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Aftermath Of The Famine

Desperate Haven - The Famine in Dungarvan

14. Aftermath Of The Famine
Changing Fortunes
A new census of Ireland was published in 1851. It is interesting to compare the statistics with the census of 1841, however, caution should be used when drawing any definite conclusions.

Dungarvan Union - Population in 1841 & 1851

Population By Electoral Division 1841 (1851)
Ardmore 1,400 (1,030)
Ballymacart 2,997 (1,806)
Bohadoon 1,339 (972)
Cappagh 1,320 (1,127)
Carriglea 1,644 (1,248)
Clonea 3,020 (2,081)
Colligan 1,725 (1,356)
Coumaraglin 900 (798)
Dromana 2,078 (1,574)
Dromore 1,963 (1,466)
Dungarvan (inc. Abbeyside) 11,146 (10,842)
Kereen 1,204 (703)
Knockaunbrandaun 677 (597)
Modeligo1,275 (764)
Mountstuart 704 (316)
Ringville 3,304 (2,430)
Seskinane 1,642 (1,301)
Whitechurch 987 (825)

Total 39,325 (31,236)

In 1841 the population of Dungarvan town was 8,625 with an extra 108 people in the suburb of Abbeyside. By 1851 the town population had fallen by 2,314 to 6,311. By contrast the population of Abbeyside fell by just 7. The population of Dungarvan Union had decreased from 39,325 in 1841 to 31,236 in 1851. A decrease of 8,089 which comprised of 4,260 males and 3,829 females.

In 1841 the number of inhabited houses in Dungarvan was 1,179 with 50 uninhabited and eleven new houses under construction. Abbeyside had 16 inhabited houses and one uninhabited. By 1851 there was a decrease in the number of inhabited houses in Dungarvan to 945 while 234 houses had fallen into ruin. Of these 945 houses only 94 were termed 1st class. The majority of the people lived in 2nd, 3rd or 4th class housing. The number of uninhabited houses had more than doubled to 122. In Abbeyside the number of houses remained the same.

In 1841 there were 1,010 people employed in manufacture and trade. By 1851 this had decreased to 895. The number involved in property and professions was drastically reduced from 63 in 1841 to 19 in 1851. The number engaged in manual labour had increased since 1841.

Towards the end of 1850 the Guardians felt that they would be unable to repay the Workhouse building loan: 'the country is still suffering from the effects of the Famine and the prices are low, and must be so for a long time to come.' The results of the census supports this inference. They wanted to repay the loan over a longer period and without any interest charges. In 1851 a new Workhouse for 600 inmates was opened at Kilmacthomas which must have relieved the pressure on Dungarvan.

In March 1852 a local newspaper [1] published a report of a Board of Guardians meeting concerning an eviction near Dungarvan :
A case came before the Board, which clearly proved not only the cruelty and brevity of the present promiscuous system of wholesale eviction, but also its terrible injustice to the rate payers, by driving a mass of destitute pauperism upon the rates. A wretched looking old man, whose appearance, however, told that he had once seen better days, with his daughter and two little grandchildren, came forward to seek the relief of the house; - the man's name was Michael Byrne.

Byrne was questioned in Irish as he did not speak English. He had a small tenement at Hacketstown, rented from a Mr. Harty, a middleman under Lord Suirdale. The previous week the landlord, accompanied by his bailiffs, evicted the Byrnes and levelled the house and 'caused one of the truculent hired bailiffs to assault the weak and half starved man.' At the conclusion of the Guardian's meeting Harty appeared and offered to let Byrne return to his holding. As a result the charges against Harty were withdrawn. In April the editor of the Munster Citizen commented on the striking of a rate by the Guardians. He noted that there was great discontent amongst the shopkeepers and householders in Dungarvan: 'It appears to us that business in this town is nearly stagnant, at least amongst the small traders, and that the consequence of a heavy rate at this moment must be pretty nearly ruinous.' [2]

In the early 1850s a further extension was added to the Workhouse. In November 1850 Mr. Reany, Clerk of Works, was asked to make an estimate of the cost of the new extension. It was reported in March 1850 that the work would be completed by 25 April. On 11 March 1852 the Clerk of Works gave a progress report on the works: 'The school-room, mistresses room and wash-house, the flooring and tiles will be finished by the 23 or 24 March.'

A report in the Munster Citizen [3] noted that George Wilkinson had inspected the new building and was unhappy with the standard of work He blamed this poor standard on the Clerk of Works. He complained that the timber used was inadequate, the cut stone was broken and the windows had not been glazed correctly. Wilkinson claimed that the building would not be completed in less than two months.

In May some of the Guardians complained about people being admitted to the Workhouse having been offered work outside. Robert Longan complained that people were coming and going and 'making a regular trade of it...we all know with respect to the females, it is to lead an abandoned life that they go out.' Mr. Fitzmaurice stated that many of the women were able to make five to eight pence a day picking cockles on the strand. [4] 

In August the same newspaper carried a report on the appearance of a potato blight. Each Guardian was asked to report on the condition of the potato crop in their area and the extent of the crop destruction. A set of queries was printed and given to each Guardian. A number of the Guardians noted that the blight was more widespread than in previous years. Mr. O'Brien stated that the potatoes were 'melted in the ground' around Ardmore and the situation was the same in the Kilgobnet area.

The newspaper also printed the answers to the queries presented to the Guardians. In Dungarvan three eighths of the crop had been affected, at Mountstuart one quarter, in Seskinane one quarter, in Kereen one half, in Bohadoon four fifths, in Whitechurch one third. [5]

In 1854 the poor Law Commissioners allowed poor people who were not destitute to enter the Workhouse hospitals as well as members of the constabulary and domestic servants. In late 1859 and early in 1860 there seems to have been problems with discipline involving the staff at the Workhouse. In September there were reports of the Schoolmaster interfering with the schoolgirls and reports about the Master and Schoolmaster beating the boys.

In June the Poor Law Commissioners recommended that the Master, Schoolmaster, Schoolmistress, porter and laundress should resign at once. John Harris was appointed as the new Master in July 1860 in place of William Nolan. Matthew F. Shine from Rathkeale, was appointed Schoolmaster and Elizabeth Fitzsimon from Lismore was appointed Schoolmistress. However, by August the Commissioners decided that Harris was not satisfactory and appointed Matthew F. Shine in his place. Mr. Shine's wife, Mary, was appointed Matron later that year in place of Mrs Keane.

In August 1863 the Guardians noted that it cost 2s 8d to keep a pauper in Dungarvan Workhouse compared to an average of two shillings elsewhere. They put this down to the high price which the Guardians had to pay for milk, which was 7¾ a gallon and the 'extras' that were given to the patients in hospital. On 3 January 1867 an extraordinary meeting of the Guardians was held to take steps to alleviate the 'extreme destitution' in the town and district. The number of admissions had risen from 327 in 29 December 1866 to 440 by 19 January 1867.

The Commissioners wrote to the Guardians on 23 March 1869 referring to the disastrous state of the Union finances, especially the Dungarvan electoral Division. They also noted the almost total absence of a visiting committee. All of this suggested to the Commissioners the inability of the Guardians to discharge their duties effectively. There had been a long-running dispute between the Commissioners and the Guardians about the financial state of the Union. Each time the Guardians had given in to the demands of the Commissioners. However, in April 1869 things came to a head when the Guardians received a letter stating that £2,307 remained uncollected by the rate collector, Mr. Roberts. The Commissioners also noted that the Union account had been overdrawn for two years. The Guardians were furious at these comments and sent the following letter to the Commissioners:
'The Board have for a long time been of the opinion that what the Commissioners call the disastrous financial condition of the Union would be much more disastrous if the merciless principle which the Commissioners seem to advise, were acted on by him (Mr. Roberts). That the Board have no doubt very many ratepayers if put to the sword in this cruel unnecessary and injudicious manner would be reduced themselves to pauperism...The Guardians consider that they are the best judges of the degree of pressure that should be put on...this Board must beg to inform the commissioners that they, the Board, are quite satisfied that the Commissioners must labour under a misconception in the whole matter from an ignorance of the real condition of things in this Union, and they trust that the Commissioners will not continue to urge the adoption of proceedings that this Board cannot sanction.'

The financial report for the year ended September 1869 showed that the average cost of keeping an inmate had increased. This was apparently due to the Guardians habit of accepting tenders for Workhouse provisions from business acquaintances, even though their prices were much higher.

In March 1870, the relieving officer, Edward Brenan, noted the unsatisfactory state of the public health and called for 'strenuous exertions to prevent the spread of contagion...by purifying the dwellings of the poorer classes.'
An indication of the miserable housing conditions in Dungarvan at this time is given in a letter to the Guardians sent by Dr. Henry Anthony, concerning a boy named Thomas Dower:
'This boy lives with his mother in a kitchen of a cabin, 12 foot by 8½ feet in dimension. It is situated in a close lane, the floor is damp, being greatly below the level of the road and there is only one small close window. On this damp floor a scanty bed of straw is placed in which five human beings sleep and not many feet from the bed is a yard filled with filth. They have little covering by night, except their wearing apparel thrown over them. In a close loft overhead sleep ten other poor people, so that in this wretched cabin fifteen human beings live by day and sleep by night.'

In December 1871 a major row occurred between the Guardians and the Parish Priest, Dr. Halley. The Guardians had recommended that the Catholic and Protestant chaplains to the Workhouse should get a rise in their annual fees. Father Halley declined the increase in wages because the Union finances would not be able to cover it. He was also critical of the Guardians for looking for an increase in their own wages, suggesting that if they were not happy with their wages they should resign:

'I entreat you to look to the state of this Town, once numbered amongst the most industrious, flourishing and independent for its size, in Ireland. Heretofore, including Abbeyside, having a population of over fourteen thousand, now all reduced to less than six, people deterred from residing in it or purchasing land in its Electoral Division from these excessive rates...Ex-Officios attend only when some pet project is to be carried. I regret that even the elected Guardians don't attend on the appointed days in sufficient numbers to constitute a Board. I hope that what people say is not true 'that they would meet in sufficient numbers if a point was to be carried for a customer.'

The letter from Father Halley was read at the Guardians meeting the following week. The reaction was predictable - the Guardians were furious. They demanded proof from Father Halley to back up his accusations and a full scale enquiry into the matter.
Evidence to back up one of Father Halley's points appeared in a letter from the Commissioners on 21 December. It complained that the Guardians had no meeting on 12 occasions in that year and when they did meet only a few of them turned up.
On 28 December Father Halley sent a reply to the Guardians letter of complaint:

'Gentlemen, I have received a copy of your resolution of the 21st. Inst, I see from it that you have not read my letter in the charitable spirit which dictated it...My first assertion was that the Ex-Officios attend when a pet project is to be carried. Have they the unblushing effrontery to deny it, if so let them ask their Chairman...when did he before honour the Board with his presence though living within a few paces of the house. Again you call me to order for an assertion made by me 'That the elected Guardians would meet in sufficient number if a point was to be carried for a customer.' Strange that so enlightened a body could not read it as written and printed in inverted commas...your best way to ascertain its truth is to call a public meeting, and you shall find more than the thousand re-echoing it, and I fear supporting it by a Petition to the Commissioners for paid Guardians. Let me conclude by impressing on you a divine aspiration, 'Aperi ustrum et vindica causam pauperium.' I hope for so enlightened a body there is no need for translation, yet some may want it - 'Open your mouths and vindicate the cause of the poor.'

This letter seems to have stunned the Guardians into silence as there is no further reference to the matter in the minutes. However, the Guardians did not forget Father Halley's remarks. When he died in January 1876 there was no glowing tribute, no note of regret at his death. They were simply concerned as to how soon his successor would be appointed. In 1872 the Irish Poor Law Commissioners were replaced by the Local Government Board. In May 1873 the Guardians made a significant change to the staff at the Workhouse when the Sisters of Mercy were employed as Infirmary nurses.

The New Fever Hospital 
In 1869 the Poor Law Commissioners had written to the Guardians recommending that they build a new Fever Hospital separate from the main Workhouse complex. On 26 June 1873 the Guardians decided to go ahead with the project. The Commissioners suggested that it should accommodate 60 patients allowing 1,000 cubic feet for each, two bath rooms, two nurses rooms, kitchen, laundry and detached dead-house.
The plan had to be postponed because of the cost factor and the strong opposition from the rate payers. In October the Guardians finally agreed to proceed as the Commissioners had allowed them to reduce the cost of the building from £1,600 to £1,000. In January 1874 Denis McGrath and John Scanlan were appointed to build the new Fever Hospital at a cost of £1,390. The construction work was to take much longer than expected.

The minutes of 12 February record the death of Henry Villiers Stuart:
'The Board of Guardians have learned with feelings of profound regret, intelligence of the death of the Right Hon. Lord Stuart de Decies, a nobleman who from the date of their formation during a period, extending considerably over a quarter of a century occupied that position amongst them...Associated with this body as Chairman. The Right Hon. Lord Stuart has at times when Famine pressed most severely upon the homes of the Poor and rendered the administration of relief no easy task for Boards of Guardians, invariably manifested in an eminent degree those qualities of paternal care and solicitude in the alleviation of their distress which render them grateful to his name.'

In February 1875 the sanitary officer of Whitechurch Dispensary district submitted a report which once again highlighted the wretched housing conditions of the poor: 'Mongally a house occupied by a man named Patrick Lenane, which is unfit to be a human habitation. It is four yards by 3½ and damp. Five children, parents and an aged couple live in it. There is but one room in which to cook, eat and sleep. There is a filthy yard and cesspool before the door. They pay 30 shillings a year as rent.' He noted that the five children and the parents shared one bed.

The work on building the new fever hospital was still not completed by March 1875. McGrath and Scanlan had broken up their partnership leaving Scanlan to complete the work. It was finally completed in October 1875.


  1. Munster Citizen, March 1852.
  2. ibid., April 1852.
  3. ibid., March 1852.
  4. ibid., May 1852.
  5. ibid., 14 August 1852.

Author: William Fraher

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