Life in Westport before the Great Famine
Fr Kevin Hegarty
What was life like in Westport before the ‘Great Famine’? Recently I have been flicking through a number of accounts that give some insight. Several English writers who visited Ireland in the 1830’s included Westport in their itineraries.
The most authoritative source is Samuel Lewis’s ‘Topographical Dictionary of Ireland’, first published in 1837. The dictionary was an herculean endeavour. In two enormous volumes Lewis provides data on the topography, geology, fauna and flora and social and economic activity of every town, city and parish in the country.
He informs us that in 1837 Westport consisted ‘of three principal streets and a Mall of large and handsome houses on both sides of the river, the banks of which are planted with trees and afford a pleasing promenade. There are 780 houses, most of them well built and slated’.
The Marquess of Sligo has provided the town with ‘a spacious and handsome hotel’, close by his estate. Run by a Mrs Robinson, the hotel has acquired a considerable reputation. William Makepeace Thackeray who visited Ireland in 1842 and wrote of his experiences in ‘An Irish Sketchbook’ found it one of ‘the prettiest, comfortablest inns in Ireland’, its cellars well stocked with good wines’.
John Barrow, who toured Ireland in the 1830’s was even more effusive in his description: “It is altogether different from, and far superior, to any I have seen in Ireland. It was in all aspects, well and handsomely furnished, and the walls hung round with a collection of good paintings, such as would be considered an ornament to any gentleman’s drawing-room. There was besides, a pianoforte in the room, and everything wore the appearance of a private dwelling. The culinary department in all its branches, was, as far as my experience went, well conducted. I have no hesitation, in pronouncing Mrs Robinson’s hotel to be one where the most fastidious could scarcely fail to be pleased, unless he chanced to be one of those unhappy dispositions which are never pleased at anything.”
It seems that Westport’s present array of excellent hotels is founded on a sound historical precedent.
Lewis describes Westport House, the residence of Lord Sligo, the proprietor of the town as ‘a handsome and spacious structure of hewn freestone, situated on the margin of a small lake in the demesne, which is also embellished with the windings of the Westport river and its two picturesque waterfalls.
The Church of Ireland place of worship was then within the demesne. There was a new Catholic chapel on the Mall. Presbyterians and Methodists also had meeting places. Religious practice was high in the town. According to Thackeray, “On Sunday from a very early hour the side of the street was thronged with worshippers, who came to attend the various services. Nor are the Catholics the only devout people of this remote district. There is a large Presbyterian church very well attended, as was the Established Church service in the pretty church in the park.
Strolling about the town in the balmy summer evening, I heard the sweet tones of a hymn from the people in the Presbyterian praying-house. Indeed the country is full of piety, and a warm, sincere, undoubting devotion.”
Westport in the 1830s was a relatively new town, having been established in the previous century. Its economic activity was based on its agricultural hinterland and its port. Warehouses, capable of storing 40,000 tons of grain, had been built at the Quay. The grain was exported and imports were manly British products and timber from America and the Baltic. There were three productive salmon fisheries, though herring fishing had declined.
Other industries included a distillery producing 60,000 gallons of whiskey each year. There was a brewery and several flour mills. About two miles from the town there was a linen factory while there was a cotton one at Belclare.
In Lewis’s factual account of Westport there are no forewarnings of the ‘Great Famine’. H D Inglis, who visited Westport as part of his tour of Ireland, an account of which was published in 1834, saw that all was not well. He witnessed much poverty in Mayo. An increasing population had become overly dependent on the potato crop. The linen industry which was an economic mainstay in the early decades of the century, had been fatally undermined by the onset of mechanisation, which resulted in it being centred mainly in Ulster. Deprivation was about to deepen into disaster.