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[Post Famine Ireland- Social Structure Ireland as it Really Was. Copyright © 2006 by Desmond Keenan. Book available from and]





            As was common elsewhere in this period much social activity was carried on through societies, and voluntary organisations. Many of them proved short-lived.

In 1840 the Irish Archaeological Society was founded and in 1845 the Celtic Society, and these were later amalgamated. They published between them 27 volumes on Irish history etc, but the Society no longer exists. Its publications were carried on by Sir John Gilbert. In 1851 the Society for the Preservation and Publication of the Melodies of Ireland was founded with the object of publishing Dr Petrie's collection of Irish music but it proved a failure at the time. Around 1900 an attempt was made to pursue its object. In 1853 the Ossianic Society to publish Irish manuscripts of the Fenian (Ossianic) period was founded; it boasted 746 members and published 6 volumes but suddenly died out. Originally founded in 1849 as the Kildare Archaeological Society, it was later called the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association, and now the Royal Society of Antiquaries. It was in 1900 the largest of the Irish archaeological societies (Dublin Penny Journal 1902, p 123). The Royal Irish Academy was the most important society dealing with Irish antiquities. The Gaelic League, the Feis Ceoil, and the Gaelic Athletic Association were formed with the practical objects of reviving aspects of Gaelic society. The Irish Literary Theatre had their own ideas on how Ireland’s Celtic background could form the basis of an Irish revival, but this clashed violently with the ideas of Sinn Fein/Gaelic League language enthusiasts. (It should be noted that the title ‘Royal’ was conferred solely as a mark of approbation. It did not imply any Government influence on the society, or any financial assistance. This latter might be given, but on different grounds.)

The Royal Dublin Society had been formed in the 18th century for the promotion of agriculture and industry. This was largely done by acquiring, swapping, and diffusing information, and by giving premiums for achievement. Though independent, it was in many ways a tool of government for improving Ireland. The Society became the focus for improving schemes, and had an art school, botanic gardens, museums, and a library. But gradually parts of its activities were hived off to other bodies, its library, for example, going largely to form the new National Library. It was left with its agricultural shows, the Spring Show being a showcase for new machinery, and Horse Show increasingly concentrating on horses in the leisure industry. It was a unique phenomenon in Ireland.

Sporting and athletic clubs sprang up everywhere and have been dealt with in the earlier section on sport. The co-operative movement depended entirely on local groups organising themselves for economic benefit, and its spin off. The United Irishwomen (later The Irish Countrywomen’s Association) did much to improve the health, welfare, and recreations in the Irish countryside, though it never achieved the importance of the Women’s Institute in Britain. Trade Unions were self-improving societies for working men. Voluntary hospitals, orphanages, etc. invariable had groups of collectors and supporters.

Whitaker’s Almanac (1920) gave an eclectic list of the principal Irish institutions in 1920 with the dates of their origin: Royal Irish Academy 1765; Irish Agricultural Organisation Society 1890; Royal Ulster Agricultural Society 1854; Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 1847; Apothecaries Hall 1791; Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland 1839; Trinity College Dublin’s Dunsink Observatory 1785; Institute of Bankers 1898; Institute of Chartered Accountants 1888; Institute of Civil Engineers 1835; Trinity College Dublin’s College Historical Society 1770; Chambers of Commerce - Belfast 1796, Dublin 1783, Limerick 1815, Waterford 1787; Cork Chamber of Commerce and Shipping 1883; Association for Relief of Distressed Protestants 1836; Royal Dublin Society 1731; Harbour Commissioners: Belfast 1785; Cork 1820, Limerick 1867, Tralee and Fenit 1828, Waterford 1816; Port and Docks Board Dublin 1787; Port and Harbour Commissioners Londonderry 1854; Horticultural Society of Ireland 1830; Incorporated Law Society of Ireland 1841; Irish Medical Association 1839; Royal Irish Academy of Music 1856; Royal Hibernian Academy of Ireland 1823; Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland 1875; Royal College of Physicians 1667; Railway Clearing House 1848; Statistical and Social Enquiry Society 1847; Royal College of Surgeons 1784; Water Commissioners of Belfast 1840; Women's National Health Association 1907; Zoological Society of Ireland 1831 (Whitaker 1920). It is not clear on what basis this assorted list was compiled.

            Equally widespread were the Freemasons, the Orange Order and Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Friendly Societies of which the Irish National Foresters and the Girls’ Friendly Society were the most important. The friendly or mutual benefit society the National Foresters was introduced into Ireland after mid-century as the Irish National Foresters. In the days when there was no welfare provision provided by the Government except for the destitute, groups of men in employment would contribute small sums each week into a fund from which sums could be disbursed to pay for times when they were sick, or to pay for their funeral. Members were also obliged to visit sick members of their branch and to attend their funerals. In 1910 the Foresters had 569 branches with a total of 56,638 members. In 1900 the Girls’ Friendly Society had 15,000 members. Most of the friendly societies were very small and local having only a single branch. The freemasons ran several charities.

             Catholic religious orders were also voluntary societies. There were temperance societies, housing associations, boy scouts and girl guides, Young Mens’ Christian Association and Young Women’s Christian Association. These latter were Protestant Associations which provided recreational and other facilities for young Christian men and women. Especially important for women were safe and inexpensive places of residence when they first left home. There was the St. John’s Ambulance Association (Brigade) was founded in 1877 and trained ordinary people how to deal with accidents.

There was in fact a very wide variety of voluntary organisations and societies through which Irish people channelled their energies.

The End.




Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.