Statistical Survey of the County of Clare, 1808

By Hely Dutton

Chapter V - Section 3

Habitations, fuel, food, and clothing of the lower rank, and their general cost

HABITATIONS

THE cottages of the labouring classes are almost universally built of stone without any cement; some few in the mountains and bogs are constructed very badly with sods; the couples are about two feet asunder, and support what are called ribberies or stretchers; across these the small branches of trees are laid, and on these thin tough sods, which support the thatch, and into which the straw, after being wound up in handfuls, is thrust by an iron instrument like a dibble. Frequently heath, fern, rushes, sedge, and sometimes potatoe-stalks, are used instead of straw; the potatoe-stalks last only one winter, and are a wretched covering. They have generally a step down into them, which causes them to be always damp, and, as the dunghill is usually near the door, it adds to the damp filthy state of the cabins. On this damp floor the straw or hay, on which they sleep, is generally spread, and often the pig and dog partake of the same bed; as they are fond of having the smoke about them, it adds to the filthy appearance of their habitations; yet out of these huts issue the sinewy arms, that chiefly man the British fleet and armies. It is vain to expect any alteration, until the gentlemen and farmers set an example of cleanliness about their own dwellings, which, though they may have a handsome approach and plantations in the front, are, in general, in a most filthy state near the kitchen door.

FUEL

Is universally turf or peat, which abounds in almost every part of the county, except a part of Burrin, which is supplied on the sea-coast from Cunnamara on the opposite side of the bay of Galway; a boat-load, containing from forty to sixty back-loads, costs from 20s. to 28s.; in other parts of this rocky country, remote from the sea, the inhabitants are greatly distressed for firing, which must ever remain a bar to any great increase of population.

A labourer will cut as much turf in two days, as will serve his family for a year, and his wife and children save it; the carriage home is generally performed by placing two small baskets on a horse’s back; or, where they live very near the bog, or the ground is rocky or very soft, the family carry it on their backs, and it is astonishing what a weight some of these little creatures will carry. The price paid for liberty to cut turf is very various, and though in some places, where it is becoming scarce, a high price is demanded, and must be paid, yet in general it is reasonable. In some places hand turf, or that made into rolls with the hand, is used, and makes a more lasting and hotter fire than that cut with the slane. Where turf abounds, it is seldom cut to the bottom of the bog, and the best turf is left behind; this is also occasioned by the very general neglect of draining, and surely, where a high price is charged, it is incumbent on the proprietor to drain the bog, to give the poor people the full value of their money. Too often the proprietor permits his bog to be cut into holes, which not only helps to keep the bog always wet, but the chief expense in reclaiming bog is occasioned by the necessity of filling in these holes. Agents to estates are here in general highly culpable; they never think, nor care, that in the next generation many estates will be but thinly inhabited, from a want of this necessary of life. 

In the parish of Kilraghtish, and other places, no price is paid for the bank, from which the turf is cut, as is the practice in other counties; but six guineas per acre are charged for the ground, on which the turf is spread; this ridiculous custom occasions the turf to be badly saved, and in wet seasons often lost; for the poor people, to save this expence, heap their wet turf on each other, and lose a great deal of time by frequent turning. In other places ground for spreading on is let for 6s. per square perch, (48l. per acre.) Some charge different prices for certain dimensions per agreement: for hand-turf, eight guineas per acre are charged for both spreading-ground and turf-bank. In most places the turf, after being cut and thrown up on the bank, is carried away in barrows, and spread by women and children, and the drying, called footing, continued until it is clamped. Some throw up the turf on the bank to a man, who receives it on a pitchfork; he flings it seven or eight yards to another man; this is repeated, until it has reached the drying ground, and injures the turf greatly. 

FOOD

Scarcely any other than potatoes and milk; this last not always in winter, but in greater plenty than formerly. 

On the sea-coast a good deal of fish is eaten; but a rocky unsafe shore, exposed to Atlantic storms, debars them in many places from catching that quantity they might, and with which the sea abounds; they are also unable to purchase the proper apparatus for fishing in deep water. 

Almost every cottier has a small garden, chiefly occupied with cabbages; some few sow onions, parsnips, &c.; but the standing and favourite dish is potatoes and milk: to prove, that this food is perfectly sufficient to enable them to undergo the hardest labours, we need only observe the quantity of work performed, when they work by task, and the astonishing feats of activity and strength they perform at their amusements of hurling or foot-ball. The labourers, who migrate to England every harvest, shew how equal to the hardest work they are, and, so far from living on the heavy cheese and other gross food, which an Englishman is always cramming into his mouth, they live nearly as sparingly as they do at home; otherwise they could not bring home so much money, the accumulation of which is their only inducement to leave their own country; they certainly can have none in the suavity of their English companions in labour, and shew in a very flattering light the superiority of our too often despised countrymen in every amiable trait of character; in Ireland you will never hear any of those illiberal remarks, that poor Paddy must hourly hear in England. As Mr.Young, in his Tour in Ireland, says, "they have nothing of that incivility of sullen silence, in which so many Englishmen seem to wrap themselves up, as if retiring within their own importance."

In the neighbourhood of Dromoland and Quin the men are remarkably tall and well made, yet I cannot learn, that they live better than their smaller neighbours.

Much ground is let to poor people, and to others, living in towns, to burn for potatoes; the price has encreased with the demand, and some ground lets so high as 8l. per acre, and for various lesser sums down to 4l.; frequently the same price is paid for a second crop. The quantity consumed by a family of six people, which is greatly under the average of each house, is usually about twenty-two stone per week, which, at 128 stone to the barrel, and fifteen barrels to the acre, makes the quantity of ground necessary for this consumption to be something less than an acre; but, as the quantity produced is often not so great, it may be fairly stated, that an acre is fully sufficient, including a pig or two, dog, cat, fowl, and not a little to strangers, who never meet with a refusal, if they come at mealtimes.

CLOTHING

The usual material for the men is frize, made at home by the wife or daughters, who all make a sufficient quantity for the family, and frequently have some to sell; it is much better than that made by manufacturers for shops. The petticoats of the women are often of this kind, but more frequently of coarse flannel dyed a bad red, which they also generally make and dye themselves; sometimes they wear short jackets, not unlike spencers, of the same materials and colour, when about their business; but, when they go to the chapel or to the market, they frequently wear dimity and other cotton fabrics, and cotton or stuff gowns, which they purchase from shop-keepers or pedlars at fairs or markets. In the western part of this county, and about Corrofin, they knit a great quantity of coarse yarn stockings, which are the general medium of barter for what they want; sometimes they bring coarse linens, called bandle-cloth, canvas for bags and sacks, butter, eggs, yarn, &c. &c., the price of which also is usually laid out with the dealers for necessaries; money for these small articles is seldom brought home: happily, as yet, very little is thrown away on tea and sugar. Hats made in the country, chiefly near Skarriff, and which cost from about 3s. 9d. to 5s. 5d. are worn by the men; the women seldom wear any thing but a handkerchief on their heads; in wet weather the hood of the cloak protects them. Shoes, generally of leather badly tanned, are sold for, single pumps 6s.; turned pumps for beaux, 7s. to 9s.; with two soles, 8s. 8d. Waistcoat generally of frize, sometimes of cottons of different kinds. Breeches of frize are usually worn by old men; the young men wear generally thicksets, or sheepskin prepared at home. Wigs of wool, from 1s. 7d. to 2s. 8d. On week days, at their daily labour, they are in general but badly clad, but on Sundays they make a very clean and respectable appearance. 

The men frequently in summer, but the women almost always, go without shoes or stockings, and so tenacious are they of this custom, that it is with the greatest difficulty they can be persuaded to wear them, when taken into gentlemens’ houses; and indeed in almost every house is this filthy habit permitted, or viewed with indifference by the lady, and I have seen even some young ladies not averse themselves to appearing in shoes without stockings. In every part of this county the clothes (I mean those of the lower rank) are washed by beating them in a river on a large smooth stone with a flatboard, called a beetle; for this purpose they will stand for hours up to their knees in water, even in cold weather; after this they run to the fire; this causes the legs to be full of black and blue spots, and to swell to a great size; these were the kind that partial Twiss described in his tour, as the standard of Irish legs; but our country-women, with the assistance of their friends at the earthen-ware manufactories in England, were not long in his debt.

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