A Country in Change: Life in 17th & 18th Century County Tyrone

by Richard Gwynallen

Sperrins - 3

The View From the Sperrins

High in the Sperrins in County Tyrone, a sweeping view reveals to the eye a gentle landscape of undulating mountains, deep glens carved by the glacial flows of the Ice Age, small streams, and boglands. The highest summit is Sawel Mountain at 2,224 feet.  The name “Sperrins” comes from the Irish Cnoc Speirin.  It means “pointed hills”, but the hills are peaty, heather covered moorland, creating a rolling, multi-hued, soft texture to the landscape, Before the 17th century dense forests would have covered the land lower down.

Sperrins - 2

On the moorland the traveler is surrounded by a sensual delight, varying with the Sperrins - 4seasons.  The gorse can be in flower all year if the winter if mild, its blossoms emitting a scent described as being like sweet coconut. At the end of summer the Sperrins seem dotted and striped with red, as the Rowan trees bear their red berry fruit,  The evening light deepens and enriches the hues of the Sperrins.  Sparrowhawks and kestrels soar in the skies above you, keeping an eye out for the rabbits, badgers and hares that populate the Sperrins.

History on this land is very old.  Stone structures from the Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages can be found throughout the Sperrins. The Beaghmore Stone Circles are one of the most complex of these structures. They are situated 8.5 miles north west of Cookstown on the townland of Beaghmore.  The site consists of  seven stone circles, twelve cairns and ten rows of stones.  Patrick Mackay’s Dictionary of Ulster Place-names says that the name Beaghmore is derived from the Gaelic Bheitheach Mhór, meaning “big place of birch trees”.

The Stone Cirlces at Beaghmore

One can walk miles in the Sperrins without seeing anyone, and there are ghost farmsteads everywhere that were once snug and full of life, but now stare blankly out at the landscape.  However, it is not an uninhabited wilderness. Though sparsely populated, farming thrives, sheep pens dot the hillsides, and the small towns have busy market days.

This idyllic view of the Sperrins wasn’t shared by all.  In 1609, the Lord Deputy of Ireland gave strict orders to the guide accompanying investors from London to not let them see the Sperrins.  Creating the vast settlements of Scots and English loyal to the Crown on Irish land required money, which meant getting the London guilds to invest. These visitors came to be called the Four Citizens of London.  The Lord Deputy was afraid they would see the remote and hard to access, peaty, seemingly inhospitable hills of the Sperrins and be discouraged.

However, all around the Sperrins were dense forests, which very much impressed the Four Citizens of London.

The new settlers were also quite  taken with the forests of the fertile foothills and glens.  The primeval forest of Glenconkeyne (from the Irish Gleann Con Cadhain, meaning “valley of Cadhan’s hound”) northwest of Lough Neagh with its towering oaks and elms astounded them. They loved it so much they cut them all down and floated the logs down the Bann to build Coleraine and Limavady.

Remnants of the old forests can be seen here and there.  At the manor of Springhill, a 17th-century fortified house built by the Conynghams near Moneymore, a thicket of old yews survived.  However, perhaps of greater symbolic importance is the main stairwell at Springhill House. It was built of the Irish Oak cut from the local forests, a reminder that the great forests of Ireland were sacrificed for building new towns for settlers and for the luxury of people like the Conynghams.

Springhill House - 2

Springhill House

In the meantime, the Sperrins began to fill with Irish.  With the beginning of the Plantations in the early 17th century, the native Irish were being forced off their land.  Some were killed, some fled overseas, some hung on as poor tenant farmers with insecure tenure, and some were forcibly transplanted to poorer lands further west. However many escaped into the highlands of the Sperrins where mountains, bogs, and forests gave them sanctuary. The settlers concentrated on occupying the rich fertile lands of the lowlands, and, seeing it as unproductive and undesirable, left much of the inaccessible terrain of the Sperrins, and similar areas like the Glens of Antrim, to the native Irish.

These hills and forests had long been a haven for rebels.  The Clann Aodha Buí (Clandeboye in English) O’Neills are recorded as descending from the thick forests of Glenconkeyne from which base they would conquer the shattered remnants of the Earldom of Ulster, becoming the principle Gaelic lords of eastern Ulster in the 15th century.  Later, in these hills and forests Hugh O’Neill evaded capture in 1603 until he made a peace with the Crown.

As more of the disenfranchised sought refuge here it is hardly surprising that armed raids from the forests of the Sperrins were launched on the settlers in the lowlands throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. Many of these rebels became local legends, their tales sweeping across Ireland in songs and poems, and were deemed heros of the people for resisting the British occupiers.  They robbed wealthy colonists and gave the money to nearly destitute people, many of whom were now eking out a marginal existence on their former lands and were shut out of many industries.  A flat double dome arising in the bog near Gortin is called the Robber’s Table.  Legend has it that highwaymen of the 17th century met at the site to divide their takings.

One of the results of this concentration of disenfranchised Irish in the Sperrins is the rich Gaelic culture that still exists here.  Gaelic language, music, and storytelling thrives in the pubs, schools, and homes.

Looking south of the Sperrins we find our own Mordah family in the very era in which the forests are falling, towns are rising, Irish are being reduced to tenants on their ancient land or refugees that retreated higher into the hills, and the armed raiders from the Sperrins are riding.

Our Mordah Family

In 1729, the year of their emigration, our Mordah family was living in what is often described in 19th and early 20th century works as Gorty Lowery parish near Cookstown. We assume that this is Gortalowry townland in Derryloran Parish.  The father of the family, John Mordah, was born in Loughry townland in Derryloran parish, most likely moving sometime after 1710 when he married a woman named Agnes.  Loughry townland and Gortalowry townland are south of present day Cookstown, and, in the case of Gortalowry, includes part of south Cookstown.  They are about 12 miles west of Lough Neagh.

The Mordah name became Murdock after three or four generations in North America, and was one of the family names I grew up knowing.

For that reason, I wanted to look at what life was like for them in their place of origin and this cradle of our family in Ulster.  This article will explore life in County Tyrone from the mid-17th century through the early 18th century, looking particularly at the social and economic conditions that shaped their lives and, perhaps, contributed to their emigration.  It will be cursory by necessity, but, hopefully, as an overview, will provide a sufficient summary to allow the reader a starting point for exploring facets of the article in more depth if they wish to do so.

I will look at the changing demographics, power structure, and landscape of their time; where they lived; how they might have lived; and, finally, what pressures might have made them emigrate.

The Irish Language in late 17th and early 18th Century County Tyrone

What was the linguistic environment like at the time?  What language(s) did our Mordah family speak?  We know that that they were literate in Irish English because of small writing samples that existed.  The spelling of their name is distinct and reflects a name not fully Anglicized, but did they speak Gaelic?  We do not know for certain, but the Irish language remained strong in their part of Ulster, so being bilingual was certainly possible. In any case, understanding the linguistic environment of the time helps us better understand the life our ancestors were living.

Prior to the plantations of the 17th century, English was spoken along the coast of east


Ulster in the late 15th Century

Antrim and Down, growing to extend from Carrickfergus to Downpatrick, in most of the old County Dublin (the center of The Pale heavily settled and controlled by the English Crown from the late Middle Ages), County Kildare, the parts of Leix and Offaly where plantations were created in the 16th century, in the south of County Wexford, and in major towns inhabited by those of Old English descent and that were long-standing ports (e.g. Drogheda, Wexford, Kilkenny, Waterford, Limerick and Galway).


The settlements of the 17th century brought the extension of English throughout the planted areas of Ulster (County Antrim, excluding the Glens and Rathlin; Counties Derry and Tyrone, excluding the Sperrins; the Lagan district of County Donegal, most of County Fermanagh, and the northern halves of Counties Armagh and Down).  A similar expansion of English was occurring outside of Ulster, particularly throughout south Leinster.

From that point a period of linguistic stability characterized the 18th century.  There were no new plantations or population transfers.  Knowledge of English as a second language increased steadily, but the areas in which Irish was the common language didn’t contract significantly, particularly in Ulster.

The Church of Ireland had internal struggles from Elizabethan times into the 18th century as to whether cultural conversion should go hand-in-hand with religious conversion, or Gaelic culture should be used to achieve religious conversion.

The Presbyterian Church had no qualms about the use of Gaelic. In 1710 the Belfast Synod sent out six ministers and three probationers to preach in Gaelic throughout Ulster.  During that same period a Presvyterian school existed in Dundalk, Ireland to train ministers in the Irish language.

Efforts by both to establish religious dominance over Catholicism give an indication of the prevalence of Gaelic in the late 17th and early 18th century in Ireland.   The Church of Ireland published a Gaelic version of the New Testament translated by Bishop Daniel of Tuam in 1608.  The Old Testament was produced in Irish in 1685.  A smaller pocket version of the Christian Bible was produced in 1690, and a small bilingual catechism in 1712.  The Irish translation of the latter was by Rev. John Richardson (1669-1747), Minister of Belturbet in County Cavan.  This catechism was one of the first examples of bilingual printing, where the Irish and English texts appear alongside each other.  It’s been noted that this might be in recognition of the difficulty of finding Protestant ministers who were well enough versed in Irish to not need some recourse to the English version.  The Church itself did not take up Richardson’s approach, and it was the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge that helped fund the printing of his bilingual catechism.

There is a connection between the Richardsons and our area of interest.  Rev. John Richardson was born in County Tyrone, and served as rector of Derryloran before becoming rector of Belturbet.  The Richardsons had come to County Tyrone from Edinburgh, where they were well established burgesses, in 1617 when Alexander Richardson acquired the estate of Craigbank, County Tyrone, and built Drum Manor.  The estate is now Drum Manor Forest Park, south of the Sperrin Mountains and is open to the public.  Alexander Richardson married Grizel, sister of James Stewart, of Ballymenagh, County Tyrone.  James Stewart will appear later in the article because our Mordahs were living on Stewart lands.  Rev. Richardson was related to the Drum Manor Richardsons.  Irish was a childhood language for him, but we do not know if he was the first generation speaking it simply hearing it around the countryside or if it was a language of his home as well.

Rev. Richardson’s relationship with Jonathan Swift allowed him to petition Lord Lieutenant the Duke of Ormond for the publication of prayer books, catechisms, and sermons in Irish, and to provide for the training of ministers capable of preaching in Irish.

Further printing in Irish followed by Richardson and others, continuing well into the 19th century.

In 1798, a priest asked to be moved from Termon, County Tyrone (between Cookstown and Omagh to the west and south of the Sperrin Mountains) to another parish because “The Irish language is the prevailing one of which I am not a master.” (Eighteenth-Century Ireland (New Gill History of Ireland 4;  Ian McBride)

The below map illustrating the 1659 demographics caused by 17th century settlement seems to bear out this idea of an increasingly bi-lingual area.   The area of our interest west of Lough Neagh includes an area of 10% – 29% and 30% – 49% of the population being settlers, which would indicate a substantive population speaking Scots or standard English, but a larger population of native Irish who would have still substantially been speaking Gaelic, whether as monoglot or bi-lingual households.

British settlement in Ulster, c.1659

British settlement in Ulster circa 1659.  Source: The Mapping of Ulster-Scots by
Philip Robinson

The Scottish settlers seem to have mostly come from the south-west of Scotland, including Ayr, Galloway, Dumfries, Renfrew, and Lanark. The question of whether or not any of these incoming settlers spoke Scottish Gaelic is an interesting one, but one I cannot explore here.  The literature on the survival of Gaelic in Galloway and the southern part of Aryshire called Carrick seems to indicate Gaelic was alive and well in that area in the mid-16th century and died out in the mid-18th century.  That would make it likely that there were substantial Gaelic speaking areas in Galloway and Carrick during the plantation period, opening the possibility that some of the settlers spoke Gaelic.

So, our Mordah ancestors were living in a bi-lingual area. Irish was a common language of the area side-by-side with Scots English and standard English.

Changing Demographics

County Tyrone, like much of Ulster, had changed dramatically in the century prior to the Mordahs’ emigration.  Macafee records that: “At the beginning of the seventeenth century the population of County Tyrone was probably not more than 20,000 persons. Virtually all of this population would have been native Irish. By the middle of the seventeenth century the population had risen to around 37,000 of which approximately a third would have been British colonists. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the population had doubled to approximately 70,000 persons.” (p.1)  By 1712 the population of County Tyrone was likely 50% native Irish and 50% settlers.

What prompted emigration?

We do not know with certainty the reasons for the family’s emigration, but there were both many pressures and perceived opportunities at the time.

In The Population of County Tyrone 1600 – 1991, William Macafee records that there were “ . . . seriously deficient grain harvests in 1726, 1727 and 1728.” Further,  “Typhoid and dysentery accompanied famine and there was also a particularly severe smallpox outbreak at that time.” (p. 3)

Many regulatory and legislative limitations had been placed on Irish exports throughout the 17th century. Some of these were part of England asserting control over the land, and a great part had to do with restricting competition with English industries.   The linen industry was being built up at this time, but on the ruin of the Irish woolen industry.  This plays a significant role in emigration by Ulster Scots, of which I will mention more later.

At the same time, the American Colonies were encouraging Irish Protestants to immigrate to the colonies.  Considerable effort was put into publicizing the ability to acquire land whereby an Irish Protestant family could claim a certain number of acres of land for each individual in their family they brought over.  Concentrations of Irish Protestant communities were forming in the American Colonies in the early 18th century, with a particularly significant community developing in what is now Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Destruction of Irish Industries and the Building of the Linen Industry

Flax was one of the crops Ulster farmers grew. We do not know the extent to which linen industry work was part of the economic life of our Mordah family, but by the early 1700s, linen weaving from home was a major source of employment in parts of Ulster including County Tyrone. By the end of the 1720s, nearly all Irish linen came from Ulster and it accounted for a quarter of the value of all goods exported from Ireland.  Therefore, it was a significant aspect of the overall economy in which they lived.

Linen has a long history in Ireland.  Evidence of curing flax has been found in bogs all over Ireland and has been dated to 2,000 years ago. Linen production is detailed in the Brehon Laws and linen clothing and vestments are commonly referred to in early Christian times. The ancient Irish Brehon laws made it obligatory for farmers to learn and practise the cultivation of flax.

However, the linen trade in Ireland was basically a domestic industry.  Some speculate that the Irish abbeys played a significant role in the development of Irish linen as a profitable domestic industry for people in the villages.

It was during the settlement of Ireland that others saw fortunes to be made and sought to develop it as more than a domestic industry.  Lord Deputy of Ireland, Earl of Strafford, followed by the the Duke of Ormonde, played lead roles.

The method some of these English and Anglo-Irish lords took was to destroy the Irish woolen trade which had become a rival of England ‘s woolen industry.  In 1698, the Irish Parliament at the behest of the English Parliament laid heavy additional duties on the export of woolen cloths. The duties were so costly that they virtually prohibited the export of wool.

The strangest aspect of the duties that were imposed is that the blow fell almost exclusively on Irish Protestants because by this time the Catholics were restricted in almost every industry.

The English “Navigation act” of 1660, as amended in 1663, prohibited all exports from Ireland to the colonies; and also, in the interest of English graziers, prohibited temporarily the import of Irish cattle into England. In 1666 this last prohibition was made to be permanent. These acts almost destroyed the Irish cattle and shipping trades.

The Irish, driven from cattle rearing, turned to other industries, especially that of wool. And now we see the wool trade being sacrificed and a linen trade built up.

To build the linen trade upon the grave of the woolen trade, Anglo-Irish lords invested in building weaving looms, and importing high quality flax seed, which were sold at cost to Irish farmers.

Those who did not co-operate and adopt the new ways and techniques were punished with fines or imprisonment for anyone who continued to work flax in the traditional fashion and by confiscating all the flax, yarn and cloth involved.

At the same time various privileges were legally conferred on Protestant immigrants to Ireland, significantly Flemish and Huguenot French weavers, in 1662 and 1666.  The Irish linen industry was granted tariff protection while premium and bounties were rewards for proficiency in the growing, processing and weaving of flax.

The Linen Board was created in 1711 to find ways to stimulate the linen industry. It was controlled mostly by Church of England supporters, but with some Presbyterian participation. The Board distributed grants to underwrite targeted needs of building the industry and flax seed to stimulate wider cultivation.   (The Presbyterians of Ulster, 1680-1730, Robert Whan, p. 80)

In the 18th century flax became the only cash crop produced by the vast majority of the people of Ulster, especially the small farm holders. Production of the crop during the summer, and weaving the yarn during the winter made it a full-time occupation. The weavers were frequently their own bleachers as well.  Bleaching was a months long process, running from April to September, and was very labor intensive, right in the period when labor was most needed on the farm.

It was in the midst of this economic devastation and transition that mass movements of Ulster Scots began.


A Changing Power Structure

Our story is  focused in the area surrounding Cookstown, but a similar process was unfolding throughout the area of the Ulster plantations.

The land on which the early town of Cookstown was built was part of the ancient territory of Mallenagh, derived from the Irish term Meallanacht, meaning “O’Mellons country.  The O’Mellons were an “Erenagh” (Irish: airchinnech) family, which means they were lay people responsible for receiving parish revenue from tithes and rents, building and maintaining church property and overseeing the termonn (sanctuary) lands that generated parish income. During the Plantation of Ulster, all Erenagh land was held to be church land, and as such was handed over to the Protestant bishops of the new church, thus disenfranchising the former Catholic church and enriching the ascending Protestant church. Ownership of Mallenagh passed to the Protestant ArchBishop of Armagh, who in turn leased it to settlers who would undertake to build one good house of stone, lime or framed timber on each townland.

An English Ecclesiastical Lawyer,  Dr. Allen Cooke, purchased leases of extensive areas of land in Mallenagh from Armagh’s ArchBishop, including the townland of Cora Criche where Cookstown was to be founded.

Cooke was not resident on his new estate.  He fulfilled the terms of his lease by building 10 houses in the townland of Cora Criche, which became Cookstown. On 3 August 1628, Cook was granted a Patent by King Charles I to form a market in the town which which was by this time known as “Cooke’s Town”. By this charter, free commerce in buying and selling of goods was permitted. Grain, flax, linen and thread for linen were often sold at market.

However, from 1641 – 1643, during the Irish Rebellion, Cookstown came back into native Irish hands.  The Iron Mine and Plant swung into full operation with forgers and carpenters making arms for the Irish forces. Ultimately, in 1643 troops loyal to the English Crown destroyed the Iron Mine and Plant, plundered livestock, and burnt Cookstown.

A rhythm of rural life resumed with native Irish in a majority, but with enough Scottish settlers in the area to establish in 1649 a Presbyterian Congregation at what remained of Cookstown.  However, Cookstown did not grow much in the following century.  An estate map of 1736 reveals only 2 inhabited houses in the area of the town that year.

One significant change that occurred is that in 1666 the Stewarts purchased the land lease from Cookstown’s founder. Six townlands around Cookstown were enclosed in a domain, and in 1671 the Stewart castle at Killymoon was built.

The Stewarts arrived in Ireland as undertakers in the Plantation period in the early 1630s.  This branch had amassed land by purchasing Irish free holdings and acquiring leases of church land. James Stewart established himself at Ballymenagh townland (Irish: Baile Meadhonach) northeast of present day Cookstown.  Then, in 1634 he purchased Killymoon from Shane Roe O’Neill  (Irish: Seán Rua Ó Néill), though he does not seem to have resided there.  In The People of Ireland, 1600 – 1699, Part 1, David Dobson identifies Shane Roe O’Neill as one of the native Irish that was assigned land during the plantation period, receiving 60 acres in the Precinct of Dungannon in 1610.

Killymoon Castle was built in 1671 on the Loughry townland.  James Stewart’s son, Killymoon - 1William, seems to have been the first Stewart to occupy the building.  It was  destroyed by fire in 1801.  His descendant, Colonel William Stewart rebuilt the castle in 1802 on a much grander scale.  The existing castle would not have been there during our direct ancestors’ time, but the current Killymoon Castle is located overlooking  the Ballinderry river as did the original.


Killymoon - 3

Killymoon - 2 from the fort

Killymoon as viewed from Tullaghoge

Killymoon was built near Tullaghoge rath, a ceremonial grounds where O’Neill chiefs Tullaghoge Fort - 3were inaugurated.  The last certain inauguration of an O’Neill at Tullaghoge was Hugh O’Neill’s inauguration in 1593.  Though referred to as a “fort” at times, the site does not seem to have been a defensive structure, indicating it’s primary role was ceremonial.

Tullaghoge Fort - 1

Aerial view of the Tullaghoge complex

During the time of our Mordahs, from John Mordah’s birth in 1640 to their emigration in 1729, there would have been three Stewart lairds of Killymoon, the latter two in residence.  That would have been the original James, his eldest son, William, and following William’s death in 1726, his eldest son James.  This is most likely the family on whose land our Mordahs resided and to whom they paid their rent.  It is possible they had lived in that area under Shane Roe O’Neil, then simply went with the land when the Stewarts obtained it.

A Changing Landscape

The changing demographic was reflective of a changing power structure, and both were having an impact on the land.

16th and 17th century maps reveal that forests covered much of County Tyrone and encircled Lough Neagh.  The dense forests, bogs, and opposition of the native Irish to settlement of County Tyrone by English and Scottish landowners severely limited the surveying necessary for significant road building.  Any survey was deemed by the Irish to be a prelude to further settler control of the land.  A 1680 map was the first small map to depict the existing road system. It showed “important roads from Omagh southwards toward Cavan and northwards toward Derry, with a branch going south westwards towards Enniskillen . . .”  (The Industrial Archaeology of Northern Ireland; William Alan McCutcheon, pp. 40-41)

The Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland (Volume 11) identified Tyrone as one of the counties having significant woodlands at the close of the 17th century, as well as affirming that was still the condition on both the east and west shores of Lough Neagh.  However, these surviving woodlands were but a portion of the vast forests that had been present at the start of the 17th century.

Landowners uncertain of the stability of their ownership of the lands they were allotted by the crown used most of the 17th century to turn their “timber into gold” and the “woods that had survived fell at an alarming rate.” (p. 166)

This situation had become so bad that in 1698 the Crown had to act and its minister passed “An Act for Planting and Preserving timber trees and woods.”  The Act identified the iron works as a key reason for the decimation of Ulster’s forests, a decimation that by 1698 was described as so bad “that at present there is not sufficient for the repairing the houses destroyed, much less a prospect of building and improving . . .” (p. 166)

The early years of the 18th century brought change to transportation systems.  A 1714 map shows a more extensive road system than the 1698 map connecting major towns and settlements.

The wasteful practice of smelting iron using charcoal also contributed to the loss of forests.  English forests had long been protected from this practice, so Scottish and Irish forests were sacrificed.  With no organized tree planting taking place and the supply of timber simply dwindled.  Many of these iron factories simply closed,not re-opening for decades, at which time they were using coal from new coal mining instead of charcoal.

The Sperrin Mountains were still less accessible, but other by-roads continued to be built throughout the 18th century so that by the 19th century coaching services were expanding rapidly, and mail and goods were being transported on well maintained roads throughout the county.  (The Industrial Archaeology of Northern Ireland; William Alan McCutcheon, pp. 40-41)

According to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, County Tyrone today has woodlands covering only 56,400 acres (22,824 hectares), or just .07% of the 779, 521 acres (315,461 hectares) or 1,218 square miles (3,155 km) in the county.

Investment in reforestation is occurring.  Though it is mostly for timber production it is contributing to an expanding forest cover.  Also, for generations, farmers have planted small stands of trees to give shade for livestock. None of it is enough to recreate an ecologicaly diverse forest.

Farming & Working in early 18th century County Tyrone

We have little to go on to fully understand how our Mordah family was employed in County Tyrone, but they were likely farmers.

The Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia includes an Irish Farm exhibit showing something life on an Ulster farm in the 18th century.

This farm is from circa 1730 and came from the town of Claraghmore in County Tyrone. The farmstead is surrounded by long stone walls and buildings with thatched roofs. Farmhouses of this era were traditionally one-story with double stone walls, thatched roofs and dirt floors. The cavities between the double stone walls of the buildings were filled with rubble and whitewashed on both the inside and outside.  The typical Ulster farm was 10 to 20 acres, and the most common crops were potatoes, oats and flax, along with some other grains. The farm would have had cattle, but more for producing milk and butter than beef. The black Kerry cattle you see at the Frontier Culture Museum are an ancient breed,  arriving in Ireland as long ago as 2000 B.C, but with only 500 of the breed remaining today.  This would have been the type of cattle on the Mordah farm. The breed could survive on poor forage, but as farming practices improved the ability to feed more livestock, breeds that were more high-producing dairy and beef replaced the Kerry cattle.

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Pigs were also common on Irish farms, and the white Landrace breed at the Frontier Culture Museum resemble the breeds on 18th century Ulster farms. Free-range chickens were a common feature there as they are today on farms.

The floor of an Irish farmhouse was hard-packed clay, but flagstone was used in front of the fireplace.  There was no chimney.  The smoke escaped through the thatch, but it still rendered the interior smokey.

Their diet was spare and basic.  Porridge was the main daily dish of the Ulster farmer, enhanced by vegetables grown on the farm, milk, butter, bread, and occasionally meat.

The Irish Farm exhibit includes a blacksmith’s forge, which was a crucial feature of every town and farming community.  This forge was brought to the museum from County Fermanagh in Ulster.  Blacksmiths make farm and household implements, using the same types of tools that were used in the mid-1700s.

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The Ulster American Folk Park in County Tyrone offers an example of another type of farm dwelling.  This granite building was originally located in the Megheragallan townland, Burtonport, County Donegal.  At one time it was one of a cluster of houses called a clachan.  It is a combined dwelling house and cattle byre, which was separated from the dwelling portion by a low wall.  This is a practice common also in Scandinavia, Scotland, Brittany and Galicia.  The interior shows the inset bedding area typical of such structures.

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An advantage of this kind of structure is that the animals provided a certain amount of heat in the winter.   It was typically the cattle that were brought into the byre in winter.  The thick wool coats of sheep meant they could survive the rigors of winter weather without as much shelter. By spring several tons of manure would be removed from the byre and used as fertiliser.

The farm consisted of 2 acres of arable land and 60 acres of commonage, which was the right to graze cattle and sheep on common land.

The thatch is tied down to stone pegs built into the walls to preserve it from the full force of Atlantic weather.

The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage in Ireland has pictures and commentary on a variety of thatched houses from Donegal.  Most date from the 19th century, but the one below appears to be from the 18th century.  It is an example of a combined dwelling and byre.  This one has been extended in the 19th century.

Donegal Thatch 07 - Drumgorman A thatched house at Drumgorman, near Mountcharles, a good example of a house with attached byre or outbuilding at one end

The style has been consistent in the north of Ireland for centuries.  Wood or stone floors and chimney stacks would have been less common in the early 18th century, but would have become standard features by the early 19th century.  They were single-story in height, one room deep between the front and rear walls, and seldom with openings in the gable ends. They had two or  three bays with a central doorway.

Whether larger or smaller, the houses typically had bed out-shots, alcoves with a built in Irish Cabin - Ulster American Folk Park - 3bed.  One can be seen in the interior picture to the right from the late 18th century one-room cabin at the Ulster American Folk Park.

The cabin was originally on the Altahoney townland in the Sperrin Mountains.  There may have been up to 12 people living in this one-room cabin.


This photo from the Ulster Tourist Development Association’s 1935 publication shows a cottage in the Sperrin Mountains that looks very similar to the others pictured here.  It may in fact be a very old cottage still functioning.

County Tyrone Farmhouse - 1

Final Remarks

As with all historical epochs our ancestors lived through what for us is history.  For them it was not dry reading or a matter of intellectual curiosity.  Now, we can but try to place ourselves in the setting as we read and imagine living through it.

In the living memory of those who emigrated from County Tyrone in the early 18th century, their land had come to look different and sound different.  The landscape was being re-shaped, to put it charitably, and the linguistic environment was changing.  For the native Irish it was becoming an increasingly unfamiliar place.  Who owned or controlled the land had shifted.  They were paying rent to new landlords.  Fight? Live with it? Leave?  For the settlers who had come earlier in the 17th century, their hopes were foundering on ruined industries and the perceived betrayal of promises.   Industries and ways of life they had come to know were changing rapidly.  For each family the final straw was probably different, but the appeal of a new life in the American Colonies with the possibility of owning land and having more industries open to them called them all.

Select Sources:


The Population of County Tyrone 1600 – 1991; William Macafee; University Of Ulster; 1998
The Presbyterians of Ulster, 1680-1730, Robert Whan; The Boydell Press; Woodbridge, Suffolk, England; 2013
An Historical Account of the Plantation in Ulster; Rev. George Hill; McCaw, Stevenson & Orr; Belfast; 1877
Eighteenth-Century Ireland (New Gill History of Ireland); Ian McBride; Gill Books; 2009; Dublin
The People of Ireland, 1600 – 1699, Part 1; David Dobson; for Clearfield by Genealogical Publishing Company; Baltimore, Maryland; 2007
The Industrial Archaeology of Northern Ireland; William Alan McCutcheon; Associated University Presses; New Jersey; 1984
Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland (Volume 11); Sealy, Bryers and Walker; Dublin; 1908
Cultural Fusions: The Project of Plantation; Causeway Museum Service and Mid-Antrim Museums Service; 2013


National Museums of Northern Ireland
National Inventory of Architectural Heritage
Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland; Timothy William Ferris