Niall Murray pores over directories and the Examiner’s own archive to discover a country that is both very familiar and yet completely different to the Ireland of today

WHILE today, we rightly bemoan the slow death of the Irish village, it was the nucleus of everyday life for most of rural Ireland a century ago.

It is very easy to forget when reading or viewing historical or dramatic representations of the 1916 Rising how different things were, and how those things we take for granted could not have been dreamt of back then.

A glimpse at the pages of a directory from 1916 helps to give just a small flavour of how different life was.

Take a random example, Reenascreena in West Cork, five miles from Rosscarbery.

The village was in the news last summer as it was the birthplace of the exiled Fenian, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. His funeral in August 1915 marked the first real public display of the strength of the Irish Volunteers, and its centenary provided the first official ceremony in the State commemorations for 1916.

A century ago, the entries in Guy’s County & City Directory for residents and businesses in the village are topped by James White, the local postmaster — perhaps the most central figure in many an Irish village.

Before email, couriers, television or widespread ownership of radios, letters were the main mode of conveying personal news or transmitting business correspondence. If it was more urgent than sending a letter, a five-mile journey to the town of Rosscarbery would allow anyone send a telegraph or money order.

There were two larger employers in the area, Coakley’s flax and corn mills, and the Reenascreena woollen mills. In other villages, these might have been replicated by flour or saw mills.

James White also had a pub, one of two in the village which also had a blacksmith, a carpenter, a weaver, and a shopkeeper. James Collins was an egg, poultry and butter exporter, as well as a general produce merchant.

There was also a creamery in Reenascreena, and around the country growing numbers of villages had their own local co-operative society creamery, a phenomenon that was on the rise since the 1890s.

These listings alone give an idea how local farmers could sell much of their produce locally, and could source much of their provisions without having to drive the pony and cart even to the nearest large town.

While Reenascreena is not listed as having its own police barracks, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) did have a presence in many similarly-sized small settlements. With its population of 185, the nearby larger village of Leap had an RIC station under the charge of Sergeant Frank Boland.

Rosscarbery held a market every Wednesday, and fairs for cattle, sheep, and horses in August, September, and December. With such regular influxes of traders and buyers, it boasted no fewer than three hotels, two blacksmiths, three drapers, and its directory listings included nearly a dozen dressmakers and tailors, and five shoemakers, in the days before mass-produced garments were shipped in from Asia or elsewhere.

It may have had a population of just 475, but the people of Rosscarbery were served by 21 vintners, most of them vying for business on the town square.

Also on the square were two of the town’s seed and manure merchants, one of its three saddlers, two of the town’s four egg merchants, both its coal merchants, and both bakers. The town had a fishmonger, six fowl dealers, and almost a dozen carpenters, builders, and masons.

The likes of Rosscarbery or nearby Skibbereen, one of the largest of Co Cork’s towns, handled a lot of incoming traders on market and fair days. But while global warming was not yet on the agenda, there were probably enough traffic ‘emissions’ to keep the urban or rural district council’s street sweepers busy for a few hours after.

As for general transport, the absence of motor cars — except for those owned by the very wealthy — was not as big a problem as one might think.

Cork, the largest county on the island, had a network of railways that is almost inconceivable a century later, although remnants of the lines are still in place in many instances.

Between Cork and Macroom, for example, there were three daily services for passengers in each direction, offering first, second, and third-class fares. Along the 25-mile route, passengers were picked up and dropped at stations in Ballincollig, Killumney, Kilcrea, Crookstown, and Dooniskey.

But the railways depended on more than passenger fares for business, carrying mail every day, as well as livestock and agricultural produce going to weekly markets.

Other lines running to Cork in the early 20th century included the Cork and Muskerry Railway, linking the western edge of the city to Blarney, Coachford, Donoughmore, and intermediate stations as it wound its way north of the River Lee.

The Cork-Mallow line still exists today as part of the rail link with Dublin, but in 1916 it was part of the Great Southern and Western Railway. In those days, passengers could continue on arrival from Cork on to Queenstown (now Cobh), where there was a vital connection to the passenger and mail ships that landed and departed there every day.

Irish Examiner archive offers a glimpse of Irish life a century ago

Or from Mallow, where modern passengers can still connect for Kerry stations, those heading east could board services bound for Rosslare, via Fermoy, Lismore, Dungarvan, and Waterford.

For communities in West Cork, there was the Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway, bringing passengers from as far west as Schull near the most southerly point on the island.

Along the line running as far as Skibbereen and Baltimore, there were branches for Kinsale, Clonakilty, Courtmacsherry, and Bantry along the coast, and stopping in villages like Ballineen, Durrus, and Timoleague along those routes.

While rail travel was affordable for some, for many in Cork city and county there was only poverty.

The Cork Examiner of Wednesday, January 19, 1916, reported on a meeting of the visiting committee to Cork Poor Law Union’s workhouse, where relief was provided for the unemployed and the destitute.

The workhouse buildings at Douglas Road, today part of the St Finbarr’s Hospital complex, had seen a fall in numbers but still accommodated 1,525 people.

Despite reducing numbers, rising costs associated with the war had seen a jump of £120 — the combined yearly earnings of up to 10 casually-employed farm labourers — over two years in the weekly cost of food, coal, and other provisions.

One committee member questioned why up to one-quarter of the stock of some clothing items in the workhouse, such as men’s shoes and shirts, women’s shoes, and boys’ shirts, had been condemned. The same Mr Williams was equally critical of the guardians having “over-bought” on clothing when prices were expected to fall in the coming year.

His fellow member, a Mrs Lynch, told the meeting: “It would be better to have a smaller stock than be in debt.”

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