One night this week ‘Storm Jake’ battered Ireland, bringing with it gale force winds and freezing temperatures. But with all the comforts of modern living – central heating, double glazing, a warm duvet, and even an electric blanket – it didn’t cost me a moment’s sleep. My nineteenth-century ancestors would not have been so lucky.
Andrew and Anne (Clinch) Byrne, my third great-grandparents, had two boys christened with the name Gareth, two christened Andrew and two girls christened Anne. Such repeating names are testament to a high rate of infant mortality, more than likely caused by the wretched conditions in which they lived.
Even, compared to my forefathers in Malahide, it seems those in Co. Kildare were poor. The little cottage where the Byrne family once lived, seen last week on a mid-nineteenth century map in Athgarvan, Co. Kildare, was probably built with clay and thatched with straw. Such dwellings survived in large numbers in this village until the very end of that century and well into the twentieth.
A government inquiry conducted in the early 1830s makes for sobering reading. Labourers’ cottages in Leinster often had only two rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom, though the poorest only had one. The cottage floor usually comprised the unprepared soil on which the dwelling stood and the roof was often thatched so poorly it leaked in heavy rain. The tiny windows were rarely glazed, being boarded-up in winter with straw or maybe a piece of old bagging. These homes were dark and gloomy.
One redeeming feature might have been the fireplace, used for heating and cooking. Kildare boasts a large area of bog, so turf fuel was probably readily available. You can imagine the little cottage being cosy on a good night, when the neighbours gathered for the music and the craic… but in winter? How did they endure the cold, and the damp and the drafts?
And, it’s not as if they had comfortable furniture and bedding. There were probably a few stools, a rough table and possibly a dresser. Often, there was only one bed, shared by the parents and all their younger children. As the children reached about eight or nine years old, they typically moved to separate beds of straw on the floor, one bed for the boys and one for the girls. In poorer cottages there was no bedstead at all and everyone slept on the floor. Can you imagine? It’s hard to believe. This is how ‘our’ ancestors lived. It probably wasn’t even fit for my ponies.
Blankets were also scarce, seemingly. Many were comprised of a patchwork quilt of old coats or other coarse unwanted materials, stitched together. In some cases, the only blanket was the man’s ‘great-coat’ and the whole family huddled beneath it for warmth at night. On a wet day, you can imagine the kids thinking, ‘Dad, get in out of the rain’ as they contemplated another long damp night shivering in the dark.
William Henry Carter, Esq, a gentleman from Kilcullen, just two miles from Athgarvan, described living conditions in his area in the early 1830s as:
‘Generally miserable: mud houses, thatched with straw; badly furnished. Bedsteads not general; bedding would be wretched were it not for the blankets given from ladies’ associations, and private charity’.
I find myself seeking evidence that ‘my’ ancestors had a better life than this, but it’s doubtful. A taxation survey in 1853 placed a rateable valuation of only fifteen shillings a year on Andrew Byrne’s house and potato garden. There were worse
hovels houses than this in the area, but only just.
 House and Building Return (Form B), Blackrath and Athgarvan, Co. Kildare, 1901 Census, National Archives of Ireland.
 Poor Inquiry (Ireland), Appendix E, First Report of the Commissioners, 1836, pp 42-43, accessed Google Books.
 Same, pp 71-73.
 Same, Supplement to Appendix E, p. 60.