Fr Kevin Hegarty
In 1890, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Arthur J Balfour, visited the west of Ireland. After his visit he said that the ‘general impression left upon the casual traveller is that you are dealing with a people not congested in the sense of being crowded, but congested by not being able to draw from their holdings a safe and sufficient livelihood for themselves and their children, whose condition trembles constantly on the verge of want, and when the potato crop fails goes over that margin and becomes one of extreme and even dangerous destitution’.
As a result of his visit and in line with the policy of ‘constructive unionism’ by which the British government sought to undermine the Irish nationalist demand for Home Rule, he established the Congested Districts Board in 1892. The Board was given substantial powers to encourage agriculture and industry in parts of the country where acute poverty was inhibiting individual initiative. Over Christmas I have been reading a scholarly study on the Board, by Ciara Breathnach, a lecturer at the University of Limerick. She concludes that the Board was ‘a development agency of singular importance’ that no independent Irish government ever adequately replaced.
Initially the Board covered an area from Donegal to Cork. This was later extended to cover over one third of the country. The Board was made up of ten members (later extended to 14). The Chief Secretary for Ireland and a representative of the Land Commission were ex officio. The remainder were nominated by the local community and included landlords, priests, business and professional people. One of its longest-serving members was Fr Denis O’Hara of Kiltimagh, who is still remembered for his economic, spiritual and social achievements.
The Congested Districts Board left a significant stamp on the areas it served. It sponsored schemes ranging from the employment of agricultural instructors and the promotion of cottage industries to the purchase of land for re-sale to tenants. Soon after the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, the Board was disbanded. This was an early harbinger of what became common - the neglect of the west of Ireland by native governments.
Balfour recommended that surveys of the congested districts be undertaken, so that remedial action could be planned. A total of 84 divisions were identified and a team of inspectors was chosen to compile the reports. The reports are an important account of the economic, social and cultural climate, along the western seaboard, just before the start of the twentieth century. Some years ago, James Morrissey published a selection of these reports in ‘On the Verge of Want’.
Some of the reports are more informative than others. Inspector WL Micks visited the Rosses in Donegal. He gives a fascinating insight into farming and fishing activities, the pattern of migration and emigration, the hiring fairs, the condition of housing and the social life in the community. He even dared to make some comments on women’s fashions. “Women and girls have not yet, with few exceptions, discarded their bright and pretty shawls for the cheap and unbecoming imitations of fashionable hats and jackets that doubtless make country girls feel as awkward and uncomfortable as they look. With shawls, on the contrary, the women seem to be thoroughly at their ease but I fear that the ‘fashionable’ hat and jacket are making way against the comfortable and graceful shawl.”
Taken together, the reports prove that the congested districts in the 1890s were poised between meagre survival and actual destitution. Suggestions for economic and social improvement accompany each report.
One wonders, wryly, how popular were the suggestions of Inspector Butler who reported on Cahirciveen. With all the fervour of a temperance preacher, he thundered that: “The general condition of the people might be improved by doing away with about half the public houses in the town of Cahirciveen, and preventing the sale of whiskey in the same shops with meal, flour and other goods.
“I would prevent a concoction of vitriol, being sold as whiskey, which maddens drinkers and helps to fill Killarney asylum with lunatics, now numbering over four hundred. I would suggest the establishment of a coffee room in the town of Cahirciveen to be opened on fair and market days.”
Shades of Michael McDowell’s abortive café-bar proposal.