Farm Workers at Powerscourt
Contributor Nivrum sent in this photo from around the 1930s of farm workers at Powerscourt. It’s a really great picture – he thinks the people in the photo are Edward Murphy, possibly Peter Coogan and possibly Kit Carney, from left to right. (Click on the image for full size)
Farming in the area was obviously the main source of employment for most people. The history of farming in the parish throughout the 19th century can be pulled together from a variety of sources, starting with Robert Fraser’s Stastical Account in 1801, Census information recording occupations throughout the century, archives relating to the Famine Relief Commission in the middle of the century and archives relating to the Devon Commission on land leases established in the middle of the century. Recently (thanks to Michael Wood), I came across a thesis by Nuala Hunt on some aspects of estate management during the minority years of the 7th Viscount, 1847 – 1857, who uses minute books of the guardians of the estate during this time to piece together some land management practices.
There is a slow but perceptible change through the century after the population peaked in the 1830s. Fraser recounts with disappointment in 1801 that, while the land is good, long leases (3 lives or 31 years) mean that there is little direct control over the land by the estate owner and little incentive for the tenants to improve. He considers the standard of agricultural innovation to be poor. Sub-letting of land at high prices was also a problem, with many small cottiers eeking out an existence from a small plot of land, paying far in excess of what the land was worth and also contributing more than their fair share of tithes. With the poverty that developed in line with population boom and accentuated by the Famine, the Census recorded that along with population decline, the number of small land holders decreased as farms began to aggregate – there was a movement away from the land. Hunt reports that the guardians of the estate from 1847 to 1857, with their agent George Cranfield, actively discouraged sub-letting and aimed to reduce leases to 21 years. She also provides some detail of applications for improvements to holdings, along with a discussion on whether long or short leases tended to encourage improvement. Writing in 1903, the 7th Viscount reports that while there were a lot of small land owners in the early part of the century, now there were just two or three in each area, bringing stability to agriculture in the area after a tumultuous century. Many leases of the 19th and 20th centuries can be found in the Powerscourt Papers at the National Library of Ireland.