Women and Migration in Mayo, 1820-1850

by Maureen Langan-Egan, originally  published in the
Mayo Association of Galway Journal
The thirty years from 1820-1850 are dominated by the spectre of the Great Famine and the onset of emigration on a scale previously unknown in Irish history. Such a spectrum of events tends to avert attention from other phenomena such as seasonal migration which occurred during this period and which continued well into this century. Migration occurred in many less well-off areas in the country but was particularly important to the economy of the depressed western counties, especially Galway and Mayo.

In the earlier years of this period, there was much migration in the county particularly among men. In 1841, there were 10,430 migrants from Mayo and the total number of migrants from Connacht numbered 25,118. Of particular interest is how women and children came to terms with this fact.
There were many factors which made migration such a live issue in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the first decade of the century there was a growing demand in Great Britain for outside agricultural labour which coincided with lessening employment in Ireland. This extra demand must have been seen as a boon to harrassed men and their wives and families. A new system of agriculture was evolving in England which involved two principal figures, the large farmer and the hired day labourer. Irish migrants were welcomed by land-owners because, besides supplying the farmer with more efficient labour (than the local village paupers), they also relieved them of the onus of supporting the parish labourers, who, when the temporary employment was over, would become burdens on the Poor Rate. This welcome did not extend to the native labourers on the mainland who felt threatened by Irish migrants, both men and women, who were landed by the steam boats in places such as the very heart of Scotland, near the agricultural districts.

This prejudice against western migrants also occurred at home especially among the workers of the South East, who regarded them as "dirty pool-dwellers, bog trotters, mountaineers without self-respect or manners".  Many a sensitive man or woman who had gone to Leinster to work during the harvest, must have cringed in the face of such derision. Women in Mayo were particularly affected by migration as migrants left the County at the rate of one in thirty seven of the inhabitants in the year 1851. Whether wives remained at home with their children or accompanied their husbands, they endured great hardships. There were great variations within the county however. For example, very few migrated from Lacken or Killala. In other parishes, such as Crossmolina and Cong migration was almost totally confined to unmarried men. The various witnesses for Doonfeeny give us a very confused picture of the incidence of migration in this parish. In Kilfian, sixty-one men migrated, and all of them, except four, were married. When one considers the large number of widows in this parish, one cannot but sympathise with the women who had to carry a very heavy burden of agricultural work as well as ordinary domestic duties. Along the sea-board, as at Aughavale, it was mainly married men who migrated. Half of the male migrants from Castlemore were married. In relatively prosperous areas of the county such as Ballyhean, Aglish, Ballintubber and Burriscarra, approximately one third of the married men migrated.

While it was stated that "it was the custom for the harvester's wife and family to remain in Ireland and beg in the more opulent counties," this practice was not universal. Many women stayed in or very close to their homes' particularly if their husbands were able to provide for them, even partially, in their absence. Many men made gallant efforts to provide provisions for their wives and families in their absence. This was very difficult in a cash starved economy and it was reckoned that a migrant from Mayo needed at least 1 for the journey to England, before making any provision for those at home. In some instances husbands did not make provision for wives and families before migrating, not through malice but because of the fear of failing to meet future financial commitments, as the husband's earnings were required to pay the rent. We hear of the plight of men who could not depend on relatives or neighbours to help their families in their absence. In this situation, such men took as much provision as would support their families during their from some independent neighbour, giving him some 30-35% interest and security to pay to the last farthing as soon as they returned. Others managed to leave provisions for a portion of the time they were absent. This was the usual practice in Kilcolman When these provisions ran out, women and children resorted to begging. These could count themselves lucky when contrasted with the women for whom no provision was made.

In large areas of the county such as Doonfeeny, Kilmaine, and Aughagower, women resorted to begging. In parts of Aughavale, in the absence of the men, women and children shut up their houses and took to the roads. Some resorted to begging only when their potato supplies ran out. Some who stayed in their cabins lived on one scant meal a day rather than beg. Others depended on the help of friends and relatives.

Some women tried to be self-sufficient and provide sufficient food for themselves. Some women, particularly in Burriscarra and Ballintubber, lived on the produce of their gardens which in general contained from a rood to an acre. Others lived on the produce of their little farms of conacres. Some wives in Kilmaclash were left with a sufficient quantity of potatoes to sustain them in the absence of their husbands. In Castlebar and Aglish, wives and children lived on the provisions in store for the year. Formerly these women used to beg. The position at Balla, just a few miles away, was in stark contrast, as the migrant labourers "left their wives in misery at home." Some families in desperation resorted to the workhouses as a temporary measure and even pawned their clothes before entering them. On a visit to Westport workhouse in June 1850, Forbes learned that "no fewer than three hundred children had gone out of the house in consequence of money received from their fathers in England and Scotland and twenty one had gone to America through funds sent home to them by their relations. In fact, when wives left the workhouses to join their husbands on their return' many of the older girls were unwilling to leave them".

Some women migrated not only to other parts of Ireland but to other countries, particularly during the famine. Referring particularly to the Unions of Ballinrobe, Castlebar and Westport, it was stated: "experience proves that large numbers of both men and women migrate to other lands to seek employment and endure much hardship and privation in order to accumulate a small hoard with which they return to their families."  Widows worked as migratory labourers in Scotland and on occasions received free passage on the boats, as may be inferred from the evidence of Pat Cooper.  "My wife and children came with me (to Scotland) but they did not pretend to belong to me. They pretended to be a widow and orphans and got their passage in charity. In Scotland we separated every day, I to look for work and they to beg and we met every evening. We were better off begging in Ireland than in Scotland, but we got better food and more of it in Scotland, but we could get no lodging."

While many of these migratory labourers returned to Ireland, some attempted to remain in Scotland and received no great welcome from the authorities. Bishop Gillis of Edinburgh spoke of the refusal by the authorities to give outdoor relief to poor parents, widows with children or wives whose husbands had gone in search of work, while insisting on their children being taken into the workhouse where they were not allowed to attend Mass and where they became victims of proselytism." Some did manage to get a foothold in Scotland and we read of immigrant Irish women and children working in the mines. In Achill, there was a tradition of women migrating to Scotland and working in the fields alongside their husbands. Such migration greatly affected daily life in Achill as some cabins were only inhabited in summer, while others were inhabited only in winter. It has been suggested that in times of great distress, the population of whole villages went begging. The custom of having women and children from Achill working in the fields in Scotland was still widespread in Scotland in 1893 and has continued into this century.

Women lived harsh difficult lives in the absence of their menfolk, especially if they had to beg during the summer of famine months. It has been said that the burden of supporting these women and children fell almost entirely on the small farmer, who thus found himself in very difficult circumstances. For those who were lucky enough to be able to remain in their cabins, life was grim with many people subsisting on one scant meal a day, and many doing the heavy summer work with crops and turf. Matters were made more difficult for some of them as in some cases, grown boys who might have helped their mothers, also accompanied their fathers when they migrated. Yet the lives of the women who could remain in their cabins were much less difficult than those of women forced lo lock up their cabins and beg. In these cases, holdings were neglected and the family generally faced a cold miserable winter as no fuel was saved. In such cases it was disastrous if the absent husbands could not earn as much as might pay the rent and also the extra expenses caused by the dearth of potatoes and turf.  One can imagine the difficulties faced by many families in the parish of Kilfian in 1835. Some of the male migrants were forced to pawn their clothes and return in a very short time.  The hardship was aggravated by the fact that most people did not have a change of clothing and almost inevitable eviction faced these people that winter as the hardship began to bite. Indeed, four hundred families left the parish in a very short period of time.

One can only guess at the strain imposed on many marriages by migration. Migration sometimes led to desertion, particularly during the famine. In some cases such deserted wives had to enter the workhouses. Yet many men faithfully remitted money to Ireland so that their wives and children could leave these institutions.

One wonders about the effects of the break-up of village life during the busiest seasons of the year. There are a host of unanswered questions about the care of people and belongings left behind when whole families left their holdings. It is doubtful that old people wandered far from home to beg. Who cared for these people when the younger members of the family took to begging in distant parts of the country. One also wonders about the care of animals and fowl. The grown fowl may perhaps have been left to forage for themselves. One can imagine a kindly neighbour caring for young chickens, goslings, etc., in the absence of the family. When one considers how important fowl and eggs were in providing income for women, it is not likely that they would have been left to fend for themselves. It would appear that some kind relative or neighbour milked cows, and may have acted as a caretaker tending the animals owned by the absent family. The care of animals may, however, have posed fewer problems than might be at first supposed, as many families did not own any. In Burrishoole, it was reckoned that almost half of the population of 917 families had no cows.

There was little public outcry in Ireland against a system of seasonal migration which inflicted hardship on so many people, but it must be remembered that migration bolstered a system which was tottering on the brink of disaster. After 1815 in particular, when the slump in agricultural prices should have led to a reduction in the rents charged for agricultural land the reality was that Irish landlords were able to keep the rents unnaturally high, beyond the real value of the land, for the income of annual migration. It was against the interest of the landlords, many of whom were absentees, to try to reform the evil land system, of which they themselves were the chief beneficiaries and it was this evil system of land tenure which led to seasonal migration.

One can only pity the victims of such a system and at the same time admire the buoyancy of spirit which enabled women to cope when the extra burdens caused by migration aggravated the very difficult circumstances of their lives.

Copyright Maureen Langan-Egan
This article is reproduced here by kind permission of Maureen Langan-Egan

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