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 Martin’s parents didn’t dwell on such matters for you never questioned the ‘Lord’s 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 1820’s , 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, Martin’s 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 landlord’s consent. Anyway it was a father’s right to settle his sons on a piece of his land - even if it wasn’t 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.

Lord Packenham 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.

John Noon’s 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!

John and his family were the ‘lucky ones’ for the unemployed still roamed the country begging and sleeping in ditches.

Catherine came into the world in 1835. There had been others before that who didn’t survive childbirth or beyond their first year - and others afterwards who also didn’t 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 season’s 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 “Dia’s 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.

If you're interested in seeing some old images of the times click the numbers below.
Links to image pages: [1][2]

 

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