Monday, March 16, 2015

Did your Irish ancestor live in a thatched cottage?

It’s St. Patrick’s Day week, and once again Irish genealogy websites will be flooded with once-a-year visitors yearning to unearth their Irish heritage.  They will surely be visiting the National Archives site and using the 1901 and 1911 census records (, but most likely will overlook forms B1- House and Building Return, and B2- Out-Offices and Farm-Steadings Return, documents that can tell us much about the dwellings our ancestors lived in.
Irish genealogy is often maligned for the lack of records that are obtainable for digging deeper into an ancestor’s past, but some of the records that are available offer us unique glimpses into their everyday lives.  In what other country can you see on a map where an ancestor lived in the 1850’s, then toggle immediately to a map that shows that location today?
Forms B1 and B2 from the 1901 census provide us with a detailed description of the places where our ancestors lived.  Together with contemporary photographs widely available on the internet, Google maps, and published architectural surveys, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture the environs of our ancestor’s home.  
For example, my great great grandmother’s brother John Mortimer remained in Ireland after 4 of his siblings emigrated to the United States in the mid 1800’s.  It’s very likely in 1901 he owned at least part of the land his father Michael was occupying at the time of the Griffith’s Valuation in the 1850’s.  The 1901 census shows John and his family living in house 9 in the townland of Bockagh, District Electoral Division of Lacka, Queen’s County.  The family consisted of John, his wife Mary, and 5 of their adult children (the youngest being 16). 
Forms B1 and B2 describe the house and outbuildings as follows:
Constructed of stone, brick or concrete, roof of thatch or wood, 3 rooms, 3 windows in the front of the house, 7 inhabitants in the house
7 outbuildings- stable, cow house, calf house, piggery, fowl house, turf house, shed
The picture below, from “Thatch:  Voices from the Traditional Houses of County Laios” by Mary Ann Williams, Sinead Hughes and Bronagh Lanigan (available as a PDF at shows a likely layout for John’s cottage, even down to the 3 windows in front.  Hard for us in 2015 to imagine 7 people living in 3 rooms, but this would have been fairly typical for this time and area.  Fortunately there are still some surviving houses of this type in Laois, and this book illustrates some great examples.
A farm that had 7 outbuildings seems fairly prosperous to me- I can only imagine what a “piggery” might look like!  I could not find any reference to the amount of acreage John had in 1901, but his father’s holding in 1853 amounted to 33 acres.  The terrain was very mountainous, and it’s very possible much of John’s land was used for purposes of animal grazing.  There is no mention on the census sheets of the animals he kept, but the report of his outbuildings indicates he had cattle, pigs and fowl.  He may have had some sort of dairy farm, and there was a well-known cheese industry that thrived in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, where John’s farm was located.   

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