Visit the Blackstairs and many of the Irish uplands today and what are the sorts of vegetation cover you see; gorse, ling heather, bracken, grasses, briars and mosses to name but a few. These vary in extent and colour with changes in seasons and intensity of land use. Step back into the 19th Century however and not only would you still see many of these species in their various cyclical stages but others also; potatoes, crops and vegetables, the products of cultivation. Population and economic growth in the late 18th-early 19th Century led to upland push in settlement and agriculture with more and more land being drained and cultivated either by small farmers, improving landlords or cottiers and labourers. Uplands provided plenty of space for over-populated communities to expand, especially where holdings were less than an acre and could not be sub-divided between children. Such a case favoured the landlord as it provided maximum profits from the poorest lands. In many cases a tenant cleared and improved the land which they farmed for a few years before being evicted and new tenants found, the most infamous Blackstairs case of which occurred at Coonogue in 1839.
The potato was the primary source of food for small farmers and labourers in pre-Famine Ireland grown by families for their own consumption rather than being bought. As conditions improved towards the end of the century, cereals and other crops were also grown along with vegetables such as turnips, peas and beans either for personal consumption or for sale at markets or to mills. Evidence for cereal and potato cultivation in the 19th Century Blackstairs come from a variety of sources; the landscape, folklore and documentary records.
Linear parallel lines indicative of former cultivation are visible across many of the slopes, either enclosed within field systems and gardens or on the open mountain. Sods were dug with spades and turned to create a low ridge with a channel or furrow on either side for drainage. Seeds were planted in these ridges and manure and loose soil from the furrows piled on top. The following year the sod was turned again making the previous years ridge, into the furrow. Many of these cultivated fields were organised and worked on a communal basis. Strips of ridges were divided amongst the various households which then rotated every few years allowing each family the chance to have the best parts of the field as well as the worst. In many cases this prohibited improvements to the land as one families work could be lost to a less hard working family in the future.
Digging and turning the sod to form mounds of earth, allowed for crops to be grown on even the thinnest soils. Manure was sometimes provided by landlords in exchange for labour or by animals such as pigs or cows which were kept by some small farmers. This highlights the physical work that went into producing food for the household as manure would have to be transported from the lowlands. Some bigger farmers, especially towards the end of the century, had the luxury of ploughs pulled by horses, an example of which is found beside a ruined farmhouse in the townland of Coonogue.
Examples of these traces of cultivation are found across the range. Formerly cultivated field systems are found up to the limits of enclosure on the southern slopes of Tomduff, the area known as Shannon’s New Fields on the eastern slopes of Knockroe, the northern slopes of Blackrock Mountain and on the southeastern slopes of Mount Leinster in the townland of Clorogue Beg suggesting communal work. A small garden enclosure next to the ruins of two cabins in the townland of Rathnageeragh contains the traces of ridges clearly visible in the differential heather growth indicative of personal consumption. Another example is found on the southern slopes Clorogue Beg, this time in a small field attached to a cabin site. An example of open mountain cultivation is found in the townland of Slievegar on the eastern slopes of Knockroe.
Census information gathered at the turn of the century also hints at crop cultivation with potato houses recorded on many farms. Numerous references are made in folklore from all around the mountain range to potato growing and cereal and vegetable cultivation. One reference even describes “mountain men” seen on the roads on market days heading to places like Borris and New Ross with kishes full of vegetables slung over their backs.
For another example of upland cultivation in the Cooley Mountains see the Louth Field Names Blog post here
Aalen, F. H. A., Whelan, K. & Stout, M. 1997 Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape. Cork; Cork University Press.
Bell, J. & Watson, M. 1986 Irish Farming: Implements and Techniques, 1750-1900. Edinburgh; John Donald Publishers.
Daly, M. E. 1994 The Famine in Ireland. Dundalk; Dundalgan Press.
Ó Gráda, C. 1993 Ireland Before and After the Famine: Explorations in Economic History, 1800-1925. Manchester & New York; Manchester University Press.
Ó Gráda, C. 1994 Ireland: a new economic history, 1780-1939. Oxford; Clarendon Press.
Ó Gráda, C. 1995 The Great Irish Famine. Cambridge & New York; Cambridge University Press.
Póirtéir, C. 1995 “Introduction”. In C. Póirtéir (ed.) The Great Irish Famine. Cork & Dublin; Mercier Press, 9-18.
Whelan, K. 1995 “Pre and Post-Famine Landscape Change”. In C. Póirtéir (ed.) The Great Irish Famine. Cork & Dublin; Mercier Press, 19-33.
1901 Census Form B2
National Folklore Collection Main Manuscript 1669, page 8. Information collected by Thomas Ryan from the Knockymulgurry region in March 1959 from his mother Bridget Murphy (nee Ryan) & Uncle James Murphy.