GARVEY'S RANGE, LIMERICK CITY, IRELAND (1869-1876)
William Irwin was born at Garvey’s Range, also called Garvey’s Lane, Limerick City, Ireland on the 4th of August 1869. He was the son of John Irwin and Bridget Dooly. Both the Doolys and Irwins had “moved into town” (Limerick City) from the same parish in rural county Limerick (Knockainy Parish) during the Famine decade of the 1840s. In Knockainy the Dooly “Potato Patch” was in the townland of Rusheen and the Irwin “patch” was in the townland of Rathainy. Circa 1820 the Irwin family moved a few farmsteads away to Ballycahill. Most Irish (Catholic Irish that is to say) were very poor at this time and lived on these “potato patches.” Briefly explained, under British rule, almost all of Ireland’s Catholic population had been, centuries earlier, dispossessed of their land. Under the subsequent arrangement the Irish Catholic was required to work the land that had been confiscated from them. In return the Irish Catholic was allowed to build a dwelling on a small “patch” of land and grow potatoes for the sustenance of his family.
Virtually all other produce and livestock was shipped to England (often times at gunpoint). It was in this context that the Potato famine in Ireland had such a dire effect and it was also in this context that the Irwin family had “moved into town” (Limerick City).
In Limerick City making a living was difficult at best and William’s father, John, worked as a laborer where and when he could. Each year, in fact, during what were known as “meal months” (June, July and August) John, out of necessity, would travel abroad to England in search of seasonal harvest work. These “meal months” of June, July and August were called as such because it was during these months that there were no potatoes left to eat from the previous harvest and the potatoes for the current year were not yet ready to be harvested. Those hungry and impoverished Irish staying at home lived solely on meal products while the menfolk travelled abroad to England and Scotland in search of work in order to pay for the ever-increasing rents back home in Ireland. This cycle of underemployment, unemployment and seasonal harvest work in England left the Irwin family with little or no hope for a future in Ireland or of ever having enough money for passage to America.
By 1870 things changed for the struggling Irwin family however. In August the British government restructured its military enlistment policy by formulating and implementing the “Cardwell Reforms” which provided a new concept of “short service” enlistments. Henceforth a young man could enlist for only six years of active service and six years of reserve service (12 years obligation). It took John Irwin no time to make his decision for the future. He joined the British army which provided an allotment for his family plus army pay which could be saved for a new life in America. He thereafter was away overseas from his family for six years.
During these formative years and in his father’s absence young William was raised by his mother in close proximity to his elderly grandfather (James Dooly). Both his mother and grandfather were Irish speakers and thus William was able to learn both languages. This was a time in Irish history when the majority of Ireland’s poorest people were Irish speaking while living in a dual world of an Irish culture within a British empire. In the world of business and commerce the Irish had their English names but at home around hearth and family they retained their Irish names whenever and wherever Irish continued to be spoken. And so, William Irwin son of John Irwin and Bridget Dooly was also Liam Ó Ciarṁacáin (pronounced Lee΄am Ó cIRWicIN) son of Eoin Ó Ciarṁacáin and Brigid Ó Dalaig. Ó Dalaig should have been anglicized “Daly” but due to a bad anglicization the family name became “Dooley / Dooly.”
In August 1876 John Irwin’s active duty enlistment of six years was completed and he returned home to Ireland. By September, not bothering to fulfill his six-year reserve obligation, John Irwin packed up what belongings he had and along with his wife Bridget and son William left Ireland forever more for a new life in America.
Virtual armies of poor Irish laborers went annually
to England and Scotland for harvest work.