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The Plague Year

Desperate Haven - The Famine in Dungarvan

6. The Plague Year

Cold Dawn of '49
By 13 January 1849 the number of inmates had risen to 2,751. The Poor Law Commissioners wrote to the Guardians on 23 January asking them to reduce the numbers in the Workhouse to that recommended by the Medical Officer. The Guardians replied that they had just taken a store in Abbeyside which would alleviate the pressure on space in the Workhouse. Towards the end of January the Guardians received a notice from the Lords of the Treasury to pay £4,372.12.6 owed by the Union. The Guardians had neglected to pay instalments on loans received for building the Workhouse.  The Guardians were dismayed at this request explaining that they did not have that amount in their account and if they paid it the rates would have to be increased. They explained that they were having difficulty collecting the rates, especially with the large number of deserted tenements in the towns and rural districts:

'Many of the farmers and landowners will cease giving the employment which they do at present on the grounds that they cannot continue to pay wages and meet the heavy and rapidly increasing demands of the poor rate...a greater and more permanent evil will be caused by having a great breadth of land thrown out of cultivation...by striking a rate at present it will have the effect of increasing the emigration at present going on amongst the farmers and shopkeepers and those classes at present paying rates, and upon whose minds the conviction is daily forcing itself that their only hope of safety is in flight, and that if they remain at home they will be shortly overwhelmed by the universal deluge of pauperism which is daily overspreading the entire country.'

The Guardians decided that they could only repay the loan to the Treasury at £150 per week if they had sufficient funds to meet it. By the end of January the number of inmates had increased to 3,028. The minutes of 1 February record that the bodies of five men were brought to the Workhouse by the police to enable an inquest to be held. One of these was an unidentified homeless man who had been found suffocated in a lime kiln at Barrack Lane in Dungarvan. Another of the men was identified as Cornelius Flynn from Stradbally who had died from exposure in the haggard of Thomas Power at Knocknagranna. He had been discharged from the Workhouse on 26 January.

The Cholera Epidemic of 1849
The Asiatic cholera came to Ireland from Scotland in December 1848 and eventually it spread throughout most the country. The authorities sent circulars to all the Boards of Guardians warning them of the epidemic and instructing them to make preparations for the sick. However, any extra costs were to be paid from the Union funds.
The Medical Officer, Dr. Christian suggested that additional accommodation be acquired to house the increasing numbers of paupers or that outdoor relief be given to the infirm and widows with children. He asked the Master to turn the probation wards into convalescent wards for children.Cases of fever increased and on 1 February 1849 Dr. Christian reported two deaths from cholera, one in the Workhouse and another in the fever hospital. The numbers in the Workhouse and auxiliary buildings had increased to 3,132.

In early February Henry Villiers Stuart wrote to the Guardians concerning the health of the inmates and the overcrowding in the auxiliary Workhouses. He suggested that they should revise their system of 'exclusive indoor relief ' and that paupers selected for discharge should be confined to the infirm classes who had been long term inmates. The Guardians did not agree with his comments, noting that the number applying for relief was decreasing. They were committed to renting auxiliary buildings (temporary Workhouses) until September, therefore they could not see the point in discharging people and paying rent for empty buildings. The Guardians also explained that a new floor had been inserted in the auxiliary Workhouse at Abbeyside which relieved the overcrowding. Proper clothing had been distributed to the inmates and a new system of discipline had been introduced.

By mid February the numbers in the Workhouse hospital and fever hospital had more than doubled to 300 compared to early January. In March the Poor Law Inspector reported on the overcrowding in the Workhouse and auxiliary buildings. He recommended outdoor relief immediately to those who came under the first section of the Irish Relief Extension Act.

A number of Workhouse inmates were sent to work on relief schemes in 1849. In February, James and Michael Noakler, William and John Harney and J. Roach, all from Colligan East Division, were discharged from the Workhouse and sent to work on a drainage scheme at Knockenpower. In March, William FitzMaurice, relieving officer, wrote the following letter to the Guardians:

'Sir, I beg leave to acquaint you that your exertions to lighten the Workhouse of our 130 persons viz. 46 heads of families with their dependants sent to work at the drainage going on at Kilgobnet, have been but partly successful, 16 heads of families having been obliged to return to the Workhouse for want of spades, shovels or picks - two more of the same list with their families are this moment at the Workhouse gate to be re-admitted or, to be supplied with implements and one days provisions and they say they will trouble the Workhouse no more.''

A report by the Medical Officer, Dr. Thomas Christian, on March 29 1849 was as follows:

'I consider the Workhouse and the various auxiliaries to be overcrowded, - a great many fever cases have occurred in them in the last 2 or 3 weeks, which  tho' not very severe would seem to arise in part from the numbers collected together, a few cases of smallpox have also occurred but it has not spread to any extent,-I think that at the utmost these houses should not contain more than 2,500 persons, and should any severe epidemic arise should be reduced to 2,000.

I estimate them thus:-

Workhouse, and detached permanent buildings 700
Keatings Store 600
Kiely's No. 1 Store 350
Kiely's No. 2 Store 150
Carbery's Store 550
Galwey's Store 150
Total 2,500                

Keating's store in particular is overcrowded. Carbery's store is likewise so, the second part of Kiely's store is very imperfectly ventilated and is consequently only used as a dormitory for a limited number of able-bodied women. All buildings require improvement, as to privies and sewerage.'

The figures above were adopted as the quota of paupers on the Indoor Relief List. The Guardians also decided that should accommodation prove insufficient, then further accommodation should be provided by erecting sheds in suitable places on the Workhouse grounds. Additional auxiliaries were acquired in April 1849. Around the same period the Master commented on the large numbers seeking temporary relief at night and that most of them appeared in a 'wretched state.' At this time the Guardians decided that the Aglish fever hospital would be re-opened in the event of an outbreak of cholera. They also decided to get in touch with the Waterford Guardians to learn if they would re-open the 'former fever hospital of Kilmacthomas and Knockmahon.'

To provide further accommodation within the Workhouse it was decided to create lofts over the dining hall and in the sheds. At the Guardians meeting in April Lord Stuart de Decies resigned because the Guardians did not agree to reduce the number of inmates and place them on outdoor relief.

Early in April the Clerk complained to the Guardians about the porter who seemed to have had no control over those entering the Workhouse. He referred to the numerous paupers, 'many of whom are in their own clothing, daily allowed...to remain from morning until night in the hall, which causes a most unwholesome and disagreeable smell together with their habit of constantly fighting and quarrelling.' The Master notified the police concerning a man who carried a child on his back to the Workhouse gate. This child was already dead. Two days before he had received temporary relief for a night but did not re-apply the following day. On 19 April the Commissioners notified the Guardians that they would have to limit the numbers in the Workhouse and auxiliaries to 2,500. The Guardians took immediate steps to tackle the excess of 819 paupers as there were 3,319 in the house. This would be achieved by discharging those fit for outdoor relief, others would be sent to work on drainage schemes and a work committee would be appointed to obtain extra accommodation.

The Apex Of The Cholera Epedemic
Towards the end of April the Master stated that he could not admit any more paupers to the Workhouse or auxiliaries due to the 'great prevalence of disease.' On 26 April Dr. Thomas Christian spoke of the 'fearful epidemic which threatens, not to speak of the fever which already exists.' He objected to auxiliary buildings being taken in the main streets of the town.

'The present condition of the country as to disease renders this a matter of deep importance to every one. The mortality in the house has increased considerably within the last two weeks...it occurs amongst those who entered in a worn out condition, than from acute disease in the able bodied. A genuine case of spasmodic cholera has occurred and is now under treatment.'

On 26 April Galwey's store at Abbeyside was ordered to be used as a temporary fever hospital for the town and the inmates moved to another building. At the beginning of May the Master reported that there were several cholera cases in the Workhouse hospital, which was 'crowded to excess.' He wanted the Town Commissioners to take action to prevent many deaths. He also noted that since the cholera hospital had opened 50 people had contracted cholera. These were spread throughout the Workhouse, Keating's store and Kiely's store. There were 70 patients in fever in the Workhouse stables and 28 in 'natural pock.' The wardmaster (Kiely) and the wardmistress (Keane) in the Workhouse had contracted fever. 'On Saturday night the numbers seeking temporary relief were so numerous, that I was obliged to go after 11 o'clock at night for Mr. Fitzmaurice, Relief Officer, for the purpose of testing them, with a view to give them temporary relief for the night.'

The visiting committee commented on the state of the cholera patients in Carbery's store: 'Persons attacked with cholera are not reported or removed in first stage of attack until the ignorant attendant is convinced by the appearance of blackness setting in, it is only then a conveyance is sent for, to take patients to the cholera hospital.'
Early in May John Pellerick of Knockmahon wrote to the Guardians informing them that he had received instructions from the Vice-Guardians of Waterford to prepare the Bonmahon hospital for the reception of cholera patients and inquired if the Dungarvan Guardians had any instructions for him. They replied stating that they had already made arrangements for the cholera patients at Knockmahon. Around the same time the Guardians agreed that the hospital in Kilmacthomas should be used for cholera patients from the East Division of Stradbally. John P. Coughlan was appointed Medical Officer at a fee of one guinea a day. A number of nurses were also appointed.

The Medical Officer in Dungarvan submitted the following report on the progress of the cholera epidemic:

'Previously to 26 April when cholera commenced, fever and disease prevailed, but were not attended with any remarkable mortality, being about 16 persons weekly out of 3,300 inmates, many of whom had entered in a very delicate state - with respect to fever, it was chiefly slight gastric fever, requiring little treatment beyond a few days rest and change of diet. Any severe cases were separated and treated in the stable or sent to the Fever Hospital...since the advent of cholera, the mortality has of course, much increased and will appear as occurring in the Workhouse. Upwards of 200 cases have occurred amongst the inmates of the house and auxiliary houses, since commencement. The greatest attention is necessary to personal cleanliness, bedding, and the avoidance of crowding within limited spaces as at present.'

Later in the month the visiting committee complained about the treatment of paupers who were refused admission to the Workhouse. They specifically referred to the case concerning Michael Long, his wife and four children. They had arrived with a ticket for indoor relief, but were refused admission. As a result they were forced to sleep on the road outside the Workhouse walls. The committee complained that there had been many similar cases. This was happening in spite of the fact that the Guardians had two unoccupied houses in Dungarvan capable of housing 400 people. 'Can we be called Guardians of the Poor, and suffer such things through the neglect of our officers?'

On 17 May 1849 the Matron complained that the Workhouse had been surrounded by hundreds of people, day and night, for two weeks. They had threatened to break into the Workhouse the previous night unless they were given relief. Twelve men and the wardmistress stayed up throughout the night in case of an attack. On 17 May Doctor Robert Longan was appointed to report on cholera cases and distribute medicine to people in the area 'commencing at the Kilminnin Bridge round by Daligan River and ending at Ballyvoile Bridge.'

Dr. Henry Anthony, Cholera Inspector for Dungarvan, gave the following details on cholera cases from the 10 to 17 May: There were 22 cases, six of whom died, seven were recovering, eight were in hospital and one patient was under treatment.On the same date Dr. Ronayne informed the Clerk that there had been 10 cases of cholera at Clashmore fever hospital, all of which were fatal.
Doctor George Walker of Bonmahon, informed the Guardians that 'a respectable person' had contracted cholera. He wished to know if he had been appointed to treat any paupers who had cholera, and if he was, what payment would he receive. The Guardians informed him that all cases should be treated in the fever hospital, the costs to be shared by the Dungarvan and Waterford Unions.
On 23 May Dr. Richard Graves reported four cholera cases in the Ring area.
People in Abbeyside objected to Carbery's store being turned into a cholera hospital. The Parish Priest of Abbeyside had called to Dr. Anthony informing him that he would help the people in preventing the cholera patients going to the store: 'great excitement was caused by ringing the parish bell and collecting a large mass of people.' The authorities decided that it would be safer to send the patients back to the hospital.

Dr. Anthony's report on cholera cases in Dungarvan and Abbeyside from 10 to 24

May: 15 patients were sent to hospital, 6 died, 15 recovered and 5 were under treatment.
Dr. Longan's report on the Ballinroad/Clonea cholera district from 17 to 24 May: 11 cases were treated, 4 were convalescing, 6 were under treatment and 1 had died.
Dr. Anthony's second report from 24 to 30 May: 8 sent to hospital, 6 died, 13 under treatment.
Dr. Longan's second report from 24 to 31 May: 4 under treatment, 2 deaths and two convalescing.
Dr. Richard Graves' first report on the Ring/Old Parish cholera district for week ending 30 May: There had been 8 deaths and 4 were convalescing.
Dr. Anthony's third report from 1 to 7 June: 5 sent to hospital, 2 deaths and 10 under treatment.
Dr. Longan's third report from 1 to 7 June: 1 patient under treatment, 2 deaths and 1 convalescing.
Dr. Graves' second report from 1 to 7 June: 6 new cases, 2 deaths and 4 convalescing.
Dr. Anthony's fourth report from 18 May to 13 June: 28 sent to hospital, 16 deaths and 56 recovered.
Dr. Longan's fourth report from 7 to 14 June: 1 in hospital, 4 under treatment and 2 convalescing.
Dr. Graves' third report on 14 June: 1 new case, 1 convalescing. Due to the significant reduction of cases in his area Dr. Grave's services were discontinued after 21 June.
Dr. Anthony's fifth report from 14 to 21 June: 2 deaths and 1 recovered.
Dr. Longan's fifth report from 14 to 21 June: 4 under treatment.
By this date the number of cholera cases had dropped considerably and on 21 June Denis Phelan, Poor Law Inspector, noted that 'cholera has nearly ceased in the Town and vicinity of Dungarvan.'
Dr. Longan's sixth report from 21 to 28 June: 2 under treatment and 2 convalescing.
Mr. Burke, Poor Law Inspector, in a report of 11 July was scathing in his criticism of the condition of Keating's store and the lack of discipline and order in all the buildings:
Idleness prevails throughout the Workhouse and auxiliaries, there seemed to be none employed, with the exception at the Workhouse of the boys at trades, some women spinning and making clothes and a few men at the land, in all about 100 out of 300 employed. The inmates continue to ramble about the town.

The Guardians responded to these criticisms by explaining that there were no yards attached to any of the auxiliary buildings so the inmates had to walk around the town for exercise. They also found it difficult to employ competent staff to look after the auxiliaries. However, they were taking steps to improve the situation. Dr. George Walker's first report on the Bonmahon cholera district on 26 July: There had been 5 deaths, 15 had been discharged and two remained. All were treated 'out of hospital.' The following were the figures for those treated in hospital: 2 deaths, 2 discharged and 2 under treatment.  He submitted a second report in August. Six had been discharged from hospital and 2 remained. Outside patients included 2 under treatment and 6 discharged. By October the cholera epidemic had abated. To a people suffering from famine it was but one more scourge. While the cholera epidemic in itself was very serious its effects on a populace debilitated by famine and malnutrition was exacerbated.

Author: William Fraher

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