Saturday, 27 December 2014

Dwellings in pre-famine Malahide

Ever wondered what living conditions were like for your ancestors about two hundred years ago, in Ireland? If you did, in the mid-1830s, the then government conducted a survey known as the Poor Inquiry, and it may contain the answer. Basically, they interviewed clergymen, landowners and other parish representatives across the country and sought their opinions on the condition of the labouring classes. So, to build a picture of what my ancestor’s home was like in the parish of Malahide, Co. Dublin, I consulted their report.[1] 

My paternal GGG-grandparents, Patrick Mahon (c.1784-1865) and Jane Cavanagh, were married on 12 September 1819, in Swords.[2] Patt, as he was also known, was an agricultural labourer, and by 1848, if not earlier, he leased a small three-acre holding in the townland of Yellow Walls.[3] Their son, my GG-grandfather, James Mahon, was baptised on 10 August 1823, also in Swords, where the Catholic parish church for Malahide was situated.[4]  So, Patt, Jane and James were alive at the time of the Poor Inquiry. 

‘Three farm labourers waiting to be hired for work’
Samson Towgood Roch (1757-1847) on Wikimedia commons

Responding to questions on the condition of dwellings in Malahide, Revd Francis Chamley, the Anglican clergyman, confirmed they were ‘mostly slated, or well thatched’…‘in every instance having bedsteads and comfortable bedding’.  Ian Batty, Esq., a Justice of the Peace, added they were ‘clean and comfortable’.  In contrast, the Parish Priest of nearby Howth and Baldoyle, Revd James Young, said the homes in his parish were ‘generally very poor and badly furnished, the poor inhabitants often obliged to lie on straw.’ So, from this report, and in the opinion of the Protestant class, who no doubt favoured the status quo, the people of Malahide lived in relative comfort in the early nineteenth century.[5] 

Looking at why this may have been so, in 1783, Col. Richard Talbot established a very successful cotton mill at Yellow Walls. It had a dramatic effect on the area, enriching the inhabitants and doubling the population.[6]  However, the Talbots got into financial difficulties and in the early nineteenth century the mill was abandoned. This immediately cast the population of local weavers into poverty.[7] 

Many weaver families were forced to emigrate, leaving behind their better-built cottages. Those that remained sought work as agricultural labourers - just like Patt Mahon. In his answers to the Poor Inquiry, Revd Chamley estimated that Malahide’s labouring population included 'about sixty farmers’ men, and probably about thirty men who were formerly weavers’.[8]  So, it is feasible that Patt Mahon was originally a weaver, and his family were initially drawn to Yellow Walls by the cotton industry. 

Map showing no house!
John Taylor’s Map of the Environs of Dublin 1816 (Dublin, 1989)

I grew up in the same house, built by my Mahon ancestors in Yellow Walls. It was a stone house and, by 1901 at least, it had a slate roof. The cottage originally had four rooms, with a fireplace in each room. It is not clear when exactly it was built. Taylor’s map of 1816 shows no building on the site, but Patrick Mahon leased a house there by 1848.[9] 

The 1841 census paints a somewhat bleaker picture of the housing conditions in rural Malahide, especially for the 22 per cent of families residing in 'mud cabins' with only one room. A further 30 per cent of families lived in better built cottages, also made of mud, but these had up to four rooms and windows.[10] It is therefore possible that Patt Mahon’s house of 1848 had mud walls and a thatched roof, and our stone house was built later.

[1] Poor Inquiry (Ireland), pt i, Reports on the state of the poor, with supplements containing answers to queries, H.C. 1836 (36-37), first report, supplements to appendix D and E, accessed DIPPAM
[2] Church marriage record, accessed
[3] Griffith’s Valuation, 1848, accessed Ask aboutIreland
[4] Church baptism records, Swords, Mf P.6616, National Library of Ireland.
[5] Poor Inquiry, Appendix E, pp 53-54.
[6] John D’Alton, The history of the county of Dublin, Dublin, 1838, p. 195; Samuel Lewis, A topographical dictionary of Ireland, ii, London, 1848, p. 299.
[7] D’Alton, History of Dublin, p. 196.
[8] Poor Inquiry, Appendix D, p. 53.
[9] Griffith’s Valuation, 1848.
[10] Report of the commissioners appointed to take the census of Ireland for the year 1841, H.C. 1843 (504) xxiv, 1, p. 26.

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