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Everyday Life in 19th Century Ireland

Everyday Life in 19th Century Ireland

by Ian Maxwell

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To Victorian visitors, Ireland was a world of extremes – Luxurious country houses to one-room mud cabins (in 1841 40% of Irish housing was the latter). This thorough and engaging social history of Ireland offers new insights into the ways in which ordinary people lived during this dramatic moment in Ireland’s history from 1800-1914. It covers wide


To Victorian visitors, Ireland was a world of extremes – Luxurious country houses to one-room mud cabins (in 1841 40% of Irish housing was the latter). This thorough and engaging social history of Ireland offers new insights into the ways in which ordinary people lived during this dramatic moment in Ireland’s history from 1800-1914. It covers wide range of aspects of everyday lives: from work on the many wealthy country estates to grinding poverty in the towns. It covers the transformative effects of the railway development and Ireland’s first tourist boom. Workhouse life and the new Poor Law system which incarcerated entire families behind forbidding walls. Religious divisions, educational boycotts, customs and superstitions.

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Everyday Life in 19th-Century Ireland

By Ian Maxwell

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Ian Maxwell,
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-8089-3


The Union

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Irish Parliament was fighting for its survival. It had a long but not particularly distinguished history. The earliest known Irish Parliament for which there is a definitive record met on 18 June 1264 at Castledermot in County Kildare. For the next 500 years it carried out its business to the complete indifference of the vast majority of the country's inhabitants. But it did so in some style. It sat in the world's first purpose-built two-chamber Parliament House, opened in 1737, while their counterparts in London were forced to make do with the cramped conditions and odd seating arrangements of the ancient Palace of Westminster.

Membership of the House was as exclusive as Dublin society. It was for the privileged, rich and strongly Anglican. Sessions of Parliament drew many of the wealthiest of Ireland's Anglo-Irish ascendancy to Dublin, particularly as sessions often coincided with the Irish social season, running from January to 17 March, when the Lord Lieutenant presided over state balls in Dublin Castle. Leading peers in particular flocked to Dublin, where they lived in enormous and richly decorated town houses, initially on the north side of Dublin, later in new Georgian residences around Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square. Their presence in Dublin, along with large numbers of servants, provided a regular boost to the city's economy

The Irish Parliament was not truly independent because the executive branch of government, the Lord Lieutenant, was appointed by the Crown and was not answerable to the Parliament. Poyning's Law, imposed on Ireland in 1495, restricted the Irish Parliament from taking action on any law that was not pre-certified by the Crown. It was only during the last twenty years of its existence that the Irish Parliament, led by MP Henry Grattan, persuaded the Crown to allow it more independence. The Irish Constitution of 1782 modified Poyning's Law, allowing the Irish Parliament virtual Home Rule authority.

This independence was short lived. The United Irish Society, or United Irishmen, founded at Belfast in 1791 by Theobald Wolfe Tone, was formed by those who demanded parliamentary reform and the removal of English control over Irish affairs. The organisation at first aimed at legislative reform but, after the society was suppressed in 1794, it became a secret revolutionary organisation. The British government waged a campaign of brutal repression in Ulster in an attempt, largely successful, to break up the cohesive centre of the movement. In March 1798 several southern leaders were arrested, and when rebellion did break out in May it was in isolated sporadic bursts. The only appreciable success was in County Wexford, but the rebels there were defeated in the battle of Vinegar Hill on 21 June. The Rising had already collapsed in the south and west of Ireland, when the standard was raised in the north. In County Antrim an army of some 3,000 and 4,000 men under Henry Joy McCracken was crushed, but in County Down the rebels succeeded in occupying Saintfield. They were soon dislodged, however, by government forces under the command of Major-General George Nugent. Having burned Saintfield to the ground, Nugent's troops reached Ballynahinch on the following day and proceeded to bombard the town. On the morning of 13 June 1798 the rebels' ammunition ran out and Nugent's army overwhelmed them on Ednavady Hill. No mercy was shown and Nugent later claimed to have killed 300 in the fighting and a further 200 in the pursuit. With the town a smoking ruin and bodies lying unburied in the streets, the rising in County Down was over.

What particularly concerned the British government was the fact that during this period Republican France had attempted three invasions of Ireland, once in 1796 under General Hoche, and twice in 1798 under General Humbert and Admiral Bompart. This posed a very serious security threat, not only to Britain but to the Empire as well, which the government could not ignore. Prime Minister William Pitt lost no time after the 1798 Rebellion in bringing forward his scheme for a union between the British and Irish parliaments. There were impassioned debates in the Irish Parliament but these were concerns of the Irish Establishment, mostly the nobility, the gentry and office holders. Lord Lieutenant Viscount Cornwallis was near the mark when he said, 'The mass of the people of Ireland do not care one farthing about the Union.'

Support for the Union came from two very different constituencies. One of these – the Protestant – after the fright it received in 1798, saw the Union as a greater safeguard of their interests. Ironically, many Catholic landowners and middle-class Catholics favoured the Union on the grounds that they would be better accommodated by a more tolerant Protestant majority in England than by an insecure Anglo-Irish minority in Ireland. Prime Minister William Pitt fully intended to follow the Act of Union with other reforms including Catholic Emancipation which would address their aspirations. It was for this reason that, although the grand lodge of the Orange Order in Dublin attempted to remain neutral on the Union, thirty-six lodges from Armagh and Louth alone petitioned against it. It mattered very little. On 28 March 1800 the terms of the Union were agreed by both houses of the Irish Parliament and the Act of Union came into force on 1 January 1801. A new country was formed (The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland) with a new flag, the Union Jack, created from the flags of each member state. In time, Protestants came to accept that their best hopes of preserving their position in Ireland lay in the preservation of the Union, while this fact alone convinced Catholics that the repeal of the Union offered their best opportunity for advancing their interests.

At the same time, the passing of the Union turned out to be something of an anti-climax. From all over the country, including Dublin, reports came of perfect tranquillity. There was, however, one last attempt to revive the cause of the United Irishmen, a remnant of which remained opposed to the British connection whether there was a Union are not. The rising of July 1803 was led by Robert Emmet who had hoped to assemble 2,000 men to attack Dublin Castle. In the end, he could only muster eighty, most of whom, one later admitted, had been in the Yellow Bottle tavern, 'drinking and smoking, in the highest spirits, cracking jokes, and bantering one another, as if the business they were about to enter on was a party of pleasure.'

The rising in Dublin turned out to be little more than a street riot. Emmet, appalled by the brutishness into which his bid to establish an Irish Republic immediately degenerated, abandoned the project and took himself off into hiding where he remained for a month before being caught, tried and executed. His speech from the dock, which immortalised him in Irish history, included a phrase which would reverberate down through Irish history, 'Let no man write my epitaph ... When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then let my epitaph be written.'

The 1798 Rebellion and Emmet's failed rising remained fresh in many minds, and not only those of the authorities, for many years afterwards. John Gamble, who travelled through Ireland in 1812, found that old animosities remained. While staying at Banbridge, County Down, he got into conversation with a local man at the market house. As they talked:

a party of yeomen, drums beating, and colours flying, passed us. They splashed through the wet to quick time, and looked as jaded and dirty as a company in a ball room, when day breaks on them. Though their looks were impaired, their loyalty was not. At sight of us their music changed to 'Croppies lie down' my new acquaintance smiled I asked him the reason. He was, it seems, suspected of being a united Irishman in the year 1798, and these loyal gentlemen took this method, he supposed, of rebuking him for his past transgressions. I drank tea with him, and found him an intelligent man, perfectly awakened from the reveries of republicanism, if he had ever indulged in them, though he complained heartily of the pressure of the times, and the exactions of landlords.

It was County Kerry barrister Daniel O'Connell, who had developed an early reputation for radical politics, who would resurrect the anti-Union cause out of the ashes of the 1798 and Emmet Risings. He was determined to use the machinery of Parliament to obtain political and religious equality. In the space of just over twenty years he inaugurated two great political campaigns in succession. The first was for Catholic Emancipation, or the removal of the remnants of legal discrimination against Catholics surviving from the Penal Laws. Principally, this concerned the right of Roman Catholics to sit in parliament, from which they were still banned unless they took an oath abjuring certain fundamental Catholic beliefs. The second, more daunting objective, was the repeal of the Act of Union itself.

To campaign for Catholic Emancipation, O'Connell built up a strong mass organisation with the help of able middle-class assistants and, more importantly still, the Roman Catholic clergy. He set up many organisations to raise money for the cause of Emancipation, including the Catholic Association in 1823. An essential feature of O'Connell's political organisation was its broad democratic basis. Associate membership of the Association could be had for a penny a month and soon very large sums were flowing into it. Although 1798 had left him with a horror of popular violence, he stressed at mass rallies the physical power he had under his control. In June 1843 he announced the following to more than 300,000 supporters at Kilkenny:

I stand today at the head of a group of men sufficient, if they underwent military training, to conquer Europe! Wellington never had such an army. [Cheers] There was not at Waterloo on both sides as many brave and determined men as I see before me today. Tell them what to do and you have them disciplined in an hour. [Cheers.] They are as well able to walk in order after a band as if they wore red coats.

In 1828, O'Connell was elected to represent County Clare, causing wild popular excitement. However, because he was Catholic, he could not take his seat without taking the Oath of Supremacy which recognised the King as head of the Church. This was something that O'Connell as a devout Catholic would not do. The British Government, fearing a civil war or serious disorder in Ireland because of intense opposition to the existing anti-Catholic legislation, passed the Roman Catholic Relief Act (1829) which granted Catholic Emancipation. The legislation was not retrospective, forcing O'Connell to stand again, this time in County Kerry where he was elected unopposed.

O'Connell initially concentrated on building up an effective Parliamentary organisation. In return for his support, and that of thirty-nine of the Irish MPs returned in the General Election of 1832, he agreed to support Lord Melbourne and his Whig Government in return for significant Irish reforms. Although the Whigs passed a Tithe Commutation Act (1838) and the Irish Municipal Reform Act (1840), O'Connell thought this inadequate. He was also totally opposed to the passing of the Irish Poor Law Act and when the Whigs refused to change it, he withdrew his support for the Government. O'Connell turned instead to the mass following he had retained in Ireland. He announced that 1843 would be the Year of Repeal. The Catholic Church rallied to the cause, led by Archbishop MacHale of Tuam. The most notable characteristic of the repeal movement was the massive outdoor meeting attended by hundreds of thousands of supporters. The first of these was held at Trim in March 1843 where he told an enthusiastic crowd:

I admit there is the force of a law, because it has been supported by the policeman's truncheon, by the soldier's bayonet, and by the horseman's sword; because it is supported by the courts of law and those who have power to adjudicate in them; but I say solemnly, it is not supported by constitutional right. The Union, therefore, in my thorough conviction, is totally void, and I avail myself of this opportunity to announce to several hundreds of thousands of my fellow subjects that the Union is an unconstitutional law and that it is not fated to last long – its hour is approaching.

The Government was alarmed but Prime Minister Robert Peel was not so easily intimidated. In May 1843, he told the House of Commons that he was authorised by the Queen to say that, ' ... deprecating as I do all war, and especially civil war, there is no alternative which I do not think preferable to the dismemberment of the Empire'. O'Connell continued to up the stakes as the monster meetings continued throughout the summer. The largest so far was held on 15 August on the Hill of Tara where three quarters of a million of his supporters gathered. At Tara O'Connell said, 'Let every man who, if we had an Irish parliament would rather die than allow the Union to pass, lift up his hands.' But when O'Connell announced that the greatest monster meeting of them all was to be held at Clontarf, near Dublin, Peel decided to call his bluff. The day before the meeting was to be held, a proclamation was issued declaring it illegal and troops were sent to enforce the banning order. To avoid a bloodbath, O'Connell backed down and cancelled the meeting. A charge of conspiracy to incite disaffection was brought against O'Connell and other leaders and they were sentenced to imprisonment. After four months in prison, the sentence was quashed by the House of Lords but the O'Connell who emerged from prison was a beaten man.

After O'Connell's release from prison in September 1844, the demand for repeal was renewed, and although further great meetings were addressed by him, the enthusiasm of 1843 was never recaptured. In October 1844 he divided the Repeal Party when he stated his opinion that a federal system, in which Ireland would continue to be represented at Westminster, was preferable to simple Repeal of the Union. Weakened physically by overwork, disappointed by the failure of Repeal, worried over the disagreements with his supporters and suffering increasingly from ill health, O'Connell decided to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. When he reached Paris he was greeted by a large crowd of radicals who regarded him as the 'most successful champion of liberty and democracy in Europe'. O'Connell did not complete his journey to Rome; he died in Genoa on 15 May 1847. As he had requested, O'Connell's heart was buried in the Irish College in Rome (in a monument arranged by Charles Bianconi) and his body was interred in Glasnevin cemetery on 5 August 1847.

The younger wing of the Repeal Association, dubbed the 'Young Irelanders' by the English press, had become increasingly estranged from O'Connell during the final years of his leadership. Young Ireland attracted young members of the middle class whose aspirations went further than simple repeal. The movement aimed at a nationalism which would 'establish internal union and external independence.' Essentially, they sought a pluralist Ireland, while O'Connell's movement was overwhelmingly Catholic in character. The lead came from Thomas Davis, thirty-nine years old, son of an English army surgeon and an Irish mother; Charles Gavan Duffy a Catholic journalist; John Mitchel, a Belfast Protestant, and John Black Dillon from Mayo, a Catholic but a graduate from Trinity College. They rejected compromise with England and worked hard to create a concept of the Irish Nation which excluded landlords who were described as 'alien in race and religion'. An important element of the new nationalism was the revival of the Irish language. The movement's success stemmed largely from the popularity of its newspaper The Nation which had a print run of 12,000 copies and was widely distributed through Repeal reading rooms, claiming a readership of 250,000.

During the 1840s, the movement became increasingly divided as a second wave of recruits, including John Mitchel and Thomas Francis Meaghan, favoured revolution. In October 1847, at the height of the Great Famine, Mitchel urged tenants to withhold all agricultural produce for their own consumption and in December appealed to the peasants to arm themselves in defiance of the Government. The country, he later argued, was 'actually in a state of war – a war of "property" against poverty – a war of "law" against life'. His views were too extreme for many of his colleagues at The Nation so he founded his own newspapers, The United Irishman, to promote his belief that, 'legal and constitutional agitation in Ireland is a delusion; that every man (except a born slave, who aspires only to beget slaves and die a slave) ought to have arms and to promote their use of them. That no good can come from an English Parliament.'

The rising, when it came, took place at the height of the famine when many were starving, dispirited and forced to migrate to the cities for work or as a prelude to emigration. It was led by an unlikely revolutionary. William Smith O'Brien, the second son of Sir Edward O'Brien, 4th Baronet of Dromoland Castle in County Clare, had entered Parliament as a Conservative in 1826. His decision to join the Repeal Association in 1844 therefore caused something of a stir. He gave his reasons for such a change in his political outlook at a banquet given in Limerick to celebrate his conversion to the Nationalist cause:

The feelings of the Irish nation have been exasperated by every species of irritation and insult; every proposal tending to develop the resources of our industry, to raise the character and improve the condition of our population, has been discountenanced, distorted, or rejected. Ireland, instead of taking its place as an integral portion of the great empire which the valour of her sons has contributed to win, has been treated as a dependent tributary province; and at this moment, after forty-three years of nominal union, the affections of the two nations are so entirely alienated from each other, that England trusts for the maintenance of their connexion, not to the attachment of the Irish people, but to the bayonets which menace our bosoms, and the cannon which she has planted in all our strongholds.


Excerpted from Everyday Life in 19th-Century Ireland by Ian Maxwell. Copyright © 2012 Ian Maxwell,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Ian Maxwell writes for family history magazines including Family History Monthly and Ancestry Magazine. He is an expert on Irish Family History and has written a number of guides.

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