Map of parcel of land in the townland of Crissard being transferred from John Grace of Gracefield to Widow Mary Brennan of Crissard, Wolfhill, under the Labourers (Ireland) Acts, 1883 to 1886
By Terry Dunne, Laois Historian-in-Residence
This article is about three ballads current locally in the opening decades of the twentieth century, all of which speak to that time as a period of profound social change.
‘The Comfort of a Labourer’s Cottage’ and ‘The Boardroom of Roscrea’.
The first two songs were written by Luke Kinahan, from Killavanogue, a townland in Tipperary just outside the Laois border near Lisduff and Errill. I found the first of these songs in the Laois Association Yearbook of 1984. It was described in the Yearbook as a “popular party piece in the area during the ‘thirties”. It, and the next one, concern an agitation in Roscrea Poor Law Union for the provision of public housing. A Poor Law Union was a local government area overseen by a Board of Guardians. The Roscrea Poor Law Union included parts of what are now counties Laois and Offaly, as well as, more obviously, part of county Tipperary. The second song, ‘The Boardroom of Roscrea’ I found in the Schools Folklore Collection, the well-known collation of folklore made in the national schools across the countryside and provincial towns of the 26 counties in the years 1937 and 1938. The songs concern the workings of the 1892 Labourers (Ireland) Act which empowered local government bodies to house rural workers. The “Tauner” referred to in the first ballad was Dr Charles Kearns Deane Tanner, the Irish Parliamentary Party Member of Parliament for Mid-Cork (one of “our brave Irish members” as the song puts it). Tanner was a particular force behind the 1892 Act and was well known for his record of being ejected from the House of Commons for pro-Home Rule obstructionism. The 1892 Act was a new, improved version, of legislation dating back as far as 1883.
Many more such houses were built under the Labourers (Ireland) Act of 1906 —about 50,000 by 1914, mostly across Leinster and east Munster. Public housing was still being rolled out, as they say, in the 1930s, especially in the towns. This perhaps accounts for the continuing popularity of the song, it still had immediate resonance. Both ballads reference “plots” and “acres” because the houses came with large gardens for vegetable production. As ‘The Boardroom of Roscrea’ makes clear the granting of cottages faced opposition from farmers —in part because more cottages made for less land for farmers. Although this mobilisation predates what is conventionally thought of as the revolutionary years, the issue continued into the later times. Most especially in the context of the food supply crisis associated with the First World War, which led to demands for larger cottage gardens. By the way a scallop was a hazel rod used to fix thatch in place, the scraw was a layer of sod that went under the thatch. I suppose now we might tend to romanticise vernacular architecture, but Luke Kinahan at least, and likely thousands more like him, were glad to see the back of mud walls and dripping roofs.
The Comfort of a Labourer’s Cottage
Farewell to the scraws and the scallops
Farewell to the sootdrops and rain
Farewell to the smoke and the cobwebs
That frequently moldered my brain
Those filthy vile plagues are all over
And forever again I’ll disown
I fancy myself now in clover
Since I got a new house of my own.
By plans, schemes and specifications
The Labourer’s Act was composed
To better our sad situation
And please and comfort disclosed
I wish the poor men of the nation
From Cork to the Co. Tyrone
Were possessed of a cottage and acre
They might freely call it their own,
The comfort obtained from those houses
Not to talk of the acre at all
Your heart would resound with carousels
As they guard off the wintery squall
They belong to the blessing of nature
The truth unto you I’ll make known
Kind smiles would adorn your features
In a cottage and plot of your own.
Oh many a journey I’ve travelled
From Killavanouge to Roscrea
In pursuit of a cottage and acre
And hear what the guardians might say
At length they agreed and consented
Full justice to me they have shown
They gave me a plot and a cottage
And now I can call them my own.
Long life and success to those heroes
Who fought for our rights at the Board
May they flourish and live in full splendour
And their praises in song be encored
To sound all their names would be weary
Their actions to you I’ve made known
They’re a credit to gallant Tipperary
They gave us grand homes of our own.
Then! Hurrah — for our brave Irish members
Who struggled by night and by day.
The Labourer’s cause they defended
Their efforts did nobly display,
Brave Tauner with courage undaunted
Through Ireland his actions are known
He secured the poor man with an acre
And a smashing fine house of his own.
The Boardroom of Roscrea
Come all ye worthy sons of toil and listen to my song
I’ll sing for you a verse or two and
won’t detain you long
I mean those worthy labourers who
work for scanty pay
How they were disappointed at the
Boardroom of Roscrea.
On the 14th day of April 1894
We went there to assert our rights
our numbers were three score
We went to meet the Guardians and
hear what they would say
About our plots and Cottages at the
Union of Roscrea.
When we reached the Union regardless of our foes
We met some filthy farmers who did our claims oppose
They trailed us there from Shanakill
and Clonmore all the way
To trample on the Labourers acts at the Union of Roscrea.
We had some more opponents from the Parishes all around.
They came from Borris-in-Ossory and outside Errill town.
They came with vengeance on their lips our cause for to betray.
And swamp us in our Cottages at the Boardroom of Roscrea.
If you were to see those farmers before they were called
Some of them were barefaced scamps while others were quite bald.
More of them were ghastly like or drooping with decay
You’d swear they came to seek relief to the Union of Roscrea.
So boys don’t fret we’ll have them yet and on our cause must go.
We’ll be happy in our cottages in spite of every foe.
We’ll laugh at them with scorn and they will rue the day
that ever they opposed us at the Union of Roscrea.
The Land for the People.
Author of the next song, Patrick Aloysius Meehan, was the Irish Parliamentary Party Member of Parliament for the Queen’s County Leix constituency from 1906 to 1913 (that was basically the eastern portion of Laois). There are words there about “the Land League banner”, but it is likely that this ballad is from a period after the Land War, although veteran activist Meehan was most certainly present in 1880. Verses about “the eleven-months man” and “the grabbers” and the “land-shark” would suggest more a provenance from the early 1900s, the time of the United Irish League and the Ranch War. An “eleven-months man” was someone holding land for less than one year, land which was sometimes referred to as untenanted land, as someone with such a holding was not afforded the legislative rights of being a tenant. Perhaps paradoxically the monopolists of such lands were wealthy graziers. These were often the lands targeted in cattle drives during the revolutionary period, and, after the Land Act of 1923 a lot was re-distributed by the Land Commission. I found this song in the Laois Association Yearbook of 1991. There are two things particularly worthy of note about this song somewhat at odds with how the past is sometimes remembered. Here an Irish Parliamentary Party politician is evoking a heritage of republican insurrection, “Vinegar Hill”. People had perhaps less distance to move between supporting the Parliamentary Party and supporting Sinn Féin than we might think. Also, while landlords are the perpetual villains of popular history, doubtless an easy role for them to fall into, this song concerns conflict between different strata of farmers as much as conflict with landlords.
The Land for the People
Come, let us sing the motto of our dear native land,
Shouting the battle-cry of freedom;
Beneath the Land League banner again we’ll take our stand, Shouting the battle-cry of freedom.
The land for the people! Hurrah boys, hurrah!
Justice and Freedom and Erin-go-bragh!
We’ll rally round our flag, boys, we’ll rally once again,
Shouting the battle-cry of Freedom.
We are springing to the call of our stricken people’s cry,
Calling for aid against our tyrants;
We’ll crush the eleven-months man, the grabbers —or we die,
Shouting the battle-cry of Freedom.
We will step into the places of our brothers gone before,
Who fought the same good fight we now are waging;
The land-shark and the grabber shall curse the land no more,
To this good work our lives we are engaging.
They may prosecute and jail us, as they often did before;
We are ready for the fight, and vow to win it;
The evictor and the grabber shall be driven from our shore,
We must win the land, ‘tis ours and we shall have it.
Our fathers fought and conquered at Ross and Vinegar Hill,
And died for the cause we are defending;
By all our hopes and by our dead, we’ll fight the battle still,
On God alone and on ourselves depending.
 Laois Association Yearbook 1984, p. 28.
 Laois Association Yearbook 1991, p. 52.