Chasing the Poor and the Landless in Ireland

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International Society for British Genealogy and Family History Sponsored Lecture given by David E. Rencher, CGO, AGCM (Ireland), CGSM, FUGA, FIGRS at the National Genealogical Society Conference, April 2010, Salt Lake City, Utah.

GraphicFile001.png Introduction[edit | edit source]

Record gaps, record failures, and record destruction – and now to add insult to injury, my people were poor and landless! What is an Irish researcher to do? This session will focus on record sources that may yield the information you are seeking for those ancestors who seem to elude many of the standard records used to identify complete families and extend pedigrees.

Although “landless” in the sense of ownership, it doesn’t always mean that your ancestors were not in the land records at all. This session will also focus on methods for using the available land records to find the “hidden” references to your family.

GraphicFile001.png Social Conditions[edit | edit source]

Why were they poor and landless? Perhaps they didn’t start out that way. Both Protestants and Catholics were subject to the unforgiving economy and the penal laws of Ireland during the 17th – 19th centuries. The most predominant classes in the agricultural sector were the labourers, cottiers, and landlords.

“The main difficulty is in defining people as either landholders, or landless. Many people who spent most of their time labouring for others still described themselves as farmers, if they had access to even a small patch of land…Many labourers negotiated ways in which to secure a small area of land, at least for one growing season, not so much for status, as to attempt to secure food for their families.”[1]

The cottiers were a major labor force in the years leading to the potato famine. Much of the monetary system in that time period was bartered, no money actually changing hands.

“Arthur Young summarized how the system operated in the 1770s. He believed that the cottier system of labour in Ireland, was probably the same all over Europe before arts and commerce changed the face of it. If there are cabins on a farm they are the residence of the cottars, if there are none, the farmer marks out the potatoe garden, and the labourers…raise their own cabins…A verbal contract is then made, that the cottar shall have his potatoe garden at such a rate, and one or two cows kept [for] him at the price of the neighbourhood, he finding the cows. He then works for the farmer at the rate of the place…a tally being kept…and a notch cut for every day’s labour; at the end of six months, or a year, they recon, and the balance is paid. The cottar works for himself as the potatoes require.”[2]

Accommodations of this type rarely created records sufficient to trace generations of ancestors. The cottiers would often put up with egregious stipulations to maintain a place to live. In many instances, their arrangement was known as a “dry-cot” consisting only of a house and potato ground. If they were extremely lucky, they were allotted a “wet-cot” which in addition to the house and potato ground also gave them grassland to graze a cow for milk.

GraphicFile001.png Sources for Tracing the Poor and the Landless[edit | edit source]

Irish Reproductive Loan Funds 1822-1854[edit | edit source]

A series of potato famines preceded the infamous famine of the mid-1840’s. However, the instances were more localized and the government took steps to mediate the effect on the poorest classes. “One estimate puts the number of loans at 500,000 per year in the early 1840’s, affecting almost 20 percent of the households in the country. The system originated in 1822 when a severe but localized famine became a focus of attention in England and a London-based committee, established ‘for the relief of the distressed Irish,’ collected over £300,000 for the famine victims. More than £55,000 of this remained after the famine abated, and the committee decided to establish a ‘Reproductive Loan Fund’ to make available small loans to the ‘industrious poor’ of the ten most needy counties.”[3]

The ten counties for which records exist are: Clare, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Mayo, Monaghan, Roscommon, Sligo, and Tipperary. The records are beginning to be made available in various ways since the records are housed in The National Archives, London and until recently were un-indexed, poorly organized, and had not been digitized. In 2003, a portion of the records were made available on the Moving Here website.

A typical entry reads:

Co. Cork, Coolenave
John Neill, 28 Decr 1846, resided there in 1846 as Cottier, died in the year 1847.  :Reference: Schedule 21, No. 11C, 128.

The digitized records on the website Moving Here are for the counties of Cork, Galway, Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo, and Tipperary. The collection in The National Archives, London is contained in series T/91.

Outrage Papers[edit | edit source]

The constant monitoring of events in Ireland led to an unusual set of papers referred to as the outrage papers. In short, they contain a list of “outrages” i.e. crimes committed throughout the various counties of Ireland. They were collected daily and submitted to the Chief Secretary. This allowed government officials in Ireland and England to monitor the pulse of the Irish people.

The records often give genealogical details about the person on whom the crime or offense was committed and on the person who was thought to have committed the crime. The following entry illustrates the type of content:

County of Carlow
“On the night of 23rd Inst. [October 1836] a Party of armed men went to the House of James Curren, and searched it; stating that they wanted a Female. They also searched several other Houses. A girl of the name of Eagan eloped with a servant Boy from her Father’s House, and her Brothers were in search of her.” Reference HO 100/248.

There are two sets, located in the National Archives of Ireland, Dublin and The National Archives, London. For additional information, see Tom Quinlan, “The Registered Papers of the Chief Secretary's Office”, Irish Archives, Autumn 1994: 5-21.

Poor Law Records[edit | edit source]

The Irish Poor Law was established as a result of the Poor Relief Act (1) 1838. The Act was modeled after the English and Welsh Act of 1834. The Act placed the responsibility upon the Church of Ireland parishes. The result of this act had a significant impact on the jurisdictions of Ireland. It set forth the establishment of 130 Poor Law Unions. The boundaries had no relation to the county or parish boundaries and often crossed either or both. The Unions were organized around the Market towns in each county, usually near the center of the union. The Poor Law Unions were subsequently divided into 2,049 Electoral Divisions. In 1848, the number of Poor Law Unions was increased to 163 with 3,438 Electoral Divisions.

To provide funding for the Poor Relief Act, taxes were levied on the occupiers (tenants), and the immediate lessors of all property. All buildings, whether for personal use, or business were liable for the tax. An immediate lessor could be either the landlord or a middle-landlord if the property had been sublet. The collections generated by the Poor Law Union were applied to payoff a twenty-year Government bond in each Union for the construction of a workhouse.

The valuation on the land that served as the basis for the tax was the beginning of the Griffith’s Valuation. Richard Griffith oversaw the valuation of property and established the system that remained in place for decades.

A typical entry in the Irish poor law admission record books reads:

Lurgan Union, County Armagh
No. 4405; Eliza Jane, F[emale], [age] 6, child of 4404 [Ellen Magill], not employed, R.C. [Roman Catholic], healthy, [father Edwd. Magill deserted family], admitted 19 November 1844, discharged 7 December 1846.

These records are one of the few exceptions when it comes to record repositories. In the Republic of Ireland, the originals are often deposited in the County Libraries with some to be found in the National Archives, Dublin. In Northern Ireland, they are principally deposited in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast.

The “Landless” in the Land Records[edit | edit source]

The myriad of male and female servants as well as common laborers throughout Ireland are part of the lost population not often identified in the leases of the landed estates. However, their names may be found in the account books of the estates records. In many instances, these account books are overlooked for the more genealogically rich leases or rentals which tend to give “lease of lives” information—potentially identifying multiple generations.

Church Records[edit | edit source]

Church records may fail to give a proper christening, marriage or burial entry, but may illuminate your ancestor in the accounts for work performed within the parish. Pay particular attention to the Church of Ireland Vestry minute books—both the General and Select Vestry records should be examined.

Additional Records[edit | edit source]

Other records for tracing the poor and the landless which will be discussed in this session are military, school, newspaper, assisted emigration, and census records. Each of these will be discussed from the perspective of the impact that the poorest citizens had in relation to being found in the available records.

GraphicFile001.png Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The inability to trace the poor and the landless occurs when the standard records fail to illuminate any reference to the individual or family you are seeking. When they do not own land, then it is likely that they will not be found in many of the associated records that are dependent on land ownership. If you are not finding any reference to the person or family you are seeking in the standard Irish record sources, it may be time to switch your research strategy to one of tracing the poor and the landless. This may require a reexamination of records previously researched with a very different focus on seemingly irrelevant clues.

  1. Jonathan Bell and Mervyn Watson, A History of Irish Farming 1750-1950 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2008), 21.
  2. Bell and Watson, A History of Irish Farming, 23.
  3. John Grenham, Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, 3d (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2006), 27.