A farmer’s diary and a charming source for local history
The Diary of Nicholas Peacock 1740-1751 gives a glimpse into rural life. For the local historian interested in the rural economy, crop rotation, farming changes and agricultural sales it is an engaging source. Peacock makes reference to threshing, bringing oats to the mill, sheep shearing and the stacking of barley. He also provides detail as to the price of oats and butter. This glimpse into rural society supports a very local examination of place names and people. He often mentions Tim Lowry, the Hallorans, Pat Meny and others, in what might be the only available reference to these local, working people, incidental though it might be.
Nicholas Peacock lived near Adare, Co. Limerick and would have been considered part of the 'middle' gentry. His land was of exceptionally good quality and he wrote about it in a diary all his life. Within those pages, he kept account of his day-to-day life, showing as the seasons changed how his farming and home life evolved. His diary is said to provide one of the most detailed accounts of life available at that social and economic level.
Peacock did not marry until 1747 and was accustomed to living his life as he pleased before that time. Early in the diary we hear of his pre-married life; he leaves home and comes back when he chooses, goes to ‘Courte’, walks about, deals with farming issues, buys a horse and some wine, orders a cow killed, writes to his Aunt and so on.
In her introduction to the diary, M.L. Legg tells us that Peacock often entertained friends at home at his own expense and at times drank heavily. After his marriage his priorities changed and he stopped card playing and drinking and instead buys a new bed, dishes, plates, and other household things, including ‘…12½ linen yarn for curtains’. (1) She also tells us that he refers to his wife as his ‘comfort’ and asks that God bless his love and bring them happiness. (2) It is interesting to note Legg’s point, that we know virtually nothing about the identity of Peacock from the diary itself but learn who he is mainly through his marriage to Catherine Chapman.
Between 1740 and 1742 we learn something of his relationship with his family too. He often refers to his great-aunt or ‘Aunt’ (Mrs Widenham) who likes him well enough to buy him a handkerchief. He seems to like her well enough too for this to permit a mention. In October 1742 Mrs Widenham dies and Peacock records the time of her death in his diary further stating, ‘I went to Limerick and bespoke a coffin and all other preparations for her bural’. (3) We read no further of any sadness or distress felt at her passing. He does give out gloves to the mourners at her funeral but also keeps an account of the cost. Liam Irwin remarks, that from what is known of the Peacock family, one brother and three sisters lived locally and their deaths too ‘are recorded tersely and without emotion’. (4)
It is in his day-to-day business and farming interactions that the additional value of Peacock’s diary can be evaluated. It is through these relations that accounts, receipts and money paid and owed is recorded. He consistently details the men and women working on his lands; ‘I had 8 men fencing ye meadows’, or ‘I had 19 horses drawing turf and 7 men…’ or ‘Will Flahaven here 4 men at work’. (5)
As a farmer and agent Peacock was outdoors in all weathers and this might account for some of his bouts of illness. He had an understanding of the changes in seasons and climate, the difficulties this presented for his crops and workers and the increase and decrease in prices he received as a result. His dairy does not present a romanticised view of the countryside nor does it describe the terrain beyond what can be quantifiable and measured. There is much talk of ‘setting’, ‘tending’ and ‘sowing’ for example, in various fields and meadows and his recording of this information is clinical. He describes some aspects of the weather like a thaw and frost only in conjunction with having to stop work or to voice concerns for the crop. In the autumn of 1740 he ‘began to draw but ye wetness of ye day hindered me’ (6) and in December 1741 refers to a frost that hinders work with the plough, necessitating a redirection of his labourers toward the threshing instead. (7) He buys hives of bees and mentions them throughout, has a pig sty made and keeps hens, obviously appreciating the value to be found in these pursuits.
As a source, the diary is rich in rural and agricultural references. In a period before the tractor or motorcar his everyday excursions on farming and other business happen either on horseback or on foot. His recording of crops and how they were planted and harvested provide a summary of farming activity that can be compared and studied year after year until the diary ends in 1751 perhaps at the time of Peacock’s own death. These recording reflect one man’s musings and provide a valuable source for the study of rural life in Co. Limerick at this time.
1. M.L. Legg (ed)., The diary of Nicholas Peacock, 1740-1751: The worlds of a county Limerick farmer and agent, (Dublin, 2005), p.28.
2. ibid, p.15.
3. ibid, p.88.
4. L. Irwin, ‘Review: The diary of Nicholas Peacock, 1740-1751: The worlds of a county Limerick farmer and agent’, in Eighteenth Century Ireland Society, Vol.21., (2006), p.167-168).
5. M.L. Legg (ed)., The diary of Nicholas Peacock, 1740-1751: The worlds of a county Limerick farmer and agent, (Dublin, 2005), p. p.50.) (ibid, p.59.).
6. ibid, p.54.
7. ibid, p. 71.