Irish Homes, by Martin Doyle (William Hickey)

(Extract from "The Agricultural Labourer Viewed.")

From The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 2, edited by Charles A. Read

Mr. Kohl, an acute observer and graphic painter of what he has seen, and apparently familiar with every country in Europe, and often far beyond its limits, has described what he sarcastically calls "the natural process of house building." "A house had fallen in by the effects of its own weight, and the proprietor was repairing the injury sustained by his mansion, but being either too poor, or too indolent, to re-establish the tenement to its former extent, he had contented himself with cutting away as much of the broken work as was necessary to make it smooth, and was running up a new wall at the place where the old remained. In this way he was abandoning one-half his house, and was about to reduce his family, his pigs, and his poultry, to one-half their previous accommodation. The manner of building the work, too, was characteristic. The father brought the mould to the spot on a wheel-barrow; the eldest son, with a shovel, fashioned the material into shape of a wall; and a younger boy stood upon the work to stamp it into something like consistency. A pair of swallows would have expended more care and skill upon the construction of their nest."

Mr. Kohl asserts that the Irish landlords are worse than the Polish or Russian proprietors, who at least build houses for their peasants: and he, with one exception, represents the labourers' huts (and even the habitations of many farmers) as no better than those in Spencer's day, human dwelling-houses being but ruinous huts, hardly fit for pig-styes. The recent report of the commissioners for the relief of the poor to the Lord-lieutenant of Ireland do not say more in favour of the habitations than that they have but slightly improved, not sufficiently to warrant a conclusion that "the social revolution" has progressed much in this respect. Kohl makes, indeed, one exception to this almost general condemnation of the habitations of the agricultural poor, in the west and south of Ireland, and even in some of the richest and most prosperous parts of Leinster; he relieves these sketches of Irish cabins, without what could be fairly called hedges or real fences around them, and totally unembellished, without anything approaching to the garden character—with one very pleasing representation. He has certainly done full justice to the Barony of Forth, a remarkable district in the county of Wexford, on the south-eastern peninsula. "It was originally a Welsh colony, planted by Strongbow; and during seven centuries these colonies have kept themselves apart from the rest of the population. They marry only among themselves, and in the last century they still understood Welsh; in short, the Barony of Forth (Mr. Kohl might in many respects have associated the adjacent Barony of Bergy with it) is to the county Wexford what the latter is to Ireland. In this barony the peasants are generally the owners of the soil they till, dwell in clean and orderly houses, and seem to feel that rags are at all events a deformity. Their cottages are surrounded by flower-gardens, they mingle not in political squabbles, by which the rest of Ireland is kept in hot water, and Protestants and Catholics dwell among them in peace and good-will. In a word, the Barony of Forth presents a moral picture that naturally awakens inquiry. And why is it not so in the rest of Ireland?"

I can bear testimony to the fidelity of this portraiture, and I can add my belief that in no part of the United Kingdom is there more scrupulous honesty than among these peasant-farmers, cultivators of their own little fields in numerous instances, Belgians in their rural economy approximately, and in their white-washed cottages, gardens, and tiny offices for cows and swine, as in thrifty management and high morality and social order, presenting a very striking resemblance to the people of the Netherlands.