County Meath in 1839
Soil; Agriculture; Condition of the People.
This county has very few mountain-wastes, and the proportion of bog is small. The land is for the most part flat rich pasture-land.
There are a few fine domains, especially those of the marquis of Conyngham and of the Lambert family, near Slane, and that of the marquis of Headfort, near Kells; and there are many gentlemen's houses scattered through other parts of the county.
The soil is for the most part a loam of the richest character, and in many places of such depth that the turning up of a fresh portion of the soil by ploughing deeper than usual is considered as an efficient substitute for manuring.
In some baronies animal manure alone, or mixed with bog-stuff or peat, is chiefly used; in others marl-sand,' a valuable mixture of calcareous matter and alluvial deposit, is used; and also lime.
The farms vary in size from 2 acres to 3,000 acres, but are on the average larger than in most other parts of Ireland: the grazing farms average about 150 acres; and tillage farms 20 to 50.
The mode of farming, though very slovenly and defective, bears some resemblance to that of England. Summer fallows though coming into disuse, have been considered necessary, owing to the rank luxuriance of the weeds.
The rotation of crops in small farms is, usually, fallow or potatoes with manure; second year, wheat; third year, oats; and, frequently, fourth year, oats.
Larger farmers sow clover the fourth year, which remains one year or more, and is followed by oats; a few sometimes grow barley instead of wheat the second year.
The practice of growing potatoes as a preparation for wheat, instead of leaving the land fallow, is increasing.
Flax is seldom grown in large quantities for sale, but small patches for domestic use are general: a strong kind of dowlas and some sheetings are made from it in the country.
Turnips, mangel-wurzel, vetches, rape, grey and white peas, beans, and cabbages, are cultivated, but not generally; turnips are grown only by the wealthier farmers, who unite grazing with tillage, and are chiefly used for feeding sheep; cabbages succeed well, but the expense of transplanting, and the liability to depredation, are great objections to this crop.
The whole quantity of land devoted to green crops is small, in consequence of the abundance of the natural pastures, which are of unequalled richness, and have led the farmers to give their chief attention to grazing. The growth of clover and vetches is however gaining ground.
The quantity of cattle fattened in the pastures of the county is considerable; but as the rent of land is too high to admit of its being used to breed stock, the cattle which the graziers intend to fatten are collected from various parts.
The English long-horned breeds were introduced many years ago, and some of the best specimens in Ireland are to be found in Meath. The breeds most in request are the Durham 'short-horned 'and the Hertford breed for fattening, and the Ayrshire for milch cows.
After being bled, the cattle are turned out until they are fit for the butcher. The pastures are opened in May for grazing the stock designed to be fattened in the ensuing summer.
The best-conditioned of the heifers, which are half fat, are put to the forwardest grass, and supply the Dublin market in June, July, and August, when beef bears the highest price.
The season for slaughtering cattle to supply shipping with salt provisions commences in September, and after its commencement the graziers rely chiefly on the northern buyers, who purchase the cattle at the fairs in or near the county, and sell the beef for home consumption, or salt and barrel it for exportation.
Meath, in regard to the quality of its grazing land, is the first county in Leinster, and grazing is carried on on a large scale. Many persons fatten from 300 to 500 cows in a season, besides bullocks and sheep. Oxen are frequently employed in the plough.
On many farms the landlord supplies land, horses, and a succession of cows in milk; the tenant furnishes labour and utensils, and pays for making the hay used by the cows. The skim-milk is mixed with the butter-milk, and sold to the retailers of Dublin, who vend it to the poor. From December to May the dairy-cows are fed on hay, straw, or a mixture of both, and are housed at night.
There are large flocks of sheep kept by the more extensive farmers; the small farmers rarely keep any. A good deal of mutton is fattened, but few of the sheep are bred in the county.
They are chiefly purchased at the fair of Ballinasloe (county Roscommon) in October; some of these are fed during the winter on rape and turnips, and are sold at Dublin in the spring; the rest are turned out into the pastures previously used for the summer stock of cattle, and are fed in addition with hay. In May and June, after shearing, or perhaps in July or August, they are fat enough for the Dublin market.
From the low price of corn and the rise of the value of wool and stock consequent on the more rapid and certain communication with England, grazing has been for some years increasing.
The horses are generally inferior. Every farmer who holds a hundred acres and upwards keeps one or two mares, which he breeds from, and works to within about a fortnight of the time of their dropping their foals: these he rears, and in the spring before they are three years old he either sells them in the halter or works them in his own team; from which time to the day of their death they lead a life of hardship, and often of starvation. Bad feeding and hard working in their youth prevent their growing to their full size. A large, long, blood horse, which sells for a high price, is much reared in this county.
Pigs are of a good breed, and are nearly or quite as common as in most other parts of Ireland. Poultry is abundant and cheap. Bees are kept in several districts.
Draining appears to be better understood in Meath than in many other parts, though there is much need of its being further extended. Under-drains are constructed on a peculiar but efficient plan.
Wood is not abundant, ground being too valuable to be occupied by plantations, except about noblemen's and gentlemen's demesnes for the purpose of ornament.
Plantations for this purpose are however numerous, and timber-trees are common in the hedge-rows. Oaks are scarce; the beech, elm, ash, sycamore, poplar, and alder are more plentiful.
There are several nursery-grounds, especially a very extensive one near Navan.
From the small extent of the bogs and the deficiency of wood, fuel is scarce, and the poor often suffer severely from the want of it.
The population is most dense in the northern and western parts of the county, where there are 200, and in one part (the barony of Morgallion) 240 inhabitants to a square mile.
In the south-western parts, and around Slane, and on the coast, the proportion is about 170 inhabitants to a square mile. In the central and southern parts the population is thinner, varying from 110 to 140 persons to a square mile.
The disproportion between the demand and supply of labour varies.
In some parts there are no destitute poor, the residence of the proprietor furnishing employment, and the limitation or decrease of the number of cabins repressing the increase of population; but this absence of destitution in some spots is counterbalanced by the throngs of unemployed and destitute poor on the edges of commons and bogs, in poor villages, and in the suburbs of towns.
In the baronies of Upper and Lower Kells, which are among the most densely peopled, from one-fourth to one-tenth (the proportion varying in different parishes) of the labourers are in constant work, about one-tenth are almost constantly out of employment, and the remainder are employed from two to eight or nine months in the year.
Men's wages are about 10 pence per day, except in winter, when they fall to 8 pence, and in harvest, when they rise to 1 shilling 3 pence or 1 shilling 6 pence; boys under sixteen years earn usually about 4 pence, in winter 3 pence, and at harvest 6 pence to 10 pence; women earn 4 pence to 6 pence, and in harvest 6 pence to 10 pence, but have no work at all in winter.
Wages are not usually paid in kind, except to herds and shepherds, who have meal, potatoes, or grass for a cow or several sheep, to the amount of about half their wages. In harvest-time it is usual to pay the labourers partially in food.
From low wages and insufficient food, combined perhaps with other causes, the peasantry are neither so skilful nor persevering in labour as the English.
The cottiers generally keep a pig, though in many cases a pecuniary loss is incurred: the reason for this apparently unprofitable practice was shrewdly stated to the commissioners for inquiring into the condition of the Irish poor, by a peasant, who observed that 'his pig was his savings' bank; for that he was obligated to save every penny that he could to feed him, and he did not so much miss it a little at a time; and that it came in again all in a lump, when he sold him to pay his rent.'
The wives of the labourers generally rear fowls, and they make a trifle by the sale of the eggs and chickens.
The only home manufactures are a little coarse linen, sometimes, though rarely, a little coarse frieze coating, and the knitting of coarse worsted stockings, which last branch of industry is still pretty commonly done by girls, widows, and old women, who earn at this work about 1 shilling 3 pence a week. Spinning and weaving, from the cheapness of manufactured goods, have almost entirely ceased.
Potatoes form the chief food of the labourer: oatmeal is used in summer by those in good employment, and on some particular occasions they have an egg, a herring, or a morsel of bacon as a treat.
Small farmers eat herrings, eggs, and butter; but no meat, except sometimes a little of their own bacon. The cabins of the peasantry are wretched.
Of furniture they have scarcely anything: the master of the house (with his wife, if married) sleeps on a frame of rough wood, split poles, stout sticks, &c., raised off the floor by stone blocks or other supporters, and called a bedstead; the rest of the family sleep on the floor; the only bedding is straw rushes, or, in a very few cases of unusual luxury, a piece of coarse sacking tick filled with chaff. An old threadbare blanket, often full of holes, pieces of old carpet with the day clothes of the family, form the night covering.
The most miserable habitations are in the suburbs of towns and around bogs.
Cases of bastardy are very rare, and incur general opprobrium; but this opprobrium falls too heavily on the weaker party.
Drunkenness is rare among the labourers and their wives; more frequent among the small farmers and tradesmen. (Report of the Commissioners for inquiring into the Condition of the Irish Poor.)
There is no return for the quantity of corn sold in the principal markets for the ten years last before 1836.