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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Carlow 1847

Extracts from Alexander Somerville letters.
(Thank you to Colleen for providing this  material)

The following is a little snippet of a traveller's impression of Carlow in 1847. It may not be specifically about the daily life of people in Carlow, but I think it's an interesting description of the town during this period.
Around Carlow the best cultivated farms in Ireland are to be seen - so some people say. Awful havoc was made among the small tenantry a few years ago, in getting them cleared away to make large farms and to substitute a Protestant population for a Catholic one. Carlow town and county is a stronghold of the Protestants - the political Protestants. The land is a free, fertile loam, which grows prodigious crops of onions. London is sometimes supplied with Carlow onions. Turnips are also produced in a considerable quantity, and cattle are fed and manure produced in the farm-yard. Wheat is grown as a leading crop, and the wheat is always of good quality.
There are more than a thousand people in and about Carlow town called quarter-acre men. They rented a quarter of an acre of land - some more, some less - for potatoes, and found manure for it. Now every one of the quarter-acre men are trying to sell what manure they have, and it is offered at 1s. 3d. and 1s. per cart load. This is a sign that they do not think of planting potatoes again. They may be doing this because they have no seed potatoes, nor money to purchase them. There are more potatoes in the country around Carlow than is generally known. The mass of common people have none; they have either consumed all which the disease spared, or had them taken from them for rent, or sold them, (they rented the lands from the large farmers, not from the landlords.) But the large farmers have all the potatoes stored away. They keep them very quietly. They are beginning to let them be known now, lest they should not be able to sell them at all.
A great many men have been employed, and are now on public works. A soup-kitchen is open in the town, which supplies 500 persons with soup daily.  When the spring advances, work will be plentiful on the land. The small farmers who are not able to cultivate their holdings and get seed will sublet them. Subletting is now going on to a great extent. The country around this town is called the garden of Ireland; it well deserves the name. There are about 500 acres of onions and parsnips grown annually; the parsnips are sown with the onions... The parsnips were a splendid crop. They are bought up for the Dublin market to supply the place of potatoes. The farmers generally in Carlow county have seldom been so prosperous as they are this year; that is, the farmers holding above ten acres, say from twenty acres upwards. They have only lost on their potatoes; they have gained enormously on everything else. Turnips are a good crop. The owners of the land in this district are Colonel Bruen, Earl Fitzwilliam, Earl of Besborough (the Lord Lieutenant), Lady Cavanagh, and Mr Horace Rochford. Colonel Bruen is a resident landlord, and has been very attentive to the poor. All the others have taken their share of the burden liberally. Upon the whole, it is questionable if any other part of Ireland is so well-conditioned. The railway terminus has centred in this place the whole traffic of the south and west of Ireland with Dublin. The hotels were never so full before; shopkeepers were never more busy; mills are grinding night and day, and farmers never had better prices, with more corn to sell. The sufferers are the labouring population - the quarter-acre men, the small householders, and the small farmers, whose holdings are under ten acres. A better soil, a more industrious people, and better managed farm-gardens are not to be found anywhere than around Carlow, and yet every family holding only a few acres is reduced to Indian meal and the soup-kitchen by the failure of their potatoes.
I must proceed to sketch my journey form Carlow to Kilkenny, the coach starts from Carpenter’s Hotel, after it comes down from the railway station where it has just gone to meet the train from Dublin. Other coaches and cars are to start from [Carpenter’s Hotel] to Kilkenny, Clonmel, Waterford, Cork, and other places. Already the professional mendicants are assembling outside the door to besiege the coaches as they come. They arrive muffled up in tattered cloaks, great coats, and all manner of garments slung, hung, wrapped, twisted, and tied upon them. Fifteen or sixteen have arrived, and more are coming. Already they begin to unfold to the public eye their sores, which form their stock in trade, to do a little preliminary business with such as me.
The coaches begin to arrive from the railway. The mob of beggars now rush to the windows and doors of the coaches and around the cars.  A gentleman, mounted on a fine hunter, with scarlet coat, and booted and spurred, living close to Carlow, returns from the hunt and rides through the crowd. A passenger asks some of the mendicants why they don’t beg from him. ‘From him is it?’ they reply, ‘sure we know him better; it would not be a ha’penny he would give the like of us’.
Between four and five miles from Carlow, the sight of the noble river Barrow sweeping for several miles before us. But the way-side houses were beginning to look more miserable, the farms were smaller, much more numerous, and the people poorer We passed a number of small huts, all standing in pools of filth, the thatched roofs broken, the walls leaning in and bending out, and one or more faces looking over each of the low half-doors; the faces looking squalid, dirty, shrivelled, and famine-stricken. One face was an exception; it was that of a girl approaching womanhood. The under half of her door was open, and she stood in the doorway at full length, her unshod feet in the puddle of a filthy sink and dunghill, which was making itself level with the road outside and the floor of the house inside. She was not dirty in clothing. She had washed her face, for she could not be insensible to its beauty. Poet or painter never saw a face which would more readily strike a light in the onlooker’s eyes at one glance than that one.
I shall not in this letter proceed to describe Kilkenny, its county, and its people; there is more distress here than at Carlow. The distress deepens as we go west. At Carlow the potatoes were English reds - they did not all fail. In the south and the west the potatoes were the lumpers; planted always because large and prolific. The disease is peculiarly a lumper disease - they have all failed.


In the 1840's, Ireland's population exceeded eight million, making it the most densely populated country in Europe. Potatoes were its dietary mainstay, and a single variety called lumpers was the most widely grown. In 1845 the farmers planted their lumpers as usual, but blight struck and wiped out almost the entire crop


Carloviana Journal of the Old Carlow Society, December 2000, No. 48 p. 32, 33 “Letters from Ireland”

Written by Scottish reporter, Alexander Somerville, who arrived by train in Carlow 26 January 1847. His letters were first published in the Manchester Examiner.

(Thank you to Colleen for providing this  material)

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