The road known as Brews Hill stretches out to the west from the location of Trim Gate in Navan town walls, as far as a V shaped junction. The junction separates the road to Athboy, to the north, and Trim to the south. A fever hospital stood at the fork in the roads, prior to the construction of Navan workhouse behind it. The fever hospital is now the Navan ambulance headquarters, and the workhouse now part of Navan General Hospital.
The road at present is unremarkable, comprising a mix of small shops and houses. In the nineteenth century, it formed part of the estate of the Russell family, among the largest landowners in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The eldest son of the Russell family inherited the Dukedom of Bedford, and several Dukes served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, including the sixth Duke of Bedford who died in 1839, and who bequeathed his estate to his son, Francis, the seventh Duke of Bedford.
This left other members of the family bereft of any stake in the family estate. Among them was Lord John Russell, the brother of Francis. One of the leading Whig politicians of the era, Lord John Russell is better known as the Prime Minister who oversaw the disastrous response to the Irish Famine. By resisting any change to the prevailing economic policies of Laissez Faire, his administration exacerbated the consequences of the failure of the potato crop between 1845-7. The poet Bertrand Russell was the prime minister’s grandson, and Princess Diana a more distant relative.
Francis, 7th Duke of Bedford sought to improve the Brews Hill portion of his estate. In the years prior to the famine it contained many small mud cabins of ill repute. The outline of the cabins can be seen in the survey carried out for the purposes of establishing Navan town boundaries in 1834, running out like a modern ribbon development. The road was referred to as Callamin or Brew. Callamin is presumably derived from the irish ‘cul’ or back. He ordered his agent to enquire into the situation there, with a view to clearing the tenants, and the cabins. The agents report, surviving today, contains a graphic account of the lives of some of the poorest inhabitants of Navan before the onset of the famine. The agent reported to ‘His Grace’, as he referred to him, that when the lands were leased to a Mr Barry in 1774, there were four ‘slated houses’ and seven ‘cabins’ on the road. The holding comprised 10 acres and was let for ‘three lives’ at an annual rent of £40. When the leased expired in 1839, a new one was made to a Reverend Hamilton for thirty years for an annual rent of £43. The leasing policies of these gentlemen led to the erection of 83 ‘wretched mud cabins’ by the 1840’s, and in addition six ‘back houses’, in the small allotments at the rear of the houses facing the street.
The agent found that there now 34 tenants on the property, who in turn rented to 49 sub tenants. The tenants managed to raise £76 every year in rent, much of it extracted from their sub tentants. In order to pay their rents, the sub-tenants were compelled to take in lodgers on a daily or weekly basis. The cabins became overcrowded as a result of the pattern of leasing. A police sergeant assured the agent that at least one house accommodated seven families.
The inhabitants were regular visitors to the courts. With little by way of employment, many of them resorted to ‘plunder’ for a living. The agent described the street as ‘a receptacle of all villainy and a nursery of crime and disease’, and furthermore a ‘refuge for the outcasts of the neighbouring county’. Apart from plunder, they depended in large part from rations distributed by the nearby workhouse. According the agent, some 478 persons were receiving rations from the workhouse, paid for in large part by ‘His Grace’, the Duke of Bedford. The cost of improving the street did not come cheap. The Reverend Hamilton was looking for £1100 as a once off payment for the cabins, and a further £4 a year for the lands to the rear. The agent recommended that His Grace refuse the offer, saying the price was ‘exorbitant’. There were many other rows of mud cabins stretching out from the large towns in pre-famine Ireland. The owners, or tenants, and their lodgers eked out a living by casual work, petty crime, and the relief given by the local workhouse. Most of them did not survive the famine.
Overcrowded workhouses, decreased rations, malnutrition and disease saw to their demise. The cabins of Brews Hill, evident in the map of 1835 are but a small reminder of this cataclysmic event, when the population of Ireland fell by 3 million in less than ten years. By 1881, when the town was again surveyed by the Ordnance Survey, many of the cabins had disappeared. The Duke of Bedford appears have got his way, perhaps in circumstances not to his liking.
The failure to rescue the poorest from the effects of the potato blight over several years in the 1840’s, suggests that to some extent, policies advocated by his brother helped him secure the improvement. Some of the lands occupied by the cabins were made fallow, and later used for agricultural shows. Some time later the showgrounds were taken over by the GAA, and replaced with An Pairc Tailteann, the Meath County sports grounds.
Research was carried out in advance of development works on behalf of Gibney & Partners, for Aldi Ltd, 2009-2010
© Neil O’Flanagan February 2010