On the verge of want

'John Gormally had to work eight days for nothing because he did not go to work the day he was sent for..

'John Gormally had to work eight days for nothing because he did not go to work the day he was sent for... Pat McHugh was fined for venturing to ask how much he would be paid... John McEllin was fined five shillings because there was a dog path through the hedge of his own land." This was how Father Denis O'Hara, parish priest of Kiltimagh, Co Mayo, described the mistreatment of tenants by a local landlord in a letter to the Freeman in the late 19th century.

When I was growing up in Kiltimagh in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the workings of the Congested Districts Board were frequently brought up in conversation, in particular the funding of local projects. Over the years, my curiosity continued unabated - prompting a search for further information.

Apparently in 1890, Arthur Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland, visited the west of Ireland to witness for himself the appalling conditions.

In a speech delivered in Liverpool, he declared: "The general impression left upon the casual traveller is that you are dealing with a population not congested in the sense of being crowded, but congested by not being able to draw from their holdings a safe and sufficient livelihood for themselves and their children, whose condition trembles constantly on the verge of want, and when the potato crop fails, goes over that margin and becomes one of extreme and even dangerous destitution."


Balfour decided that action was needed in the form of a new entity to bring about an improvement in conditions. And so the Congested District Board was established by the Land Act of 1891.

Areas were designated "congested" if the total rateable value, when divided by the number of population, was "less than one pound ten shillings for each individual". The prime objective was to "help the people to help themselves" but before any assistance was given, Balfour wanted the board to ascertain in detail the circumstances which prevailed in the eight counties (Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Mayo, Galway, Kerry and Cork).

On November 6th, 1891, he told his fellow board members: "I would suggest... that a careful study be made of the whole region from north to south with which we have to deal."

Balfour recommended the study should include "a minute examination into the existing condition of the inhabitants... their means of livelihood, the quality of the soil, the amount of land (if any) now available for extension of holdings, the fishing accommodation in existence, the possibility of increasing it, the number of migratory labourers and the character and extent of local industries.

"It would also be very desirable among the results of this survey to find a place for some account of the general character of the dwellings in which the people live, and the actual items of their annual receipts and expenditure."

A team of inspectors was subsequently appointed to conduct the study and in their letters of appointment, W.L.Micks, the first secretary of the board, emphasised the confidentiality of their work.

A search for these board reports took me to the early printed books section of Trinity College. My greatest curiosity was reserved for what the "confidential study" had to say about Kiltimagh. Henry Doran, the inspector who filed his report on May 6th, 1892, declared that "the land is very badly cultivated and rotation of crops is not followed." Dwellings, he found, were "divided into two apartments, one used as a living room, and at one end of it the cattle are usually kept... the children of both in the other apartment, and the milk and butter are kept there".

Despite the cramped conditions, Doran was impressed by the inhabitants: "Reflecting on the habits of the people of this and neighbouring districts, who are born and reared in the same room as their cattle; where brothers and sisters occupy the same sleeping apartment, insensible of any violation of human decency; living in such foul surroundings, in such close association as the brutes of the field, I have often marvelled how they are so moral, so well-disposed and so good in many ways as they generally are."

Clearly the families were poor. The estimated annual income for a family of six was £25. 7s. with the sale of two pigs yielding the highest return (£6) while the expenditure was just four shillings less at £25. 3s. One quarter of the spending went on the purchase of Indian meal, which was consumed by the family for breakfast and supper and by the pigs and poultry.

The poverty picture was broadly similar all along the western seaboard. In Fanad, Co Donegal, F.G.Townsend Gahan, the inspector, remarked: "To look at the land generally one is inclined to say that, comparatively speaking, these men are fairly well off, but again to look at the houses one feels inclined to say they are very poor".

In Cahirciveen, J.E.Butler recommended that the number of public houses be halved and that whiskey should not be sold in the same shops with meal, flour and other goods.

"I would prevent a concoction of vitriol etc. being sold as whiskey which maddens the drinkers and helps to fill Killarney asylum with lunatics, now numbering over 400." It became very clear to all the inspectors that a range of improvements was required to alleviate the plight of the people. Better methods of farming, the introduction of agriculturalists, more modern equipment and boats for fishing, new piers, roads and bridges and radically improved housing were all deemed essential.

"I have no faith in itinerant instructors," wrote Doran. "The agricultural instructors should be resident in the district and be in daily communications with the people and have some land which should be managed in a manner that would demonstrate the advantage of his skill and knowledge. If he cannot practise what he preaches, who can have faith in him?"

The Congested Districts Board embarked on a range of worthwhile initiatives until its dissolution in 1923. For example, the improvement of housing resulted in 28,267 dwellings either being constructed or improved. New farming methods were introduced and a range of cottage industries developed. The success of such projects depended greatly on the level of support.

A real measure of improved circumstances was seen in the level of deposits in post-office savings accounts in the eight counties. Some years before the board was established, these stood at about £243,000. By 1912, 21 years later, savings had risen to £2.26 million.

Micks witnessed tangible evidence of the improved conditions in and around Kiltimagh: "I have accompanied Father Denis through the numbers of clustered hovels in which people lived on their rundale holdings (farms comprised of numerous isolated plots) before the board's real land work began; and afterwards I have seen the comfortable detached houses and improved compact holdings".

On the Verge of Want is compiled and edited by James Morrissey (published by Crann≤g Books, £23.60)