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…Ordinary Irish people experienced in an extreme way both the joys of having children and the pain of losing them. In the first decades of the 19th century the population in Ireland was growing faster than anywhere else in western Europe…
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This cradle, woven from wicker, was collected on Inis Óirr, one of the Aran Islands, in the 1950s, but it is probably much older and is of a type widely used in nineteenth-century Ireland. That it was made with such loving skill suggests both its necessity and its importance. Ordinary Irish people experienced in an extreme way both the joys of having children and the pain of losing them.
In the early-nineteenth century the population in Ireland was growing faster than anywhere else in western Europe. In 1807 Thomas Malthus wrote that ‘Among the subjects peculiar to the state of Ireland is the extraordinary phenomenon of the very rapid increase of its population’. At the end of the eighteenth century the population was probably about 5 million; by 1845 it had risen to about 8.5 million. By 1845 31 per cent of the entire population of the United Kingdom lived in Ireland. This is all the more remarkable given that, between 1815 and 1845, about 1.5 million people left Ireland, mostly for Britain, Canada and the United States.
Love was in the air because the almost universal adoption of the potato as a staple crop made it possible to form a family with very little land. The potato, which was something of a wonder food, may also have contributed to the general good health of Irish women and, therefore, their very high fertility. (It is striking that high fertility in Ireland was not just a Catholic phenomenon: Quakers in pre-famine rural Ireland had more children than those in rural England.) Irish women were also sexually conservative—generally chaste before marriage and faithful within it—and few seemed to have used birth control. Children, moreover, were welcomed, as they often are in poor societies, as an insurance policy for their parents’ futures. English agronomist Arthur Young noted, of the Irish poor, ‘their happiness and ease relative to the number of children’. Up to the 1820s, when cottage industries began to be wiped out by competition from factories, children were valuable workers in the home.
Furthermore, the cost of an extra mouth was minimal: families had little to give a child beyond the food they grew themselves. Because of the failure of most parts of Ireland to industrialise, the number of smallholdings grew disproportionately: in 1845, 55 per cent of all Irish landholders held farms of less than four hectares (10 acres), and another 20 per cent of farms were smaller than eight hectares (20 acres). In addition to the problem of having so many subsistence farmers, Ireland was becoming more unequal: while overall incomes were rising modestly, the poor were getting poorer. In 1835 the Poor Inquiry Commission asked local Catholic and Protestant clergy, magistrates and land agents to say whether the condition of the poor in their area had improved or disimproved since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815. Most reported a deterioration. Perhaps a quarter of children died in infancy, making the cradle a bittersweet object, redolent both of hope and of loss.