The Last County - Lifestyles


The cabins in which most of the peasantry lived for the period covered by this book, can only be described as hovels. In typical cases the walls were a mixture of mud kneaded with straw and the roof was made up of bogwood rafters raised from the top of the mudwalls and covered with thatch, often made from potato stalks, straw or turf sods. Consequently, they were not an effective barrier against the rain. The walls were about two feet thick and seven feet high. A small fire was lit in a grate in the middle of what was usually the only room and the family sat around the fire at night for warmth. These cabins had no chimney so the smoke could only escape through the door, but sometimes this was blocked up to keep out the wind and the rain. This, no doubt, was responsible for the high level of blindness in the country.

Typical Dwellings

The cabins of the crofters and spalpeens (landless labourers and travellers), were no more than long sticks placed against a bank in a slanting position, with the other sides being built of clay. The roofs were made of tree branches and sods, covered with potato stalks, heath or straw. These cabins were not built any higher than the bank, so they could not be seen until a person came up close to them. At night any animals or livestock belonging to the family were let in; often this included two or three dogs or cats lying around the fire at night. There were no outhouses and farm implements were left in the fields.

The only thing standing between the rural Irish family and starvation was land

In 1838 the travel writer Henry Inglis noted that rents in Wicklow were intolerably high. The rents could not be paid by the produce of the land by either the Catholic or Protestant peasantry. They found themselves forced to pay such rents as the only alternative was destitution. On the question of whether there were any improvements in the condition of the people in the proceeding years he observed “that no improvement could have taken place in the conditions of the people whom I find in rags, living in mud cabins without furniture, windows and sometimes without chimneys” (1). On the conditions of the labouring classes, he found little to bear out the assertions of some of his Dublin friends, “to whom Wicklow ought to have been familiar, that I should find all the labourers employed and all tolerably comfortable” (2). He goes on to give descriptions of two mountain cabins which he visited.

“The first I entered was a mud cabin with one apartment. It was neither air nor water tight, the floor was extremely damp. The furniture consisted of a small bedstead with very scanty bedding, a wooden bench, one iron pot, the embers of some furze burnt on the floor, there was neither chimney nor window. The rent of this wretched cabin to which there was not a yard of land was two pounds. The next cabin I entered was situated on a hillside, in size and material it was like the other. I found in it a woman and her four children. There were two small bedsteads, no furniture except a stool, a little bench and one pot. There also were the burnt embers of some furze, the only fuel the poor in this neighbourhood can afford to use. The children were all of them in rags, the mother regretted that on that account she could not send them to school. The husband of this woman was a labourer, at 6d. per day – eighty of which 6d.s – that is 80 days labour, being absorbed in the rent of the cabin, which was taken out in labour, so that there was little more than 4 1/2d. per day left for the support of a wife with four children, with potatoes at 4d. per stone” (3).

The only thing standing between the rural Irish family and starvation was land. By the end of the eighteenth century more than four out of every five farmers had less than fifteen acres of land and one half of the farmers held less than five acres. They sold all the produce of the land to pay for their rent and lived off their potato crop.

The agricultural labourer paid his rent in labour and received no money wage. He had a small plot of land attached to his cabin and here he grew potatoes for his family. For someone with no land life was difficult in the extreme. Such families had to rely on their ability to sublet plots of land from other tenants, they were obliged to pay their rent and subsist on the produce of this land. This system was known as conacre and the workhouse awaited those who could not live by it.

On the higher income scale, life was much more comfortable. People either fell into this class or the one described above. The lot of the urban poor which included many artisans and teachers, could at times of shortage be even more precarious than their rural counterparts. The habitations of the rich had their origins in the fortified castles of the later middle ages. These Irish castles were mainly square or rectangular. Their towers would have contained a number of small dark rooms and would have been three of four stories high. The only light came from small holes in the huge walls. Cattle and other valuable property were gathered at night and held for safe keeping in a small wooden or stone enclosure called a bawn. Many of the castles fell into ruin by the beginning of the 1800s, but many were still used as servant quarters, or farm buildings. Others were incorporated into more modern houses.

The Big House

The eighteenth century was to witness the construction of great houses across the county. The stability of this time meant that for the first time the houses of the rich did not require fortifications. Comfort and beauty were the main goals of the architects of the day. The construction of such masterpieces as Russborough House were carried out at this time. Many of the Irish and English nobility considered it desirable to own a country residence in Wicklow. This was facilitated by the improvements in roads and travel that ensured an easy journey from Dublin to most parts of the county.


By 1600 the Irish diet had already undergone a major change; the milk and meat based tradition of Gaelic Ireland had overlapped with the Normans’ taste for cereals. This more balanced diet was to continue for most of the seventeenth century. The relative underpopulation of the entire country ensured ample room for grazing. Cattle were the most important animals, with sheep and pigs also being kept. As well as using their meat, milk and milk products were of primary importance.

Milk, butter-milk, cheese and curds were the staple foods, butter was heavily salted to be kept for winter. With the introduction of cereals, particularly oats, the problem of providing a variety of foods in the non-dairy season was greatly reduced. Oats and wheat were made into breads and porridges. Sometimes they were combined with surplus butter and roasted to make something approaching flapjacks.

These foods were supplemented with the abundant wild products of the countryside. When in season fish, game, honey, berries and watercress were eaten. Drinks were also made from cereals and flavoured with honey and wild fruits. Obviously the abundance and variety of a family’s diet depended largely on their social standing. The table of Phelim O’Byme would be far more impressive than that of one of his poorer tenants. However, given the relative cheapness of land and the proximity of uncultivated tracts to most holdings, there would have been an ample supply of food for most people.

Potato Famine

What was to initiate the move towards the potato as the staple, and indeed, only food in many people’s diet was the scorched earth policies of the Cromwellian armies. As has already been mentioned in chapter three, Wicklow was laid waste a number of times during the 1640s and 1650s. Each time livestock were slaughtered in the fields and corn was burned, or cut down while still green. The potato, which had been introduced to Ireland by Sir Walter Raleigh on his county Cork estates, was seen as a crop that could withstand this devastation. As it could remain underground until such time as it was required, fire and trampling could not destroy it. The years of confiscation and plantation that followed these wars forced a lot of tenants onto smaller holdings. Land that had been commonage was divided into great estates. As a result of this the pastoral economy was no longer an option for many farmers. The high yield and high nutritional value of the potato made it an ideal choice for the poor tenant.

During the eighteenth century this trend continued, until the potato became the staple food of the majority in the whole country. Depending on the size of a holding this diet was sometimes supplemented with milk; however, this was to become less common as the years progressed. In 1795 Samuel Hayes, the founder of Avondale House and forest park, calculated the needs of a standard family of four children as being nineteen stone of potatoes a week. This would also feed the family’s fowl, dog and pig. Over the year about forty barrels would be consumed. Given the high yield of the crop this amount could be grown on a holding of half an acre. He also includes some herring, oats, buttermilk and rye or wheat bread as summer additions to this diet. However, he notes that the above amount “is rather more than the cottagers of this county can produce on the grounds which are usually let with their holdings” (4).


The catastrophe that was to befall Ireland in the 1840s, due to its over dependence on the potato, was not the first time the crop had caused disaster. There were many famines of varying severity in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. What made the great famine worse was the continual failure of the harvest over a number of years, the increased dependence on the potato and overpopulation in the 1840s. Ironically this enormous population growth was made possible by the ability of the potato to support large families on small plots. Samuel Hayes had even attributed “the robust health of our peasantry and the great population of our country”(5) to this quality of the potato.


Fashion from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century in Ireland was very much dictated by a person’s social class. Irish fashion was indeed a recognisable one, with a characteristic look of its own and, contrary to popular belief, quite different from that of Scotland. Clothing in Ireland was to change in these years, probably due to the increasing manufacture of cloths such as linen, cotton, flannel, frieze and other homespun fabrics; but also due to the widening of the import market in the 1800s, thus introducing softer cloths and developing the Irish woven silk trade, which had been established in the seventeenth century.

‘The Brat, Trews and Leine’

In the sixteenth century the basis of Irish dress was very much uniform. For most social groups the basic structure remained the same, except for the large number of poverty stricken people who were reduced to wearing any piece of cloth they could find. This structure, which dated back to the time of the Celts, consisted of the brat or mantle (cloak/cape), the trews (trousers) and the leine (tunic).

The brat was a shaped and lengthy garment reaching to the ankle. It was normally sleeveless, made from thick handspun wool and was considered the most characteristic of Irish garments. Up until the sixteenth century. it was normally worn with a brooch fastener on the shoulder. It was usually semicircular but it is argued that it may have sometimes been triangular.

The length of trews varied greatly, as did their shape, some reached the ankle whilst others were cut above the knee and held at the waist by a cord. Generally they were made from thick, warm, stockinet cloth, somewhat like modern day leggings or ski-pants. When full length they covered the whole leg and either ended at the feet like stockings, or else reached to the instep and were fastened by a band under the sole of the foot. The cloth form of the trews may have been derived from those worn in the Roman army; whilst the stocking type could have been influenced by the Greek army.

The leine also varied in length and originally resembled a shirt or frock type blouse. It eventually evolved to look more like a jacket. The way it was opened varied from garment to garment. Most developed to open down the front, but managed to keep their wide sleeves even in their jacket (ionar) form.

Wool, Cotton and Linen

Much of the garments worn in country areas were made by self sufficient families using their own wool. For important occasions a local or itinerant tailor was employed. Men’s garments were variously coloured, using dyes made from indigenous plants such as lichens and heather. There is a record of crocuses being planted, possibly for the production of saffron for dyeing. Saffron produced a bright yellow colour that could not (at the time), be derived from any other source. It was probably used to dye leine and might have only been used by the wealthy. It was also reputed to have anti-lice properties!

Women’s clothing was rarely as colourful as men’s. Peasant dresses had developed from the leine and were quite plain in appearance. Women’s dress had evolved into a uniform look before the famine, with black gowns and crimson petticoats being its main elements. In the winter these were covered with a hooded cloak and shawl which were the successors of the age old mantle.

It should be remembered that the evolution of Irish dress was not just influenced by the weather, by the cloth used or by the wearer, but also by politics. Throughout this era, laws were passed in attempts to stamp out some of the symbols of Irishness such as dress and customs. Also, many laws were passed limiting the export of Irish wool.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the upper and middle classes valued good quality and colourful fabrics. Their tastes for fur and fine linen were expensive. Many accessories and fabrics, such as whale bone supports for tight bodices and silk had to be imported.

The laws limiting the trade in wool had a crippling effect on the industry; in order to revive it these were repealed by the 1890s and protectionist laws were even introduced. By the nineteenth century even the monarch was taking an interest. George IV gave encouragement to the industry by recommending that only Irish fabrics should be worn at his reception here in 1821. His lead was followed at social events throughout the country.

The expansion of the cotton industry in Ireland benefited from the revolutionary change in fashion caused by the introduction of the simple muslin dress. This new style introduced a major social change, as such inexpensive fabrics meant that even maidservants could dress fashionably. Fashion was never an important factor in most people’s lives. For people who were struggling to survive keeping abreast with fashions was a luxury they could not afford.



Education in Wicklow, and indeed Ireland as a whole, can be divided into two distinct classes, Catholic and Protestant. The restrictions placed on all aspects of Catholic life during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries precluded them from organised religion. The Protestant community fared better; the  fewer  restrictions on dissenters and their smaller numbers ensured  that their education was not seen as a great threat to the Church of Ireland. The established church being free from restrictions and having the full financial support of the government was in a much better position to educate itself. One of the earliest records of a school in the county is in the Delgany vestry book in 1665. It noted “Pd ye schoolemr, for a quarter 7th of December £1 5s. 8d”, the master was Richard Oard. This form of parish school was to continue through the eighteenth century. The schoolhouse and teachers were supplied from the church funds. These schools were established as a result of an education act in 1570 whose purpose  was to anglicise and civilise the unruly Irish. Although this act was added to in the reign of Elizabeth I it was never fully implemented. It did, however, reflect the government’s understanding of the importance  of education in solving social problems in Ireland. The aims of these and many later initiatives were quite limited – it was mainly a desire to produce young people literate enough to understand the scriptures that prompted their establishment.


Alongside these schools in the eighteenth century there grew the tradition of the hedge schools. The fact that the education of Catholics was forbidden was enough to convince many of them that it must therefore be a desirable thing. Even the poorest were determined to educate their children. During the period of the penal laws hedge schools were held illegally in hedge rows and out of the way places throughout the country. The quality of the teacher varied greatly. Some were barely literate themselves while others were highly educated having earlier trained for the priesthood in Europe. Their fees were paid by the pupils and they rarely stayed long in one area as capture was always a possibility. As they often came into competition with each other, many were continually aware of their need to sell themselves. A typical image of a hedge school master (most would have been male) is of a rather eccentric figure whose flowery language often included classical quotations and latinisms. The hedge school curriculum included the three R’s, catechetics plus any other subject the master was familiar with. Text books also depended on what was available. One infamous list of books included the ‘History of Fair Rosina and Jane Shore’ (two prostitutes), Ovid’s ‘Art of Love’ and ‘The New System of Boxing’ by Mendose (6). However, as the penal laws were rescinded these schools became more regulated and uniform. They moved from the hedges to buildings provided by the local community and began to be known as Catholic Pay Schools.

The First Non Demoninational Schools

At this time (the turn of the nineteenth century) the country’s first attempt at nondenominational schools was taking place. The Kildare Place Society for the Education of the Poor was founded at the close of of the 18th century. Their aim was to improve the conduct of the poor by educating them in their proper civil duties. The board of the society, whose president was Lord Wicklow, contained both Catholics and Protestants, including for a time Daniel O’ Connell. In dealing with religious education it limited itself to the reading of scriptures without comment. As Sunday schools were often attached, the Church of Ireland pupils would then receive comment on Sundays, while the local priests were kept abreast of developments to arrange appropriate sermons.

The Three R’s

The rest of the curriculum was based on the three R’s. Strict guidelines were laid down in the society’s Schoolmaster’s Manual on teaching practice, punishment and the building of the schools. On paper at least it was a very progressive approach towards education and the large endowments granted by the government ensured that its operations were country wide. This included Wicklow, where there were a number of these schools. By the early nineteenth century any school-going children in the country either attended one of these schools or a Catholic Pay School. In many areas this choice was dependant on the quality of the teacher at each establishment. In 1820 the Wicklow Education Society report shows that there were at least 2,024 children being educated at Kildare Place schools in the county. It expressed general satisfaction with them, pointing out certain teachers of note such as Mr. Pavey of Carnew who “continues although old and infirm, to teach such poor children as come to him in the summer half year; many … do not pay him anything and from the remainder he gets very little, that he may be said to depend for his support on a pension of ten pounds per annum allowed him by Lord Fitzwilliam.” Information on the Catholic Pay Schools is more scant. In his ‘History of the Schools of Kildare and Leighlin’ Rev. Martin Brennan estimates that about 14% of the Catholic population attended these schools in the summer. By 1826 many teachers appear to have been quite old. He lists two from the south west of the county, Timothy Kavanagh of Bortle and Garret Doyle of Carrictenamiel, who were in their sixties. It appears that these schools were very much under the control of the local parish priests, who appointed and contributed towards the payment of the teachers. So by the beginning of the nineteenth century there was the beginnings of a widespread system of education in Wicklow. Local demand plus government policy ensured the continued move towards a more all-encompassing system later in the century. Compared to the rest of the United Kingdom, Ireland was very much to the forefront in this field. When a national system was eventually introduced in both islands, the Irish experience was to prove to have been of invaluable importance.


(1) Inglis, Henry D., Journey Through Ireland (London, 1838), p.20.
(2) Ibid,p.18.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Hayes, Samuel, Essays in Answer to all the Queries on the Culture of Potatoes (Dublin, 1797), p.20.
(5) Ibid,p.21.
(6) Dutton, Healy, Stastical Survey of the County of Clare, with observations on the means of improvements; drawn up for the consideration and by direction of the Dublin Society (Dublin, 1808), p. 137-7.

Comments about this page

  • Thank you for the information – we appreciate you taking the trouble to contact us. I have corrected the year to 1795 in the text.

    By Catherine Wright (21/08/2023)
  • Hello, just a minor correction about a date: the quotation from Samuel Hayes (1743-1795) about “the needs of a standard family of four children” dates to 1795, and not 1797. Although the printed book was published in 1797, Hayes’s contribution to it is signed and dated on page 17, “Samuel Hayes, Avondale, March 22, 1795.”

    By Erin Blake (15/08/2023)

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