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Desperate Haven - The Famine in Dungarvan

The Misery Continues
At the Guardians meeting of 6 January 1848 the Clerk reported on a serious row which had taken place in the Workhouse 'the paupers having refused to obey the Master's instructions in taking their rugs to Kiely's store... were it not for the assistance of two Relief Officers...the officers of the House would have been in very great danger of their lives, the Paupers having shown every appearance of disaffection.' The Clerk suggested that they acquire fire-arms for the Workhouse to protect the officers. The Master gave his version of the events:

'One man in particular was remonstrated with, and on his refusing to do as he was directed, the Master considered it his duty to remove him to the Prison on the premises. The people generally became furious....Five of the ringleaders were secured and sent under an escort of Police to Dungarvan.'

T.R. Smith and Pierce Power drew the Guardians attention to the practice of asking those living some distance from the Workhouse to attend personally to be assessed as to their destitution:

'some parts of the Union are fully 20 miles distant from the Workhouse and the Board feel greatly the unnecessary cruelty of bringing widows and their young children such a distance. In consequence of the severity of the weather, on Monday last a woman of the name of Mary Connelly, who left Bonmahon in order to be tested in Dungarvan, died from cold fatigue.'

At a meeting of the Guardians on 6 January Robert Longan proposed that the Commissioners should send down paid Guardians to manage the Dungarvan Union as they could not devote enough time to the job. Longan also mentioned that they were in serious financial trouble which would lead to all their assets being confiscated.
Some days later there was controversy in Dungarvan when 17 freeholders, tenants of the Duke of Devonshire, were evicted. The poor rate collector and a group of bailiffs took the furniture and clothes from each house: 'The old beds, chairs, tables, stools and old fire grates, together with frocks, cloaks, handkerchiefs, shoes and stockings etc.' The motive for the eviction was that these tenants voted against the Duke's candidate in the recent election. [1]

R. J. Christopher of Dungarvan remarked that there was:

'no part of Ireland that more houses had been levelled and more human beings have been turned out...and left to perish on the ditches. In Ballynahassery over 200 have been thrown out, at Abbeyside more than 100 poor creatures had their homes levelled, from 50 to 60 were thrown out near Kilgobnet, a similar number at Cuscham...some hundreds in Dungarvan had houses locked up...In the west of Dungarvan extermination has been carried on to a fearful extent, the poor peasantry have been swept off Slievegrine.'

Christopher also referred to an eviction on Christmas Eve of Mrs Hearn and Michael McGrath of Ballinamuck, tenants of the Marquis of Waterford. [2] By 15 January the number of inmates had risen to 1,118 and the Medical Officer complained about the overcrowding in the Workhouse. He asked for the stable to be set up as a day room for the men and older boys. The bathroom was set up for those unable to travel to the auxiliary Workhouse in town. On 27 January the Master reported that about 160 widows with their children arrived at the Workhouse from the relief districts of Clashmore, Kinsalebeg, Grange and Ardmore. According to the Master they were under the impression that they could turn up at the Workhouse and be entitled to outdoor relief. He found that the majority were reluctant to be placed on the Workhouse books. Eighty widows and their children were admitted on that Saturday, 60 of whom left on Monday. Later in the day 300 people arrived from the same district, 160 of whom were admitted to the Workhouse. However, it appears that most of these would have returned home were it not for the inclemency of the weather.
In February the Medical Officer reported that deaths were almost exclusively caused by diarrhoea, dropsy and whooping cough and in most cases occurred in those very recently admitted.

William Curreen, the Relief Officer for number 2 district (Ardmore and part of Grange) sent the following note to the Guardians on 10 February:

 'The different awful scenes of distress and destitution that I had witnessed in the almost general course of my visits...have already attracted my reflection to that degree, that I think it almost impossible for me to discharge the duty incumbent on me.'

In February the Medical Officer again complained about the overcrowding in the Workhouse. The Guardians ordered that part of the stores be turned into a dayroom.

'From the insufficiency of House clothing many of the inmates must remain for days crowded together in the offensive rags in which they enter. Fever has not occurred as an epidemic, but this would appear to be due to the admirable cleanliness enforced by the Master and Matron and to a system of ventilation which admits a quantity of cold air which is otherwise injurious. The sick are injuriously crowded and are often prematurely discharged to make room for urgent cases.'

Around this time there were complaints from twelve inmates who were put in charge of cleaning the new inmates, attending to the sick and washing the dead. They felt their duties were 'offensive and injurious to health' and to compensate for this they demanded increased rations and a daily pint of porter each. The Guardians allowed them bread, milk and tea but decided to wait for the opinion of the Commissioners before distributing the porter!

In April there were 1,184 inmates in the Workhouse and 4,353 on outdoor relief.

In May the Catholic clergy of the Diocese of Waterford and Lismore sent an address of loyalty to Queen Victoria, but it also included the following remarks:

'We who live amongst the people, and from whom no change in their fortunes, or impulse of their feelings is concealed, beg leave to assure your Majesty that after the lamentable sacrifice of so many hundreds of thousands of the lives of your Majesty's Irish subjects by Famine and its attendant diseases, the condition of the survivors is daily becoming more suffering and more desperate and that they, we believe justly, attribute the frightful increase of pauperism...to the operation of the iniquitously contrived Act of Union, and that their strong determined impulse appears to be to leave no means untried, for the removal of this cause of their misery and sorrow.' [3]

The following story shows the hardship endured by the poor and how in spite of death and starvation being a common occurrence people had not lost their sense of humanity:

'Last week a poor forlorn and emaciated creature of the name of Power aged about 80 years, sunk down in utter exhaustion in our streets on his way to the relieving officer, to get his weekly allowance of Indian-meal. The people collected around him in crowds and very kindly and humanely, Mrs Stephen Baker sent him a glass of port wine, to be given him in drops until such time as he showed signs of recovering...his first cry after recovering was 'Oh! I have lost my meal, I have lost my meal. He expressed these words so pitifully that he moved the people to commiseration who procured means to have him removed to his lodgings, where a clergyman was called to attend him...'He still lingers in a very precarious and most deplorable condition.' [4]

Throughout the latter part of July there were encouraging reports about the potato crop throughout County Waterford. In Cappoquin there was only slight damage to the crop. In Rathgormac it was stated that within the memory of the oldest inhabitant, the potato crop did not look better. However, by early August the situation had changed. In Dungarvan it was remarked that: 'The potato blight has appeared to a great extent...The wheat crop is exceedingly scanty.' [5]

There is a gap in our knowledge of what was happening in the Workhouse for most of 1848 as the Minute Book from early February to mid December is missing.
The Young Irelanders
The Young Irelanders had broken away from Daniel O'Connell's Repeal movement in 1846. The Young Ireland movement was almost entirely confined to the Munster area.

Attempts were made in 1848 to establish a Young Ireland branch in Dungarvan. This was unsuccessful as most of the merchants, shopkeepers and tradesmen were against the physical force aspect of the movement. July 26 1848 was the date set for registering of arms by those who would support the government in the event of an insurrection. Christopher O'Brien (brother of James F.X. O'Brien 1828-1905) was refused the right to register as he had attempted to form a Young Ireland club in the town. Initially many of the clergy supported the Young Irelanders but by 1849 they had changed their minds. [6]

Throughout August 1848 there were frequent reports of armed groups, arrests and confiscation of arms. John Clarke, the Co. Inspector of Police and P.C. Howley were appointed to grant licenses for arms. Howley cautioned the clubs 'against running into anarchy and explained to the farmers the results of the French Revolution.' James Morgan jnr. and Christopher O'Brien of the Dungarvan Repeal club, were refused licenses as was Edward Lonergan because his mother sold The Nation newspaper from her house. Also refused were the monks of Mount Melleray. [7]
Later in the month several hundred barrels of gunpowder were discovered hidden in a ship at Dungarvan quay. The captain of the vessel, John Whelan of Dungarvan, and the crew were arrested and put in jail. The constabulary were engaged in regular arms searches around Dungarvan but the town and surrounding countryside were said to have been 'exceedingly peaceable.' [8]

James Brenan organised Young Ireland branches in Youghal and Dungarvan. In the summer of 1849 James F.X. O'Brien joined the Dungarvan branch and was sworn in before a crowd of 200. O'Brien along with some others went to Carrick-On-Suir to collect a consignment of pike heads for use in a planned rising. [9] Cork, Kilkenny, Cashel, Limerick, Clare, Cappoquin and Dungarvan were to rise simultaneously on 16 September 1849. O'Brien and his companions collected 100 pike heads at Hickey's house in Carrickbeg

The only area where any armed confrontation of consequence occurred was Cappoquin, Co. Waterford. [10] On 16 September a group led by Joseph Brennan attacked the police barrack. Sub-constable Owen and James Donohue, one of the insurgents, died as a result of their injuries. Most of the group were captured but Brennan escaped to America. If the attack had been successful they had planned to march on Dungarvan. James F.X. O'Brien was not directly involved in the Cappoquin attack but the police discovered that he was a member of the Dungarvan branch of Young Ireland and issued a warrant for his arrest. O'Brien was forewarned and escaped on one of his father's ships which was sailing from Dungarvan to Cardiff. [11]

On 13 September it was reported that the hills around Dungarvan were lit with fires. Mounted police had been sent to all the country stations and barricades had been raised at the courthouse in Dungarvan. Sir Nugent Humble had forty of the 7th Fusiliers (City of London Regt.) sent to guard his house at Cloncoskeran. A war steamer landed 90 men of the 7th Fusiliers at Ballinacourty who were quartered at the 'Old Court House' (The Old Market House in Lower Main Street). Landlords were worried that their houses would be burned or robbed. Colonel Palliser of Comeragh house brought all his silver into the Provincial Bank for safe keeping. [12]

On 13 October 1849 'The Nation' carried the following report:
The police made a search for arms in Dungarvan but scarcely got any. The P.P.(Dr. Halley) spoke very much against secret societies from the altar and mentioned that some foolish fellows held a meeting in a quarry in Ballinamuck a few nights ago. He pointed out the principles of these societies. The consequence is that some young men were arrested on Monday morning and others fled. Mr. Howley R.M. as early as six o'clock made a prisoner of John Hearn in his mother's house in Church Street. He is an amiable high minded young man who never concealed his indignation at, and disapproved of, the unwise manner in which the country is governed and run.
Christmas of 1848.

Mr. Burke, the Poor Law Inspector, submitted a report to the Commissioners in December on the condition of the clothing of the poor. He contacted some of the 'most intelligent and respectable' pawnbrokers in Dungarvan, Lismore, Clonmel etc., to obtain his information. Two Dungarvan pawnbrokers, John Hannigan and Edward Kennefick, replied to Burke's queries on 7 December:
We the undersigned pawnbrokers of this town, give the following reasons for the great decline in business, consequent on the blight of the crops (both of potatoes and corn) for the past four years, viz.:- The small cottiers and struggling farmers, with artizans and other trades, are greatly diminished by emigration, deaths innumerable by starvation, and a vast quantity obliged to resort to the poorhouse, thereby rendering so much of the working population totally unable to apply to pawn offices either to buy, pledge, or redeem; and the remaining part thereof are reduced to utter destitution. [13]

By 23 December there were 2,223 inmates in the Workhouse and auxiliary buildings. Some days later the Master ordered that additional accommodation was needed due to the large number of inmates. On the 29 December there were 500 fishermen in the Workhouse, of these 370 had been admitted in one day. Severe weather conditions had prevented them going to sea. [14]


  1. Cork Examiner, 10 January 1848.
  2. ibid.
  3. Cork Examiner, 10 May 1848.
  4. Cork Examiner, 14 June 1848.
  5. Cork Examiner, 14 August 1848.
  6. The Young Ireland Movement in Waterford, Part 2, Decies xix, 1982.
  7. Cork Examiner, 2 August 1848.
  8. Cork Examiner, 14 August 1848.
  9. Nolan, Peter, James F.X. O'Brien 1828 - 1905, unpublished thesis 1971.
  10. Desmond, Liam, Famous attack on Cappoquin Barracks, Dungarvan Observer,    15. December 1990.
  11. Nolan, op cit.
  12. Cork Examiner, 20 September 1848.
  13. Parliamentary Papers, Famine Ireland, 1847-49 Vol. 1V.
  14. Cork Examiner, 29 December 1848.


Author: William Fraher

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