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Life in Donegal Ireland 1857

March 28, 2017

My ancestor Patrick Boyle, with his family, left Donegal, Ireland, bound for Australia on the ship ‘Pomona’ on 26 February 1857. The newspaper article that follows, published shortly after they left Ireland, describes in great detail, what life was like in Donegal, at the time. I could well imagine that the opportunity to start a new life, in a new land, could have been seen as as a way to escape the horrific conditions they were suffering.

The family arrived in Melbourne on 30 May 1857. Patrick went on to become a successful farmer and valued member of the local community,  just outside Violet Town, Victoria

from: Freeman’s Journal, 30 October 1858, page 3




The Select Committee on distress in Donegal have, after a sharp contest, adopted a report by a majority— entirely, as might be expected from the construction of the committee, in favour of the landlords.

The following is the report: That the district of Gweedore and Cloughaneely is a wild and mountainous tract of country, inhabited,for the most part, by tenants holding small portions of land. That there are among them many who are very needy, who, on any failure of their crops, are subject to more or less distress and poverty in consequence at one portion of the year; but at the present time it appears to your committee that destitution, such as is complained of in the appeal of 8th January, 1858, contained in the appendix, did not, and does not exist, and that the general condition of the people is certainly not worse now than it has been for many years; nor does it appear to your committee that there was, during the winter of 1857 and 1858, any increase of sickness in the district, or any increase in the number of applications for admission to the workhouse.

That this poverty among the people is not attributable to the landlords. No attempt has been made to drive the tenants from their holdings, or to take from them any lands over which they had any real rights ; and it has been proved before your committee that the statement in the appeal — “Last year brought a sad change on these warm hearted peasants. All the landlords of these districts, save one, simultaneously deprived them of the mountains, giving them to Scotch and English graziers for sheep-walks, and at the same time doubled, trebled, and, in many instances quadrupled, the rents on the miserable patches left to them” — is totally devoid of foundation.

Your committee have also had under their consideration the following statements made in the appeal; — “Countrymen and Fellow-Christians — In the wilds of Donegal, down in the bogs and glens of of Gweedore and Cloughaneely, thousands of human beings made after the image and likeness of God are perishing, or next to perishing, amid squalidness and misery, for want of food and clothing, far away from human aid and pity;” and, “They are now at all events, in consequence of such treatment, perishing of hunger and nakedness, in their damp and comfortless cabins. But we will venture a little into detail. There are at this moment 800 families subsisting on seaweed, crabs,’cockles, or any other edible matter they can pick up along the seashore, or off the rocks.”

In the opinion of your committee, those statements are not borne out by the evidence taken before them ; and your committee have come to the conclusion that those representations are calculated to convey to the public a false and erroneous impression of the state of the people of this district. It appears to your committee that an erroneous opinion exists in the minds of the people as to their rights over the mountains near which they reside, and that their not being well advised on this point has led to the outrages which have been committed, and to the destruction of a large number of sheep, which brought upon the inhabitants of the district the sheep and police tax — a burthen which no doubt pressed heavily upon them ; but it was paid readily in money, and no stock or produce was sold under distress for the purpose of paying those taxes. Your Committee trust that this expression of their opinion will shew to the people of the district that such conduct is not only contrary to the laws of God and man, but positively cruel to their helpless families, and fatal to their own best interests;

The following are the principal points of the draft report proposed to the committee by the member for Dungarvan : — “It appears from the evidence, that about the year 1855 certain landlords, in both districts of Gweedore and Cloughaneely, resumed their right over extensive mountain tracts on which their tenants had the privilege of grazing their cattle, and which, in point of fact, they had practically the enjoyment of for a considerable time previous to the present inquiry. According to some witnesses, well acquainted with the district, the privilege of free commonage had been enjoyed “from time immemorial.”

These tracts of mountain were let to Scotch and English sheep-farmers, who stocked them with foreign sheep. It has been complained that the resumption by the landlords of their right over these mountains, and the loss of them to those who had hitherto enjoyed their use, was attended with serious results to a population at no time prosperous, and therefore of all others the most liable to suffer from any diminution of their ordinary means of support. As a proof of the injurious consequences resulting from the loss of this free mountain commonage, it has been stated by all the witnesses who have maintained by their evidence the existence of distress, that the amount of stock in the possession of the people of Gweedore and Cloughaneely has been greatly diminished; and this general allegation has been fully substantiated by particulars with respect, to whole townlands, as well as to the individuals.

Other mountains besides those let to the Scotch and English sheep-farmers, or retained in the immediate possession of their proprietors, had been taken from the people some years previously; and it has been confidently asserted, that in all cases where the privilege of free commonage has been abolished or greatly restricted, consequences more or less injurious have followed.

It likewise appears that a general increase in the rents has been imposed by those proprietors, who have either deprived their tenants of the privilege of commonage, or restricted them in its free enjoyment; and on this head, the evidence of Mr. Robertson, agent to Lord George Hill, of Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. Olpherts, and the Reverend Mr. Nixon, is sufficiently decisive. Admitting to the fullest extent the absolute necessity of protecting property from outrage, and punishing with the utmost severity of the law those who wantonly offend its well defined rules, it still cannot be doubted that the imposition of a double tax on a whole district, not only involved in the same punishment the innocent with the guilty, but that it pressed with crushing severity on a population, which at no time enjoyed the ordinary comforts belonging as of right to the tenant, class in other localities, and which then suffered from a partial failure of the potato.

The taxes imposed were speedily collected, under the pressure of a force impossible of being resisted; but, although it appears from the evidence on one side that some who paid these taxes, did so out of money of which they had been in possession for some time previously, it has been proved on the other hand that a considerable number had been compelled to dispose of stock and produce in order to meet the expected demand, and that others either borrowed from their friends and relatives in neighbouring parishes, or made journeys to remote districts, where their sons and daughters, were in employment, to obtain from them the means of paying the collector. Thus, it appears beyond dispute, that there is a general absence of those substantial comforts which tenants ought to enjoy in any well regulated state of society, or on any fairly managed estate.

As a general rule, happily open to individual exceptions, the condition of the houses of those tillers of the soil is one of squalid poverty ; the beds of their inhabitants are of the worst, and oftentimes the most revolting description, principally consisting of a mere handful of ditty straw, covered over with some ragged and filthy quilt, blanket, or rug; and their day-clothing is poor and mean, and in the case of women and children in too many instances not only of extreme scantiness, but, if witnesses of undoubted respectability are to be credited, not even sufficient for the purposes of decency.

It would seem to have been a matter of common occurrence for whole families to absent themselves from Mass on Sundays, in consequence of the miserable condition of their day-clothing, and thus omit the fulfilment of one of the most solemn obligations imposed upon members of their communion. As to the food of the bulk of the population, it may be said to consist of potatoes of an inferior quality, or Indian meal, largely assisted or eked out by seaweed; and of this description of diet, spoken to by witnesses who had gone into the houses of the people while they were at their meals, one half of the population do not appear to be able to partake more often than twice in the twenty-four hours.

A special feature in the social condition of the district is worthy of remark, inasmuch as it affords a gloomy prospect for the future where one of a hopeful character might well be desired, namely, the practice adopted by the proprietors of parcelling out small portions of land, sometimes partly reclaimed, but in most instances in a state of nature, into what are known by the term of “new cuts,” and planting a miserable human being on one of those patches, upon which, in order to maintain a bare existence, he has to do everything for himself, without any aid whatever from the owner of the soil.

This adventurous pioneer of civilisation, has in the first place to protect himself, and perhaps a wife and young family, from the rain and storm that sweep the mountain sides in Donegal, by the construction of a rude dwelling, which is usually composed of mud or turf, to be replaced, as he improves in his worldly circumstances, by a more substantial structure of stone, with a roof of thatch, and he has to cultivate his narrow path of ground to the best of his ability, though destitute of all ordinary appliances of agricultural industry.

In some instances he pays a rent from the moment of his occupation of this miscalled “farm,” and in other cases he commences payment after a short period of possession, being, in all this work of hard and cheerless toil, wholly unassisted, save in special instances, by any aid whatever from his landlord.

Nor is the healthful stimulus of a lease imparted to his desperate struggle with a cold and ungrateful soil; and, to render matters worse, a perpetual “notice to quit,” served alike on occupier of old farm and “new cut,” would seem to be of more or less general application throughout the districts in question.

It would be an outrage on probability to suppose that the condition of this class of people could be other than miserable in the extreme, or that the imposition of an unusual burden, such as the taxes which have been levied upon the people generally, would be attended with other than the most painful and depressing consequences.”

(Punctuation and paragraphs  have been added to the above transcription for ease and speed of reading)







  1. I have included your blog in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at

    Thanks, Chris

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