The Spalpeens and seasonal labourers to England by James Reddiough
There was never much of a living to be made from a small holding in the west of Ireland and in Mayo in particular. This meant that farmers from these areas had to leave for English farms to earn a living to raise their families and maintain things at home. Many left on the harvest ticket a special fare for farm labourers on the train to facilitate their emigration to England to find farm work to keep their farms in the poorer west. They left for the farms of the northern shires and midlands of Britain or England. Many people from Belmullet and Achill went to Scotland for the potato picking or tatie hooking season. A good deal of people from mayo walked to the port at Drogheda and then onward to Bradford, and Leeds via Liverpool and there were the tougher of them who trekked onto Hull where instead of working on the farms they found work in the docks.
They were unrecognised by their own state and their plight and their standard of living has been little documented the state could not help them so they allowed them to head off and make a few shillings elsewhere. Of course they had been leaving before the foundation of the Irish Free State and since the early 1800’s and more so after the Great famine and during the agricultural depression of the 1880s and after 1879 and the poor summer of that year. By the time of the second world war in England the average farm labourer was earning £3 5s per week and they had a lodging allowance also.
There was a commission and report of enquiry after the death of the tatie hookers at Kirkintrillock in Scotland but that was it. After that the migrant worker or splapeen was part of the sub culture that official Ireland in its smugness chose to turn a blind eye to.
There was a lot of seasonal workers and they graduated in later years from being farm workers to working on the buildings which proved more lucrative and then they did not return any more and put down roots in England and reared their children there but for generations and decades during the 19th century and the early decades of the twentieth century they did not spend the whole year in England and they came home in November and stayed in Ireland for the winter until returning to England in the late Spring and Summer for the farm season.
They went on foot often to the nearest railway station and they sometimes employed a car or hackney to take them from the home to the port or railway station in Dublin. They would set out in good time and have a few drinks on the way and they would reach the boat for the sailing on the cattle boat.
The cows for export to the British market would be on one deck and the people for the factories and the farms and indeed the hospitals and the schools were on the other deck the Princess Maude was the name of the boat at the time. Seamas Dunleavy of Charlestown produced a very fine memoir of the time some years ago and it is worth reading to gain some insight into the 1940’s and after until the 1960’s when as I wrote many people stayed and the spalpeen way of life came to an end.
There was an air of festivity about the men travelling to England and a great air of expectancy when they were due to return to their family responsibilities there were some who did not return from England at Christmas and there was a respectful or respectable form of separation observed in those days when divorce was not legal and also when people did not want to admit that there were problems of this nature in the home. It was a fact of life that nobody wanted to comment on at the time but oh how times have changed.