Life in Kiltimagh in 1870 in Co. Mayo

In the year 1870, remarkable for the Franco - Prussian War and the fall of the Empire of France, Kiltimagh was an unpretentious hamlet, in a primitive state, barely civilised. It was a conglomeration of straw thatched dwellings, with a goodly percentage of hovels, poorly lighted and ventilated.

The houses were of a rude construction and civilisation was in a backward state, and as for sanitary accommodation there was absolutely none. It was in a most deplorable condition. There were only six houses in the town having slated roofs, and one of them where Dr O’Dowd lived.

The roof was so bad that this popular gentleman found it necessary to use his umbrella over his head at night to keep off down rain.

There was a small market square at the southwest end of the town opposite the old parish church and the Parochial House, a place of indescribable filth.

Next to the square was a dismantled saw pit for cutting native timber. This pit was a convenient receptacle for dumping into it condemned domestic utensils, old clothing, garbage, and was utilised as a cemetery for dead dogs, cats and fowl, which were never buried beneath the surface, and was not a pleasing site along a public highway.

Next to this pit of abomination was a smith forge, owned by a man named Burke, powerfully built but kind and obliging.

Burke’s forge was used as a meeting place for the town loafers and local politicians at night-time as a rule where the topics of the day were discussed with vehemence., the smith taking part in the debate whilst his irons in the fire came to a white heat so that he could hammer and shape them as he desired.

Some years before 1870, Burke’s forge was a rendezvous for Fenians, where they held private meetings and surprise was expressed at the long delay in arrival of Erin’s Hope from New York.

The water supply for the town of Kiltimagh was procured from an open well, situated about sixty yards from the Main Street and reached by a very steep, narrow passage between the gables of the houses.

When it rained heavily the filth of the passage was washed down to the lip of the well and percolated into it. Fever cases were of frequent occurrence, but not too many fatal. The town had no flagged sidewalks, gravel paths only, and the street was sheeted with broken stones, steam-rolling was unknown.

Butcher or meat shops there were none, save two try to make believe ones, Roche and Conlon whose places were as filthy as the hovels of the Fuigans of Terra-del-Fuego, the most degraded members of the human family and a disgrace to man.

There were about a half-dozen shops worthy of the name. Tunney’s and Mullarkey’s were neatly looked after and so were a few more, but all the rest were more of a desperation type, poorly stocked, with no fixed prices for their wares, but charge the highest price possible for all they could sell.

The appearance of the town on a wet winter’s day was hideous, disheartening and cheerless. It was even worse at night, shrouded in black darkness and solemn stillness.

Tallow candles were used in the houses for illumination, and the light flickering through the small windows was of little use to light up the main thoroughfare. People would grope away in the dark as best they could.

Extract from 'Kiltimagh: Our Life & Times', reproduced by kind permission of the authors.