Dr. Patrick Wallace's article on Ballinrobe and its Environs in the Pre-Famine half-century.

Photo:Dr. Patrick Wallace, Director of the National Museum of Ireland

Dr. Patrick Wallace, Director of the National Museum of Ireland


Photo:Cole, Charles, William F. 1880 - 1905.  View of the market place in Ballinrobe, County Mayo, Ireland, 1880. In the centre of the market place is a building, with weighing scales hanging from the centre of it. Men stand underneath it with sacks around their feet.

Cole, Charles, William F. 1880 - 1905. View of the market place in Ballinrobe, County Mayo, Ireland, 1880. In the centre of the market place is a building, with weighing scales hanging from the centre of it. Men stand underneath it with sacks around their feet.

National Library of Ireland, Dublin

Photo:"Discovery of the Potato Blight" by Daniel MacDonald (1821-53)

"Discovery of the Potato Blight" by Daniel MacDonald (1821-53)


Photo:Detail of utter despair from previous image

Detail of utter despair from previous image

As above

Photo:Front cover of the Bridge Magazine

Front cover of the Bridge Magazine

Photograph of booklet from Ballinrobe's Local Library

Part 1 of an extract from The Bridge Magazine

Research by Averil Staunton

This extract is from an article on Ballinrobe's history by Dr Patrick F. Wallace, who has been the Director of the National Museum of Ireland since 1988, and written by him c. 1972 for Ballinrobe's Bridge Magazine

Before Dr. Wallace’s appointment he was the archaeologist in charge of the Museum’s excavations at Wood Quay – Fishamble Street - in Dublin. These were the largest Viking age urban excavations ever undertaken in western or northern Europe.

As Director he has been responsible for the modernisation of the management, operation, exhibitions and services of the Museum. The National of Ireland now has four sites; staff numbers have almost trebled, and a series of new departments enable it to discharge its duties and play a significant role in the cultural life of the country.

Having witnessed the expansion of the Museum to Collins Barracks, Dublin and the creation of the Folklife Museum at Castlebar, Co. Mayo, Dr Wallace has overseen the modernisation of the Institution by introducing new departments of conservation, registration, education and marketing. 

Extract from Dr. Wallace's article on Ballinrobe 

Dr.Wallace suggests in his article that "there is plenty to enable us to describe Ballinrobe, albeit rather sketchily, and it is well to commence by considering the general social climate in Ireland during the fifty years which are our concern":

"In pre-famine Ireland four out of five farmers held less than fifteen acres of land.  Almost half held less than five acres.  The farmer lived a miserable life, being frequently compelled to sell the produce of his land, barring an acre of potato ground, which he retained from himself to pay his rent, and/or to pay his tithe, the latter being the source of a bitter social war in the 1830s, the former being frequently the reason for his participating in the notorious activities conducted in place by armed and secret peasant societies like the White Boys especially near the beginning of the century.

Below the farmer in the social stratification came the agricultural labourer who had a plot of ground attached to his cabin in which he grew potatoes, which were almost the sole diet of his generally large family while his rent was paid by his own labour. ….he frequently kept a pig to supplement his income and meet the rent.

At the bottom of the scale was the labourer who had no land and… tried to live by taking land in conacre.   Pay was bad, work seasonal, dwelling conditions deplorable, clothes scanty, shoes, virtually non-existent especially as far as women who were spared the rigours of wielding heave farm implements" [if they could even get a loan of them].


"Potatoes were the food of the bulk of the people and even those were of an inferior quality of potato, soggy lumpers [a strain of potato little used to-day].  The three main meals of the early 19th century Irishman’s diet were all of potatoes, meat being generally a luxury reserved from Christmas and Easter. 

In the summer when potatoes were not yet ripe and when the old crop had run out, the poorer people sometimes resorted to nettles and a weed called “praiseach.”  The townspeople fared somewhat better and were fortunate in that they were not entirely directly dependent of the land; nevertheless the poorer people of the towns were reduced to beggary at certain times of the year, beggars being typical of the Pre-Famine town according to the hoards of account by travellers who were entreated for alms by them. Even the numbers of beggars in the towns were swelled during the summer months by the influx of starving country folk in search of food and charity, when the potato ran out.  

This then is the general context and the spectrum of experience of Irish life in the half century before the famine and into which we try to fit Ballinrobe and the countryside around it."


In the 1800s, the Irish solved their problem of feeding a growing population by planting potatoes. Specifically, they planted the "lumper" potato variety. And since potatoes can be propagated vegetatively, all of these lumpers were clones, genetically identical to one another.

The lumper fed Ireland for a time, but it also set the stage for human and economic ruin. Evolutionary theory suggests that populations with low genetic variation are more vulnerable to changing environmental conditions than are diverse populations. The Irish potato clones were certainly low on genetic variation, so when the environment changed and a potato disease swept through the country in the 1840s, the potatoes (and the people who depended upon them) were devastated.  From: http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article//agriculture_02

More History of Ballinrobe, based this article by Dr. Patrick F. Wallace extracted from The Bridge December 1972 will follow at another date.

This page was added by Averil Staunton on 28/10/2011.

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