Men and women who were born, grew up and died in Ireland between 1850 and 1922 made decisions—to train, to emigrate, to stay at home, to marry, to stay single, to stay at school—based on the knowledge and resources they had at the time. This, a comprehensive social history of Ireland for the years 1850–1922, explores that knowledge and discusses those resources, for men and women at all social levels on the island as a whole. Original research, particularly on extreme poverty and public health, is supplemented by neglected published sources, including local history journals, popular autobiography and newspapers. Folklore and Irish language sources are used extensively. The book reproduces the voices of the people and the stories of individuals whenever it can, and questions much of the accepted wisdom of Irish historiography over the previous five decades.
This chapter sets out to detect the voices of those Catholic women who managed to make themselves heard by a wider audience than family and friends in Ireland in the years between the Act of Union and independence/partition. It looks at women whose words and deeds had an impact in the so-called public sphere, organisational management, work which gave them authority over others campaigning, politics and writing. The most obvious Catholic women whose voices were heard between 1800 and 1921 were nuns, as religious sisters were commonly known. When it came to political and social reform movements, Protestant women's voices were the first ones raised. Ann Colman's groundbreaking research of the early 1990s shows definitively that Irish women, Catholic and Protestant, wrote and published vigorously, and were widely read, throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.
This is a history of how people worked, where they lived, what they ate, wore, sickened and died from in Ireland from 1850 to 1922, rather than a history of how they saw themselves, each other and their place in the world. It summarises much useful information about life in Ireland in the period 1850–1922, incorporate some original research, suggests new lines of inquiry and disputes some historical orthodoxies that have grown up over the years. This chapter notes that life in Ireland in the seventy years covered by this book was more than an inexorable acceleration towards post-independence Ireland, north and south.
This chapter provides a brief summary of their findings, but the bulk of the chapter is a discussion of change and continuity in everyday farm-work in Ireland between 1850 and 1922 for men, women and farm labourers.
There was some development of non-agricultural employment in Ireland between 1851 and 1922, but this does not mean that there was work for everyone. Emigration masked the true extent of unemployment, millions of people moving from the country and sending home money. There was, however, an increase in the numbers of people employed in professional and white-collar work, in local government and civil service work, in commercial and distributive work, in transport and communications, and in some kinds of industrial work. The definition of work changed between 1850 and 1922. The hand-to-mouth subsistence work to which many people claimed attachment in 1851 gradually ceased to be considered real employment. Homeless peddlers, prostitutes, beggars and others of precarious income gradually disappear from the Census occupational tables only to turn up again in the vagrancy statistics.
In the years 1850–1922, the National School existed, as did other primary schools not controlled by the State, but secondary schools evolved only slowly in the early years of the twentieth century in the early years of the twentieth century into their present form. Vocational schools were not set up until after 1930, but technical training was given in many National Schools. Only a tiny minority of the population attended university, as not all of the professions demanded a university degree, and primary teacher-training colleges were set up only in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. In 1911 male and female literacy rates in Ireland were comparatively high and roughly equal, unusual in a largely agricultural Catholic country. Attendance at primary school was made compulsory in 1892.
There were many different kinds of emigrants and migrants who came from Ireland during the period 1950 to 1922. Broadly speaking, the emigrants most likely to have broken their ties with Ireland were those who went in family groups, and many of these left in the 1860s and 1870s. Emigration contributed to the agricultural prosperity of the years 1850–75 by making more land available to medium-sized and larger farmers, and by having fewer discontented labourers and smallholders putting moral and social pressure on farmers to employ them. Although the need to emigrate was one of the factors in the decline of the Irish language, emigrants' remittances facilitated the survival and perpetuation of Irish-speaking communities for several generations. Permanent emigration after 1880 preserved the cultural and human landscape of the western seaboard — though for dwindling numbers in each generation.
When marriage took place, economics was important to all social levels. Strength and ability to work were highly prized among all working people, farmers included; it ensured survival, and cemented partnerships. Such pragmatism could, and can, co-exist with sexual attraction, friendship and joy in one another's company. Our view of country people is relayed to us by city people, through the lens of nineteenth-century urban sentimentality, and if Irish farmers were reputed to lack romance, so were rural people everywhere—French peasants in particular. As late as 1997, Arensberg and Kimball's study of family life on a small farm in west Clare in the 1930s was described as ‘the classic portrait of the post-Famine Irish rural family’ and used as background for a discussion of mental illness in nineteenth-century Ireland.
In 1850 health provisions in Ireland were patchy. Cities were well supplied with voluntary hospitals for the poor, and most county towns had public infirmaries and fever hospitals. Geary counts 171 hospitals in Ireland by 1845, and 664 charitable dispensaries. The collection of health statistics, urban sanitary reforms and health legislation led to an improvement in what is known as public health. The story of poor William Burke, diagnosed with smallpox, illustrates how developments in commerce and transport aided the spread of disease even as modern public health authorities tried to curb it. Like most social and medical reformers in all countries at the time, they thought of the poor as a particularly disorderly and troublesome organ of that body or sometimes even as waste matter. Many people in Munster recovered from smallpox and measles, but lost their sight, without ever consulting a doctor or becoming a public health statistic.
Nineteenth-century institutions lasted a long time in Ireland. Reformatories and industrial schools still operated in the 1970s. Psychiatric hospitals began to experiment with ‘care in the community’ in the 1960s and 1970s, but many of the features of the old lunatic asylum remained until much later. Magdalen asylums lasted until the 1980s. The hated workhouses were more or less abolished after independence, though the more benign county homes which replaced them continued to house some homeless people until long after that. And in Ireland, as elsewhere, the founding principles of the nineteenth-century prison still inform judicial punishment in the early twenty-first century. The workhouse was deliberately designed as a joyless place where the destitute would not linger. Whether an institution ended up as a welcome refuge or as a grim prison depended on the power enjoyed by those running the institution.