Saturday, 5 March 2016

The way they were

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.[1]

Interior of a mud cabin at Kildare, c. 1870

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.[2]

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.[3]

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’.[4]   

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.[5]

[1] House and Building Return (Form B), Blackrath and Athgarvan, Co. Kildare, 1901 Census, National Archives of Ireland.
[2] Poor Inquiry (Ireland), Appendix E, First Report of the Commissioners, 1836, pp 42-43, accessed Google Books.
[3] Same, pp 71-73.
[4] Same, Supplement to Appendix E, p. 60.
[5] Griffith’s Valuation, 1853, Blackrath and Athgarvan, Greatconnell, Co. Kildare, accessed Ask About Ireland.

Image credit: Print collection of Maggie Land Blanck, citing the Illustrated London News, 9 April 1870. 

(c) Black Raven Genealogy


  1. Dara, thank you for this post.

    No doubt, physically our ancestors must have been made of sterner stuff than us, in order to endure at all, but what always comes to mind for me is the indomitable spirit our ancestors must have possessed. The idea of the 'indomitable spirit' of the Irish might seem like a cliché, but their lives must have been imbued with it; otherwise, how else would you move forward when you are burying your babies?

    My mam used to say our ancestors and family members were grateful for every single thing they were given, and found joy in the smallest matters. Nothing was ever taken for granted. A history, such as this one of your Byrne family members, puts our modern lives into rather harsh perspective.

  2. Thanks for leaving a comment Jennifer. It's true, in many ways, we have it so easy today compared to those in the past. Yet, they may have been simpler times. We have our own 'stresses' today and in general, I don't think we're any happier now, for all our comforts.

  3. Thank you for this sobering description of what our ancestors lives were like.
    I have Irish Ancestors, but as of yet can't find from where in Ireland they were from. I only know they were born around the time of the potato famine. Would have been very rough times, for sure.


  4. I don't think they had it easy, even without the Famine. Keep searching for your ancestors, some day they just might turn up.

  5. Thanks Dara... one can always hope! I'm searching for William Kelly & Ellen/Helena Kennedy. With such common surnames, it seems impossible!! I've traced them in England, but the records only say Ireland... no indication of where.

    I want to say... I just found your blog this morning & have been enjoying reading through your posts. I love the little glimpses into their lives that you describe.


  6. Thanks Leslie, much appreciated. Don't give up on finding them; I just found my great-grandfather. He had the single most common surname in Dublin and all I knew was his parents were John and Elizabeth. Turns out his mother was Alicia, but I still got there in the end. There is always hope.

  7. I wonder if this is what my great-grandmother came from. I suppose I will never know how she lived or why she and her sisters left for New York. The conditions you describe would make anyone dream of something better.

  8. Wendy, I'm sure the situation had improved by the time your great-grandmother left for the U.S. - she could afford her passage, at least. But undoubtedly, as they were Gaelic Irish, her parents may have been born into such conditions. It just dawned on me recently - this was their lot, give or take a generation or two. It's sad really.

  9. First of all, I found it incredibly sad that your ancestors lost three young children. And, I understand the custom of naming a child after a deceased child, but it is hard to comprehend that at as comfort - though I'm assuming that's why they did it. And, it's hard to imagine this kind of life. It makes me more thankful for what I have!

    1. So sad, Dana, but their strong belief in the afterlife probably helped greatly. I once heard names were reused because (as well as honouring those important to them) they believed the soul of the child that passed would then help protect their new sibling in life.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on this!