In nineteenth-century, it was the practice of many poor tenant labourers to go to England and Scotland each year for the purpose of harvest work. They arrived in large groups at Liverpool, Bristol, or Glasgow, and walked all over the agricultural shires to find temporary employment in the service of our farmers. “They work with energy and zeal not surpassed by any English labourers, and they save what they earn“; a farmer in Northumberland recounted. The farmer thought those men lived on less than sixpence a day. And having, in a very good harvest, made perhaps £10 or £12, they crossed the Channel again, and travelled back to their native part of Ireland, and returned to their own cabins with their small treasure that they had worked so hard for.
A group of men and women travelling on foot along the road from their native district to the nearest seaport for passage to England and Scotland.
An observer, an artist for the London Illustrated News wrote, it is a very remarkable feature in the life of the cottiers and small farmers throughout the West of Ireland. Every year, as soon as they have set their potatoes, but generally about the beginning of May, there begins a constant stream of these harvesters, on the roads leading to the seaport towns, where there is a special service to carry them to their destination.
As the holdings are so small that they cannot support the large families who live on them, the younger members of the family go on these harvesting expeditions. But it is not an uncommon thing for the whole family to leave their cabin and their land without a soul in charge; bolting the doors and barring the windows of the cabin, and then leaving the crop that they have just set in the ground to mature, unprotected, while they are away in England and Scotland reaping the harvest, and saving the money to pay the rents of their little holdings on the mountain side or along the seacoast. It is their hope to return in autumn, relieved of the one burning anxiety of the tenant class of Ireland-the rent. As the seasons are later in Ireland than in England and Scotland, these harvesters are in time to reap their own crops when those of England and Scotland are gathered.
London Illustrated New May 1881
National Library of Ireland – Robert French – Lawrence Collection