On a recent visit to Hay-on-Wye, the Welsh border town noted for its second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, I came across an unusual tome. It consisted of extracts from letters of the late James Cropper, transcribed by his daughter Anne and richly leather-bound in book form. The copper plate writing comprised letters written between 1824 and 1840 by Cropper, a Quaker who visited the various Quaker meetings throughout Ireland during an extended tour in 1824. The book inscribed by Cropper’s daughter Anne to his grandchildren, was prepared in November 1841.
Arriving in Howth from Holyhead on 30th October, 1824 Cropper spent a few days in Dublin before setting out for Limerick. Writing from Mountmellick on 3rd November, 1824 he noted that
“for a few miles out of Dublin we could see very little difference between this country and England. But the scene gradually changed and as we got further into the country we could not but remark the great number of houses in a state of ruin and many with only the walls standing. These were mostly of a superior class to those inhabited by the poor and showed in our opinion the declined state of the country. The habitation of the poor was mostly miserable and dirty … those cottagers had some of them potato gardens attached to their dwellings …
We then came to Kildare and were struck with two fine buildings, one an infirmary, the other we were told was a coffee house but we could no way imagine what they could do with such a coffee house in so miserable a place. I soon found it was for the entertainment of the gentry at race time. I went into the pot house and spoke with the landlord about the condition of the country. He said things were getting worse and worse, the people were willing to work but could get none to do. From there we went to Monasterevin, we saw a large building which from its appearance we hoped had been a factory but on enquiry we found it was a distillery”.
In another letter from Limerick three days later Cropper wrote :-
“At Naas we stopped at the chief inn where no less than four chaises were before us changing horses. At the door of the Inn there was a great flock of miserable beings. I talked with them and asked them why did they not work. They declared that they would be very glad to work if they could get anything to do and many of them I really believed but there were in the group some miserable objects, old people unable to work but had no other provision than begging. I changed a shilling mostly in half-pence but though I divided it as wide as I could giving each of them a half penny, many of them fell short. In Naas there were two handsome buildings - one a prison and the other the Courthouse, one to try and another to punish those poor miserable creatures - surely the people at the head of affairs need punishment much worse.
We proceeded from Naas and then again soon saw a large resplendent building and a few miles further another - and what are these for? Why, they were barracks to keep those poor miserable creatures quiet with Bayonets instead of bread. The next fine building we saw in the Curragh of Kildare - it was a stand for the races. This Curragh is fine land with a good deal of gorse and is pastured by sheep.”
Writing of Portarlington Cropper described it as :-
“A neat town, the largest we have seen since we left Dublin and here the people are employed chiefly in weaving. What is the reason of this vast change, this bright spot in the very heart of so much misery? This is one of the earliest settlements of Friends in Ireland. There are 40 or 50 families of them and it is they who carry on all the manufacturers.”
Here Cropper was referring to the Society of Friends, commonly called the Quakers.
Unfortunately he did not travel to Athy during his extended tour of Ireland but his description of conditions in Naas no doubt held true for the South Kildare town. It is difficult to imagine the extent of the poverty and misery which prevailed in some Irish towns of that time, indeed the majority of Irish towns. Portarlington was, if anything, an exception and showed by comparison the distressing conditions prevailing in the towns and villages of County Kildare in 1824.