A Letter from Ireland

by Dr Charles Murray

Source: Chronicle of the Family, Vol 1, No 3, December 1913.


Dr Charles Murray, c. First World War (1914-18)


Dr Charles Murray was born in Ireland and qualified as a doctor there. A ship’s surgeon in the Royal Navy until his marriage to Caroline Molteno in 1875, he worked as a general practitioner in the Cape Peninsula for the rest of his life. In 1913, in his sixties and largely retired, he took a trip on his own to see his native Ireland once more.  There he visited the Mulligan family in County Wicklow; one of their ancestors had been a foster mother to his father nearly a century earlier.  The Mulligans made him welcome.  In this letter to Caroline, Dr Murray gives a delightful account of his stay with them and what a life of smallscale, semi-subsistence farming in Ireland was like before the First World War.

Robert Molteno

July 2012


I had a very pleasant time in County Wicklow, but on the 7th the rain in the mountains was so heavy I had to stay indoors. This gave me an opportunity of seeing the family life of the people. The Mulligans are small farmers and tenants of Lord Powerscourt. It was one of them who became a foster mother to my father – that would now be about 100 years ago. Since that time, the old Mulligan who died two years ago said that always ‘a Murray came to see them now and again’, and they are always glad when that happens.

At present of the family in the house consists of four boys and three girls, amongst them they do the whole work of the farm. It is 30 acres of arable land, a free run of a great mountainside, and the commonage and the inevitable bog. They have the right of cutting turf (peat) for fuel, and bringing fallen wood out of the Deer Park. The boys divide the work – one is the agriculturalist and ploughman, one is the shepherd, one the pig and cattle man.  They are aged 30, 25 and 20. Two girls, 19 and 22, do the household work – cook, bake bread, milk, make butter, and boil the pigs food. One girl of 9 years goes to school, but when at home helps in the house. I saw her knitting.

The good mother apparently looks after everything and knits a lot. She has had 10 children and the two elder daughters are Sisters of Mercy and are at present in their respective convents. One boy is away learning a grocer’s business. I stayed two nights, and the mother and two sons had meals with me.  In the evening we all sat together at tea. Then we all sat around a blazing turf fire while the girls washed up, pausing now and again with open mouths listening to my stories about South Africa. I told them all about lions and Jarvis and Lenox and the elephants. Then I told them a gruesome crocodile story and then they did not want to go to bed. And the elder son said ‘Bedad, that was a moighty queer kind of  farming, anyhow he wouldn’t like the lions to be looking at him while he was working.’

After the washing up was done, then two of the boys played the fiddle, and one played the Irish bagpipes, an instrument resembling the Highland, and then a girl and a young man took the floor and danced hornpipes and Irish jigs quite gracefully. Then two of the girls danced them doing most intricate steps in quite good time. After that the men were too shy to dance alone, but they played all kinds of solos on their instruments. They only learn to play by ear and each neighbour shows the other how to do it. It was a pretty scene, the warm turf fire at one end over which there was a huge iron pot filled with potato scraps from the table and mielie meal boiling away. During all the singing and dancing, the careful mother stirred the huge pot of vegetables and mielie meal, watching it all the time. This was the pigs’ pot, and very good it seemed to me. I asked her what it was for and she said for the pigs, ‘and they would show me the pigs tomorrow’. And so the evening passed happily along. The mother said she liked them to play and dance and make a noise, saying: ‘Sure it kept the boys at home instead of going about at night.’

Two neighbouring farmers came in and discussed the Home Rule question.[i]  The next evening was much the same, only they said now would I sing them a song? Sure they had heard me singing when I was getting up and knew I could do it. So then by the firelight they all sat round and I sang two songs.  I explained them first.  I sang ‘Absent’ and ‘The Green Isle of Erin’. The girls’ soft eyes looked tender over ‘Absent’ and they all gave tremendous applause over ’The Green Isle’. Then I had to tell them more stories and I told them about our little farm, about Kathleen and the bees, but I said you were the real farmer and head of it all. Then looks of astonishment appeared and I could hear them say:  ‘Well now, look at that.’ Then I told them about the geese and how they sold for £1 each, at which they looked politely incredulous. Then they would like to know what part I took in it? So I said well I did not do anything, but I had said to you that I would take a hand, and you and said I might look after the geese!

I had no sooner said that than they all roared shaking with laughter for some time. Then the eldest son first recovered and said: ‘Sure, it was thrue enough such fine geese as those must want a lot of looking after.’ And they all looked very politely at me and the younger ones tried to stop giggling.

On the following day they showed me the pigs, some very fine middle yorks, one sow had 13 little ones, and another eleven. They fed them carefully with boiled food. They do not keep many, but they feed them well and sell them when they weigh over 200 pounds. They sell by the pig apparently, not by accurate weighing.

This family present a real picture of the simple and happy life. They go to Mass on Sundays and Confession, are on good terms with their Protestant neighbours. They disapprove of strikes and do not like Larkin, and do not like loafers who will not work. I have read books about ‘simple life’ but I have never seen it in actual practice till I saw it in this family. They are very open-minded about Home Rule and say they don’t know where the money is to come from for carrying it on, already there is much done for them by the Agricultural Department. The labourers are being well housed. I gave them a short description of Percy’s Small Landholders Scottish Act.[ii]  They say if they had that ‘Sure, no man could want [for] anything.’  They speak very highly of this present Lord Powerscourt ….  He lives with his wife altogether amongst his tenantry the whole year through, helps them in agriculture and has a good and ‘reasonable’ farm agent.

Your character is a farmer will soon be well known throughout the district, as well as Miss Kathleen, sure she brushes and the bees’ whiskers ‘whilst the poor faither looks after the geese!’


[i] The burning political question in Ireland at this time was whether the British Government would concede full self-government to the people of Ireland. Three years after Dr Murray’s visit the Easter Rising took place in 1916 and an armed struggle for independence began.

[ii]  Percy Molteno was Dr Murray’s brother in law and a Liberal Member of Parliament representing a Scottish seat at Westminster. He introduced this bill to give Scottish crofters greater land rights.