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by Tom Cox


The more I delve into our past, the more I wonder what daily life was life for our ancestors.  Much of what we know about our past is presented to us through the pages of written history. And the problem with that is that written history deals predominantly with the big events – the top stories, as it were. It is often difficult to look beyond these big events and see into the real world of the day.

The Great Famine is a case in point. We all have a fair notion of the top story, but have we any idea of what daily life was like at that time? Was there an air of constant gloom and doom permeating the lives of the populace?

Well, the truth of the matter may be, for those not directly affected, that life carried on in a fairly normal fashion. Indeed, some businesses may even have flourished. And I offer into evidence the drapery trade.Now, you might well ask, what pedigree do I have in that trade? More than you might think. My forebears were involved in the rag trade in Kilkenny in the mid 19th century and, while I have little of the details of their business in High St, they were trading during famine times and for many years thereafter.

Arnotts was established in 1843 and obviously, therefore, traded throughout famine times also. And closer to home, Abbeyleix had more than its fair share of drapers down the years, some of whom also traded during famine times.

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How do I know this? Well, some time back a small ledger was dropped into the heritage centre. It covers the years 1848 to 1852. Unfortunately, there was no information indicating where it had originated, but having examined the ledger, I believe it to be a drapery shop ledger, possibly from Morrissey’s drapery, which was located in the same building as the de Vesci Arms Hotel.

And I have an unusual piece of evidence to back up my theory. Inside the fly leaf, someone has used part of the page to record daily amounts of oats supplied on dates between September 18 to 28. Written above this information is the name Bianconi. The de Vesci Arms was, of course, a stopping place for the Bianconi coaches. The date of the entry is probably 1850, as there are other scribbled entries on the same page and in the same hand relating to that year. And while oats have nothing to do with drapery, the nearest drapery to the Bianconi stop in Abbeyleix is the one that was run by Morrisseys and located in the de Vesci Arms building.

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In relation to the hundreds of entries in the ledger, they predominantly relate to Abbeyleix.  Mrs Delaney appears in the ledger with regularity and is notated as being connected to the Workhouse, Poorhouse or Abbeyleix Union. That institution was a significant customer, with one entry, on 12 July 1848, having a price tag of £13.14s.3d. Not an insignificant sum for those times.

Lady Emma de Vesci was a customer, as was Mr Boxwell, (he of the Abbeyleix Savings and Loan Company). John Nolan, Tailor, traded there as did James Reilly, Blacksmith. Mrs Bland of Blandsfort was a regular customer as was Mr Hastie, Schoolmaster. Mr Crabtree was also a customer and he is described as belonging to a factory. Any ideas on which factory that might be?

There is also an entry on 2 December 1848 relating to Mr Jonas Sheckleton (which may be a misspelling of Shackleton). Jonas is quite a common Christian name associated with the Shackleton surname and I wonder if this customer had any connection with the explorer, born some 26 years later, in neighbouring Co. Kildare.

Enough exploration for the moment I think. Next time I will tell you who bought five pairs of gaiters, who bought one pair of grey cuffs and who bought one pair of blankets at 12/6.

These ordinary, everyday transactions give us an insight into daily life at the time.  What makes them extraordinary is that, all around them at the time, there was the misery and suffering of the ‘big event’ in our history that decimated our population.  History doesn’t record the everyday events, because these seem to be of little importance.  But life goes on – and that, it seems, has always been the case.

Tom Cox
Tom Cox
Tom Cox column 'An Eye on the Past' appears weekly in the Laois Nationalist newspaper.

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