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(Note: The two articles appearing on this site under the heading "Workhouse Famine Records" were compiled by a local history group under the guidance of Mr. Anthony Begley, West Rock, Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal. Mr. Begley's approval to release them on the Internet is gratefully acknowledged.)
Number 1
Workhouse Famine Records

A Local History Group's Findings
Ballyshannon, situated at the most southerly point in Donegal, was relatively unaffected by potato blight in 1845. In 1846, however, "The Ballyshannon Herald" reported:

"The weather continues extremely fine and the crops are stacking in good condition, with the exception of potatoes, which no one thinks of digging except to search through whole fields to make out a basketful which those who have no other employment do. The Indian meal which a few merchants have brought here from Sligo, has been the means of keeping hundreds from starvation - but why don't the merchants get in cargoes of it as is done in Sligo and elsewhere?"

Workhouses were ill-equipped for the catastrophe which now struck. Ballyshannon Workhouse, built for 500 inmates, was fairly typical being, as Tuke reported, no better than others in the county.

On 12 September 1846 the Poor Law Commissioners called the attention of the Board of Guardians of the Ballyshannon Union to the great increase of poverty and distress due to the failure of the potato crop, asking them to make relief available "to the utmost practicable extent". They also warned them to base their estimates on the assumption that "the whole accommodation which the Workhouse affords will be placed in requisition during a considerable period". At that date there were approximately 135 paupers in the Ballyshannon Workhouse.

By November the number of paupers stood at 255 and the cost of keeping a pauper had risen by fourpence farthing per week.

There is a reference on 14 November 1846 concerning the "vast increase in the number of paupers in the last week". The following week the pressure of numbers was so great that the Guardians decided that no pauper be admitted provisionally in the course of the next week. By 5 December 1846 the number of inmates stood at 511, rising to 596 by 27 March 1847.

Numbers in the workhouse fell temporarily in the summer of 1847. On 2 October there were vacancies for 200 paupers in the house and the Guardians ruled that there should be no outdoor relief while there were vacancies in the house. However, on 30 October the Master of the Workhouse informed the Board that there was no more accommodation available as numbers had risen to 540 in the house and asked, if there were to be any new admissions, "How I am to manage respecting them?" By 27 November, however, in spite of fever in the house, the numbers rose again to 561.

On 1 January 1848 there were 769 inmates in the Workhouse. By the following week the number stood at 626, with many elderly and infirm paupers living on outdoor relief of 8d per week.

Up to this point the Guardians refused admission to persons from other unions. However, on 8 January 1848 the Poor Law Commissioners gave instructions that all paupers from any union were to be admitted to the Workhouse. The Guardians then ordered "provisional admission of all at gate".

Before the failure of the potato crop, workhouse diet was frugal but wholesome, based on oatmeal porridge, potatoes and buttermilk. When potatoes became unobtainable, Indian meal was substituted. Its nutritional value was low and the poor found it unpalatable. Early in 1847 the price of meal rose dramatically from £18 per ton to £27. There was also an increase in the price of oatmeal. While the increase in oatmeal may have been partly due to a general price-rise in Europe, the price increase in Indian meal was principally due to profiteering by those involved in its transport and sale.

Merchants tried to prevent government sales of cheap meal as this would have reduced their profits. The Government succumbed to this pressure. Indian meal imported by the British Government late in 1846 for distribution along the more impoverished regions of the west coast was, on the recommendation of Trevelyan, held in storage until all other sources of food should have failed. This meal was purchased at £13 per ton, but for fear of undercutting the prices charged by local merchants it was sold at the Government depots for £19 per ton at the end of December.

When supplies of meal became totally unobtainable in Ballyshannon, the Board of Guardians applied to a Mr Hamilton to obtain meal for the Workhouse. This was probably Mr John Hamilton of St. Ernan's, who imported Indian meal and other provisions into Donegal Town for distribution to his tenants. Mr Hamilton is described by James Hack Tuke as "one who was devoting his whole energies to the service of the poor".

Tuke found that in Ballyshannon the gentry, far from being indifferent to the plight of the poor, were strenuously involved in relief efforts. Colonel Connolly, and his family, contrary to their custom, remained at their residence for the winter in order to provide relief.' When the Society of Friends offered "money in proportion to the amount raised in the town for the establishment of a soup-kitchen", Colonel Connolly subscribed one third of the amount, £600, to the Ballyshannon Poor Relief Committee. He also reduced his Donegal rents by 25%'.

With the resumption of Indian meal as the staple food in the Workhouse, the cost of keeping a pauper fell to 1/2d, but a Committee of the Board observed that there was "great attenuation among the children" and it was proposed that each pauper be allowed "a good and sufficient meal of rice and milk" daily.

Dr. Kelly, Medical Officer of the Workhouse, recommended removing children under 12 to a separate house. This resulted in an improvement in the health of the children and a reduction in dysentery.

Doctor Kelly attributed deaths from dysentery to the diet of the house and want of clothing of men exposed to work in open sheds "in this inclement weather". The Master reported that he was obliged to take the men from their work due to the extreme cold of their feet '"or want of shoes and stockings".

Pestilence followed famine.

In November 1846 the Ballyshannon Board read a letter from the Poor law Commissioners calling attention to the danger which must arise "from admitting into the Workhouse a greater number of inmates than the institution was intended to contain". The Board promptly resolved to admit no more paupers until those in the house at that time were provided with necessary clothing and accommodation. At this time numbers had risen from 184 to 469 in the space of a month.

"The Ballyshannon Herald" expressed alarm at the spread of fever in the Workhouse, and on 2nd April 1847 reported as follows: "We regret to state that the poorhouse of the Union is crowded to excess which has caused fever and dysentary to spread among the inmates to an alarming extent."

In July a temporary fever ward was erected. It contained only 50 beds although there had already been 100 fever cases in June.

The enormity of the crisis did not prevent petty bickering. Disagreement between the Board of Guardians and the Relief Committee centred on the question of financing and control of the temporary fever hospital. The Board queried the financial records of the Rev I McMenamin, treasurer of the Relief Committee, and in September refused to provide further funding.

On 4 November 1847, Dr. Barclay Sheil, a prominent Ballyshannon physician and relative of Dr. Simon Sheil who had charge of the fever hospital, wrote to the Poor Law Commissioners to complain that the Union Board of Guardians refused to pay the expenses of the temporary fever hospital. The Poor Law Commissioners found in favour of the Relief Committee.

Deaths from fever continued in 1848, with thirteen dead from fever in the last week of January. Doctor Stephens, one of the dispensary doctors, contracted fever from a patient and died. The Workhouse master caught fever in April but recovered. By now the epidemic was on the wane, falling from 66 cases in February to 13 in December.

In Inishowen fever made its appearance early in 1846. The secretary of the Moville Relief Committee reported "Fever has set in, in many cases fatally."

Fever in Carndonagh Workhouse was reported a year later in March 1847 with 8 inmates affected and the Guardians taking steps to segregate the sick. Treatment was almost non-existent. The Guardians were ordered to treat the patients by giving them alcohol but the record shows that only one bottle of wine was actually purchased. An anonymous ballad comments:

'Tis for the doctor, he says he has skill,
He'll push around the wards the law to fulfill;
If a pauper be dying or ready to drop,
He says "Hold out your tongue",
And there is not more than that.

The large number of workhouse dead caused difficulties with burials. In Ballyshannon Workhouse the problem reached a crisis on 8 May 1847 when the Master reported: "Resistance has been offered to the interment of the dead at several burying grounds in the neighbourhood, the consequence of which is that an accumulation of dead bodies to the number of seven are at present in the deadhouse, one having died of spotted fever, the others of dysentary; some of these deaths occurred four days ago." It was decided to locate a pauper's graveyard at Mullaghnashee in the town.

While records of the number of dead are missing in Ballyshannon and some other Unions for this period, the cost of coffins recorded in the Ballyshannon Board of Guardian minutes gives some indication of the rising number of dead, and the use of two covered barrows in January 1848 for conveying the dead across the town suggests that coffins were dispensed with. The act, 10 Vic., cap. 22, empowered the relief committees to make arrangements for "the proper and decent interment" of the dead, and to defray the cost from their funds, a euphemism for the burying of uncoffined dead in mass graves.

A record of a payment by the Ballyshannon Board of Guardians of£13-15s, which was half of the amount demanded by Mr Flanagan for the conveyance of deceased paupers to the burial ground, during the fever epidemic, indicates that Ballyshannon Workhouse had adopted the new procedures permitted under the Act.

Payment by the authorities for such burials was usually per corpse, and according to oral tradition in Tipperary, this was "a shilling or so per body". If the Ballyshannon Guardians paid a similar rate, then the sum paid to Mr Flanagan indicates approximately 550 burials.

Water and sanitation were inadequate for the increased numbers in the Workhouse. In September 1847 there is mention in the minutes of an overflowing cess pool outside the women's yard. This may well have been the source of the "manure on Workhouse ground" which is ordered "to be spread at front of House for cropping" in October 1847, since use of sewage as fertiliser was permitted by workhouse regulations. In November, Mr D'Arcy, the Temporary Inspector, complained to the Poor Law Commissioners of "the sewers leading from it without a sufficient discharging power: the smell arising from this cause is most offense, and distinctly to be perceived through the house itself." The problem persisted, and in November 1847 the Master reported that the sewerage was backing into the water tank. Water was in short supply.

Early in January 1848 the master reported that there was an insufficient supply of water in the well to supply the house. At the end of the month he reported that bedding and clothing were unwashed for three weeks due to water shortage. The Guardians ordered 2 casks with handles for carrying water from the river. Subsequently a contract was accepted for water to be provided at 5d per puncheon.

The question of poor-house funding was regarded by the Government as the responsibility of the ratepayers, and any advances made from Government resources were given grudgingly and on the understanding that they would be repaid. The Poor Law Commissioners circularized the Unions in September 1846, recommending that "the means of affording relief which the law has put at the disposal of the Guardians, should be made available to the utmost practical extent." On 24 October the Guardians were obliged to make an increase in Union Rates above that struck in July "to provide for the increased pressure on the Union due to the failure of the potato crop". However, there was considerable difficulty in collecting the rate due to the great distress which prevails in the Union".

In January an appeal was made directly to the Lord Lieutenant for some assistance "toward the support of the poor in the Ballyshannon Workhouse, otherwise the House will have to be immediately closed for want of funds".

At the end of February 1847 the Poor Law Commissioners lent £60 to the Guardians, who expressed "surprise at the smallness of the sum". These loans continued weekly during the year until the Poor Law Commissioners refused, in July, to pay any more advances. In addition, in March the Poor Law Commissioners agreed to lend £240 for paupers' clothing.

June finds the Poor Law Commissioners urging Guardians to collect rates before the harvest and not to depend on Government. However, collection of rates continued to be difficult, and there was considerable waiving of rates due to the fact that the houses in question were "down" and no longer subject to rates - e.g. "Mr. Kitson relieved of paying further rates in Division of Devenish in which houses Nos 2, 11, 16, 23 & 28 have been shown to be down", such applications indicating extensive evictions.

One account of eviction in the Ballyshannon Union is preserved in oral tradition:

"The usual procedure after an eviction was to burn the thatched roof to prevent the tenant from entering the house again after the bailiff and his assistants had left the scene. A man named Diver, who lived in this townland, was among those who were evicted out of their homes. The landlord himself was present on this occasion and he offered the sum of one pound to anybody who would set fire to the house.

Diver who was standing out on the street with a number of neighbours, stepped forward and said he would earn the money. He thereupon stepped into the kitchen where some turf was still smouldering on the hearth, brought them out on a shovel and placed them among the thatch of the roof. In a few moments it was ablaze, fanned by a strong south-westerly breeze, and in a short time his home was gone ...When the landlord tendered Diver the money which he had thus so strangely earned, he coolly put it in his pocket, turned on his heel, nodded to the neighbours and disappeared from the scene."

By 1847 ratepayers were violently resisting paying a rate. The Inspector, Mr D'Arcy, reported that "all the collectors, without exception, stated that if the assistance of police was not afforded them in the wild districts, and where violence might be apprehended, they would under no circumstances be concerned in it. There is a feeling of general insecurity abroad, some of the ex-officio Guardians left the Board-room early, not wishing to be out after dark." Little of the outstanding rate was collected.

In spite of shortage of funds, the Workhouse maintained provision for education and religion . Ballyshannon Workhouse had two chaplains, one Catholic and one Protestant. The Protestant chaplain requested an increase in his £20 pa salary because of the increase in his duties which required him to keep a horse. The increase in the numbers of Protestants in the workhouse is also reflected in the purchase of 18 small and 6 large Prayer Books, the same number of Bibles, and catechisms for the use of the Protestant children.

Sacramental bread and wine was provided out of Workhouse funds for the Protestant inmates, and in August 1847 an additional 30 Prayer Books were required.

For secular studies, there was a schoolmaster and a schoolmistress. The report of the Superintendent of Workhouse National Schools reported on 16 January 1847 that "the female teacher is well qualified to teach reading, spelling and sewing and that the male can teach reading, arithmetic and writing and that the moral character of both is good". The male schoolroom was equipped in the course of the year with one desk and a set of tablets. The female school was provided with 12 Carpenter's spelling books.

The staff, apart from the schoolteachers, included the Master, Matron, Porter and Clerk. Their salaries were Master £20 pa, Matron £15 pa, Porter £6 pa.

The Gate Porter was a newly created position. A sentry box was erected for him and he was provided with a great coat and a pair of shoes, to be returned if he left the workhouse.

There appears to have been hostility between the Master and Matron. While the workhouse was in crisis with overcrowding, food shortages and fever, the Board of Guardians and the Poor Law Commissioners were devoting their attention to allegations that the Master had made a female pauper pregnant. The investigation into the affair resulted in the dismissal of Mrs. Keenan, the Matron, for her collusion in making what was deemed a false allegation. However, the Poor Law Commissioners found that the investigation had been conducted in an illegal manner. Doubtless today a different verdict might have been reached.

An increase in disorderly behaviour in the Workhouses was to be expected under the overcrowded conditions prevailing. Punishment for disorderly behaviour or breach of rules ranged from confinement or withholding of food, to discharge from the house. The Board discussed the behaviour of "incorrigible boys who threw stones at the assistant master" and concluded that corporal punishment was "not wholly prohibited by the regulations".

There were continuous attempts in all the Donegal Workhouses to keep able bodied inmates employed since it was a fundamental rule of the workhouse system that "no individual capable of exertion must ever be permitted to be idle in a workhouse and to allow none who are capable of employment to be idle at any time". Consequently, the minutes of Boards of Guardians throughout the county record orders being placed for "sledges, scrapers, picks and barrows".

In Ballyshannon each adult male was expected to break half a ton of stones per day. Women did domestic work, and sprigging and spinning wheels were available in some workhouses.

Apart from the Poor Law Relief which made provision both within and outside the Workhouse, Relief Committees composed principally of gentry and clergy also administered funds. Some of the earliest of these committees came into existence in Inishowen in response to the failed potato harvest of 1846. By the end of the year local relief committees were raising subscriptions which were matched by Government contributions, but by that time the numbers of starving and destitute had increased so dramatically that the finance available was inadequate. Only a fifth of those eligible were able to avail of employment. The wage was 9d per day. When funds ran out, causing "great distress", the roads were left "in a totally impassible condition". Early in 1847 the Moville Famine Relief Fund sent an appeal to the government, "Amongst the numerous cottier inhabitants of the interior, and in the densely peopled hamlets of our extensive sea-coast, destitution to an alarming extent exists, and is on the increase. With multitudes of our people, their supplies and resources are exhausted and they are hastening to the same awful consummation. The causes of destitution are too obvious to be questioned; the traces of it, on the countenances and in the persons of the poor, are too palpable not to be recognised. By the inscrutable will of an all-wise providence, all things seem, at the present crisis, conspiring against our Poor. Reduced to debt and want by the partial failure of the Potato Crop last year - this year the whole crop, upon which their subsistence depended, has been utterly lost; the fishing which at other times, would have been a fortunate resource, has, this season, become totally unproductive; and provisions stand at prices hitherto unprecedented." The Ballyshannon Relief Committee came into existence in October 1846 with the aim of soliciting donations and selling meal at cost price. They had a store in College Street, and raised a large sum to purchase meal which was sold in November 1846 to the distressed poor.

Public works were proposed by a Presentment Session held in September 1846, but these were hampered by bureaucratic delays and bad weather. Tuke was particularly dismayed by the conditions of workers on relief works: "The severity of the weather and the deep snow add greatly to the sufferings of the poor, and we felt deeply for the poor creatures at work upon the roads (amongst whom were several women), who in their ragged, miserable garments, are totally unfitted for exposure to the cold."

Delays in paying wages caused further hardship, and on arrival in Ballyshannon Tuke reports: "We again heard complaints that the men employed on the public works were irregularly paid, they not having received any pay for ten days or a fortnight, although the money was waiting in the bank." This type of incompetence is confirmed by oral tradition: "Relief was slow in coming owing to the slow methods of transport and the long distance from Dublin from which relief methods were directed and money sent to pay the men on relief works, which largely consisted of road-making."

In January 1847 the Temporary Relief of Destitute Persons Act, otherwise known as the Soup Kitchen Act, came into operation. The distribution of meal or soup was in the hands of the local relief committees and was generally unwelcome. There was an appeal from Clonmany Relief Committee "not to establish a soup kitchen in Clonmany" but instead "to set up a depot for the sale of cheap meal to the destitute".

The soup kitchens proceeded, providing a thin gruel for the starving, but in August the Poor Law Commissioners, assuming the potato blight to be ended, ordered that all boilers be returned to the Workhouse. They were subsequently sold.


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