MARTIN AND CATHERINE IN IRELAND
Martin Noon came into the world in 1840 to a single-windowed mudwalled one-room hut in the small village of Croghan about 20 kms south-east of Boyle in the County of Roscommon. His parents were John Noon and Mary Sullivan, and his sister Catherine was five years old at the time. There had been a child each year which had either died at birth or in infancy, but Martins parents didnt dwell on such matters for you never questioned the Lords Way. As was the custom, John and Mary had married early and children were regarded as a blessing, and little or no burden.
Since the turn of the 18th. century the population of Ireland had almost doubled as vast tracts of previously uncultivated land were planted to keep England supplied with foodstuffs during the Napoleonic wars. Agricultural prices were inflated making good times for landlord and tenant alike. Irish farmers and their farm labourers were doing well. However, once peace was restored in 1815, trade recommmenced with the rest of Europe and England became less dependant on Ireland for its produce. The Irish economy began to slide into depression and by the late 1820s , those children born during the boom time were at an age to want land and families of their own. Pressure of population meant there was less land to go around, and in Ireland it was more traditional to divide land among all the children than to pass it on to an elder son.
As a consequence,
Martins grandfather had divided his previously six-acre farm into one-acre
plots thus providing sustenance for his landless sons, including John, and subletting
some to neighbours. All his neighbours had done the same and, in the Irish way,
no-one asked the landlords consent. Anyway it was a fathers right
to settle his sons on a piece of his land - even if it wasnt his in the
first place. And the prices paid by neighbours for these small plots was enough
to buy in fodder and provisions during a bad winter.
It was a very
unbalanced social structure. The farmers rented the land they worked, and those
who could afford to rent large farms would break up some of the land into smaller
plots. These were leased to "cottiers" or small farmers, under a system
called "conacre." Nobody had security of tenure and rents were high.
Very little cash was used in the economy. The cottier paid his rent by working
for his landlord, and he could rear a pig to sell for the small amount of cash
he might need to buy clothes or other necessary goods.
Also, the leasehold
on a piece of land was on a year-by-year basis at the whim of the landlord who
called in each tenant each year to justify why the land should be leased to
him for another year. This was usually a quite degrading experience designed
to put the tenant farmer in his place.
of County Galway used to raise rents by 5% for every child in excess of
two, to stop incessant subdividing when offspring grow up leaving the
land never developed - only potatoes and more potatoes.
There was also
a large population of agricultural labourers who travelled around looking for
work. They were very badly off because not many Irish farmers could afford to
hire them. In 1835, an inquiry found that over two million people were without
regular employment of any kind. As well there were middlemen who
made vast profits by subletting land they had leased at fixed low rents from
landlords who mostly resided in England. In fact, in 1842 it was estimated that
6 million Pounds of rents were being remitted annually out of Ireland. Too often
the absentee landlord visited his property maybe once in a lifetime with the
result that properties were badly managed and the tenants exploited.
Most of the land
around Boyle was owned by Lord Lorton and the Rockingham Estate
had been in his family for centuries. In 1810 Lord Lorton had commissioned the
famous English architect of the day, John Nash, to design and built Rockingham
House. He built a fine italianate mansion which was later destroyed by fire
in May, 1863.
As more and more
marginal land was brought under cultivation, the only crop which would grow
with any success in poor soil was the potato. And over the years people had
become increasingly dependent on the potato as their staple diet.
farm required endless backbreaking work but the family could survive - just.
Despite intermittent famines through crop failures, frequent fever epidemics,
and a level of subsistence never far from starvation, the population had risen
rapidly to a little over 8 million. The poor married early and reproduced abundantly
and, John Carr, an English visitor in 1860 remarked that the want of somewhere
to live never affects the brain of an enamoured rustic. A mud cabin
would be quickly built and in this spartan abode the young couple would set
about producing a family. And although land was scarce, a family of six could
be maintained on less then one acre and John and his neighbours felt that the
potato on which they subsisted could never fail. Potatoes became the staple
food of the country. They are rich in vitamin C and, when mixed with fish or
buttermilk, more appetising than bread. A farm labourer was known to consume
up to 15 potatoes at a sitting!
and his family were the lucky ones for the unemployed still roamed
the country begging and sleeping in ditches.
came into the world in 1835. There had been others before that who didnt
survive childbirth or beyond their first year - and others afterwards who also
didnt survive. Until Martin came along in 1840. Still too young for school,
Catherine, from the time she could walk had helped to brush the potatoes clean
and sort them for storage as provisions and seed for next seasons planting.
Now at age five she rose early each morning to clean the night ashes from their
smouldering turf fire and arrange new long narrow pieces of turf in a pyramid
shape, balancing the top edges against each other so they encircled the glowing
embers. Never let it go out, Catherine, for when the fire is gone so are
those who used to tend it, Mary was fond of saying to her. After that,
she would milk their single cow and then assist her mother to prepare breakfast
and tend to baby Martin.
When John stirred he was greeted by Mary with the familiar Dia dhuit , who replied with Dias Muire dhuit, a stor. (God be with you, and God and Mary be with you, my dear). Then all three would recite the daily prayer, Dear God, keep us from all sickness and harm this day, forever and ever. Amen As Martin grew, he too took on his share of the daily chores.
There was no chance of ever bettering their lot, but they were surviving.
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