Saturday, February 4, 2017

Wretched Ireland

Ann Killen

The available options for Ann 'Nancy' Killen were grim, whatever way you examined them. Her husband was dead. She had six kids, with the oldest fourteen years old. She had neither the knowledge, strength or time in the day to operate the farm.

Nancy Graham Killen, sometime in the late 19th Century
Who could she turn to for help? There was no welfare state in 1862. Her parents were old or dead. Her sisters and brothers were on the other side of a wide ocean, having left for America more than a decade before.

Even remarriage was not in the cards. She remained a single widow the rest of her life.

Yet, somehow she persevered. All six of her children survived to become adults. All of them married and five had children of their own.

We know from the records that she retained the farm in Kilstrule Townland, Ardstraw Parish in County Tyrone. She probably leased it out to a farmer, at least getting a small income from it.

Where did she live? Was it in Newtownstewart, the address for the Kilstrule property listed in the 1876 Irish land ownership book? Or was it Londonderry where family stories say she resided? How did she earn sufficient money to raise the children and send them across the ocean to America?

Many questions still remain.

Great Famine


The Great Famine in Ireland occurred during the 1850s - the decade during which Nancy's sisters and brothers emigrated to America. It is probable that the famine was a significant factor in their migration across the Atlantic Ocean. Other factors, prevalent before and after the famine, were significant as well. Some of these are laid out below. The impact of all these indicators of poverty plus the magnetic attraction of rich, free lands across the ocean had a profound impact on the Irish population. 

This change is illustated by the chart. Before the famine, the high Irish birthrate more than countered the impacts of poverty. The Great Famine changed that relationship, with the death of an estimated million people between the years of 1845 and 1852. The population continued to drop for the rest of the 19th Century. It did not start growing again until after 1950. 

Difficulty of life in Ireland before the Great Famine


The wretched condition of life in Ireland arose many years before the Great Famine. The clothes of the ordinary man were generally a cloak or tunic made of homespun wool or leather. Pants also were of wool or leather. A wool cap would be worn on the head but the feet would most of the time be bare. Shoes were saved for church. Women went barefoot almost all the time.

It was very difficult for farmers to make a living from their small leased farms. Most of them weaved in the evenings to bring in some money for purchasing items they had to buy. The women would do many of the farm chores and also did the spinning. They made all their own clothes.

If they had an open hearth in the cottage they would burn peat, as coal was too expensive. Very few could afford candles. The cottages of most farmers were rough wood at first and then later would be of stone. The one storied cottage would be thatched with straw. If there were two rooms one would be for their cow, sheep and probably a pig.

The Church of Ireland (Anglican) was still the state church and tithes were collected from everybody to support the Episcopalian clergymen and churches. The situation was particularly annoying to the Presbyterians and Catholics who also had to support their own churches. To many people the tithe was more than annoying and they refused to pay, including members of the Love family who were reported to the Earl [Letter]. Prior to the Great Famine, tithes were one of the main reasons for so many leaving Ireland.

Annual earnings in cash in 1733 would be £8 for a country schoolteacher and £10 in a town. Of course most of the children were needed to help on the farm so their schooling would be limited. Normal income was £44 for a farmer on leased land, £45 for a tradesman, £20 for a servant, £6 10 shillings for a cotter (a farm laborer or tenant occupying a cottage in return for labor) and £14 for a soldier.

Starting in 1730 and for the next 20 years making a living from farming became almost impossible. Considering what they made from selling their crops at continually dropping prices, they many times could not pay their rent for the land. The Estate Agent's books show people getting further and further behind. The land became overworked and they could not afford to make any improvements. England restricted the importation of wool to protect their own wool industry. Thus the farmers in Ardstraw lost what little extra income they had been making by spinning. Ardstraw was better off than most because of the help from the Earl of Abercorn. He often supplied free flour to his tenants to support them over the hard times.

The holdings became smaller and smaller as families had to divide the land between their sons. Many lost their lease and had to try to eke out a living as a cotter. These were persons who just sold their labour for food and a place to live.

There had been repeated bad harvest years in 1720, 1728, 1740, 1757 and 1765. After 1750 potatoes became the staple diet. At that time it is estimated that one out of every ten persons in Ireland died of starvation or disease. By 1762 two thirds of the population were unemployed. Around the middle of the century emigration was about 12 thousand per year. Although life was most difficult during those years, this is 1750 and not yet 1840 when the worst starvation years drove millions out of Ireland.

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