Editor's foreword: Since this, and its later off-shoot, the land Commission, have now passed out of existence, some background notes may help to give the setting for any readers who might be unfamiliar with its origin and purpose. Gladstone's Act of 1881 set up the Land Commission, which was later remodelled by the Wyndham Act of 1903. In the course of time a number of subsections developed in the Land Commission. By 1914 there were seventeen administrative sections in all, twelve of them dealing with land purchase. Of these the most important was the Congested Districts Board (or C.D.B., as it came to be known), and the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction.)


The Congested Districts Board


by Thomas Langan. Originally published in the North Mayo Historical
Journal Vol. 2, No. 3, 1990/91 as "The Congested Districts Board"
Balfour's Act of l89l brought in special legislation concerning land purchase in poorer districts. Lyons in "Ireland Since The Famine" has this to say about congested districts: "The root cause of the trouble was that too many people were trying to live off too little land. It was, however, less a problem of over-population than of population unevenly distributed. These districts (along the Atlantic coast), were 'Congested' in the official jargon not because half a million people lived there, but because too many of them were trying to scratch from bog or stony mountain land a living which was at best precarious and sometimes non-existent." The C.D.B. had a four-fold purpose: (1) to promote local industries by subsidies and technical instruction; (2) to amalgamate uneconomic holdings by land purchase; (3) to assist migration from impoverished areas to the newly amalgamated holdings; (4) to improve the quality of agriculture in the congested areas. One of the big draw-backs of the C.D.B. was that it lacked the power of compulsory purchase of big ranches, and it was only with the coming of the Free State that such powers were granted to the Land Commission).

One of my earliest memories is that of the grown-up girls of my village coming home from the Lace School with their neat little baskets. On seeing these baskets open one could only wonder at the neat and tidy appearance of the contents. It was only some time later that we heard the name Congested Districts Board when my father took a piece of land on conacre on a holding which the Board had acquired in the townland. On this land, towards the end of World War 1, he grew some great crops of potatoes. I remember a day, before rationing was introduced and we were completely without flour, being sent to the field where he was digging to collect a can of long, smooth potatoes of the variety known as "Dates", which we regarded as too moist for eating but ideal for boxty.

By this time the Congested Districts Board had been about twenty-six years in existence, and had done most of its useful work. In 1887 A. J. Balfour had been appointed Secretary for Ireland. At first it seems that he was sneered at as "a niminy piminy philosopher", but he soon became known as "Bloody Balfour". His policy was to kill Home Rule and the Plan of Campaign by a mixture of coercion and kindness. He introduced a Coercion Bill, and also turned down two Land Bills introduced by Parnell, but had two of his own passed which conferred much the same benefits. In 1891 the Act setting up the C.D.B. was passed. An Inspector of the Board of Local Government, Mr. W. L. Micks, who had travelled extensively in Donegal and Galway, was appointed Secretary of the Board. This man was to be connected with the C.D.B. during the whole period of its existence and to write its history.

One of the first things which the Board had to do was to decide on the definition of a "Congested District". The one they decided on, and on which they worked for most of the Board's existence, was the following: One in which the total rateable value, divided by the number of inhabitants, amounted to less than 30/- (30 shillings) per person. Using this standard, and largely ignoring existing divisions such as parishes and baronies, they arrived at a total of eighty-four such districts, stretching from Donegal through Leitrim, Roscommon, Sligo, Mayo, Kerry and West Cork.

The principal function of the Board was to take such steps as it might think proper in aiding and developing agriculture, in forestry, in the breeding of livestock and poultry, in weaving, in spinning, in fishing and industries subservient to fishing (including the construction of piers and harbours), and in aiding and developing other suitable industries. The Board was authorised to proceed in the execution of these duties either directly or indirectly, and by the application of funds by means of gifts or loans. Decisions made by the Board were to be final and unquestionable even by Dublin Castle. All along the coasts of Donegal, Mayo and Galway active steps were taken to provide fishermen with boats and suitable lines and nets, and also with curing stations for cod and ling. However, most of the coast of Mayo and Sligo, consisting of cliffs and long beaches of shingle or strand, were found to be unsuitable for the development of fishing on a large scale.

On one occasion I asked an uncle about a yawl I saw at the Ballycastle Pier with what I thought were saw marks cut in the gunwale. He explained that these were marks worn by the lines used in cod fishing. Away out of sight of land to the North-West of Ballycastle the fishermen baited their hooks and threw out their heavy sinkers and let their heavy line run until it hit the bottom. "Then you drew in your line and let it out again, and when the skin of your forefingers was worn away you used your second fingers." Some fifty years ago a Crossmolina man told me of his experience with cod fish. One fair day evening, when he was in Infants Class, both sides of Chapel Street were lined with carts full of cod fish. One of the senior boys grabbed him by the collar and seat of his pants and dumped him right in the middle of one of the loads. The cart was so full that fish went slithering out in all directions. In the evening farmers would buy sack-loads of these fish at bargain prices and salt them as "kitchen" for the Winter months. Later on, it was said, the steam trawlers destroyed the cod bank.

The Board worked out a system of pilot schemes designed to improve agriculture. Instructors were based at Kiltimagh, Achill and Clifden. Each tried to get about ten tenants to work part of their holdings according to the Instructor's advice on the condition of getting free seed and manure, including grass seed. This was because the Board wished to stop the bad system of wearing out land and then letting it go back to nature. Trees for shelter-belts were supplied and planted under supervision. Almost every tenant kept a mare to do farm work and produce a foal every second year. Those who could not afford a mare kept an ass. Over 60,000 was expended on improving the breed of horses and asses.

Horses and Asses: The Board acquired a farm and stables at Stillorgan. From here they sent out over the years, in charge of experienced grooms the following numbers and breeds of horses: 4l Hackneys, 8 Welsh Cobbs, 7 Thoroughbreds, 6 Hunters, 4 Arabs, 2 Shires and one each of Cleveland Bay, Barb, Connemara and Norwegian. Evidently there were lots of people willing to look a gift horse in the teeth! Mr. Micks' comment on the scheme is: "The horse scheme brought more criticism than all the other Board's schemes together." Asses of the Spanish breed were placed with farmers at suitable places.

Cattle: The following figures for the three counties most heavily involved give an idea of the number and types involved:

       Shorthorn    Aberdeen Angus    Galloway    Red
Mayo          81                83         113      -
Donegal       90               125          55      8
Galway        29                26         144      1

I grew up with the idea that Galloways, those sturdy, stumpy, orange coloured cattle with spreading sharp horns which came to the fairs in Ballycastle were a survival from some earlier importation. Mr. Micks states that the scheme helped to raise the quality of cattle in the congested Districts, with a consequent improvement in prices.

Pigs: With a total of 117 boars Mayo got exactly as many as the combined total for Donegal (56), and Galway (57), and far more than Cork (10), Kerry (26), Leitrim (15), Roscommon (21), and Sligo (10).

Sheep: A total of 700 rams were sold by the Board between 1892 and 1904. As well as this 33 sheep-dipping stations were worked by Instructors in addition to a large number of others maintained by contractors using Board apparatus.

Poultry: Between 1892 and 1893 a total of 1,600 cockerels and pullets were sold, and the eggs of Indian Runner ducks were also sold, with a consequent dramatic increase in the value of egg production.

Beekeeping and honey production were also encouraged.

Potato Spraying: Over 7,000 was expended on experimental spraying of potatoes with copper sulphate and lime on the lines of the wine-dressing solutions used in France. And how well they succeeded!! After the end of World War II Stephen Wrynne did a series of articles on agriculture in the different counties. In the one on Mayo he had this to say: "lf, on the Last Day the Department is challenged as to what good they ever did, they can always say, 'We brought bluestone to Mayo'."

Lace Schools: The term Lace School was used rather loosely, as they also produced crochet, embroidery and knitwear. Experience showed that the poorest districts gave the best results. The initial survey by the Board had shown that Aughoose, in the North of Erris, was the poorest district in the whole congested area. There were hundreds of families whose cash income did not exceed 10 a year, exclusive of food grown and consumed on the farm. A few owned a cow and a few sheep.

The girls had been accustomed to working out of doors saving turf and gathering seaweed for fertiliser, and also kelp. It was feared that calloused hands would be unable to do such fine work as lace making. Under Mr. Walker schools were set up in Aughoose and throughout Erris. In a short time Pullathomas School, in the parish of Aughoose, became number one school of the seventy-six in the country, with Miss Quigley (later Mrs. Mullaney), as teacher. Benada was second. The school at Muings, under Mrs. Burke, was almost equal to Pullathomas, and there were very successful schools at Carratigue, Foxpoint, Geesala and Bangor Erris.

The introduction of the Lace Schools brought about a great change in Erris. Mr. Micks' remarks that money for lace was far more beneficial to a locality than money for fish. The girls brought home their earnings and used their money as family money. Very soon there was a marked improvement in the standard of living of the whole household. Not only were the whole family better fed and clothed, but the farm was stocked with cattle, sheep and pigs of a quality to fetch higher prices. Mr. Micks has the highest praise for the three P.P.s, Canon Hegarty, Canon Timlin and Canon Howley; also for Mr. Walker, who set up the schools, and for Mr. Phelan, who succeeded him, and also for the teachers, some of whose names have already been mentioned.

During World War 1 lace came to be regarded as a luxury, sales declined sharply, and it looked as if the schools were finished. Sales, which amounted to 25,100 in 1910, to 27,752 in 1911, to 30,616 in 1912, dropped to 17,565 in 1914 and further still to I1,680 in 1915. Things were looking grim, and Mr. Phelan visited several English cities, including London and Manchester, looking for business; he also went to Paris. During his visits he discovered that there was a complete shortage of pearl and other high-class buttons and he began to wonder if the lace schools could supply an alternative. At first he thought of covering wood kernels with high-class silk crochet, but it proved impossible to get a machine to produce such kernels owing to the demand for munitions.

The U-boat war in the North Atlantic at this time was fierce, and among the wreckage being daily washed ashore along the Erris coast were huge bales of cotton. Very surprisingly, the salt water had not penetrated beyond a thin outer layer, which then formed a waterproof skin. Bales washed up at backward places in ones and twos could be picked up for little more than the cost of collection.

Crochet Buttons: Mr. Phelan invented a machine so simple that a blacksmith could, and did, make it for less than 1, which machine was capable of turning out cotton moulds for buttons. In the lace schools these moulds were covered with crochet of fine silk. Those produced in Carratigue under Miss Mary Donovan were considered the most artistic, but they all found a ready market as the following figures show: 31,697 for the year 1917; 55,386 for 1918; 80,360 for 1919; and 111,802 for 1920. At this point the button trade collapsed, but there was an increased demand for knitwear, which showed a return of 61,519 for 1921 and 40,235 for 1922.

Mr. Phelan died in 1920, and Mrs. Mullaney was appointed lnspector of Classes. In Erris, lacking a railway, the orders were dispatched by parcel post. During the Civil War period this method was often impossible to use, so that Mrs. Mullaney hired a man with a motorcar to get the parcels to the post office in Ballina, sometimes travelling along boreens and byeways to avoid broken bridges or road cuttings. She was always treated with respect by both sides, who went out of their way to help and advise her.

Houses and Furniture: After building some houses the officials were shocked to find that the occupants had no furniture worthy of the name. An instructor was brought into the area and instruction in furniture-making offered on two stipulations: (a) that each student buy his own material, and (b) that he makes two beds first. The response was not just encouraging, it was overwhelming. Before long neat dressers full of shining delph began to appear in many of the little houses.

Another feature of the Erris houses, which began to attract not a little envious comment, was the brightness of their white-washed walls. It was said that the lime they used was got from burning sea-shells, whereas our lime, got from burning limestone gathered on the beds of streams and out of sand-pits, would never match the brightness of the Erris whitewash.

Railways and Roads: An article in the 1988 edition of the North Mayo Journal, entitled "Extracts (With Comments) From Early Issues of The Western People", shows that there was strong opposition to the Ballina-Killala railway line in the year 1885, while in 1886 there was a movement for the "revival of the proposed railway project from Ballina to Belmullet." A piece of folklore I once picked up seemed to show that it had been surveyed as far as Ballycastle, was then dropped and later revived when a new surveyor came. Michael Maguire of Ballyknock recalled: "l had the job of helping him. For the first three days he was very quiet and hardly spoke at all. On the fourth day, when we were eating lunch, he said, 'Michael, the people do not look to be very wild.' 'Wild!, arrah sure why would they be wild?'. 'Well', says he, 'l worked on railways in Africa and India and my family and friends thought nothing of it. But when they heard I was coming to Ireland they all tried to stop me. The night before I left they all said goodbye to me because they did not expect to see me alive again'."

I think that survey got as far as Glenurla before the whole project was finally dropped. I presume the Englishman returned home safely, but Belmullet never got it's railway! Mr. Micks stresses what a vital part the light railway played in the development of both the fishing and the carpet industries in Donegal. Another extract from the article mentioned above says under date 1/5/1886: "Distress of the West Coast. On Monday Mr. Brady left Belmullet at 6.00 a.m. for Ballycastle and Killala having put twenty men at work to finish the road to Purturlin." Michael Naughton, formerly of Belderrig, recalls that the bridge at Muingabo was called the Ann Brady Bridge in honour of this man's wife.

Ballycastle and Belderrig: Ballycastle had its lace school in the Convent of Mercy, while Belderrig had its school in what is known as ----- House, and its fish curing station down by the sea. A good deal of work was done on land division, including migration, although Mr. Micks wished to leave this work to other departments. In Ballinglen, Ballycastle, the Edinburgh Agricultural Society held in fee 361 acres 2 roods and 6 perches, valued at 89, and with buildings valued at 15. This farm was acquired and divided into five holdings. One holding was given to an employee on the farm, and four families from Belderrig moved into the other farms. (Their names were Foy, Walsh, McDonnell and Purcell). Using the land these people had vacated and some acres acquired in Belderrig, the Board was able to persuade the remaining families to agree to a scheme of striping, with access roads and new houses, giving Belderrig much the lay-out which it has today.

The Parish Committee Scheme: The Local Government Act of 1896 had established Urban and County Councils, with considerable powers in local government. The C.D. Board carried out its house improvements scheme through parish committees consisting of all resident clergy, doctors, any member of a local government body, along with tenants' representatives. Arising from this scheme, Mr. Micks devotes a whole chapter to enumerating and thanking the many Bishops and priests who helped the C.D.B. in its work, starting from the Very Rev. Philip O'Doherty, C.C., Carndonagh, Inishowen, Donegal, and proceeding South to Father Davis, one of the founders of the fishing school at Baltimore, Co. Cork.

The following gives an idea of the flavour of the chapter: "On the North coast of Mayo reference has already been made to the constant and valuable work done by the successive P.P.s of Aughoose, Canons Hegarty, Timlin and Howley. In the same diocese of Killala Canon Munnelly of Ballycastle, Canon Tully of Easkey and Canon Healy of Kilglass were prominent helpers of the Board in the diocese in which both bishop and clergy were uniformly most useful in promoting the development of the people. The Very Rev. Michael Quinn, P.P., gave conspicuous help to the industrial class at Lacken, where the girls were the best makers of lace in country classes of  moderate numbers.

"ln the large island of Achill the Very Rev. M. Colleran, P.P., an old friend of mine since we met in Boffin in 1885, was always ready and willing to help the Board's work in any way he could."

When the C.D.B. began to purchase estates for resale to tenants it found the intentions of the farmers of the Wyndham Act, and later of the Binell Act, thwarted and retarded by arbitrary regulations of the Treasury. For example, the Wyndham Act voted 112 million pounds towards this purpose, but the Treasury imposed an arbitrary limit of five millions a year, leaving the Board unable to complete some 50,000,000 worth of negotiated business. The Birrell Act conferred on the Board powers of compulsory purchase, but only in a small minority of cases was this power needed. In a few cases it even refused to purchase. There were also a few cases where it failed to get an order. The case which attracted most attention was that of the Clanrickarde Estate. The Marquis of Clanrickarde had fought the Plan of Campaign tooth and nail. Now he fought the order for compulsory purchase all the way to the House of Lords, where the Board had the satisfaction of getting an unanimous verdict against him with costs. A successful verdict against the Treasury in the House of Lords was of little avail to the Board, as it was not won until 1921, and it never came into effect.

All these transactions of the Board made hardly any difference to the poor tenants in the original Congested Districts since there was hardly any untenanted land in their own districts. There were very large tracts of untenanted grassland in Roscommon, East Mayo and East Galway, but in all cases there were so many tenants with very small holdings on these estates that there was never any land left for  migrants.

Miscellaneous Operations: Some of these were as follows - on the Arran Islands Mr. Perry, the County Surveyor, solved a water shortage by building concrete storage tanks to store rainwater. In South Connemara there were frequent outbreaks of fever owing to the use of contaminated stagnant water. Mr. Perry built concrete storage tanks here also, and used large sheets of granite as "roofs" for the collection of rainwater.

The Board had its own steamship, "The Granuaile". It subsidised services to islands, the erection of telegraph lines, money-order Post Offices, the delivery of mails in Erris and Connemara. The parcel post service was central to the work of the Board.

Mr. Micks draws attention to the inequality of treatment given to the West coast and islands of lreland compared with that given to the West coast and islands of Scotland and gives the following figures: Services to the West coast of Scotland cost 20,637; those to the Shetlands cost 6,355; those to the Orkneys cost 2,579, making a combined total of 529,574. By contrast, the mails from Galway to the Arran Islands cost 85 per year, and there was even a suggestion that these mails should be treated as personal luggage.

The C.D.B. made grants to the Dudley Nursing Fund. It also built several nurses' residences, charging as rent the interest on the cost of building the residences and the cost of upkeep.

As well as the Instructor in carpentry and furniture-making, the Board also appointed an Instructor in boat building and repairing at Mevagh in Co. Donegal. It also appointed instructors in net-mending for children, as fishermen would be too busy to mend their nets during the busy fishing periods. In addition, the Board erected harbour and other lights for the safety and convenience of fishermen.

"After 1914 the Board could only watch with a sore heart first the suspension and afterwards the undoing of much of their work." Added to this disappointment was the feeling that they had missed out in not providing out-offices in addition to dwelling houses in the very poorest districts.

The C.D.B. was abolished in 1923, and Mr. Micks stayed on for a year to help absorb its activities into the departments of the new Saorstat Eireann. When we consider how the Board was constituted we can see why it was inevitable that it should be abolished. "The Board consisted of the Chief Secretary, a member of the Land Commission appointed by the Lord Lieutenant. five others appointed by the Queen, and three temporary members to deal with the Board's activities in fishing, agriculture, etc." The Land Act of 1923 (amended in 1925), and those of 1933 and 1934 handed over the functions of the C.D.B. to the Land Commission. This, in turn, has recently been abolished.


Copyright Maureen Langan-Egan. Reproduced at GoldenLangan.com by permission of Maureen Langan-Egan.
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