Small Sources 26. Evidence of women in Irish genealogical sources is unfortunately sparse, and those that do occur are often listed only as e.g. ‘Widow Murphy’. We list here 83 women receiving payments in 1827 for spinning and weaving of flax. The documents are in the Bessborough papers in the National Library of Ireland Ms 29,805 (1). The estate was owned by the Ponsonby family who had very extensive estates in Kilkenny. Their residence was Bessborough House at Piltown in the civil parish of Fiddown. The house and estate are now an agricultural college The family lived in England until 1825 when the 4th Earl of Bessborough and his wife came to live there, with their 11 children. They were ‘improving’ landlords and encouraged local industry and crafts. A full account of the tenant practices of Irish estates is in our article on Rentals.
It is likely that the women on the list below were encouraged by the estate to become involved in spinning. Although residences for the women are not specified, it is logical that they lived in the immediate vicinity of the estate. There was no practical reason why the farm management would seek flax spinners further than was necessary. As further validation of this, almost all of the surnames on this list appear locally in the Griffith Valuation returns (1850) and in the Tithe Applotment Survey. For example, 15 of the 83 family names appear in townlands neighbouring Bessborough house e.g. Belline & Rogerstown; 6 in Tobernabrone; 6 in Banagher and 6 in Fiddown.
Flax spinning involved making yarn by spinning, or twisting, fibres of flax into a thread. It was uniquely women’s work at the time and involved using a spinning wheel operated by a foot treadle. The yarn was then transferred to the weaver to be woven into linen cloth. Linen-making was popular with small-holders as it provided work throughout the year, and also involved several members of the household. Men were involved in growing and processing the flax, and in weaving. Women were involved in the spinning and (later in the century) also in weaving. At the period of this list (1827) all of this work was still done by hand. The later development of steam-powered spinning machines resulted in rapid decline in hand-spinning. Machine-spinning became centered in large Ulster mills and the cottage-industry gradually disappeared. Weaving, on the other hand, was maintained partly because of the availability of machine-spun thread.
The Bessborough papers contain several lists of payments for March to July of 1827. They are arranged by date and most of the 83 women receive several payments over the period. A few of the names are indecipherable, and those of which we are uncertain are indicated. Our thanks to Mary Flood of Rothe House Genealogy for guidance on the occurrence of the names. Many of them are very common in South Kilkenny including Butler, Carroll, Dalton, Maher, Morris, Murphy, Power, Ryan and (particularly) Walsh. Others are rare in the area. Ancestor Network will offer 1 free hour of research by a professional researcher to conduct further research on these individuals or others in these estate papers and/or to obtain copies of the original. Click here and quote KilkennySS26 in the subject line.
Kate ? Delany
Nancy Feely ? Freeney
Widow Finny ? Finnup ?
Cally (Catty?) Fitzgerald
Betty Fulton ?
Mary Kiely ?
Nelly Lavin ?
Anstie ? Ryan
Nelly Scully ?
The less common names on the list include:
• Oates: also written Oats or Othes: several families in the civil parish of Fiddown
• McClenon: Possibly McClenaghan (found in Co. Derry). A John Mac Lennan Jnr is listed in townland of Belline (Parish of Fiddown) in the Tithe Applotment books.
• Christian: Occurs in the Catholic Parish register of Fiddown in 1814.
• Etherson: A marriage of a James Etherson appears in Templeorum RC records in 1846.
The list also shows some of the short names commonly used for women at the time. These include the now rare Ally, Lally, Dolly, Anstie, in addition to the better-known Kitty, Nelly, Sally etc. The short-form names and their probable derivations are in the table below.
The lists also include 5 men paid for weaving , or for dressing flax.
John Corjakes (listed in Griffith’s in Fiddown Parish as Corjaques);
John Laundrigan (possibly a variant of Lonergan)
Patrick Merry (paid for ‘dressing of flax’ – with receipt and signature)