an acre.[6] People like Featherstone were at the bottom of the land hierarchy in the Castlerea area.

The growth of population sustained by potatoes grown on marginal land, together with the shift from communal land holding to market-driven individual tenancies, produced a massive and tragic army of landless people. Although the big estates and grazing farms needed labour available on demand there was never enough paid work to sustain even a fraction of the available labourers or keep individuals in work all the year round. In 1836 only about one in ten labourers had any sort of regular employment and 8d a day was the maximum they could expect to earn.[7] Such families still needed ‘conacre’ land on which to grow the potatoes essential to survival. Under the system of conacre minute plots were rented just for the season to provide a subsistence crop, and by the pre-Famine period the landless were so desperate for conacre that landlords and middlemen routinely charged exorbitant rents for it. In 1836 conacre in Templetogher and Boyounagh parishes was costing up to £8 an acre, whilst in Kilkeevin (Castlerea) £9 9s was charged for the best land and £6 6s for bad and moor land.[8] By 1845 rents of £13 an acre were reported in the district.[9] Tenants were usually unable to pay all their rent with hard cash and that meant their labour that was essentially available free on demand to the landlords or their agents. In 1826 Gibbon wrote of

“Big Dick Irwin, who was agent to the Dillons of Belyard, in this county, [who] for forty years got his turf cut, saved and finally left in his haggard, and his potato and other requisite labour done without one penny of expense through the whole year – a gross imposition on the tenantry of this weak absentee family.”[10]

The rents charged for conacre were also extortionate because it was at the frontline of the conflict between the expansion of commercial farming and the land hunger of the mass of the population. Landholders became increasingly reluctant to let land for conacre. This kept prices up, and the rent spiral was worsened because there was no open system of conacre land valuation. It was merely let to the highest bidder, and since demand outran supply tenants were competing with each other, thus forcing prices up.

The three decades from 1815 to the outbreak of the famine were crisis years for the mass of people living in the Castlerea district. The end of the Napoleonic wars brought agricultural depression. Prices tumbled in the livestock and produce markets and tenants of all classes, but especially the poorest, could no longer afford the high rents. Rent arrears spiralled and this undermined the financial basis of many of the landlords, particularly those who had mortgaged their estates to support profligate expenditure on the basis of future income. The response of more vigorous landlords was to take direct control of tenancies, break up co-partnerships and combine small farms into larger holdings. Small tenants lost their land. In one instance the results were described by a Church of Ireland rector, Rev. William Blundell:

“In Baslick parish …. some of the tenants have gone to beg and some have got small-holdings on other estates: in Kilkeevin parish the holdings have been increased from a rood to three of four acres; those that have been dispossessed are located about Castlerea; many of them beg.”[11]

In 1845 Joseph Sandford of Derry Lodge (Tibohine parish) described the process in more detail:

“They [the landlord or agent] generally pick the best tenant; and if there is waste to the farm, or anything of that kind, they put those they cannot accommodate on the waste land, and give them the edges of bogs and so on. The country people term it transporting them; they are banished to some corner of the bog.”[12]

Population growth drastically worsened the prospects for people in the area. In the three parishes of Kilkeevin, Baslick and Ballintober the population rose from 4,821 in 1749 to 17,141 in 1841.[13] The population explosion increased pressure to subdivide holdings and worsened the hunger for land at the same time as the economic depression undermined tenants’ ability to pay the rents demanded. The population of the Castlerea area rose by a third from 186,538 in 1821 to 246,434 in 1841, and by the latter year the population density was 221 people to the square mile. Things were actually worse than this because the rural poor could occupy neither the best grazing land nor the worst of the bogs. In Kilkeevin parish, for example, the actual density on settled land was over 400 people per square mile.

Cabin in Connemara, 1880s. An indication of conditions in the Castlerea area before the Famine.

Cabin in Connemara, 1880s. An indication of conditions in the Castlerea area before the Famine.

Living conditions for the mass of people were appalling. Evidence collected by the Royal Commission on the Irish Poor in the 1830s showed a picture of miserable housing and poverty.[14]  The cabins in which most people lived were usually built of bog sods, mud or dry stones without mortar and thatched with any vegetation available, even potato stalks. They were cold, damp, dark and smoke-ridden. Cabins often had minimal furniture – even bedsteads were a rarity, most people having to make do with straw on the floor and with hardly a blanket to cover themselves. William Bourke, parish priest of Templetogher and Boyounagh reported that the housing was

“Most wretched, built of sods or sometimes mud, of stone very rarely; furnished? oh! Bedsteads, such as they are, very rarely enumerated, or to be found amidst the cabin furniture; a damp floor, a wad of straw or undried rushes, perhaps a sheet and a thing that was once a blanket, surmounted by the rags worn in the day, form the couch of the cabin’s inmates”. [15]

The people living in these hovels subsisted almost entirely on a diet of potatoes and often went around in rags. Thomas Feeny, parish priest at Kiltullagh, said that

“Their ordinary diet is potatoes, and sometimes buttermilk, and sometimes a salt herring; their condition with respect to clothing, is miserable; coarse frieze is what they use for a body-coat, and the coat is generally ragged.”[16]

This picture of a potato diet, with or without occasional buttermilk, eggs and salt fish, was general throughout the area, and some descriptions of the peoples’ clothing were even harsher. In Kilmovee, Co. Mayo, the priest Robert Hepburne said that “their clothing generally [is] so wretched as to render it difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain its colour or quality.”[17] In 1829 Skeffington Gibbon described the typical scene as he saw it in Co. Roscommon:

“In the County of Roscommon …. there is not in Europe a more poor and wretched peasantry. …. See the huts and the few wattles that alone prevents them from living as miserable as the Hindoos or African tribes, who have the advantage of a sultry climate; their little fire placed in the middle of a crib, supported by a few loose stones at the back – and the smoke, from the stinch (sic.) of weeds and what is called mud turf, is quite intolerable, and changes the very aspect and caps of the females to yellow hue – distorting their countenances and making their eyes a reddish colour. Their fare is nothing but potatoes, and in general not even a sufficiency of that useful and nutritious vegetable; and at night nothing to lay their weary limbs upon but a wad of straw or damp rushes generally termed a shake-down. These people suffer such privations.”[18]

At least a third of the population were living in the worst windowless one-roomed mud or dry stone hovels and conditions for the rest were little better.[19] Over 90% of the population lived in 3rd and 4th class houses; only the landowners, commercial farmers and traders could aspire to anything more.

The appalling conditions in which a majority of the people lived reflected the poverty endemic to the land and labour system. In forty parishes out of fifty two in the region the correspondents said in 1836 that the poverty of the people had worsened since 1815, and in only three was some improvement reported.[20] In next week’s post we look at what people did to survive this situation.

[1] Isaac Weld, Statistical Survey of the County of Roscommon, (Dublin, 1832), pp. 691/695

[2] In the 1831 census there were 2,294 “occupiers employing labour” in the study area, the majority of whom would have been commercial farmers.

[3] Tithe Applotment Book (TAB), Co. Roscommon 25/10,  (National Library of Ireland microfilm),, 1825

[4] TAB, Co. Galway, 11/18, Boyounagh Parish

[5] TAB, Co. Roscommon, 25/17 Kiltullagh Parish

[6] Co. Galway, 11/40 Moylough Parish; Co. Roscommon, 25/15, Kilkeevin Parish

[7]  Royal Commission on the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland, 1836: Appendix D: Baronial examinations relative to the earning of labourers, cottiers etc., (HC1836 XXXI.1): Cos. Galway, Mayo & Roscommon baronies. Responses to Q. 1, “How many labourers are there in your parish? How many are in constant and how many in occasional employment?”

[8] RC Poorer Classes, 1836: Appendix d: Baronial examinations relative to the earning of labourers, cottiers etc., (HC1836 XXXI.1: evidence of Rev. William Bourke, PP, Templetoher & Buiounah (sic) and Rev. William Blundell, Union of Kilkeevin.

[9] Royal Commission of Inquiry into the State of the Law and Practice in Respect to the Occupation of Land in Ireland (The Devon Report), 1845, Minutes of Evidence (HC1845 XXXI.I); evidence of Dominic Carr, agent to Lord de Freyne, Frenchpark, pp. 373-7

[10] Skeffington Gibbon, The Recollections of Skeffington Gibbon from 1796 to the Present Year 1829, (Dublin, 1829),  p. 167

[11] RC Poorer Classes, 1836, Responses, Q. 29, Union of Kilkeevin, Rev. William Blundell

[12] Devon Report, 1845, 23rd July 1844, Castlerea, Mr. Joseph Sandford, Q. 54, p. 362

[13] M.J. Huggins, “Agrarian conflict in pre-famine County Roscommon”, Unpublished D. Phil. Thesis, University of Liverpool, (2000), p. 108

[14] RC Poorer Classes, 1836, Appendices D, E & G: Baronial Examinations relative to earnings etc., cottages etc. and conacre etc.

[15] RC Poorer Classes, 1836, Appendix E., Baronial Examinations relative to Food, Cottages and Cabins, Clothing and Furniture etc., Connaught, County Galway, Barony Ballymoe (half)

[16] RC Poorer Classes, 1836, Appendix D, Baronial Examinations relative to Earning of Labourers etc., Connaught, Co. Roscommon, Barony Ballintobber.

[17] RC Poorer Classes, 1836, Appendix D, Baronial Examinations relative to Earning of Labourers etc., Connaught, Co. Mayo, Barony Costello

[18] Skeffington Gibbon, Recollections, pp. 165/6

[19] In 1851 the census attempted to classify housing, dividing it into four classes:-

4th class: mud cabins having only one room

3rd class: mud cottage, 2-4 rooms and windows

2nd class: good farm house or house in s small street; 5-9 rooms with windows

1st class: all houses better than the preceding

No similar classification was adopted in 1841. An average of 20% of houses were “4th class” in the baronies of the Castlerea district in 1851, but conditions must have been far worse in 1841, since it was the poorest occupiers of 4th class housing who disproportionately suffered in the Famine. It is therefore assumed that 80% of the decline in house numbers between 1841 and 1851 was the loss 4th class cabins through death, eviction and emigration, and this suggests that in 1841 an average of 35% of houses were of the 4th class.

[20] RC Poorer Classes, 1836, Appendix D, Baronial Examinations relative to Earning of Labourers etc., Connaught, Co. Galway, Baronies of Ballymoe, Dunmore, Tuam & Tyaquin; Co. Mayo, Baronies of Burrishoole, Carra, Clanmorris & Costello; Co. Roscommon, Baronies of Athlone, Ballymoe, Ballintobber & Boyle