Leitrim’s Great Decline: Income, Wealth and Population

Pierce DalyThis blog post is the sixth in a series of posts that come from students of our capitalism and democracy undergraduate course. As part of the course, students were asked to write about an issue pertaining to the political economy of distribution. The best blog posts have been selected to provide an opportunity to exceptional young scholars at UCD to contribute to the debate on the future of European and global economic governance, and to promote the insightful scholarship being undertaken at UCD to a wider public audience.

The decline in population in Leitrim, while greater than any other county in percentage terms between 1841 and 2002 can only be labelled dramatic. The inevitability of departure for the youth is as realistic today as it was for those individuals who were forced to migrate or left existence during this period, when the population fell from 155,297 to 25,799 (Central Statistics Office, 2014). The primary catalysts of this decline have been low income and wealth levels, which persist today relative to other parts of the country.

Wealth levels in the county were dismal in the 1840s. In 1841, 22,539 families out of a total 25,912 resided in 3rd (41.6%) and 4th class (46.8%) accommodation. 3rd class housing is described as a mud cottage with two to four rooms and window, while the 4th and lowest class of accommodation was all mud cabins with one room (MacAtasney, 1997).

In addition, farming in ‘Ireland before the famine was undercapitalized’ with the horse to worker ratio significantly lower in comparison to western European states (O Grada, 1999). Landlords whose chief concerns were rent invested little capital. Subsequently, innovation rarely occurred, stifling productivity, with inhabitants yielding just enough for basic subsistence.

The county’s soil quality and fluctuating gradient produces a wretched environment for agriculture, which the word ‘Leitrim’ itself, meaning the ‘grey ridge’, starkly illustrates. John McGahern’s description converges with this[1]: ‘The soil in Leitrim is poor, in places no more than an inch deep. Underneath is daub, a blue-grey modelling clay, or channel, a compacted gravel’ (McGahern, 2005). The yields on these untillable drumlins were, and to a degree remain, deplorable. The soil itself was and remains the greatest inhibitor of agricultural productivity in the county; generating marginally lower incomes, than elsewhere, for the county’s residents since pre-famine times[2].

Figure 1: Leitrims Rugged Landscape, Source: Pierce Daly 20/10/14













During the famine 75.3% of families in the county were reported as being chiefly employed in agriculture. Throughout the county small holdings persisted; 9,373 were holdings of 1-5 acres with 7971 holdings between 5-15 acres (MacAtasney, pp. 9-10). Furthermore, the subdivision of land intensified the problem as ‘the holding [was] dwindled away to a cabbage garden’ (MacAtasney, p. 11). Similar to catalysts for the Industrial Revolution in England, this subdivision intensified the difficulty of subsistence for the population, that was also rising, which was just eking out a living on already small holdings, forcing individuals to migrate for work as conditions became more distressing and incomes fell.

The insufficient variation of industry in the local economy has been crucial since famine times. Carrick-on-Shannon was and has always been the administrative centre of the county. Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of 1839 believed the town had failed to avail of its positioning on the River Shannon and its possible trade benefits (MacAtasney, p. 9). The lack of industrial infrastructure in the county meant that, other than a small domestic spinning industry, most of the population was dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods in 1841.

The only other employment was as a labourer, these generally worked only in harvest periods, unemployed from June to August and December to March. However, with annual wages of about £8 and yearly food expense of £5-£10, these individuals just managed to provide subsistence for their families (MacAtasney, p. 11).













The effects of low income and consequently wealth from agriculture or other work, in addition to the rents owed on the land and no assets induced starvation and or migration when the famine ensued, depreciating the county’s populace in the process.

Throughout the 20th century similar issues persisted, despite improved living standards and land ownership, large families’ pressurised unproductive small holdings, while low investment stifled the local economies growth. The agricultural sector while more developed maintained unproductive relative to other regions of the country. This was to have the similar effect on migration, especially among the youth. Little or no income from farming, failure of economic diversification, as infrastructure and investment were still of a low quality, just as during the famine periods of this county meant migration was the only option. In 1901 the population of Leitrim had fallen to 69,343, by 1951 it had dropped further to 41,209. It appeared to hit its trough with the 1996 census depicting a low of 25,057 (Central Statistics Office, 2014).

During the boom years the opposite effect was seen. Increased investment in infrastructure from the 1990’s saw rising incomes and wealth, the population depicted its first rise in 161 years, increasing to 25,799 in 2002 growing to 31,798 by 2011 with Carrick-On-Shannon one of the fastest growing towns in the country (Central Statistics Office, 2014).

However, the effects of the global economic crisis on Leitrim have been harsh, with 20.3% unemployed in 2011(graph below); the economic outlook of the county is once again in line with its more natural grey bleak landscape. While the unemployment rate is seen to be falling throughout the country, this is but a mask as the recent rise in emigration takes individuals off the live register thus creating a false government favouring statistic.



Source: (Central Statistics Office, 2014)

This is in the main due to the economies stagnation and high private indebtedness in the whole country. During the boom years Leitrim natives continued to leave, especially the youth and educated[3], with the growth not really taking account of this. Most in-migration represented individuals who are not Irish natives or returning emigrants.

Job losses have also been pronounced. Bank of America (previously MBNA), Masonite, and Quinn formerly major employers in the county have cut large amounts of jobs or in the latter case collapsed due to the Anglo charade, elevating Leitrim’s unemployment. Most importantly is the deficiency of SME’s due to high private debts as a result of the boom years, damaging the local economy, causing job losses, absence of job creation and a rise in migration from the county again.[4]

The result has been raising migration towards urban centres such as Dublin and more significantly emigration especially amongst the county’s youth, to primarily the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK. Every family has a member or numerous members that are permanently working and residing throughout the globe.

The current investment in the county’s infrastructure or industry is as is the norm meagre and the outlook is bleak for the county with the lowest population, which has a strong possibility of returning to its more traditional negative trajectory.

The example of the townland of Liscallyroan paints a stark picture the effects of all the above variables on the population in the county from 1841 to the present. In 1841, Liscallyroan had a population of 159 people living in 26 separate households on 151 acres, within the next decade that population had fallen to 67 people in 14 households, a fall of 57.8% (Enhanced British Parliamentary Papers on Ireland, 1881). Currently, approximately 20 people live here permanently. Due to rising population and limited supply of land, demand on land exceeded supply with labour becoming increasingly intensive. Resultantly marginal output from additional unit of input begins to diminish, and falling incomes. The effects were that many perished and were forced to emigrate from this townland[5], and on a greater scale Leitrim.

While some may critique that government inputs or human capital levels have not been mentioned to a large enough extent in this work, their impact converges with the above. While low skilled capital may have been a cause for emigration in the past that is not the cause presently, lack of job prospects means emigration is necessary. Lack of thorough government intervention, with the use of emigration as a safety valve was appalling in the 19th C.

In summary the possession of little or no assets, unproductivity in agriculture, minimal investment in infrastructure and industry to create jobs for the supply of labour since the famine until the present has resulted in a gloomy epoch for the county were labour supply outweighed demand and low incomes persisted, and migration the only alternative. Presently, inhabitants are incessantly emigrating and without strategic action and investment in the county over the next two decades, despite a recent upsurge, the county’s population will shrink. So stark is the tradition that tears still flow from Ellis Island’s shore to the ‘grey ridge’ beckoning humanity with glistening gold.

Pierce Daly is a final year undergraduate studying a B.A. in Politics and Economics at University College Dublin. His main interests lie in European affairs and public policy. Following to graduation, he plans to pursue masters in such a field. This blog post was written as part of his assessment for a module in Capitalism and Democracy at UCD. 



Central Statistics Office, 2013. Business in Ireland 2011. [Online]
Available at: http://www.cso.ie/en/media/csoie/releasespublications/documents/multisectoral/2011/businessinireland2011.pdf
[Accessed 14 March 2014].

Central Statistics Office, 2014. CSO. [Online]
Available at: http://www.cso.ie/px/pxeirestat/statire/temp/2014103110566619600CD307_1113419.gif
[Accessed 31 October 2014].

Central Statistics Office, 2014. Population of each Province and County as constituted at each census since 1841. [Online]
Available at: http://census.cso.ie/Census/TableViewer/tableView.aspx?ReportId=1133
[Accessed 28 October 2014].

Enhanced British Parliamentary Papers on Ireland, 1881. Dippam. [Online]
Available at: http://www.dippam.ac.uk/eppi/documents/17175/page/458836
[Accessed 30 September 2014].

Jordan, T. E., 1997. Ireland And The Quality Of Life 1841-1861: The Famine Era. Lewiston(New York): The Edwin Mellen Press.

MacAtasney, G., 1997. Leitrim and The Great Hunger 1845-50:” A Temporary Inconvenience?” Carrick On Shannon(Co. Leitrim): Carrick On Shannon & District Historical Society.

McGahern, J., 2005. Memoir. London: Faber and Faber Limited.

O Grada, C., 1999. Black ’47 And Beyond. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.


[1] Leitrim is largely situated in the middle of Ireland’s Drumlin belt, to the south, and links Western and North Western older Caledonian mountains, in the north, which stem from Scandinavia to north western Ireland.

[2] The Devon Commission of 1843 listed more than a million acreage of land in Connacht of waste which was improvable, additionally: ‘at the base of agricultural enterprise is the soil whose quality defines the eventual product (Jordan, 1997).

[3] Leitrim consistently has one of the highest HEA participation rates among 17-19 year olds, many whom when have received their education emigrate due to no job prospects at home. This figure remains high as the youth within this age group enter education as no employment opportunities reside in the county.

[4] SME’s account for 99.8% of active enterprise and 68.6% of people engaged in the economy in the country as a whole (Central Statistics Office, 2013).

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