One of the things that is hardest to imagine is the food our ancestors would have survived on. After all, since there were no fridges or canned food in the 1830s, fresh or in some cases preserved foods were the only sources of nourishment. The photo clearly shows regular items we might take for granted today and the cost of these items in 1835 / 1836. However, unless you were a farmer who had laid some meat away for yourself, for most people, meat would have been a luxury item for special occasions or when it could be afforded. Indeed, for the poorer classes of society, the labourers and cottiers, the main source of food would have simply been the potato, accompanied by perhaps a little milk. This is perhaps the main reason that the 1845 -1849 potato famine hit the poorest members of society the hardest (although there were of course, other reasons). The potato was easily adapted to the Irish climate, and could be grown in any available small space of land. The following extract is from a Parliamentary report into the poorer classes in Ireland. Whilst this actually concerns County Cork, it would quite probably be reflective of Ireland as a whole during this time:
“How can a labourer with a family lay by anything, even if he has 10d. a day regularly, which is not the case with nine out of ten labourers? Suppose he has himself and wife and three children, five in family, which is very little; potatoes all through the year are on an average at least 4d. a weight; a weight and a half, 31½ lbs., in the day is the least you can allow, which will be 6d. a day, or 3s. 6d. per week; 1d. worth of milk in the day will be 7d.; firing to boil the potatoes will take him at least 8d.; there is no turf, so that he must buy coal; I do not think he can get enough for 8d.: then calculate wages:
|Six days, at 10d. Per day||5|
|1½ weight potatoes (31½ lbs /14.3 kg)||3||6|
|Firing to boil them||8|
|Milk, 1d. Per day||7|
To provide clothes and pay rent. It is a mystery to me how they live; most of them must half starve themselves. Indeed, in some instances, they do not pay rent they promise for the cabins; as I had surrendered to me the other day a few which an under-tenant of mine let to them, and for which I had not received a farthing of rent for the last seven years.”
And yes, you read correctly, that family of 5 (father, mother and 3 children) DID eat 31½ lbs of potatoes a DAY. This emphasizes the dependence the poor had on the potato and the effects of how such a specific diet came to bear down on the poor in the decade after this report was compiled.
The above article shows that to simply eat, the cottier or labourer needed to earn 4 shillings and 9 pence a week (equivalent to $1.15 at the time) and it wasn’t always possible to earn this much in a week, especially if the weather was inclement or the local farmers or gentry had no work available. This problem is typified by the following Parliamentary report ‘Condition of the poorer classes in Ireland : First report: Appendix A’ (1835) for the Parish of Maghera, which it states “Few labourers have ever been known to lay by anything; indeed, they cannot do so, the highest wages being 1s per day, and employment at that rate very uncertain; there are often unemployed in winter and wet days.”
Also, the same report states “There are many widows with young children having no support but their own earnings, but the number is not ascertained; some of them are in a very wretched state, but they meet with more sympathy that the other poor.
They cannot earn generally more than 1d. Daily, by spinning; some occasionally work in the fields. No woman could maintain a family by the employment open to her; only one widow here sells illicit spirits. No assistance is ever afforded by the parish.”
Therefore it can be seen that the labourer or cottier’s family certainly didn’t have an easy time to make ends meet!