Food shortages and lean months were among the challenges faced by vulnerable cohorts like subsistence farmers and agricultural laborers in the West of Ireland. In this article, we examine contemporary oral testimonies gathered from seasonal migrants, published reminiscences, and average family income and expenditure budgets to show how central child labour was to the survival of households from 1890 to 1935. Testimonies demonstrate that labor markets were carefully organized, and most children experienced an inevitably early entrance into the world of paid work. Our research also shows that such trends were highly regionalized, and in most cases, this paid employment was an important source of income that was used to pay for the rental of smallholdings.


"I would rather be in service than work in the fields."

Thus, Bridget Gallagher, a sixteen-year-old from Achill Island stated her preference for indoor work as a servant at Doogort Hotel when she was interviewed as part of the Royal Commission on Labour undertaken in 1893 (hereafter referred to as "the Royal Commission"). She recalled her experience of seasonal migration the previous year with mixed emotions, having spent most of it potato hoeing in Scotland. There she lived modestly, sleeping primarily in outhouses to save as much money as she could. She was the youngest child from her mother's first marriage, the third to venture into the world of seasonal migration, and, after that, working "in service"1 to supplement her family's income as her mother had remarried and had five further children. Gallagher's entry to paid employment at fifteen years of age was a normal feature of life for children/youths of the rural "landless" poor. Her experience had the added complexities of her mother's remarriage and straitened circumstances.2

Arthur Wilson Fox, the assistant commissioner who carried out the field-work for the Royal Commission in the counties of Cork, Mayo, Roscommon, and Meath in 1892-93, claimed to have conducted several hundred interviews with agricultural laborers in Ireland and seasonal migrants to Scotland and England. But only Gallagher's testimony and that of two others—Mary O'Donnell (aged eighteen) and John Coney (age unspecified but we can infer from his testimony that he began his paid seasonal employment as a youth)—were published in full in the appendix to the fourth report of the Royal Commission. In the absence of field notes or a clear indication of Fox's methodology, we can only make assumptions about the context in which these data were collated and presented. As they were described in the first person, we can surmise that they [End Page 103] were transcribed verbatim for illustrative purposes. Seasonal migration formed a critical component of family survival strategies in poverty-stricken regions of the West of Ireland, which suffered regular food shortages and periodic famine in the late nineteenth century. So severe were these conditions that the Congested Districts Board (CDB) was established in 1891 to improve life in the counties of Donegal, Mayo, Sligo, Roscommon, Leitrim, Galway, Kerry, and West Cork.3 The CDB conducted Baseline Reports, an official but confidential survey in 1891, to determine living standards and subsequently act as a barometer of progress. Both the Baseline Reports and the Royal Commission documented particularly strong traditions of seasonal migration in the North West, but accounts of experiences were usually collected in retrospect. It is for these reasons that, to date, historians have approached Irish child labor from an adult labor perspective.4 In illustrating the contemporaneous voices of seasonal migrants, the interviews with Gallagher, O'Donnell and Coney are rare and free of the problems associated with recall.5 We contend that they are deserving of fuller consideration as a distinct data type, as even in their brevity (they occupy two pages of the report), they exemplify the realities of family life in rural Ireland. We contextualize them using three other distinct sources—government commissions and reports, newspapers, and memoir/autobiography—to expand discourses on Irish child labor and to provide a greater depth of understanding of why and how rural youths made their way into, and experienced, the labor markets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Our aim is to contribute to recent international discourse on the intersection of age, agency, life stage, and gender in the context of child and youth labor. To date, Irish seasonal migration has received sporadic attention in articles from scholars such as Ó Gráda, Moran, Kerr, and Bell, and more substantially in books by James Handley, Anne O'Dowd, and Heather Holmes.6 All of these works deal with overarching issues in migration dynamics, the numbers involved, the importance of seasonal earnings, their regional orientation, and migrants' experiences. We revisit some of the aforementioned authors' sources in tandem with household economics and family structure approaches to frame a new discussion. By isolating the contemporary migrant voices contained in the 1893 report and combining them for the first time with a detailed analysis of data on family income and expenditures, we offer an original contribution to Irish historiography.7 Timothy Guinnane identified a four-stage model for typical stem family life courses in rural Ireland: stage one was nuclear; in stage two, one child had married and co-resided with the parents; by stage three, non-inheriting children had vacated and the father had died; stage four concluded with the death of the widowed mother.8 We argue [End Page 104] that seasonal migration enabled the cyclical nature of poverty in all four stages of Guinnane's stem family developmental cycle. The North West counties of Mayo and Donegal were where the traditions of seasonal migration continued longest as a key family/household survival mechanism. We show in our analysis of household budgets that this regional reliance on seasonal earnings rendered families very vulnerable to absolute poverty in times of extreme weather or during extraordinary events. It also perpetuated cyclical poverty for what we term "weak families"—those, like that of Gallagher and her full siblings, somewhat displaced by their mother's remarriage, that do not fit the neat paradigms of Guinnane's stem family life course.

We have divided the article into five further sections, with the next section explaining our methodology and our use of age and agency as themes. Throughout, we consider the case of Achill: although largely understood to mean the island of Achill, in administrative terms, it was a civil parish in County Mayo that encompassed the islands of Achill and Achillbeg and a portion of the mainland.9 This remote area suffered great penury during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and had always been a "sending community." To place this case study and the significance of migratory earnings to household income (shown in section 4) into context, section two discusses the function of seasonal migration in the broader framework of Irish emigration and why, for instance, the North West differed in its cash income strategies from the South West. By outlining how hiring fairs operated, section 3 discusses the annual mass mobilization of rural children and youth, as well as regional variations. We use the term children to describe those under age twelve, and youth for those aged twelve to eighteen. While the gendered nature of farm work in the rural economy has been subject to lively debate, scholars agree that the necessity of women's and children's earnings was a sensitive marker of social status and reliance on this income was indicative of families in precarious financial circumstances.10 Throughout this work and in our concluding section, we argue that while internal and seasonal migration formed a rite of passage for the youth of the West of Ireland and represented an important aspect of the "grid" in the life course, its purpose was fundamental for the life course of the family—the survival of households in the poorest regions relied heavily on seasonal child/youth earnings, irrespective of gender.


We adopt a case study approach to study the history of rural Irish childhood and youth employment, using life cycles and household economics as prisms of analysis.11 In recent years, the use of such frameworks has grown, aided by [End Page 105] the expansion of the history of gender, childhood, and youth.12 This article aims to embed individual stories and to locate periods spent in "service" or seasonal labor within the broader theoretical frameworks of migration. We correlate these personal testimonies with household income data and explore the gendered work experiences of children/youth ages ten to eighteen—a cohort identified in the 1891 census.13 Unfortunately, the Irish census cohorts are slightly at odds with the bio-legal definition of a child, which was determined primarily by age of sexual consent legislation and was gradually raised through statutory provision from age twelve to thirteen in 1875 and to sixteen in 1885.14 Legislation surrounding education also provided official parameters; however, Mary E. Daly argues that the 1892 act, which made schooling compulsory to the age of twelve, was "poorly enforced, only applied to county boroughs and to a limited number of local authorities . . . and did not apply in rural Ireland."15 This meant that while children in urban working-class areas could readily come to the attention of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) inspector, school attendance officer, or the police, surveillance was at a much lower level and absenteeism was so rife in rural areas that school authorities ignored it.16 What was more relevant with respect to labor and life stage is the succession of factory acts that were passed in the nineteenth century to regulate working lives. Even if they had little practical impact on rural family life, they added to discourse on the definition of childhood: age eighteen was recognized in 1833 as a significant milestone, and working hours for those under age thirteen were limited to eight hours a day, with the exception of silk production, where working hours were limited to ten.17 The age brackets, number of hours, type of work, provision of meals and Sunday employment all received careful attention in the extended 1867 Factory Act, and under section 12 of the 1901 act, the employment of children under age twelve was prohibited.18 With the absence of industry and manufacturing in rural areas, the inspection of working conditions or, indeed, of schools was not as circumspect as in urban areas, meaning that parents could put children to work in the agricultural sector or in "outwork" for the textiles industries with little fear of sanction either from school or factory inspectors.19 However, analyses of household budgets show that in both urban and rural areas, the decision to put children to work was highly sensitive to household income thresholds and earning capacity. As average household incomes increased, the necessity of child earnings decreased—but for financially precarious families like Gallagher's, they continued to play an important role.20 Even with vast variations in the medico-legal definitions of childhood and youth, Gallagher's testimony identifies her as under eighteen and with a duty of care to her family. [End Page 106]

Recent work on the history of childhood and youth has shown the importance of "age" as a category of analysis, as well as the idea of "partial agency" when discussing work, school, and home.21 By "partial agency" in this case study of Achill, we mean how individual needs and personal financial autonomy were often sacrificed to keep households of origin intact. For example, in the West of Ireland, family income and expenditure data captured in 1891 note how critical "migrant earnings" were to household survival (see Table 1). It was estimated in 1891 that of a total population of 8,861 in Achill, 1,318 migrated seasonally; while it is unfortunate that this figure is not broken down by age, other sources reveal the predominance of children and youth.22 Living on the Atlantic seaboard was fraught with peril, and in 1894 tragedy struck: the Victory, a traditional fishing vessel colloquially known as Healy's hooker (after its master Jack Healy), was carrying over a hundred passengers, primarily seasonal migrants, when it capsized in Clew Bay and claimed the lives of thirty-two Achill Islanders.23 Coverage of the incident featured in the local and national newspapers, drawing attention to rural poverty, the work of the subsequently organized relief committee, and suggestions for preventing a similar disaster.24 The national newspapers were very effective at raising relief funds; indeed, a special correspondent for the Irish Times visited a month after the incident to document the visit of Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Lord Lieutenant and founder of the Irish Industries Association. Local newspapers had neither the circulation nor the well-heeled subscription base to sustain such a charitable campaign—hence the importance of the national press. The reporter documented his observations of social life during "the season" and the poignant interactions between the postmaster and the locals on Achill Island.25 Some parents delighted in receiving the letters stating that their children had arrived safely, and those more fortunate could rejoice in the inclusion of a remittance. Others had to wait until the next biweekly visit to put their mind at ease. The Irish Daily Independent's special correspondent wrote a number of pieces commenting how "they must migrate annually but pine for the day of return." The parish priest, Father Connolly, drew attention to the fundamental problems of the process and was quoted as saying, "Do not think . . . that the people are lazy . . . they would never go abroad if they could earn a living at home."26 Unfortunately, the 1894 tragedy was not an isolated event. In 1935 in Arranmore, an island off County Donegal, the community suffered similar grief when, on November 9, nineteen seasonal migrants returning from Scotland died in another boating disaster.27 In 1937, an overnight fire in a locked bothy at Kirkintilloch near Glasgow claimed the lives of ten Achill boys, demonstrating the degree to which the tradition of seasonal migration was still firmly entrenched in that area. [End Page 107]

The fallout from the 1894 disaster provides further, if indirect, evidence of how intrinsic children's earnings were to household survival (see section 4). It aligns with Jobs and Pomfret's argument that in the twentieth century, "transnational movement by young people formed part of a more general explosion of migratory movement."28 Byron and Condon have commented that given the importance of young people to a variety of forced and voluntary waves of migration, "it is rare to find this key factor the focus of debate."29 The Irish case is equally complicated, and in the West of Ireland cyclical poverty routinely forced parents to send their children to work at some distance from home. While age at leaving home is difficult to determine, "its timing," as Guinnane argues, "affects the pace at which young adults accumulate the skills and assets that will determine when and whom they marry, their future wealth prospects, and their attachment to the locale in which they were raised."30 Irrespective of age, our three respondents provide evidence of being at a particular life stage linked to a household survival strategy. With these cases in mind, we posit that in the rural Irish context, the family of origin's life stage, as well as the transition in children's income from household to personal, is more of an indicator for the end of childhood rather than the age of individuals leaving home. This was demonstrated in Arensberg and Kimball's anthropological study of County Clare in the 1930s, which noted that single of men and women were referred to as boys and girls until they married.31


Ireland's proportionately high emigration rate is well documented—the historiography is vast and reflects the substantial number of people on the move.32 The reasons for such movement are equally well explored but poverty, surplus population, the limited labor market, and the allure of opportunity abroad all combined to give the country one of the highest migration rates in Europe from the Great Famine (1847–52) right up to 1914, when Hatton and Williamson argue that the wage gap narrowed.33 A unique feature of Irish migration, explored by Janet A. Nolan and Hasia Diner, is that Irish women migrated in equal numbers to men and at times surpassed them.34 Scholars of the diaspora have a wealth of records to exploit, but the same cannot be said for the study of seasonal migration. Part of the problem lies in the dynamics of temporary employment. In 2007 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defined seasonal migration as part of a circular or repetitive process whereby individuals migrate for periods of less than one year.35 Fitzgerald and Lambkin identify seasonal migration as a key stage for those embarking on the "migrant stream" [End Page 108] of "pioneer, chain, seasonal, step and return."36 Although in Irish historiography it is more commonly associated with migration to England and the Scottish Lowlands, Anne O'Dowd explains this movement in more general terms as being for a "seasonal or temporary time while maintaining unbroken links with home."37 Thus, while bound with family loyalties and a sense of home and place, it could also include internal migration or movement within Ireland. The Irish Sea notwithstanding, Timothy Guinnane points out that hardly any distinction was made between internal Irish migration and the onward travel of harvesters to Britain—instead, it was viewed as an extension of the practice.38

In the 1890s, the fare from Westport to Glasgow was five shillings, but in rural areas weekly cash incomes were uncommon and so the availability of credit was central to the ability to migrate.39 According to the CDB Baseline Report, Achill shopkeepers extended credit from March until September, at which point the returned seasonal migrants and their earnings were expected to clear debts.40 An extortionate commission of 15 percent was charged by such lenders in Achill, and the baseline inspector, Major Robert Ruttledge-Fair, also noted the extensive barter economy in goods such as "eggs and corn, which are exchanged for tea, sugar and tobacco."41 With so few opportunities to earn cash at home, the resident population of the rural West of Ireland relied heavily on seasonal migrant earnings and the remittance economy to reconcile rents and clear shop debts. In years of deficient potato harvests, credit was sought early for the "meal months" (months when the potato crop was exhausted and meal was purchased for both human and animal consumption).42 "Smallholdings" or farm tenancies under ten acres (which pinned families to the landscape) provided sureties for the purchase of the ticket on credit. These more permanent ties to place gave rural youth an advantage over urban in the cycle of migration, where tenancies and rentals were often informal and tended to rotate with extraordinary frequency.43

Unfortunately, in the 1891 CDB aggregate budgets (Table 1), it is unclear which cash sources are seasonal and which are remittances from more permanent migration. The problems associated with tracking seasonal migration do not stop there; even movement is impossible to enumerate. Ó Gráda provides a conservative estimate of some 100,000 agricultural laborers migrating per annum in the 1860s.44 Perhaps more disturbing still is the fact that the enumeration of "harvestmen" was precisely that, and the female contribution was not fully recognized until after 1900.45 If the patterns of emigration to North America and Britain are indicative of gender balances, then it is reasonable to assume that girls migrated seasonally in equal numbers to boys. Although they only account for male passengers, the statistics compiled on migratory agricultural laborers are indicative of the strong traditions of seasonal migration that [End Page 109] existed in the poorest counties. For example, in 1893, of 12,589 migrants from the province of Connaught (which comprised the counties of Galway, Mayo, Roscommon, Leitrim, and Sligo), some 8,856 came from Mayo, while in the province of Ulster (Down, Tyrone, Antrim, Monaghan, Londonderry, Donegal, Cavan, and Fermanagh), Donegal accounted for 78.8 percent or 1,514 of the total number of 1,921 migrants.46 The 1893 Royal Commission documented that in general terms, County Mayo was overrepresented in its survey.47


Children were sent out to hire for a number of reasons but primarily out of economic necessity: it spared resources at home and parents had the added boon of a cash payment at the end. Rural child labor was highly organized but phased in accordance with age, and practices varied from region to region. Children as young as ten went into "service"—what Irish-speaker Peig Sayers, a renowned storyteller from County Kerry, in the South West, termed in the Irish language in aimsir (literally translated as "in time" but equated with being in service)48—to live and work in wealthier households, usually within a short distance of their own homes. These sorts of arrangements hinged on kinship ties, the hardworking reputation of the child's family, or a system of grace and favor orchestrated through local powerbrokers, which could also involve the local clergy. Transitions in life stage and from nuclear to stem family also put further pressure on households. Peig Sayers explained that shortly after Cáit, her brother's wife, "married into" the household, there was discord. The result was that Peig was taken out of primary schooling in rural West Kerry and hired out to an English-speaking family business in Dingle town to keep the peace. Her household was in stage two of Guinnane's stem family model and it was a cold house for surplus daughters. Her father is quoted while consoling her heartbroken mother: "má bhíonn an réiteach ina dhiaidh againn, is fusaide dúinn é" [if we have peace when she's gone, so much the better for everyone].49 Peig accounted for her deep grief and that of her mother's: "the heart in my breast was broken . . . I told myself that if everyone who had a brother's wife in the house was as heart-scalded as I was, they were all very much to be pitied."50 In West Kerry, the life stage for girls after going into service was an arranged marriage and neo-location, which is what transpired for Peig, or permanent emigration to North America, as strong chain migration traditions had been established with Boston and New York.

Internal migration was a significant element of life in the North West, where children were taken from their area of origin and brought to large pastoral areas of Ireland via "hiring fairs"—for instance, Donegal resident Micheál MacGowan [End Page 110] began his paid working life in "the Laggan" in East Ulster.51 The function of the hiring fair was simple: it provided a place for employer and employee to meet. Children from West Donegal went to the market towns to be hired out for six-month periods, from May to November or November to May. In the North West, the May fair was more important than the November fair and the largest "were held in Newry on the first three Thursdays of each month."52 Various accounts from Donegal reflect the sense of inevitability that occurred with coming of age and hiring out. Patrick Gallagher was hired out at ten years of age because his father had limited success the previous year in Scotland and could not cover the rent, so he and his contemporaries "were got ready for the hiring fair at Strabane."53 To him and others recollecting the experience of the hiring fair, the sense of dehumanization associated with physical examinations was a resounding memory. There are many descriptions of the bargaining process in print—"from them we see that it was no different from the haggling and cajoling which took place when an animal was sold at the fair."54 An oral history collected by Roy Hamilton in Strabane provides an onlookers' view of how the children were treated by the farmers: "them poor wee critters . . . were taken up the town in the mornin' like sheep and stood up in the street."55

With respect to seasonal labor in Scotland or England, employment networks operated on a sophisticated level. Gallagher recounted how her "gaffer" looked after her and "a great many of us girl," who went "from Achill together." Gallagher believed that her gaffer was in contact with a merchant in Scotland who indicated how many girls were needed. For a fee of £1 5s per week, the gaffer arranged their travel by sea and planned the various locations at which the girls would find work. The girls worked from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., they had an hour for dinner at 1 p.m. and a fifteen-minute break at about 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. Mary O'Donnell's experience was slightly different: her father was the gaffer Gallagher referred to, and he brought out twenty-seven girls and three boys from Achill. At age eighteen, it was O'Donnell's fifth year going to Scotland, but her combined deal of accommodation, wages, and meals was far better than Gallagher's. Anne O'Dowd discusses how cohabitation was often inevitable, as farmers did not provide "separate sleeping arrangements for men and women" because they were of the opinion that the workers had low moral standards.56 But the maintenance of modesty was important to the seasonal migrants, who tended to stay among their own kin or "squad." William Gray, a walking ganger, gave evidence to the Royal Commission stating that even with limited accommodation, segregation of the sexes was important: "The Irish people are very moral. In Ayrshire I saw in a loft of a hay 13 Irish girls. Underneath there were living 42 Irishmen. The men and women never mix [End Page 111] under such circumstances."57 Gallagher's testimony was nuanced and careful to refer repeatedly to the fact that she was not alone and that she was accompanied at all stages by other girls from Achill Island:

Some people gave us small dark places to sleep in, but some were good. The work is not very hard, but we are much exposed to the wet. Some of the girls get knocked up. They often get colds. On a wet day we should not work and we should not then be paid. If we worked half a day we should be paid for half a day. The girls suffer very much from sea sickness crossing over. The voyage is worse than the whole season's work. I would rather be in service than work in the fields. Some girls like going to Scotland and others would not go unless they were obliged.

Because Mary O'Donnell was traveling with her father and other male kin, she did not have to be so careful in her account of accommodation and did not include any extraneous information.


Achill had such a strong reputation of seasonal migration that Anne O'Dowd likened it to "little more than the winter home for most of its population."58 With the move from barter to cash-based economies, the tradition emerged and seasonal earnings became central to household survival strategies for smallholders. Tables 1 and 2, shown as follows, were gathered for CDB Baseline Report purposes using rudimentary social scientific methods specifically to determine family income and general living standards so as to ascertain the aid requirements to raise living standards. They detail two families at stage one in Guinnane's developmental cycle.59 While it is not possible to problematize how these data were collated, they are indicative of average income and expenditure estimates in 1891. Both tables indicate the limited capacity to earn cash locally from eggs (small sums at regular intervals) and the sale of animals (usually once a year). The value of homegrown produce was estimated at £18 10s for both families and comprised four tons of potatoes at £2 per ton (£10), thirty cwt of corn at 5s per cwt (£7 10s), and two tons of straw at 30s per ton (£3). Both were nuclear households but differ in age profiles; the older children in Table 1 had income potential, which meant that the household had a surplus of £5 1s when all debts were reconciled. The family profile in Table 2 was in the unenviable position of being in a deficit but would transition into the family in Table 1 as children came of working age.

Table 1 shows a more mature family in "fairly comfortable circumstances" and resembles that of Mary O'Donnell. The value of seasonal migration to that household accounted for over two-thirds of its income. The percentage was no [End Page 112] different for the family described in Table 2, but that was a much poorer household containing five children too young to earn money, and seasonal earnings comprised £10 of a total household income of £17 and an expenditure of £17 8s 6d. Considering the fact that Gallagher had five younger half siblings, Table 2 provides insight into just how important her earnings would have been to her mother. Her earnings were clearly commanded by her household of origin, and as she testified to the Royal Commission, "I spent 3l (£3) on clothes in Scotland and made 6l or 7l clear. I sent my mother 1l of this by post and gave her all the rest on my return."60 Similarly, since Coney's three children were too young to earn money, he occupied an uneconomic smallholding, and he had an elderly mother and his wife to provide for, his family occupied stage three of Guinnane's developmental cycle. For twenty-two years, he continued to migrate and never managed to break his own or his family's reliance on the seasonal earnings; it is likely, too, that his children followed in his footsteps as soon as they were old enough.

Table 1. Cash receipts and expenditures of a family in fairly comfortable circumstances (husband, wife, two sons ages nineteen and twelve, two daughters ages seventeen and fourteen) are, on average, as follows:
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Table 1.

Cash receipts and expenditures of a family in fairly comfortable circumstances (husband, wife, two sons ages nineteen and twelve, two daughters ages seventeen and fourteen) are, on average, as follows:

[End Page 113]

Table 2. The cash receipts and expenditure of a family in poor circumstances (husband, wife, and five children; eldest, a boy age thirteen):
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Table 2.

The cash receipts and expenditure of a family in poor circumstances (husband, wife, and five children; eldest, a boy age thirteen):

The estimations in Table 3 exhibit data gathered in 1891 and again in 1919 for a much larger geographic area with a more diverse economic base; even so, we can see that despite rising cash income, seasonal earnings in the North West continued to form a quarter of household budgets.61

Although migratory earnings are not disaggregated in Table 3, we can assume that child earnings continued to form a significant part of this amount. It was a consistent feature of family income and part of an established system of child and youth hiring fairs, especially in the North West.

Viewing seasonal migration as part of a "life grid," in the wider context of a life course study, is only useful if we can trace individuals afterward. It is not possible to trace Gallagher or Coney in the 1901 census as its timing, March 31, coincided with the seasonal migratory cycle for older men; it is also possible that both may have left the area permanently or that Gallagher had wed and changed her surname. We know that neither perished in the Clew Bay disaster of June 1894, which claimed the lives of thirty-two Achill Islanders bound for Glasgow. That event is worth recounting in greater detail as it shows just how much one poor area relied on seasonal migratory earnings. It concerned Healy's hooker, a traditional fishing vessel that was carrying Achill Islanders to the mainland to meet a larger vessel at Westport for the onward journey to [End Page 114]

Table 3. Average household receipts in Swinford Union and similar districts in Mayo, Galway, Roscommon, and Sligo:
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Table 3.

Average household receipts in Swinford Union and similar districts in Mayo, Galway, Roscommon, and Sligo:

Britain. On entering Westport, the sight of the steamship SS Elm caused such a commotion and a rush to one side that sailboat capsized. Twenty-five of the victims were girls and two of the men were definitely not migrants: the pilot, Sean Patten, and another man who was seventy years of age. The timing of this voyage is interesting, as it is certain that seasonal harvesters had left much earlier in the agricultural year. The light railway from Westport to Achill was under construction at the time and some local men had found work there, which may also account for their lower numbers and the higher representation of girls in the fatality count. A more plausible reason is that, according to Holmes, this was the time that girls had mobilized following the Belmullet hiring fair on June 15.62 With over one hundred people on board the overcrowded sailboat, were it not for the SS Elm's gallant and swift rescue efforts, far more would have perished. The bodies of the dead were transported from Westport to Achill as the first passengers on the newly constructed light rail line. Twelve-year-old Mary McFarland was the youngest victim and the niece of Patrick Cafferkey, who testified "in the vernacular" (Irish language) at the inquest that his eighteen-year-old son Patrick had also drowned. Orphaned siblings Nancy, Joseph, and Martin Cooney, "about" twenty, eighteen, and sixteen respectively, had borrowed the fare to make their way to Scotland to "save the seed rate" or perhaps to maintain what was left of their smallholding. The vagueness associated with age is a common feature in Irish records of the poor, and it is possible that [End Page 115] these ages may have been falsified to command higher wages. Honor English, sixteen, was hoping to meet with her first cousin in Westport so they might journey together to Glasgow.63 This undoubtedly provided her father, Martin, with the initial comfort of knowing that she would not have been alone. The impact of this devastating event is compounded when considering the dispersal of the subsequent Achill Disaster Fund. It amounted to £3,500 16s, and of this, £2,177 was given over to paying the annuities (rental of smallholdings).64 While it is unclear how the claims were made or dispersed, it is indicative of the enormous financial burden these youth bore—in many cases, it was fundamental to their family's ability to "cling to the land" and their household's survival.65


Family life for the poor in rural Ireland operated on the premise that everyone contributed to the communal budget and children were not exempt. Scholars of seasonal migration agree that the system operated on a sense of fairness, that children's and youths' earnings were household earnings until such time that children came of age and were permitted the fare to emigrate permanently or to neo-locate via a dowry and set up their own household. This was facilitated by the surplus generated in Table 1. The stem family construct that predominated in the post-Famine era was inextricably linked to inheritance patterns, ultimo- or primogeniture, or one inheriting son replacing the traditional subdivision and the creation of nuclear households.66 For one family member the right to continue the family smallholding was their reward, as in Coney's case.67 Whatever the familial motivation, temporary migration and its various phases were established norms for the children of the West of Ireland, most specifically in Mayo and Donegal.

While the study of regional variations in seasonal migration patterns is not new, the relationship between household economics and life stage, as explored in this article, has not received prior attention. The families described in Tables 1 and 2, although poor and living a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence, were not apt to engage with indoor poor relief.68 In socioeconomic terms, rural Ireland was complex and hierarchical, and the rural poor were far from a homogenous group. This study shows that as this class was diverse, so too were their experiences of poverty, their household survival strategies, and their reasons for seasonal work to maintain their subsistence farms, especially in Achill. For younger workers, migration was internal, but for most youths from the North West it meant traveling across the Irish Sea. Some families, like Gallagher's or the tragic Cooney orphans, were what might be termed "weak" families and suffered disadvantages that prevailed throughout the life course. [End Page 116] Our efforts to date have focused on garnering as much data as possible in order to capture a sense of the value of youth employment to household survival. To that end, we prioritized and championed contemporaneous voices as opposed to using reminiscences. While the 1894 disaster makes for grim reading, it presents a stark picture of how central children's and youths' earnings were to the family economy and, in the case of Achill Islanders, to the survival of the household. That girls were omitted from the official seasonal migration statistics until 1900 is a serious disadvantage to our endeavors but perhaps more disturbing still is that we have no idea how many children were in circulation in the rural economy and away from their households of origin. This step in the "migrant stream" was unquestionably an important rite of passage, but it is impossible to enumerate. This article has laid the foundation for further research on the function of hiring out in a Poor Law context, where we believe there may be opportunities to provide further statistics of the internal migration of even more vulnerable children and their families. Perhaps our most significant finding here is that the most important consideration for family income and expenditure is the life stage of the household of origin as opposed to the age of the child migrant. It is clear that children were indentured to their families until such time that the family reached an income threshold, or a sense of fairness prevailed. [End Page 117]

Ciara Breathnach

Ciara Breathnach is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Limerick and an Irish Research Council Laureate Award holder. She has published widely on the social, gender, and medical history of Ireland.

Sarah-Anne Buckley

Sarah-Anne Buckley is a lecturer in history at the National University of Ireland Galway. She has published widely on the social, gender, and childhood history of Ireland. She is previous co-editor of an Irish special edition of the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, president of the Women's History Association of Ireland (WHAI), and co-director of the Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour and Class (ICHLC).


1. See Richard Breen, "Farm Servanthood in Ireland, 1900–40," Economic History Review 36, no. 1 (1983): 87–102.

2. Royal Commission on Labour. The Agricultural Labourer Vol. IV, Ireland, Part II, 1893–94 [C.6894–XIX], 84.

3. Ciara Breathnach, The Congested Districts Board of Ireland, 1891–1923: Poverty and Development in the West of Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005).

4. Anne O'Dowd, Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers: History and Folklore of the Irish Migratory Agricultural Worker in Ireland and Britain (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1991); Hugh Cunningham and Pier Paolo Viazzo, Child Labour in Historical Perspective: 18001985: Case Studies from Europe, Japan, and Colombia (Florence: UNICEF: Istituto degli Innocenti, 1996).

5. Guy Beiner, Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007).

6. O'Dowd's work is by far the most comprehensive and exploits an impressive range of official reports to contextualize the National Folklore Collection (held at University College Dublin) and her own field work conducted in the early 1980s. Handley's 1947 book reprints sections of Gallagher's and O'Donnell's testimony verbatim but offers no analysis. See James Handley, The Irish in Modern Scotland (Cork: University of Cork Press, 1947), 174–80; O'Dowd, Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers; Gerard Moran, "'A passage to Britain': Seasonal Migration and Social Change in the West of Ireland, 1870–1890," Saothar 13 (1988): 22–31; Heather Holmes, Tattie Howkers: Irish Potato Workers in Ayrshire (Ayr: Ayrshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, 2005); Jonathan Bell, "Donegal women as migrant workers in Scotland," Review of Scottish Culture 7 (1991): 73–80; Cormac Ó Gráda, "Seasonal Migration and Post-Famine Adjustment in the West of Ireland," Studia Hibernica 13 (1973): 48–76. Barbara M. Kerr, "Irish Seasonal Migration to Great Britain, 1800–38," Irish Historical Studies 3, no. 12 (1943): 365–80. For a discussion of hiring fairs, see O'Dowd, Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers; Jonathan Bell, "Hiring Fairs in Ulster," Ulster Folklife XXV (1979) : 67–78.

7. O'Dowd mentions the CDB budgets and offers a high-level impression—39 of the 84 Baseline Reports include migratory earnings as part of household income and Achill showed the highest. See O'Dowd, Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers, 251. The Baseline Reports were the outputs of a confidential inquiry, carried out by the CDB from 1891 to 1899, into living standards in the Congested Districts.

8. Timothy Guinnane, The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850–1914 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 136–7.

9. The electoral divisions of Achill Island, Corraun Achill, Dooega, and Slievemore.

10. Joanna Bourke, Husbandry to Housewifery: Women, Economic Change and Housework in Ireland, 18901914 (London: Clarendon Press, 1993), 10–26; Maria Luddy, "Writing the History of Irish Women," Gender & History 8, no. 3 (1996): 467–70; Maria Luddy, "Gender and Irish history," in The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish History, ed. A. Jackson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 193–213; Ciara Breathnach, "The CDB and the changing role of Irish women in the rural economy," New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua, 8, no.1 (Spring 2004): 80–92, see 90.

11. See, for example, Linda Pollock, Forgotten Children: Parent-child relations from 1500–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Hugh Cunningham, Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500 (Virginia: Longman, 1995).

12. On the history of childhood and youth, see Sarah-Anne Buckley, Ríona Nic Congáil and Marnie Hay, Irish Special Edition of the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2016); "History of Irish Childhood Bibliography," History of Irish Childhood Research Network,; Catherine Cox and Susannah Riordan, eds., Adolescence in Modern Irish History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

13. Census of Ireland, "Area, houses, and population," Vol. I, Ireland (1891), C.6515.

14. The Offences against the Person Act 1875, 38 & 39 Vict. c. 94 section 51. Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, 48 & 49 Vict., c.69.

15. Mary Daly, "'The Primary and Natural Educator'? The Role of Parents in the Education of their Children in Independent Ireland," Éire-Ireland (Spring/Summer, 2009): 194–217, 196.

16. Sarah Anne Buckley, The Cruelty Man: Child Welfare, the NSPCC and the State in Ireland, 1889–1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).

17. An Act to Regulate the Labour of Children and Young Persons in the Mills and Factories of the United Kingdom, 1833 (3 & 4 Will. 4) C A CIII; Factories Act, 1847 c. 29; Factories Act, 1853 c.104. For a detailed history of the factory acts, see Desmond Greer and James W. Nicholson, The Factory Acts in Ireland, 18021914 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2002).

18. Factory Acts Extension Act 1867 (30 & 31 Vict.) C A CIII. Factory and Workshop Act, 1901 c.22.

19. Outwork was a process whereby factories sent work off the factory site; for instance, in the shirt-making factories in Derry, they sent large volumes of stitching work to homes and depots in neighboring areas. See Breathnach, The Congested Districts Board, 60–2.

20. Jane Humphries, Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 173–80.

21. Laura Lovett, "Age: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 1, no. 1 (2008): 89–90; Leslie Paris, "Through the Looking Glass: Age, Stages and Historical Analysis," Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 1, no. 1 (2008): 106–13. In the Irish context, see Harry Hendrick, "Age as a Category of Analysis," in Children, Childhood and Irish Society: 1500 to the present, eds. Maria Luddy and James Smith (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2014), 389–414.

22. Baseline Reports of the CDB, Achill, 1.

23. Irish Times, June 16, 1894.

24. Mayo News, August 4, 1894, 3; Mayo News, September 16, 1894, 3; Mayo News, June 23, 1894, 7; Western People, June 30, 1894, 6; Connacht Telegraph, June 16, 1894, 5.

25. Irish Times, July 18, 1894.

26. Irish Daily Independent, June 30, 1894, 6.

27. RTE Archives, "50 Anniversary of Arranmore Boat Disaster,", accessed July 12, 2018.

28. Richard Ivan Jobs and David M. Pomfret, "The Transnationality of Youth," in Transnational Histories of Youth, eds. Richard Ivan Jobs and David M. Pomfret (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan): 1–22, 6.

29. Margaret Byron and Stephanie Condon, Migration in Comparative Perspective: Caribbean Communities in Britain and France (London: Routledge, 2008), 12.

30. Timothy Guinnane, "Age at Leaving Home in Rural Ireland, 1901–1911," Journal of Economic History 53, no. 3 (1992): 651–74, 653.

31. Conrad Maynadier Arensberg and Solon Toothaker Kimball, Family and Community in Ireland (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1940[1968]).

32. For an overview of the historiography of emigration, immigration, and the wider Irish world, see section 3 of Eugenio F. Biagini and Mary E. Daly, eds., The Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 405–585.

33. Christine Kinealy, This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 184552 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1994); Timothy J. Hatton and Jeffrey G. Williamson, "After the Famine: Emigration from Ireland, 1850–1913," Journal of Economic History 53, no. 3 (1993): 575–600.

34. Janet A. Nolan, Ourselves Alone: Women's Emigration from Ireland, 18851920, 2nd ed. (Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 2009), 2–3.

35. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Policy Coherence for Development 2007 Migration and Developing Countries: Migration and Developing Countries (2007), 108.

36. Patrick Fitzgerald and Brian Lambkin, Migration in Irish History 16072007 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 298.

37. O'Dowd, Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers, 1.

38. Guinnane, Vanishing Irish, 102.

39. Royal Commission, 14.

40. Liam Kennedy, "Retail markets in rural Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century," Irish Economic and Social History 5 (1978): 46–61.

41. Baseline Report of the CDB, Achill, 4.

42. Leslie Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 15001920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), page 79 describes it as "the gap between the exhaustion of the previous year's crop and the first of the new potatoes."

43. Ruth McManus, "Dublin's Lodger Phenomenon in the Early Twentieth Century," Irish Economic and Social History 45, no.1 (2018): 23–46.

44. Cormac Ó Gráda, "Seasonal Migration and Post-Famine Adjustment in the West of Ireland," Studia Hibernica 13 (1973): 48–76, 54. Holmes and Moran revisit Ó Gráda's figures but offer little by way of an advance. Holmes, Tattie Howkers, 49–51; Moran, "A Passage to Britain," 23.

45. Agricultural Statistics Ireland, [Cd. 341] 21–2. See O'Dowd, Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers, 27.

46. Report and Tables relating to Migratory Agricultural Labourers in Ireland, 1893, C.7188, 4–5.

47. Royal Commission on Labour and Fifth and Final Report; Secretary's Report on Work of Office, Summaries of Evidence (with Index), Appendices C.7421, C.7421-I (1894), 236–37.

48. New English-Irish Dictionary (Foras na Gaeilge, 2013),, accessed March 15, 2019.

49. Peig Sayers, Peig: Tuairisc a thug Peig Sayers ar Imeachtaí a Beatha féin (Dublin: Criterion Press, 1983), 47.

50. Peig: The Autobiography of Peig Sayers of the Great Blasket Island, trans. Brian MacMahon (Dublin: Talbot Press), 64.

51. Micheal MacGowan, The hard road to Klondike, trans. Valentin Iremonger (Dublin: Collins Press, 2014), 16–17; Barbara M. Kerr, "Irish Seasonal Migration to Great Britain, 1800–38," Irish Historical Studies 3, no. 12 (1943): 365–80. For a discussion of hiring fairs, see O'Dowd, Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers; Jonathan Bell, "Hiring Fairs in Ulster," Ulster Folklife XXV (1979): 67–78.

52. O'Dowd, Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers, 103.

53. Patrick Gallagher, My Story: Paddy the Cope (Donegal: Templecrone Co-operative Society, 1947), 6.

54. Gallagher, My Story, 121. Johnny Dooher, Strabane Hiring Fairs: Memories, Views, Attitudes (Strabane: Strabane History Society Publications, 1996), 79.

55. Roy Hamilton, "Memories of Strabane Hiring Fairs in the 1920s: From Oral Memories of People Hired in Strabane," Strabane History Society (1996): 33.

56. O'Dowd, Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers, 184.

57. Royal Commission, IV report, 78.

58. O'Dowd, Spalpeens and Tattie Hokers, 30.

59. Guinnane, Vanishing Irish, 136–37.

60. Royal Commission, 84.

61. For discussion see Breathnach, The Congested Districts Board, 36–42.

62. Holmes, Tattie Howkers, 36.

63. Irish Times, June 19, 1894.

64. Irish Times, January 14, 1895.

65. S. H. Cousens, "Emigration and demographic change, 1851–1861," Economic History Review 14, no. 2 (1961): 275–88, 288.

66. Cormac Ó Gráda, "Primogeniture and ultimogeniture in rural Ireland," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 10, no. 3 (Winter 1980): 491–97.

67. Ó Gráda, "Primogeniture and ultimogeniture in rural Ireland"; Ó Gráda, "Seasonal Migration"; Liam Kennedy, "Farm succession in modern Ireland: Elements of a theory of inheritance," Economic History Review 44, no. 3 (1991): 477–99, 478–79. Cousens, "Emigration and demographic change."

68. Virginia Crossman, Poverty and the Poor Law in Ireland, 18501914 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013).

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