Issue 3-2023-200dpi

21 August 1997 Edition

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Remembering the Past: An Droch Shaol - The Irish Holocaust

Starving for relief

The workhouse system was imposed on Ireland despite opposition across the board. During the Famine years thousands died within the workhouses and even more, denied admission, died outside.

The Poor Law of 1838 was aimed at providing accommodation for the absolutely destitute and by 1845 123 workhouses existed in Ireland, paid for by a poor rate levied on local landlords, and passed on to their tenants. Conditions for entry were so strict, as was life inside, that they were the very last resort of a destitute people. Able-bodied adults had to work; knitting for women, breaking stones for men. Food was poor and accommodation was cold, damp and cramped.

By December 1846, over half the workhouses were full and were having to refuse admittance to new applicants. Few workhouses could cope with such a sharp increase in the intake of paupers, especially sick paupers, and there were widespread shortages of bedding, clothing and medicine. This led to the practice of giving the clothes of inmates who died of fever or any other disease to new inmates, without first washing them. There was also a shortage of coffins, and many burial sites were situated within the grounds of the workhouse, sometimes next to the water supply.

Despite all these problems, in many unions the guardians and the workhouse officers attempted to provide relief despite their lack of capital and the various regulations imposed on them. In the winter of 1846-'47, over half of the Boards of Guardians were giving food to paupers who were not residents of the workhouse. This was illegal under England's law and was strongly condemned by the Poor Law Commissioners.

The introduction of soup kitchens in 1847 took much of the pressure off the workhouses. But, as conditions worsened the workhouses became crammed. By February 1847 100,000 people were getting workhouse relief, 63,000 of them children. A report of one workhouse that year states:

``The building we found most dilapidated, and fast advancing to ruin, everything out of repair, the yards undrained and filled, in common with the cesspools, by accumulation of filth - a violation of all sanitary requirements; fever and dysentery prevailing throughout the house, every ward filthy to a most noisome degree, evolving offensive effluvia; the paupers defectively clothed, and many of those recently admitted continuing in their own rags and impurity; classification and separation set at nought; a general absence of utensils and implements; the dietary not adhered to, and the food given in a half-cooked state - most inadequate, particularly for the sick.''

The survivors of the workhouses had this to say about the system:

``Eagóir agus bataráil agus cos ar bolg agus ocras a ba saol na mbochtán sa Phoorhouse. Bhíodh na ceanna ag slad chucu féinig agus chun a lucht leannúna, agus ní raibh le fáil ag na `paupers' bhochta ach an caolchuid - `an ceann ba chaoile den bheatha agus ceann ba ramhaire don bhata'. ``

With thousands still trying to gain entry into the already over-full workhouses, the newly-elected English government in the summer of 1847 seized their chance. Responding to an impatience with the affairs of Ireland on the part of the British middle and upper classes, and to the declining sympathy for the starving which was replaced by the cultural stereotyping of the Irish, the legislators removed the financial `burden' of famine relief from the English electorate's shoulders.

They announced that the famine was over and stopped financial aid from the Treasury. The poor unions which ran the workhouses were now made responsible for outdoor relief despite the fact that many were already bankrupt. The collection of rates was nearly impossible and the richest landlords seemed to be paying least.

The Catholic Dean of Mayo estimated that in his diocese it cost a pound to collect every shilling. In 1844 it had been necessary to send in 700 soldiers as well as police to collect the poor rate in Galway, while in Mayo the authorities sent a warship, two cruisers, two companies of the 69th Regiment, a troop of the 10th Hussars, 50 police, two inspectors and two magistrates.

The English Chancellor of Exchequer, Sir Charles Wood, justified their tight-fistedness on the grounds that ``except through a purgatory of misery and starvation, I cannot see how Ireland is to emerge into anything approaching either quiet or prosperity''.

The new poor law saw the demise of the government's experiment in soup kitchens. Though only in place since February 1847, the 2,000 or so soup kitchens were at the peak of their operations feeding over three million a day. Only £50,000 was advanced as a start-up grant, the rest was to be made up by the cash-starved poor unions. They gave at best minimal relief and were a haphazard, rough and ready response to the famine, but at least it was something.

The new law required that those seeking relief must be ``destitute poor'' and in a move reminiscent of Penal days the Gregory Clause of the act barred those with holdings of more than a quarter of an acre from receiving any form of aid. Thus the government was facilitating the clearances of estates for landlords, and wiping out a way of life and class of farm labourers. Desperate to hold onto the little they had, thousands died of starvation rather than bow to this new oppression which had been added to their misery.

When it was suggested to Wiliam Gregory that the provision would destroy the class of small farmers in Ireland, he replied that ``he did not see of what use such small farmers could possibly be''. Lord Palmerston, an influential member of the government and an Irish landlord, stated: ``Any great improvement in the social system in Ireland must be founded upon an extensive change in the present state of agrarian occupation, and that this change necessarily implied a long, continued and systematic rejectment of small holders and of squatting cottiers.''

Even accepting the Gregory Clause conditions entry into workhouse was not guaranteed and was often arbitrary, and your stay could be terminated at a whim: ``Ranged by the side of the opposite wall [of Nenagh workhouse in County Tipperary], which afforded some shelter from the wind, were about 20 cars, each with its load of eight or ten human beings, some of them in the most dangerous stages of dysentery and fever, others cripples, and all, from debility, old age, or disease, unable to walk a dozen steps... In the evening some 30 or 40 `paupers' were turned out to make room for an equal number of the crowd, while the rest returned weary and dispirited to the cheerless homes they left in the morning.''

The road to the workhouse became known as Cosán na Marbh (pathway to the dead). Up to 25% of those admitted died, yet by 1851 309,000 people were in workhouses throughout Ireland with many more seeking entry or emigrating.

By Aengus O Snodaigh

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1