A history of Ireland in 100 objects

Sat, Aug 4, 2012, 01:00

Wicker cradle, 19th-20th centuries

This cradle, woven from wicker, was collected on Inis Óirr, one of the Aran Islands, in the 1950s, but it is probably much older and is of a type that was widely used in 19th-century Ireland. That it was made with such loving skill suggests both its necessity and its importance. Ordinary Irish people experienced in an extreme way both the joys of having children and the pain of losing them.

In the first decades of the 19th century the population in Ireland was growing faster than anywhere else in western Europe. As early as 1807 Thomas Malthus wrote that “Among the subjects peculiar to the state of Ireland is the extraordinary phenomenon of the very rapid increase of its population”. At the end of the 18th century the population was probably about 4.5 million. By 1845 it had almost doubled, to about 8.2 million.

By 1845 31 per cent of the entire population of the United Kingdom lived in Ireland. This growth is all the more remarkable given that, in the years between 1815 and 1845, about 1.5 million people left Ireland, mostly for Britain, Canada and the United States.

Love was in the air because the almost universal adoption of the potato as a staple crop made it possible to form a family with very little land. The potato, which was something of a wonder food, may also have contributed to the general good health of Irish women and, therefore, their very high fertility. (It is striking that high fertility in Ireland was not just a Catholic phenomenon: Quakers in rural Ireland had more children than those in rural England.) Irish women were also sexually conservative – generally chaste before marriage and faithful within it – and few seemed to have used birth control. Children, moreover, were welcomed, as they often are in poor societies, as an insurance policy for their parents’ futures. The English economist Arthur Young noted, of the Irish poor, “their happiness and ease relative to the number of children”. Up to the 1820s, when cottage industries began to be wiped out by competition from factories, children were valuable workers in the home.

On the other side of the equation, the cost of an extra mouth was minimal, because their families had little to give a child beyond the food they grew themselves. Because of Ireland’s failure to industrialise, most of its new people were in poor tenant farm families: in 1845 55 per cent of all Irish landholders held farms of less than four hectares (10 acres), and another 20 per cent of farms were smaller than eight hectares (20 acres).

As well as the basic problem of having so many subsistence farmers, Ireland was also becoming more unequal: while overall incomes were rising modestly, the poor were getting poorer. In 1835 the Poor Inquiry Commission asked local Catholic and Protestant clergy, magistrates and land agents to say whether the condition of the poor in their area had improved or disimproved since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815. Most reported a deterioration.

Perhaps a quarter of children died in infancy, making the cradle a bittersweet object, redolent both of hope and of loss.

Thanks to Clodagh Doyle

Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts History, Collins Barracks, Benburb Street,Dublin 7, 01-677 7444, museum.ie