Ballinrobe and its Environs in the Pre-Famine Half-Century

Part 3 of 5 parts

By Patrick F. Wallace, retired Director of the National Museum of Ireland

We continue our serial from the Bridge Magazine with the 3rd part of this very interesting article...........

Thus in terms of income, things had remained more or less static since 1801, or worse if anything, since the value of money would have decreased somewhat, and since the average daily pay then was eight pence per day, without food, and six pence with dinner, though occasionally workmen such as shearers and mowers got as much as ten pence to twelve pence with food. [22]

It is no wonder that the work production of these under-paid and under-nourished men was unsatisfactory in Burgh's view; the incentive which task-work would have provided being denied them except by Kenny himself who relates how he had his land cleaned and drained by task.

Wages were paid in various ways according to the circumstances and related situations of the employer and labourer; rent of land and cottage, allowance in conacre and grazing for a cow being more frequently employed vehicles of payment than that of money.  

Rent costs

When we consider that the rent per acre per annum in 1836 of arable land was 30/- per acre and 20/- for an acre of pasture and compare this with the paucity of wages, then we can form some idea of the poverty which was rife in this countryside at the time. Conacre prevailed to some extent, the rent being from £3 to £9 depending on the crop potential of the land; but the conacre crop was hardly remunerative either, especially in a bad year, when the hope of the corn or of the potatoes paying the rent of the hired ground, let alone yielding a profit was shattered. Potatoes sown conacre were sown not from a profit motive but "to supply the wants of, the family who sow (them)".


Rev. Burgh says that many people emigrated from the parish in the three years preceding 1836 for want of proper and adequate employment. Kenny says about thirty people left in 1831, but hardly any in the intervening years. All those that left went to Canada. This is an interesting light on how small the number of pre-famine emigrants.  Th e act that the two principal named proprietors of the area, Lord Lucan and Charles Nesbitt Knox Gore, were absentees hardly improved matters or helped to alleviate the lack of employment.

Other employment

Apart from working on the land, there were few other income sources open to the half-starving populace, road-work being spasmodic and paying about nine pence per day when in operation, [23] while the colony weavers "brought from the North some years ago" got "no remunerating price" for their linen which sold at six pence to six pence halfpenny per yard, so that some of them were to be "more compassioned than the labourers and both more than the strolling beggars who seldom feel the want of bedclothes or somewhat to eat". [24]

Living Conditions and Population

It is difficult to ascertain whether or not living conditions of the country people of Ballinrobe parish worsened or improved as the first half of the 19th century wore on. The fact that the population continued to explode, jumping from 8,933 in 1831 to 11,150 in 1841, the population of the town jumping from 2,604 to 2,698 in the same years, didn't improve matters. From the presentation of the above comparisons it would seem that rural conditions worsened if anything, in those years.

On the other hand, Courtney Kenny was convinced that the condition of the poorer classes had improved since 1815, an improvement which he attributed to the lowering of rent since that period and which he said was indicated by the growth in the population, though as research and even contemporary world experience has shown a rise in population was, and is if anything; due rather to worsening social conditions that to the reverse.

Rev. Burgh was not conscious of any difference between the social conditions of 1815 and those of 1836; all he was sure of was that there was "a strong general desire for employment in the parish". It looks as though the unemployed and the social malcontents of Ballinrobe generally accepted their lot, for the parish had no record of social disturbances and was peacable throughout, unlike, as Courtney Kenny points out, the surrounding parishes. [25]

Directories of Trades

It is necessary in our treatment of life in the town of Ballinrobe, as it was at this time, to draw the reader's attention to the list of trades, professions and occupations which are derived from directories of the years 1824 and 1846, and which are appended to the end of this essay.  A word of warning though; omissions and inaccuracies were more common then  now in the compilation of such works, and it is not always fair to compare the results of a pioneering work such as Pigot's Directory" of 1824 with those of Slater's            Directory of 1846 which had learned from the mistakes, criticisms and drawbacks of the earlier work. It is for this reason that we should be on our guard against the notion, one first gets on perusing and comparing these lists, that Ballinrobe's volume of trade and its business activity underwent a phenomenal growth in these twenty years. Such was hardly the case, though an increase in its size, population and even trade there undoubtedly was.

The imbalance can be more easily explained both by Pigot's omission of certain trades and occupations, which almost certainly existed in 1824 and which he does not include, and by Slater's habit of duplicating the same business under different heads and thus, unwittingly, giving the false impression of there being more than one place of business concerned.  An example or two will serve to illustrate this. Robert Tighe in 1846 is listed as a tobacconist, a tallow chandler, a spirit dealer, `a wine dealer, a grocer and a brewer. To judge from Slater's list one would think that there were at least six Robert Tighes' in Market St. and that each had a shop offering one of the above services, a fact which not only seems impossible, but is revealed to be such by the very fact that so many other trades and occupations are listed for the same Market St.  In fact, it is likely that Robert Tighe, undoubtedly one of the most versatile and probably most important businessmen in Ballinrobe at this time, conducted all these branches of his business, with the possible exception of brewing, in the manner of the latter-day country grocer all under one roof. The same almost certainly applied to Patrick Tully who in 1846, also in Market St., was separately listed as a grocer, a spirit dealer, a tallow chandler and a tobacconist; to Joseph Hearne also of Market St., who appears separately in the Directory as an ironmonger, a woolen and linen merchant and a haberdasher; to Patrick Hastings who was a grocer, an ironmonger; to John Burke, Michael Browne and Maria Fleming who were grocers and publicans, much in the way that many shops in the smaller towns were in the pre-supermarket age, and even as they still are in places to-day.  Not so typical of recent times were the oddly-matched services of publican and boot & shoe maker, provided by Michael Gildea and those of Charles O'Connor who was an ironmonger and tobacconist.

Pigot also lists the same trader twice, though not to the extent that his d' more comprehensive directorial descendant Slater did, for in 1824 we find Patrick Egan is a baker and owns a spirit store, Patrick Keary is a grocer and tobacconist, William Monaghan performing, almost certainly under the one roof, the three functions of spirit dealer, publican and baker while John Hearne was a tallow chandler and tobacconist.

Slater also separates the members of the same family who had business, perhaps under the same roof, like Ann Gillier, a baker in Bridge St., who was almost certainly mother, wife or daughter of James Gillier of the same street who was a grocer, a fact lent support both by the kinship of the two occupations and the comparative rarity of this name, in the town.

 Two tailors, Thomas and William Gill of Market St. listed separately, were almost certainly brothers, or father and son or closely related and must have occupied the same offices, while Maria Monaghan of Market St., the proprietress of the Victoria Hotel was almost certainly related to Patrick Monaghan of the same street who was a publican.  

Comparing the lists of the two directories we find that few of the names listed for trades and occupations in 1824 survived till 1846 except those of Peter Ralph, the apothecary, Maria Monaghan of Market St., who almost certainly succeeded to her father (husband?)  William Monaghan's bakery in the same street on the latter's death; Patrick Hamilton, the M.D who is listed for both years and Joseph Hearne the ironmonger of Market St., also listed in 1824 and 1846.

Even ruling out the fact that there were many omissions from the 1824 list we are still faced with the conclusion that business apparently changed hands fairly fast in early 19th century Ballinrobe and that there was an upsurge of commercial activity in the 22 years which bridge the compilation dates of the directories. The principal value accruing from these -lists is that they show how diversified were the activities and trades of the early 19th century when we compare them with those of our own day, when a country town like Ballinrobe no longer serves the needs of all its own people let alone those of the surrounding countryside.  

Long gone are the tallow chandlers, their candles, brewers, the tanners and their tan-yards, the cooper, the miller, and the millwright, the feather dealer and his feathers.

Recently Gone

Recently gone or going are the saddlers and harness-makers, the boot and shoe makers, the blacksmiths and the ironmongers. The streets, their names, some of the homes and some of the occupations, especially those of grocer and publican have remained, but those very occupations and trades, which link Ballinrobe, like every other Irish town of the last century, it's self-sufficiency, it's importance to it's hinterland, it's independence and it's business activity, are gone forever in the wake of the economic revolution (and its leisuring social change) that has broken the spirit, soul and charm of that Keystone of the Irish countryside, the country town. This spirit, charm and romance has even been denuded further by the substitution of "chemist" for "apothecary", "druggist" - "perfumer", "school" for "academy", "draper" for "haberdasher" etc. This economic revolution was in many ways due to the facility of train, and especially later to the ease of motorised transport, which has resulted in the replacement of the independent town of the 19th century by that of the town of the delivery van.

It is difficult for the affluent citizen of to-day to realize that their now quiet streets are all that carry the secrets of the time, not so long ago, when Ballinrobe was busy with its own affairs, its quaint little industries and its curious establishments.

This page was added by Averil Staunton on 28/06/2013.