Women in Mayo

Women in Mayo 1851-1881

Some Insights on Women in Mayo 1851-1881


Since I published Women in Mayo 1821-1851 some time ago, i have been asked on many occasions what conditions were like for women in the county during the following thirty years.  Constraints of both space and time have caused me to deal with only two important aspects of their lives, housing and education.

First I will deal with housing.  Census compilers for the nineteenth century resorted to a specific definition of house types.  Thus, the Census of 1881 generally followed the form of earlier Census returns and classified houses in four divisions.  Fourth Class houses were built of mud or other perishable material and had only one room and window.  The third Class house was a better type house, which varied from one to four rooms and had windows. M In the Second Class House Category were listed what might be considered a good farm house having from five to nine rooms and a window,  first class houses consisted of all those of a better description that the preceding.

Accommodation within the houses was also dealt with under four headings:


  1. First Class Accommodation consisted of a First Class house occupied
  2. Second Class Accommodation consisted of a Second Class house with one family, or a First Class House occupied by two or three families
  3. Third Class Accommodation consisted of Third Class houses with one family each, or Second Class houses with two or three families or First Class houses occupied by four or five families
  4. Fourth Class Accommodation consisted of all Fourth Class houses, Third Class houses with more than one family, Second Class houses with four or more families and first Class houses inhabited by six or more families.(1)

In 1851, great improvements in the quality of housing had been noted.  There had been an increase of .7% (2) in the occupancy of First Class houses, 4.6% of Second Class Housing and a dramatic increase in the occupancy of Third Class housing of 33.3% and a decrease of 38.3% in the occupancy of Fourth Class houses.  One is surprised to find such a large number of Fourth Class houses still in use in 1881.  There was a very close connection between the house type and the holding on which it was situated.  The   Special Inquiry as to Agricultural Holdings 1881 (3) reminds us of the link between poor holdings and poor housing.  The Report spoke of ‘the excessive struggle for existence in the more remote agricultural districts’.  Worst was Mayo, where only 15% of the holdings exceeded 30 acres.  The average valuation of holdings under thirty acres was £4.  Only 12% of the population of the county did not reside on agricultural holdings.  In Ireland, as a whole, in 1881, over half (55%) of the Fourth Class Housing was on holdings of less than thirty acres and 45% of them on holdings above thirty acres.  There were wide variations between Provinces and between Counties.  In Connacht, the proportion of Fourth Class houses on holdings not exceeding thirty acres was 77.7%, in Munster, 37.3%.  In Connacht, Mayo was found prominent as 83.8% of the Fourth Class houses were on agricultural holdings not exceeding thirty acres.

Further analysis (Table 49) (4) reveals that there were 110,675 females in the County in 1881.  Of these, a mere 2,597 women and even fewer men actually lived in these houses.  About a quarter of the women (28,732) lived in Third Class Housing (a great improvement)


The largest group of women in the County lived, in fact, on holding os between ten and fifteen acres, as can be seen from the following table:


YEAR 1881

SIZE OF HOLDINGS                                                FEMALE RESIDENTS

Less than one acre                                     1278

5-10 Acres                                                    10999

10-15 Acres                                                 21199

15-20 Acres                                                 17071

20-30 Acres                                                 13744


It can be seen that the size of the holdings on which women lived had improved greatly and the pattern of increased occupancy of Third Class Houses noted in 1851 continued.  An examination of the main towns of the County shows that women outnumbered men in all of them (Table 47) (5) In Ballinrobe, for example, there were 736 more women than men.  Some of these may have been widows, as many women resorted to the towns on the death of their husbands.  Widows formed 16.5% of the population of the County in 1881.(6)  The figure for widowers was much lower as most widowers remarried at that time.  Some widows thought they might eke out an existence more easily in the towns than on the land, particularly if their holdings were part of a joint tenancy.  In many instances, the other tenants in such a lease wanted to remove widows from their holdings, as they feared they might fall into arrears of rent.  Many women, with some little means, opened huxter shops or kept lodgers.  When one considers the numbers of uninhabited houses in all of the towns of the County (Belmullet had 154, Ballina 197, Newport 123, Killala 94), one can see that it would have been comparatively easy for such a woman to rent a house in town.


Other factors such as employment possibilities for children and access to education may also have played a part in this trend.  Most women seem to have been tenants at will or existed on sub-let holdings, whether in town or country.  A perusal of Griffith’s Valuation makes for interesting reading.  In Doonfeeney Parish, which includes the town of Bally, only two women were mentioned as immediate lessors (Margaret Langan in Belderg Beg and Bridget May in Ballycastle who let her property to the Church Education Society, although 34 women were listed as occupants of holdings in the Parish.  I had a particular interest in the figure for the Parish of Moygownagh, which had such a high percentage of ‘cholera widows’ during the Famine.  I had expected to find several female lessors.  Amazingly, only one lady, Bridget Moore, was listed as the lessor of a house.  In Achill,  three women only were listed as lessors.  These included Anne Woods, whose property was occupied by the Board of Customs.  Anne received half the annual rent from the Coast Guard Watch House (£1.10.0).  In Ballina, both Anne Gallagher and Monica Dillon each let five houses.  Mary Joyner was the immediate lessor for eighteen houses and gardens, mainly in the Castle Road, Arbuckle Road and Bohernasup areas.  In Castlebar, Catherine Busteed set sixteen premises.  Multiple holdings such as these were not confined to towns.  Mary Boyd, who lived in the Parish of Aglish near Castlebar, let eighteen holdings, on which fourteen houses were build.  In the Ballinrobe rural district, Mary Louise Cuffe, who leased land from Col. Charles Knox sublet land.  She had 25 tenants, most of whom were joint in two joint tenancies.  In Belmullet, Margaret Davis (whose marital status I have not been able to ascertain) let eight houses.  Mrs. Margaret Davis was one of the many widows resident in this town.  She derived income from the rental of eight houses (7)  These ladies, whom I have mentioned, were not unique.   A study of Land Titles would how  many women managed not only to obtain property for their own use, but also multiple holdings.  Many lived off the produce of their gardens, etc.  When one considers the poverty of the time and the lack of education generally, one can only admire the spirit of entrepreneurship and actual business acumen which enabled them to acquire such property.


I was very interested to see what changes took place in educational attainments in the County during this period.  There was a large increase in the number of people who could read and write, for Ireland as a whole, between 1841-1881.  In 1841, only 28% of the population five years and upwards could read and write.  In 1871, this figure had increased to 49 and in 1881 to 59 in every hundred.  There were great differences discernible between Provinces and Counties.  In Connacht, only 16% of the total population could read and write in 1841, 36% in 1871 and in 1881 it was 47%.  A study of Table 144 (General Report Census 1881) reveals that only 40% of the population of Mayo could read and write at this time.  The corresponding figure for Dublin was 77% (8)

Further analysis shows that except at the ages of 6, 11,65-70. 75-80, 100 and upwards, more females than males were still illiterate.  More females than males were classed as being able to read only at the ages of 6, 7 and between the ages of twenty and sixty.  There was a drop in the numbers for women readers over that age until one reached the ages of 8085.


Slightly more girls than boys under the age of eight could both read and write, but with the exception of the figure for fourteen year olds, more men than women could both read and write.  When one considers that more women than men emigrated at this time from the County, one wonders if this is the true figure, or if those girls who were better educated had emigrated.

The main advances in education had been made at basic literacy levels.  More advanced education for girls was in its infancy in the County, even in the wake of theIntermediate Education Act, 1878.  Girls receiving further education were very limited in their range of subjects.  Ten years on in 1891, the Census reveals that there were only four girls attending Superior Schools in the County and 226 boys.  The girls  did not derive any benefit from the extra subjects taught in the Superior Schools (Latin, Greek, Modern Languages, Maths) as no girls in the County was receiving instruction in any of these subjects at this level. (Table 147) (10),  Vast progress had been made ad national school level but much remained for the future.


After 1860, it could be said that rising standards were visible in the county.  By 1878, Mayo was caught in the throes of the revolution of rising expectations and much of the distress present in that year and those following arose from the grim determination to keep up the rising standards and not regress to the old state of misery, succinctly expressed as ‘Mayo, God help us’. (11)  There is no doubt that women all over the County contributed  much to make these expectations a reality.



  1. Census of Ireland 1881, General Report. Part II, Form B*1, page 7
  2. Census of Ireland 1851,Vol. VI, Table XXV
  3. Census of Ireland 1881, General Report, Table 62, page 214
  4. Census of Ireland 1881, General Report, Part II, Table 49
  5. Census 1881, Table 47
  6. Census 1881, Table 83
  7. Griffith’s Valuation
  8. Census 1881, General  Report
  9. Census 1881, Table 79, pages 236-237
  10. Census of Ireland 1891, Table 147
  11.  Lee, Joseph J. The Modernisation of Irish Society, 1848-1918, Dublin 1983, p. 70

Maureen Langan-Egan  published as ‘some insights on Women in Mayo 1851-1881’ in North Mayo Historical Journal, etc.  Vol 2. 1992

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