Sunday 22 April 2018

'Biggest cause of child death was malnutrition'- What life was really like for families in 1916

There was no census carried out in 1916, but CSO statistics for the year of the Rising paint a vivid picture of how our ancestors lived

Rising rubble: Dubliners crossing O'Connell Bridge in the wake of the rebellion.
Rising rubble: Dubliners crossing O'Connell Bridge in the wake of the rebellion.

Damian Corless

The 2016 Census takes place on Sunday, April 24, 100 years to the day from the Easter Rising. There was no census in 1916 because they took place just once every 10 years under British rule and there had been one in 1911. However, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) has assembled data from the year of the Rising, allowing us to compare and contrast Irish life then and now.

In 1916, almost half of all workers were employed in agriculture compared to less than 5pc today. Almost 27pc worked in manufacturing industry compared to one third of that figure now. One in 10 employees in 1916 were housemaids, butlers and other domestic servants, a vanishing group that's shrunk to 0.3pc today. More than two-thirds of pupils taking the subjects Commercial Course and Shorthand were boys, because most office secretaries were men.

The capital's urban sprawl was under way in 1916, and the stats show that Dublin would lose 83pc of its farms over the following century, followed by Louth, with 72pc. While the cities of Cork and Limerick also expanded, the loss of farms in those counties was the lowest nationwide, at 50pc.

In 1916, most farm families kept a cow, as unpasteurised milk didn't travel well in a land where both electricity and refrigeration existed in tiny pockets. The short shelf-life of milk explains heavy sales of the condensed version on the Consumer Price Index. Fish and chicken were rarely consumed beyond fishing communities and those who kept their own poultry. The cost of tea that sells for around €2.30 a pound today was prohibitive at an equivalent €10-€16 in 1916. Butter and eggs were luxury buys, costing up to three times as much in 1916 as today.

Dublin's clothes shops were especially targeted by looters during the Rising, for the very good reason that clothes cost a fortune. Buying a bog-standard woman's coat in 1916 would wipe out the entire weekly wage of a male national school teacher. Cigarettes were one of the few goods cheaper in 1916, at a fifth of today's price.

While modern housing schemes were shooting up in the new suburbs, the building stock was tottering. The 1911 census listed thousands of "perishable units", which were either mud huts, or equally crude one-room, one-window dwellings built from rubble. There were 51,451 one-room dwellings in Ireland, and nearly half were home to three or more people, sometimes many more. The contrast between the haves and have-nots was most extreme in Dublin, where nearly 10pc of families lived in veritable mansions of more than 10 rooms (under 3pc today), while 36pc of all family homes were just one room, and 23pc of all Dubliners were crammed into single room tenement accommodation.

It followed that a baby born in Dublin city in 1916 was five times more likely to die before its first birthday than one born in Roscommon. Rural poverty was grim and widespread, but the rustic poor usually had fresh air, clean water, milk and vegetables. Despite the infant diseases rampant in the capital, the biggest cause of child death was malnutrition.

In 1916, around 85pc of people settled locally in the county of their birth. In today's far more mobile society that figure stands at just over 60pc.

By 1916, the Great War had seen the normal emigration rates reduced to a trickle of under 1,000 annually. Immediately before and after the war, the figure was around 15,000, mostly heading to North America. Those taking the boat were generally much younger than today's emigrants, with many in their teens, while three out of four were girls.

Ireland in 1916 treated its children harshly. Corporal punishment was a daily reality of school life, although urban kids aged from 6-14 were only obliged to attend 75 days a year. The demands on rural kids were even fewer. By law, their parents could keep them out of school in cases of "sickness, domestic necessity... husbandry and the ingathering of crops, or giving assistance in the fisheries, or other work requiring to be done at a particular time or season".

The truly dark side of the treatment of children is buried in the statistics for Ireland's 65 industrial and five reformatory schools in 1916. More than 8,000 children lived in these institutions under penal regimes. The purpose of the industrial schools was to turn poor kids into useful members of society. The purpose of the brutal borstals known as reformatories was to punish and correct. Of the 822 children admitted to industrial schools in 1916, 146 were aged under 6, while the same number were aged between 6 and 8. In 1916, 96 boys and six girls were sent to borstals for larceny and petty theft while three boys were jailed in these child prisons for the crime of 'Sacrilege'.

Vanished now, the seasonal migration of farm labourers took 13,000 men to Britain a century ago. The vast majority (80pc) left from Donegal and Mayo, with Donegal workers heading overwhelmingly to Scotland and Mayo ones going to England and Wales. The government noted they "followed a considerable itinerary … hay making in Lancashire and Yorkshire… Lincolnshire and North Cambridgeshire for the corn harvest; thence to Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Cheshire for potato digging. Their usual wage was about 25s a week with an allowance of potatoes and milk or beer".

The official added that they "save usually from half to three-quarters of their earnings, and some return home with as much as £20 saved in the season".

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