Life in Rathcogue

What was life like for our ancestors growing up in Rathcogue? To answer that question it is always best to go to those who can remember – in this case, the stories of the old ones,  recorded in 1937 for “the School’s Collection”. One of those informants, Mary Murtagh,  grew up in Piercetown, a townland next to Rathcogue, just  a bit  the northeast.

“There is a place in this district called Piercetown. It was so called because a man named Pierce Dalton owned the greater part of the land in this district in the early Penal days. There is also another town called Paddenstown. It is so called because Padraic Dalton owned the greater part of it. It was Pierce Dalton that was supposed to have hidden the gold in Piercetown….

Another (place) still is called Malthouse Park. There was a malthouse there in olden times, where malt or whiskey was made. The ruins of the old malthouse are still to be seen. .. There is a townland beside Piercetown called “Aughnabóithrín”  (“Aghnaboy”  today – Ed.).  The English of it is supposed to be the place of the little road, for a “boreen” leads for more than a mile into it from the main road.  Almost every field in the district has some name, most of them Irish sounding. The people of the district do not understand the derivation of any of them , still they continue calling them by these names…. The name Moyvore is probably derived from the two words  Mágh Mór meaning a big plain.”

“There are a number of fairy forts in this district. There are ten in the townland of Piercetown. In one fort a man was lost while counting cattle and sheep. He went through the fort while looking for an ewe. He could not get out of it and he was missing the whole night. The man himself said he saw all the fairies dancing and beating a drum. When he tried (to get) out of the fort he thought there was a fence before him.

There is a field called the bull ring in Piercetown, and there are two forts in it. In the winter time lights are seen in it and little men dancing.  People have heard noise like the milking of cows and the feeding of calves in these forts on various occasions. Nobody interferes with the forts while plowing the land for crops…”

“ There is a fort in Rathcoague and there are three in Piercetown each in sight of the other. Each of these is surrounded by a single rampart. There is a fort in Aughnaboy, and opposite it, one in  Balinacurra.”

– Mary L. Murtagh, Piercetown, Ballynacargy

Note:  according to the Ordnance Survey Map the fairy fort in Rathcogue sits on the back edge of the plot leased by William Fay. Many a Fay child must have played on it over the years, despite the potentially dangerous consequences.

As the 1937-39 “Schools’ Collection” of the National Folkore Archives makes abundantly clear every community in Ireland believed until recently in its local spirits, who lived in the surrounding bushes, banks and, in particular, the fairy forts.

These “fairy forts” were preserved over the centuries out of a deeply ingrained belief that they were entrances to the otherworld, where the Tuatha Dé Danann, the original semi-divine inhabitants of the island, fled upon our arrival.

Science has now proven that the fairy forts (also known as a ringfort, lios or rath) were not in fact the abode of spirits, or entrances to their underworld realms, but instead are the remains of the most common form of housing and defensive outpost in Ireland from the late Iron Age right through the Bronze Age, Early Christianity and even into the Medieval  era in some places. The fact that many of these forts had underground passages burrowing into the earth, made the “otherworld”  idea all the more credible, though these passages  rarely proceeded very deep and are now understood to have been used for storage, or to provide refuge or a clandestine escape route during an attack.

Model of a Ringfort
Continuing on with Mary Murtagh’s narrative –

“Nearly all of the house s in this locality in former times were thatched. The people thatched them with straw or rushes. The people in olden times had very small windows in their house. They had bars outside of the glass of the window to protect them from robbers.

The old houses had beds in the kitchen if there was only one apartment in the house. The bed was in a corner. It was called a “hammock”.  The fire was at the gable wall, or against a side wall, or on the middle of the floor with a hole in the roof to let out the smoke. Some people had an old bucket on the top of the house for a chimney. Other houses had chimneys made of wattles and clay. The old floors were of mud, and sometimes wood. The walls were made of mortar and strong sally rods, and the roof inside of boards.

The house were only one story high  and consisted of about two rooms and a kitchen. Half doors were common in the district, and they were common in former times.

Candles were made locally in former times. They were made from peeled rushes and tallow.The way the people made them was by dipping the peeled rushes into the tallow. The tallow was melted on a pan. The candles were stored in a long wooden candle box.”

– Mary L. Murtagh, Peircetown, Ballynacargy


Food in the Olden Times

“ The people usually had three meals each day long . The breakfast, dinner, and supper were the three meals. They usually had breakfast at seven o’clock, dinner at one o’clock, and supper at eight o’clock.  The breakfast was usually oat-meal bread and new milk, the dinner consisted of potatoes and buttermilk, and the supper was stirabout.

Tea was first used in this district about seventy years ago. (1860s – Ed.) The people did not know how to make tea when it first came into the country. They thought they should eat the leaves.

They had no sweet cakes or puddings, only at Christmas. They used to eat potato- bread on Sunday. When the people were eating potatoes they used to sit around a basket on the ground.”

– Carmel O’Kelly , Moyvore.

Long ago the people used to eat potato-bread, wheaten- bread, oaten meal bread , and rye bread. The flour was made in the district locally. There were grindstones used  in the district.

When they were making oaten-meal bread, they used to steep the meal in water, and then they took it off when the meal was soft, to let it sour and then they would make the cake with it.Some of the people used only to bake once a week.

They used to bake nearly all of the bread on a griddle. The bread was often baked in front of the fire.

Potato-cake, rasp and oaten meal bread were also made in the district. Potato-cake was made from boiled potatoes and a little salt and flour, and it is made into small cakes, and then fried on the pan. Rasp was made with raw potatoes and boiled potatoes. The raw potatoes were grated and they were put into a cloth and the water squeezed out of them. Then one or two boiled potatoes were put through the raw potatoes and flour and a little milk.Then it was made into small cakes and fried on the pan.

A cross was sometimes put on the top of the cake to prevent the cake from breaking.”

– Annie Cormack – Shinglass, Moyvore

“There are three spinning wheels in this district. The people do not spin the thread in this locality now, but it was done in former times.

In former times Flax was grown in this locality. It was manufactured into linen by the local people. They made linen shirts and sheets and towels. Socks and stockings and jumpers are knitted locally.”

– Mary Teresa Murtagh –  Peircetown,  Ballymacargy

“Many industries were carried on some years ago in this district. There was a woolen mill in Wasford   (southwest of Moyvore – Ed.) where woolen goods were made on the hand looms. The mill is now practically a ruin, as the slates were taken off the building and sold in 1936. Up to that it was in fairly good repair though the machinery was long gone.

There was a corn mill in Linnetick and another in Clynan, in which oats and wheat were ground…

There is a cooper still living in Painstown, Rathconrath . He makes wooden vessels with hoops on them such as churns, keelers and tubs. Earlier than that he and his fore-fathers made wooden buckets, noggins (wooden cups – Ed.), and wooden plates. Some of these wooden plates are still in use for butter in the district.

Basket making was another craft that was carried on in years gone by. It is still carried on to a small extent in the locality. Sally rods (willow whips – Ed.) were used for the making of them. The baskets were used principally for turf and potatoes. Sometimes they were used as clothes baskets, that is, for holding ironed clothes.

Chairs with straw seats was another old craft. It has entirely died out in this locality. Mats too, which were used besides bedsteads and at doors were made from this straw. They are still made in this locality.”

– Michael Ward, Rathcogue

The Local Forge

“There is one forge in the village of Morevoy. The name of the smith is Joseph Burke.The forge is situated on the side of the road between Ballymahon and Mullingar. The roof on the forge is covered with felt. The door is square and is curved at the top. There is one  fireplace in the forge.

The smith does not make farm implements, but he does repair them.The smith shoes horses and asses. He has quite a lot of work to do and he is kept busy in the forge every day.

In the evenings men gather together in the forge and talk and tell stories round a big fire. Some one of the men blows the bellows and keeps the fire blazing and some of the other men help the smith at his work.”

– Annie Cormack, Shinglass, Moyvore

“Long ago at February fairs at Ballymahon and Empor, boys and girls used to meet and have matches made for them. Then they would go away and get married. Those who used to attend the wedding ceremony in the church used to race home to see who would first meet the bride.

About eighty years ago marriages used to take place in the bride’s house. The bridegroom would ride on horse-back to the house of the bride. After the marriage ceremony the bride would sit behind her husband on his horse, and would thus be taken to her new home.

The bride also got home-made linen from her parents in addition to her dowry. Some matches were made by professional matchmakers. At Empor a fair was held on the last day of May when the sales of cattle and sheep were over, the girls of every class used to gather in-to the village. A stage was erected on which were pipers and fiddlers. There would be much dancing and merry-making. After the fair several matches were made.”

This idyllic, albeit simple, rural life that the children of William Fay were ushered into was about to change radically, however. Without warning a black cloud descended upon the Irish tenant farmers, changing their lives and the lives of their families irrevocably.