‘Where do all these people come from?’ and ‘What do the people live on?’ were two questions that puzzled Henry Spencer Wilkinson, special correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, in February 1886 while he travelled by car between Loughglynn and Ballaghaderreen (He had set out from Castlerea, having earlier taken the train from Athlone to Castlerea). Coming round a bend in the road outside Loughglynn he found part of the answer: ‘The cottages were everywhere. In every direction were cottages. Scattered all over the ground at irregular intervals of two or three hundred yards one from another were low white-washed thatched cottages. They were incredibly small.’[i] The people were flooding to mass in Loughglynn. What they lived on was harder to fathom. All Wilkinson could see was one ploughed field, and other than that, ‘hardly a bit of healthy-looking green; miles of peat-cuttings, and here and there half an acre of young cabbages’. Wilkinson found himself at a loss. ‘The whole aspect of the country was strange’.[ii] Later he was to notice the difference between the bleak and desolate moorlands of England and the area around Ballaghaderreen. In England they were ‘a vast solitude’, but ‘here they are covered with habitations, and are the home of a large population’.[iii]
Wilkinson tried to be impartial, but was shocked by the conditions. They – He was in the company of the local priest, a Father Dennis – called to a cottage up a boreen*. Wilkinson writes: ‘At first all was darkness, but by degrees I made out two women standing barefoot by the peat fire which glowed on the floor at one end of the room, the smoke meandering up the wall to a hole in the roof’.[iv] At one point he notes: ‘My bearings were gone … the bare walls, the smoke-grimed end of the room, the naked floor, the tatters and the bare feet were so many crying miseries’.
The special correspondent for the Manchester Guardian was in the area to study the land question, ‘To make a study of the agrarian conditions of the country’, in the wake of the fall of Lord Salisbury’s cabinet.[v] He wanted to know how they coped. How, in these conditions, could they possibly pay rent? As they were moving between the groups of cottages, one woman approached the priest. She wanted outdoor relief for her husband from the workhouse. Wilkinson and the priest entered the cottage and met the following scene: ‘… There, in utter darkness, lay the old man on his bed. A few rags were all the bedclothes. The open door and the smoke-hole were all the ventilation. Medicine he had none, and a doctor was outside the range of his hopes. He was prostrate and weak’. … The old man would not go to the workhouse, fifteen miles away ‘to save his life’. So he lay, as Wilkinson wrote ‘in that cottage, dark cold and draughty, penetrated by every mist, close to the un-drained bog, with no warm coverings and no other food than the old wife’s pot would cook over the peat fire by his bedside’.[vi]
So how did they cope? Wilkinson examined one holding a mile from where the old man lay dying. It belonged to a widow. He examined the crops that had been grown and the value of the seeds. He figured the land ‘had no value whatsoever’. So, how were they paying the rent? The widow had six sons. Two were in England but were doing no good. The other four were at home. They told him three of them worked a large part of the year in Cheshire, working as farm labourers. Between them, they sent home £12.00 a year.[vii] Other cases confirmed this. The land had no value. It did not pay the rent. Revenue from England paid it.
* Irish for small, narrow lane, usually up to a house and farm
[i] Henry Spenser Wilkinson, The eve of home rule: impressions of Ireland in 1886 (London 1886) p. 2.
[ii] Ibid, p. 3.
[iii] Ibid, p. 3.
[iv] Ibid, p. 6
[v] Ibid, p. vii.
[vi] Ibid, p. 9.
[vii] Ibid, p. 12.