Friendly advice is all around us. We live in an era of self-help books and websites offering advice seemingly on every subject. Good parenting is a popular topic with much written in terms raising your children healthily and happily. House & home advice is similarly popular with a constant stream of new ‘guides’ available.
It is interesting therefore to step back 180 years to look at the parenting advice offered in the past – in this case the book Friendly Advice to Irish Mothers first published in 1839, written by a wealthy countess to tell the Irish poor what they were doing wrong.
Friendly Advice to Irish Mothers on Training their Children (1839)
Friendly Advice to Irish Mothers on Training their Children was written by Catherine Alexander, Countess of Caledon in response to her perception that much of the hardship endured by families in Ireland was the result of poor parenting and ignorance.
My good Friends , There is nothing makes me more uneasy , in visiting your houses , than to observe the way in which you bring up your children . I cannot help blaming you for it . I might blame your mothers , too , and their mothers before them ; but it is too late to mend them , but not too late for you to mend yourselves , if you will but open your eyes to the great importance of rightly training your children .Catherine Alexander, Friendly Advice to Irish Mothers on Training their Children (1839)
This short book includes guidance on how to raise children properly, lessons for wives and mothers, how to be a good member of society, the importance of prayer, managing land and livestock, recipes for a variety of meals, suggestions for treating various ailments, the importance of savings and a number of other useful hints.
To set the book in context it is useful to understand Catherine’s family background.
Catherine Alexander, Countess of Caledon
Catherine Freeman Yorke (born in April 1786) was the second daughter of Philip Yorke, 3rd Earl of Hardwicke and Elizabeth Lindsay. In 1811 Catherine married Du Pré Alexander, 2nd Earl of Caledon.
William Alexander, of Menstrie, Clackmannanshire was first ennobled in 1663. By the 1800s the Earls of Caledon were major landowners in County Tyrone with 29,236 acres. They also had 2,827 acres in County Armagh and a further 1,947 in Hertfordshire.
A deeply religious woman, Catherine despaired of the poverty & drunkenness of many Irish families and the Irish mothers deficiencies in raising their children in line with God’s wishes.
Inspiration for writing “Friendly Advice to Irish Mothers”
In 1839, motivated by the wish to educate Irish mothers, Catherine wrote the book “Friendly Advice to Irish Mothers on Training their Children” explaining that a well-disposed mother should follow a set of rules to help her train her children.
I will state my reasons for hoping to be of some use to you: I have had a better education than you , I have a larger experience, I have been in a great many different countries, and observed different habits; and, from having lived much in England, and learnt the value of method, order, and regularity, I am disturbed to see the slovenliness, the carelessness, the wastefulness, and (partly owing to these faults ) the poverty and want, of my Irish countrywomen .Catherine Alexander, Friendly Advice to Irish Mothers on Training their Children (1839)
The advice offered covered a wide range of subjects.
A good mother should insist on obedience, she writes, from the time they begin to understand their mothers, even before they can speak bearing in mind that disobedience led to the downfall of Adam and Eve.
Children must be taught the importance of honesty at all times. Catherine notes that “It is regretful that lying is second-nature to many and viewed as a slight offence, if any“
Children must be prepared for work. A mother, getting up early to begin their day’s chores, should not allow their children to sleep on in bed.
Mothers must start early in encouraging their children to be productive. Knitting, for example, can be taught to children from as young as 4 years of age. Boys and girls should both be taught to knit and to mend their own clothes. They should help out before and after school on tasks like weeding or hoeing any land owned. “How often do we see gardens and fields quite overrun with weeds , while there may be five or six children standing idle at the door?” she asks.
Lessons for wives and mothers
Aside from better practice in raising their children, mothers should attend to their own duties more carefully…
If your husband’s clothes get torn at his work, mend them as soon as he returns home; for, remember that “ A stitch in time saves nine .” Why are so many labouring men in such rags and tatters? I am sorry to say, I consider it the wife’s fault.Catherine Alexander, Friendly Advice to Irish Mothers on Training their Children (1839)
Even if a mother was not encouraged to sew when young, she should ensure that her children can undertake this necessary duty as “Rags are disgraceful , but patches shew industry and diligence.”
Children must be taught how to make shirts, shifts (dresses) and sheets. Good quality wool should be used to knit stockings/ socks as these will last better than cheap shop-bought items or clothing made from inferior wool.
Catherine highlights that “In some parts of Scotland , where they are far more notable and thrifty than in Ireland, a young woman provides herself with a stock of linen before she marries”. In Ireland young people marry with no belongings. The result is that they are unable to provide for their family and are reduced to beggary. Children should be taught that “it is wicked in the sight of God to marry this way”
Wives are also advised to stop bringing their husband’s lunch to him while he works in the fields (often some distance away). Instead a packed lunch, made the night before, is suggested – nourishing bread, or fadge (bread made with potatoes, flour), or stewed meat with potatoes to be accompanied by a bottle of milk or buttermilk. The wife would then have more time to undertake further work.
How to be good members of society
Children must be taught the value of a “kind and neighbourly disposition – Do unto others as you would they should do unto you.”
Catherine chastises the poor as wasteful – On getting new clothing they wear it and keep wearing it until its no longer fit for use. To save the new clothing, it would be better to wear old patched clothing at home or on wet days. Smocks like those worn in rural England would offer better protection to clothing.
Schooling should be encouraged for children though the lack of needle-work classes for girls is regarded as unfortunate. Children unfamiliar with school or work will end up “fit for nothing.”
Children should be chastised too for “the nasty vulgar , filthy , and unwholesome custom of spitting.”
Alcohol and, particularly, spirits are a danger to “health and pocket” while “Nothing is better for health and strength than milk and wheaten bread.” Mothers should emphasise to children that nothing is more terrible than the life and death of a drunkard.
The book opens with a quotation from Soloman and references to the bible and the importance of prayer appear throughout the text.
Mothers are reminded never to forget morning or evening prayers and to say grace before and after meals.
Families are advised to attend their places of worship on Sundays throughout their lives. It is noted that someone living three score and ten years (i.e. 70 years of age) would then have spent nearly 10 years attending church.
Managing land & livestock
The inefficiency of farming by Irish families is called out and contrasted with the efficiency of English farmers in producing crops for all four seasons while keeping a cow and a pig on 1 acre of land. This approach offers employment for the wives and children of labouring men throughout the year.
At the end of the year when the cow’s milk is going off the cow should be sold – often fetching as much money as when first purchased. This will allow for the purchase of another cow the following year.
Under no circumstances should a cow “be kept in the house for more than a year.”
Note: While the use of the word “house” in this context may be taken as a reference to a byre or cow shed, it should be remembered that many poor families cohabitated with their cattle in very small dwellings.
There is much documentary and some field evidence for the byre-dwelling, a house that accommodated both humans and cattle in the one building, which was formerly present in all of Ulster, and western parts of Connacht and Munster.Caoimhin O Danachair, The Combined byre-and-dwelling in Ireland, Folk Life 2, 1964
These houses were often hand-built from mud with the help of neighbours and consisted of a single room to house the family and their animals. In this type of house, a channel ran through the house to allow cattle urine to flow through a hole in the rear wall. Reasons for the combined-use building vary but in many cases the occupants were either too poor to pay for a separate byre or fearful of a rent rise if they added extra value to the property. The cattle may also have served to provide extra heat to the occupants.
Countess Alexander also made suggestions for prudent management of money by way of savings –
Suppose a young person at the age of twenty was to place 1s. 6d . a week in the Savings ‘ Bank , instead of spending it in drinking, or in folly, the amount saved at the end of one year would be £ 3 18s .Catherine Alexander, Friendly Advice to Irish Mothers on Training their Children (1839)
(It should be noted that saving 1 shilling and 6 pence a week would be beyond most of the rural poor as most were subsistence farmers surviving only on what they could grow, bartering for goods or offering their labour to make ends meet).
Recipes for meals
A range of recipes are included for meals on a limited budget. The meals include:
• Scotch broth
• A shin of beef , or beef bones
• Ox – cheek soup
• Potatoes and bacon
• Stove potatoes
• Potato soup
• Black , or hog’s puddings
• Irish stew
• Meat pudding
• Scotch haggis
• Ox tails , stewed
• Scotch minced collops
• “Dr Kitchener’s receipt to make a gallon of barley broth”
• French omelette
Tips & Treatments
A range of suggestions were offered by way of money saving tips and treatments for a range of maladies/ infections:
- make a grease lamp (which will burn for ten hours)
- making rush candles
- Whitewashing a cottage
- “Welch receipt for dying blue involving five gallons of urine and indigo”
- Stuffing a mattress
Treatments include remedies for treating
- a sick cow
- scalds or burns
- a cut or bruise
- cholic in children , or for hives
- bowel complaints
- typhus fever
Friendly Advice ends with a number of “useful hints” that include:
Prevention of drowning – Do not put hands above your head as this will cause you to sink. Stay afloat by keeping hands horizontal and moving in the water while moving legs up and down as though walking up stairs.
Suspended animation if apparently drowned – Bring the body to the nearest house, strip and dry the victim and heat the body (preferably in a warm bath) while rubbing the body. Bellows inserted in one nostril can be used to stimulate breathing.
Extricate someone from frozen ice with a rope. Do not approach them.
In lightening storms sit in an open field – avoid trees, walls and hedging, metal gates or spouts and large bodies of water.
Clothes on fire – Where clothing catches fire (particularly women’s skirts) roll on the ground and suffocate the flames with a rug or blanket. Standing up or running should be avoided as the flames naturally travel upwards.
Other hints include how to preserve eggs with butter or fat, removing greasy spots from clothing with gall (available at the butchers), providing salt for cows and pigs to lick to keep them healthy, and making your own coffee by roasting rye with a bit of butter (apparently “scarcely distinguishable from the real thing“).
Revisiting “Friendly Advice” today
While written with good intentions and containing a fair amount of useful advice (though the wording often jars with modern sensibilities), Friendly Advice to Irish Mothers also exhibits a surprising lack of charity towards the poorest in society.
The scale and causes of poverty at the time is ignored with the poorest portrayed as wasteful, slovenly and fit for nothing. Resorting to begging is wickedness. History tells a different story of the lives of the poor in those times.
The majority of the population in pre-famine Ireland had little or no access to land. They lived in appalling conditions. 40% of Irish houses in 1841 were one room mud cabins with natural earth floors, no windows and no chimneys. Furniture and cooking facilities in these hovels were primitive. Their inhabitants’ diet was monotonous and increasingly inadequate.Dr Margorie Bloy, A Web of English History, 2016
Help for the Poor – Changing Times
Countess Alexander’s portrayal of the poor in 1839 contrasts completely with the views of Rev W. M. O’Hanlon in his Walks Among the Poor of Belfast just over a decade later and his frustration with those oblivious to the plight of the poor.
In his letter to the Northern Whig in July 1852 O’Hanlon highlighted the issue
“Permit me to call the earnest attention of the more affluent, respectable and especially Christian public of Belfast, to the deplorable condition of the poor who inhabit the back streets, courts and alleys of our rapidly extending and populous town…
It has often struck me, how little either the idle or the busy, as they move along the great thoroughfares of our cities and towns, seem to know or think of the social misery, vice, and squalid poverty, which lurk in the obscure dens, within, it may be, a few hundred yards, of these more open ways…”O’Hanlon Letter, July 1852
In this and subsequent letters O’Hanlon made the case for the improvement of the circumstances of the poor as being in the general interest. (See O’Hanlon’s Belfast – Walks Among the Poor 1852). His letters and commitment did much to inspire public reforms and charitable works in Belfast as the plight of the poor was finally recognised.
Friendly Advice to Irish Mothers on Training their Children can be downloaded free of charge from Google Books.
O’Hanlon’s Walks Among the Poor Of Belfast can also be read free of charge on Google Books
O’Hanlon’s Letters, collected in “Walks Among the Poor of Belfast”, provides a fascinating insight into the lives of Belfast’s poor in 1852
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