The decade of the thirties was a watershed in the 20th century. It was the last decade of the old order which had altered little for hundreds of years. When the war started in 1939 everything changed. life was never the same again. A thriving blackmarket in scarce commodities soon developed. Smuggling increased one hundred fold, there were better prices for livestock, people had more money in their pockets and the state benefit scheme was overhauled beyond imagining
In 1939 an act entitled Unemployment Assistance (Emergency Powers) Act (1) was introduced to extend the Unemployment Assistance Board's activities to meet whenever need arose from the war-time situation. By 1940 the Board had received a new title 'Assistance Board' with the responsibility of supplementing the entire range of benefits. The new Act, for all practical purposes. ended the life of the 'Poor Law' and ushered in the era which in 1947 led to the Welfare State, and social benefits and free health care becoming the entitlement of every citizen in Northern Ireland.
For years I have been intrigued by the ingenuity and private enterprise of the people of Crossmaglen who. in this decade. succeeded in making a living without the aid of government benefit or grant. Before discussing the many and varied occupation of these good people I thouoht it might be interesting to have a look at the benefits which were available. few of which were relevant to a people who were not insured workers and whose poor found it impossible to qualify for 'Outdoor Relief'.
The comprehensive system of state benefits as we know it was non-existent. The 'Outdoor Relief' was operated by the 'Board of Guardians' whose office was in The Newry Workhouse. Outdoor Relief (20) was afforded to the destitute at home and was paid locally by a Relieving Officer. When I made enquiries about Outdoor Relief in this area I was told details would not he released until 2030, so I am unable to state the weekly amount paid. I think it was two shillings and six pence. 'Indoor Relief' was paid to destitute people in the Workhouse and was retained by the Board to cover keep. Outdoor Relief was given in money/or kind was normally confined to:-
(a) Destitute persons permanently disabled from labour by old age infirmity, or bodily or mental defect.
There was an unemployment insurance scheme for insured persons who were temporarily out of work. There was an old age pension scheme for insured persons who had reached the able of 65 years. and a non contributory old age pension at 70 year (subject to a means qualification) when the person was not insured. The means test for the over 70's was as follows:-
(a) British subject for at least 10 years.
The rate was 10/- per week where means did not exceed £26-5-0 and was reduced on a sliding scale to 1/- per week where the income was between £47-5-0 and £49-17-6. One can quickly deduce that few of the residents of Crossmaglen qualified for any of the benefits, very few people were in paid employment where an insurance scheme was operated, and few applied for, or qualified for the Outdoor Relief. As I have already outlined, one had to be destitute to receive this benefit, and the term destitution had no statutory definition and was administered at the discretion of the Guardians who rigorously operated the scheme with the cost to the ratepayers always in mind. Then, there was the humiliation of knowing that a list of recipients of the benefit was posted publicly each year. A local government Order Board of 1904 placed responsibility on relieving officers to make a list of all people in receipt of Outdoor Relief and have it posted in a public place. On the 17th of November 1928 the Ministry proposed to have this order duly removed from the Status Books. I am unable to say that the Order of 1928 was immediately implemented throughout the country. I spoke to one of our older residents who remembers the list of persons receiving 'Outdoor Relief' posted on the wall opposite St. Patrick's Catholic Church.
This, then, was the decade called 'the hungry thirties' and indeed looking at it from the safe, high ground of the 1990's when every home in the country has income from paid employment, self employment or some form of state benefit, life might appear hard for the population of this small town without the cushion of state benefit to support them. But not a bit of it, the people of Crossmaglen were resilient and enterprising and very few were in the destitute bracket.
The census figures for Crossmaglen in the early decades of the century are as follows-
It is interesting to note the drop in population between 1911 and 1937, no doubt due to emigration.. The first council houses were built on the Culloville Road about 1950 and Rathview Park followed. Several more estates have been added since, thus accounting for the population in 1981.
I now propose to give an outline (in so far as I have been able to gather the information) of shops. businesses and occupations of Crossmaglen in the decade. I have omitted names except in a few exceptional instances.
The town had about thirteen grocery shops of which four or five are still in the family name and about fifteen public houses of which about eight are still run by the same families, and the town also had a commercial hotel used mostly by people requiring bed and break-fast facilities. An interesting little footnote to the overnight stay was two little houses which were situated where the side entrance to the Northern Bank runs down to Short's Lane. During the week of the mission (about every three years) the occupants of these houses gave bed-only accommodation to the older country parishioners who had no transport and who wished to attend the mission. The cost was four pciice per night, the parishioners did their own cooking. and provided their own food.
There were about five Drapery shops. at least two of which had a ladies and gents department and two of the shops had a millinery department. The name Milliner evokes images of a genteel society no longer with us, one rarely hears of milliners nowadays. At least two families were in the fruit and vegetable trade and on Friday (a strict day of abstinence in the thirties) they sold fish, mainly herring. One of the families also attended Newtowiihamilton on Fair and Market days. There was a butcher's shop which is still today in the family name. The owner was one of four brothers, all of whom were butchers. Each butcher had his customers in the country for whom he slaughtered pigs and prepared the carcass for the pork market held every Friday in the Markethouse. The pork was weighed and then dispatched to the bacon factory.
The one bicycle shop did a brisk trade in repairs, as well as the sale of new and second-hand bicycles. This was the decade of the bicycle. As more and more people became owners of the machine. new horizons were opened up for them. They were travelling independently, further afield than ever before. I myself, didn't own a bicycle until the early forties but I well remember the sense of freedom that I felt whell I first cycled to Dundalk. The fact that I can now travel to distant parts, doesn't quite thrill me as much as the jouneys I enjoyed on my first bicycle.
There were two garages in the town, somewhat surprising for at that time there were few private cars around. but obviously there was a need for their services. Perhaps less surprising. because of so few car owners, there were about five taxis for hire and they did a good business. One man ran an unusual service, he plied between the town and Culloville Railway Station by sidecar. and he also carried goods for customers and shopkeepers to and from the train station.
A feature of the time was the number of shoe makers in the town. There were at least four, three of whom were brothers. The bulk of their work was in repairing boots and shoes. Each pair was repaired again and again, and a new pair was purchased only when the old ones had fallen apart. Indeed in the decade some children went to school barefoot. and during the summer holidays they gathered blackberries to earn enough money to buy boots and clothes for the winter. Summer holidays from school commenced at the beginning f August so that the children were around to help with the harvest and gather the blackberries.
If the shoemakers looked after the feet of the humans the blacksmiths looked after the horses feet, and there were a great number of horses both in the town and the surrounding countryside and although there were some forges in the country, quite a few of the farmers brought their horses into the town for shoeing.
The horse was a pampered animal and, on reflection, a delicate animal. I well remember each week-end my father preparing bran mashes, drenches, etc. This was done to keep the horse healthy for the spring work and all horse owners did the same, because people's livelihood depended on the horse for farm work. and for getting to fairs and markets. Fowl-men depended on their ponies to travel the countryside buying fowl. The horse was the poor man's Rolls Royce. There were about three blacksmiths in the town, two of whom were brothers. They performed both the skills of farrier and blacksmith. Important to the horse owner was the service of a saddler and Crossmaglen had one who was always busy making new harness and repairing old and worn pieces. (Sadly the last three trades mentioned are no longer practiced in the town.)
At least two carpenters plied their trade in the town. These craftsmen made farm carts, doors. windows and stairs. A carpenter's work- was judged on the craftsmanship of two items, i.e. stairs and the farmcart or trap, and many discussions ensued on the merits or otherwise of the finished product. In the thirties such items were a once in a lifetime purchase.
A family of tinsmiths made kitchen utensils, buckets and troughs. thus supplying a cheap and useful service to the community.
The town had two papershops, a barber, ladies hairdresser, two tailors. a dressmaker and a monumental stonecutter. One man operated a very successful egg export business and there were two second-hand clothes shops known locally as 'Pawn Shops'. Two packmen travelled a wide area of the surrounding. countryside by bicycle, selling clothes, suit lengths and other items.
A lorry owner provided a transport service for both country and towns' people for many years until, at the beginning of the war his business was taken over by Northern Ireland transport. His main trade was bringing goods from Newry to the local shops and groceries, meal, coal, etc., were the main items. He also carried farm produce to Newry market.
An example of private enterprise at its best was the fowl buyers or 'cleavers' as the country people called them. This business was well established in the thirties because as early as 1900 in "Porter's Guide" an advert appears for a firm of Wholesale exporters of Game, Fowl and Eggs, the firm was going strong in the decade. There were about eight or nine families associated with the trade and these fowl buyers radiated out to cover South Armagh, North Louth, and South Monaghan. One or two firms owned small lorries but most of the business was done by pony and fowl cart. At the beginning of the war the government introduced legislation to control prices, packing and export and each collector was required to have a licence to trade. The controls gradually killed the free enterprise and small traders were pushed out of business.
The town was well represented professionally. There were two banks, "The Belfast Banking Co." established in 1893 (became "The Northern Bank" in 1963) and the "Hibernian Bank" which opened prior to 1921 (became "Bank of Ireland" in 1972), a firm of Solicitors, two Doctors, a Post Office, a Chemist whose family still run the business, three Auctioneers of which two are still in the family name, and an undertaker whose business started in 1830 and is today run by the great grandson of the original owner.
Crossmaglen was a centre of excellence for the craft of Carrickmacross Lace from as early as 1856 when a school was established at Culloville.(5) This school closed after some years and the centre of activity moved to Crossmaglen in 1895 where a Miss Morris opened an agency and at the same time taught local girls the art of applique. About the same time, with the help of Canon McGeeney, another school was opened for the teaching of the craft. As a result of this combined effort about 200 workers in the town and surrounding countryside were involved in lacemaking. Porter's Guide of 1900 shows an advertisement for the Crossmaglen Lace School and also for at least three buyers in the town. All of the pieces were sold to the fashion houses in Dublin, Belfast and London and in most cases delivered in person by the buyers, quite an achievement in an age which, by 1992 standards, would not be judged as a sophisticated one. By the 1930's the impact of the earlier years had faded a little. There were still a good number of workers and still buyers in the town but the main buyer was now a Culloville firm which amazingly was still using the barter system as late as the thirties. This is still even now, sixty years on, a sore point with the women who sold their pieces to the firm.
I spoke to two ladies who told me of their experience of the system. The first lady said she could earn 7/6 for a lace collar and jabot (six days work). The payment was by ticket, usable only in the firm's shop which combined grocery, drapery, wines and spirits, hardware, and general merchant. No cash payments were made, which system prompted the lady's grandfather to declare that depriving the labourer of his wages was one of the seven deadly sins and deserved to be punished. The second lady had a similar experience. The payment, by ticket for a modesty vest (the inset used by ladies wearing v-necked dresses and blouses) was 11/- . Once, when she was applying for a job by post she needed 1 1/2d for a stamp. She had one penny in her possession, her problem was how to obtain the 1/2d. She had a modesty vest completed so she carefully worked out her grocery bill to total 11 1/2d and hoped that the 1/2d would be given back in change. Just as she was finishing her transaction the owner of the shop came in, saw the bill, and told the assistant to give her a 1/2d candle so the total of the goods came to 1/- This anomaly, plus the fact that once on a visit to Dublin to the Eucharistic Congress in 1932, she saw her modesty vest for sale in Clery's at 7/6 prompted her to start in business herself which the lady did quite successfully.
There are still some small pockets of workers in and around Crossmaglen but alas the area is no longer the thriving centre for Carrickmacross lace, a reputation which it enjoyed in the earlier decades of the century.
The monthly fair on the first Friday of every month was a very important day. Country people had a day out and the town's people enjoyed the extra trade. Farmers and dealers offered a wide range of livestock horses, cattle, sheep and goats. The 'standings' (stalls) were a special feature of the fairs where everything imaginable was sold and many a man bought a good Sunday suit on the 'cant' (second-hand clothes stall). There were about eight or nine eating houses in the town and all did a roaring trade on the fair day. About seven or eight yards in the town were open to hold cattle bought by dealers, a yardman manned the gate to collect the tariff of 6d per head and let the cattle in and out of the yard. A weekly market was held each Friday and was used mostly by farmers who brought pork in for weighting and collecting. The hay-seed market was seasonable but very intense for a few weeks in early summer. I can well remember queues of carts lined up each side of the markethouse waiting to have their seed weighted and sold. A queue-jumper was not tolerated and many a scuffle ensued when a farmer was bold enough to try pushing in out of his turn.
The Christmas market was a big affair when country people brought in their turkeys and young fowl for sale. Long queues of carts lined up at the markethouse awaiting buyers. This was a very anxious time for country people for, depending on the prices received, they could look forward to a good Christmas or a poor one. The outstanding bills were paid first, and the little left over was then spent on a few Christmas luxuries, of course the shops in the town benefited from the extra trade as well.
I feel I must mention two brothers John and Frank Hannon who lived in Crossmaglen in the thirties (Frank died in 1937 and John in 1931) but whose business was associated with the later part of the 19th century and the early decades of this century. John was a teacher and Gaelic scholar, and Frank a tailor. They ran a small grocery and newspaper shop and were agents for woollen mills in Lisbellaw. In the later half of the 19th century many of the small farmers from as far away as Mullaghbawn and Drumintee who kept a few sheep on the mountains brought their raw wool to the Hannons. Designs were chosen from pattern books for blankets and rugs. The raw wool was dispatched by train from Culloville Railway Station to the mills and the finished article was duly returned by train to Hannons for collection. The people who brought their wool for weaving came from the Irish speaking areas around Slieve Gullion. They travelled by donkey and cart and usually stayed overnight (probably in the fourpenny a-night lodging houses). By dent of listening and taking to these people and using his Gaelic scholarship John compiled a manuscript in 1898 entitled "The Surnames of the Parish of Upper Creggan (South Armagh)". In it he lists the surnames in English followed by the local Irish pronunciation. He explained in a refectory note that the words, phrases, surnames "We're all heard locally and given just as they were heard in conversation or rendered in proverbs or song by means of Father O'Growney's Key". (6)This manuscript is an important insight into the Gaelic language used in South Armagh in the 19th century and which was almost extinct by the time John Hannon compiled his fist.
I could not let this look at Crossmaglen in the thirties pass without mentioning the 'Dalin Men'. The men of Cross had dealing in their blood from a long way back. A parish priest of Creggan told the Devon Commission in 1844; (7) "It is not by farming the people live but by dealing. They look upon their holdings or little farms as rather a lodging and resting place, and they pay rent chiefly by dealing. They go to England to laboor and many of them purchase various articles and go through the country with them, such as oranges and lemons, etc. Others buv pigs, cattle etc., and exchange goods in various ways". Over the decade the 'dalin men' of Cross lost none of their skills at the trade. Every beast and article sold in the town and surrounding country involved a deal. There were two or three well-known horse dealers who were renowned all over Ireland, as were the many cattle dealers of the area. No wonder then. when the dealing men of Crossmaolen are mentioned people break- into the well-known refrain; (8) "It wasn the men from Shercock, nor the men from Ballybay, but the dalin' men from Crossmaglen put whiskey in my tay". Over the century of dealing the Cross men had acquired a reputation of being astute. shrewd experts in the field with a technique peculiar to themselves.
The people of Crossmaglen have always been credited with humour and in the thirties three or four of the best wits of the century were at their peak. The 'Billiard Room' corner was the meeting place where many people gathered to listen to their gems of wisdom. and there was music as well. One of the best dance bands around was from Cross. They were in great demand playing in all the halls around the area; Mobane, Culloville, Cullyhanna wee hall, Newtownhamilton (Blaney Hill). Forkhill and the Markethouse in Crossmaglen..
The town was a busy place in the thirties. everyone had some occupation. Indeed one might think an idyllic place when looked at from the 1990's where unemployment is the norm and governments strive to create jobs without much success.
(1) Paddy Devlin "Yes we have no bananas today" (Outdoor Relief in Belfast 1920-1939).....Back
Other Articles and publications by Mary Cumiskey:
Articles in the Creggan Journal
Journal No.2 - 1987: The Hirin'