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Leitrim 1870: a society in transition (Parts 1 & 2 - Economy)

How the Famine changed Leitrim

150 years ago, Ireland had emerged from the Great Famine and was the seventh richest country in the world. Mohill was thriving and confidence amongst tenant farmers and landholders was growing. This short series looks at how Leitrim and Mohill emerged from the famine, what life was like in 1870, and what changed economically and socially to enable Mohill, Leitrim and Ireland to transition towards independence.

As we live through 2020, 1870 is 150 years ago. If that seems a long time ago, it's worth considering that if you are aged 76 or more, then the day you were born you were closer to 1870 than you are now to the day of your birth. When WWII ended, 1870 was as far away as the end of WWII feels to us now.

This series was published in the Leitrim Observer April/May 2020.


The population decimated

Most of us have at least a sense of how the Great Famine in the mid-1800s decimated the population of Ireland. Between 1845–51, through a combination of disease, starvation and emigration, the country’s population decreased by some 2,225,000 people. Leitrim was amongst the worst affected counties. In 1841, Leitrim had 155,297 people; over the next ten years later, the county lost 43,400 people; by 1871, it lost a further 16,335. And the decline continued steadily until 1996, when it reached just over 25,000. Today it is a little over 32,000.
The disappeared poor

Not every section of the population was affected equally. By the end of the Famine, Leitrim people’s chief source of employment and income had completely changed. While the numbers engaged in Agriculture remained proportionally the same (about 80%), those engaged in the ‘direction of labour’ (i.e. farmers and merchants) tripled from 21% in 1841, to 62% in 1871. At the same time, the number of families depending on their ‘own manual labour’ – poor labourers – was only 25%, compared with 75% in 1841.

The huge shift in employment was mirrored by changes in the type of houses that were inhabited. Big houses and good farmhouses doubled, while the small, one-roomed, windowless mud cabins of the labouring poor were virtually eliminated. In the 20 years to 1861, more than 8 in 10 (over 9,000) of the Class 4 houses in Leitrim were destroyed or abandoned. The poorest, labouring class effectively disappeared.

A transformed society and economy

If they had not died or emigrated during the Famine, the labourers and smallholders were faced with the threat of sweeping land-clearance. For the majority, the solution was emigration. Of those who emigrated from Ireland between 1851-55, it is estimated that 80-90% were illiterate, Irish-speaking, farm labourers or servants. For those who survived or chose to remain in Ireland, the social and economic map of the country had changed for ever. Many of the old values and traditions were lost, as was the Irish language. By 1871, of the 19,486 people who lived in the Barony of Mohill. none spoke ‘Irish Only’, and only 144 – fewer than 1% – spoke Irish and English.

However abhorrent as policy, the economic impact of the Famine meant greater prosperity and sustained development for those who remained. Travel across Ireland was possible with the railways reaching every county in Ireland by 1870 (Dromod station opened in 1862). People’s homes were more comfortable, and they could increasingly afford to spend money on furnishings and decoration, maybe buying a new deal table or a dresser for the kitchen or fancy curtains for the parlour. The diet of ordinary people continued to be based on potatoes, with wholemeal bread, porridge and milk, but gradually became more varied for a broader number of people as turnips, cabbage, meat and eggs became more commonly available and affordable. The new railway lines, together with an increase in grocery shops, extended the range of provisions beyond what was grown locally. Those with a little spare cash enjoyed the new concept of ‘shop bought’ food, with local retailers providing sugar, biscuits and tea. And they didn’t have to go far to spend their money: Mohill had everything they could need.

Just a few years after the worst of the Famine, the area around Mohill had recovered remarkably. Slater’s Directory 1856 described the town as prosperous and thriving, recording that that its Main Street ‘contains several good shops well-stocked with the various articles of fashion and of local requisites. Great progress is manifest in its general appearance and of its size is considered one of the most stirring, and is certainly the most thriving town of any in the surrounding counties.’

How the famine changed Mohill

In the 20 years from 1841-61, the population of Mohill parish dropped by over 40%, from 17,918 to 10,363, and the town of Mohill lost nearly a third of its population, dropping from 1,626 to 1,123. Yet the economic activity in the town changed little during this same period. Mohill’s economic resilience is recorded by Slater’s Directory, published in 1846, 1856 and 1870. The directories list the trades and businesses in the town and how they changed through the decades.

Just five or six years after the Famine, Slater’s Directory described Mohill as a prosperous, stirring market town whose principal trade was in ‘corn, provisions and yarn’. On the face of it, the Famine had had little impact on the number of businesses in the town. Instead of eight drapers and haberdashers, only six were listed, and one of the two boot and shoemakers had gone; but there was one new baker, butcher, leather dealer and nail maker, and two additional Spirit & Porter Retailers, bring the total number of pubs to seven. Most of the town’s shops and businesses had survived including Turner’s printing, the apothecary and three hotels and posting houses.

Over the next fourteen years, Mohill continued to thrive. Slater’s 1870 directory records the town’s remarkable economic development and growth. Retail businesses operating more than doubled, from forty-one to ninety-nine. New merchants opened and existing shopkeepers expanded their offerings. A few enterprising business people exemplified the progress. In 1856, Arthur Burns owned a grocery shop on Main Street. Fourteen years later, he was listed as a grocer, baker, draper, milliner, hardwareman, timber & iron merchant, spirit and porter retailer and seed and guano dealer. David Noble, also of Main Street, expanded his grocer, pub and hardware shop to being a timber and iron merchant and seed and guano dealer. Michael Reynolds continued to be listed as a linen and woollen draper and haberdasher, but by 1870 was listed as a baker, grocer, publican and leather seller as well as being proprietor of a boot and shoemaker shop in Hyde Street (though this may be a different Michael Reynolds).

Main Street, Mohill, Co. Leitrim (c 1890?) Reproduction Rights owned by the National Library of Ireland Library Reference Number: EAS 4036

Retail in Mohill 1870

In total, Slater’s 1870 Directory lists some ninety-nine retail offerings in the town of Mohill, including: ten bakers; twenty grocers, three butchers; eight boot and shoe makers; eight linen and woollen drapers and haberdashers; six milliners and dressmakers; three tailors; three china, glass and earthenware dealers; four timber and iron merchants; and eighteen spirit and porter retailers or public houses. In addition, there were six carpenters and cart-makers; two coopers; five nail-makers; four blacksmiths, and three hotels and posting houses.While these businesses demonstrated how life was indubitably improving for some, many workers continued to earn low wages, and the manual jobs on offer in Mohill town were not well paid. Carters employed to build and repair carts were mostly illiterate and paid a shilling a day plus a dinner of some boiled bacon, potatoes, cabbage and a mug of tea. Servants too were often offered little more than room and board, and there were many of them. In the 1871 census, 13% of those who listed an occupation, identified as servants. And although somewhat later, the detail in the 1901 census shows that of the 173 households in Mohill town, 44 (25%) had servants, many as young as fourteen and fifteen. As well as the traders, there were a number of professionals offering services including three attorneys and four agents or commissioners, two constables and a bank manager, William C. Anderson, for the new Northern Banking Co. that had opened on Main Street. There were four physicians, four school teachers and ten people employed in the workhouse. In Hyde Street, the Post Master, William McDonald, managed the arrival of letters at 6:50 in the morning and at 1:40 in the afternoon, and their despatch at 10:50 each morning and at 7:00 each evening. With the opening of the Dublin-Sligo Midland Great Western Line in 1862, public transport was available to Dromod railway station every morning at 10:55. 

The Mohill Races

There were also regular social events like the Mohill Races, held in May each year. While some of these holidays were marred by fights, others were peaceful events when the extra police brought in for the day could join in the festivities. And they drew large crowds. The first event of the annual races, the Mohill Traders’ Plate, carried a prize of thirty sovereigns and would attract a ‘vast concourse of people’ spread out across the hills of Boeshill and Coolabawn. From these vantage points, the spectators had a perfect view of the racecourse below and of the surrounding countryside stretching as far as Lough Rynn.

On 2 May 1867, a Leitrim Advertiser journalist reported his contentment as ‘a prospect presents itself to the eye seldom to be seen in other parts of Ireland yet quite unknown and less appreciated’.