‘A sadder sight it would be impossible to witness’: Criticism of the hiring fair and child labour in County Donegal in the early twentieth century.

By Megan McAuley

Source: ‘Fair Day, Glenties, Co. Donegal [graphic]’, L ROY 09764, The Lawrence Photograph Collection, National Library of Ireland

‘I recall the hiring fair in Letterkenny, when the small farmers’ sons and daughters were forced to offer themselves for auction to the ranchers in the Lagan Valley. They stood on the footpaths, had their muscles examined by the big farmers, and eventually were hired to them for a few paltry pounds every six months. They worked one hundred and twenty hours a week and had to sleep in byres and stables.[i]

A sadder sight it would be impossible to witness […] it is pitiable enough to see these poor creatures, boys and girls, standing up like cattle to be examined and cross-examined […] cattle would not have been allowed to be treated as those poor young people.[ii]

These emphatic quotations highlight how children, sometimes as young as eight years old, in County Donegal were hired out to wealthy farm-owners seeking labour. This was an integral aspect of life for children of the poorest, rural, mostly Catholic, families, from the post-Famine period until the mid-twentieth century. This was particularly common along the impoverished western seaboard, where being hired out to work was considered a stage in the life cycle of children growing up there. Most children were hired to farmers in the rich agricultural area of east Donegal known as the ‘Lagan’, but they could also find themselves anywhere in Ulster or even Scotland for the ‘tattiehoking’. They could have been hired as domestic servants, agricultural labourers or harvest workers (including ‘tattiehoking’/potato-harvesting). Their earnings had a significant economic function and contributed to the survival of the entire family. The practice of hiring children as labourers was not unique to County Donegal, but particular social and economic circumstances in the north-west allowed it to survive longer than elsewhere in Ireland. The hiring of child labourers was subject to scathing criticism in local newspapers, despite its continuity. This blog will discuss some of the critiques offered by usually anonymous contributors.

The hiring of child labourers was no different from the haggling and cajoling when an animal was sold. Workers made deals with the farmers, while parents would bargain on behalf of younger and less experienced workers. Sometimes a mediator was required who could translate from Irish to English, for those coming from the Gaeltacht areas in west Donegal. Wealthy farmers checked a potential worker’s body and teeth in order to determine their health. It was commonplace for farmers to poke and handle the boys and girls before passing on without saying a word. Padraig McGill described himself in relation to the farmer who hired him on one occasion: ‘to him I was not a human being, a boy with an appetite and a soul. I was merely a ware purchased in the marketplace, something of less value than a plough and of no more account than a barrow’.[iii] John Devenney also described his experience of being observed by the potential hirers at the fair: ‘the farmers told us to walk up and down […] in case we were lame’.[iv] Dennis Boyce also described the practice of being hired by the ‘big pot-bellied farmers’ with ‘big heavy hands’ and ‘big red cheeks’: ‘if they were interested, they would come over, ask what kind of work I was used to, ask the oul fella how strong I was’.[v]

Source: ‘Fair Day, Glenties, Co. Donegal [graphic]’, L CAB 09128, The Lawrence Photograph Collection, National Library of Ireland

An anonymous individual wrote to the Donegal News in 1903 complaining about the ‘white slave market’ and the ‘phraseology’ applied to ‘fine Irish boys and pure Irish girls as would be applied to beasts’ or to ‘ordinary articles of produce or merchandise, and yet there is not one to raise a word of protest, not one to even see anything wrong in it’.[vi] The anonymous complainant also outlined the way in which the potential hirers ‘gather round the lads and lasses who are in for hire and jibe, and mock, and jeer at them, and say all sorts of ‘funny things’ at their expense’.[vii] The treatment of young girls is also cited in the article:

‘Some of the poor girls have to submit to worse insults still from some of the individuals who are in to hire them. It is really disgusting, and enough to madden anyone to hear the questions, in the examination and cross-examination, that are put to them now and again by their would-be masters, by men.[viii]

This comment is quite jarring as, unfortunately, girls were sometimes sexually abused by the farmer who hired them or by others working at the farm. The majority of perpetrators of infanticide (as a result of illegitimate pregnancy) were domestic servants. The anonymous author does however highlight the composure of the young boys and girls in the face of physical examination: ‘I have never been able to understand how the peasant boys and girls stand it all so calmly. They redden and get flushed and I have seen the girls often on the point of bursting into tears, but yet they manage to keep silent’.[ix]

Donegal News, 17 Nov 1906.   Donegal News, 17 Nov 1906

The author of the 1903 letter to the newspaper blamed the local people for allowing the practice to continue, by turning a blind eye. The anonymous critic believed that the average person would denounce such injustices against children if they took place anywhere else:

[…] were you readers of this column – for you, too, are guilty – to read of boys and girls being ranged up in an open marketplace in some foreign country, and there submitted to an examination and cross-examination, there bargained for and bought by monied farmers or others how you would denounce the uncivilization and brutality of it. Yet here is the very same thing at peoples’ own doors, and they say not a word against the disgraceful and unchristian proceeding.[x]

[i] The Irish Independent, 28 Nov 1966, p. 2.

[ii] The Donegal News, 17 Nov 1906, p. 5.

[iii] Patrick McGill, Children of the Dead End (London, 1914), p. 39.

[iv] John Devenney, OH/3/4, Donegal County Archive. Interview for Highland Radio.

[v] Dennis Boyce, OH/3/6, Donegal County Archive. Interview for Highland Radio.

[vi] The Donegal News, 21 Nov 1903, p. 5.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] The Donegal News, 21 Nov 1903, p. 5.