Tuesday, 07 February 2017 10:21

Manorhamilton Workhouse

In an effort to deal with the abject poverty that existed in Ireland in the early 1800's, the Irish Poor Law Act was passed on the last day of July 1839. 

it was decided to divide the country into 130 unions, each centered around a significant market town. The Manorhamilton Union covered ten electoral divisions stretching from Drumkeerin to Rossinver and from Dromahair to Kiltyclogher. A Board of Guardians was elected to run each union. The first meeting of the Manorhamilton board took place on Monday October 14th 1839 with the chairman cairncross cullen, Vice-chairman Simon Armstrong and Secretary Thomas Nixon and about twenty other members. The land was purchased from Allen Rutherford and Henry Duggan for £12-5s-6p. The contract for the building and its fittings was approximately £6400. Initially there were three building on the site - The porter's Lodge, the Workhouse itself and the Infirmary. A Fourth building, The Fever Hospital, was added in 1850. By early December 1842 preparations for the opening of the house were nearing completion. The first officers and their salaries are on record :-Medical Officer, Dr. Dundass, £40 per annum, Master of the Workhouse, John Byrne, £40 p.a. Matron, Margaret Mc Donald,£25 p.a. porter, Michael walsh, £10p.a, The names of the paupers who entered the workhouse in that first week of December are recorded in the Minute Book- Pat cullen aged 40, Hugh O Donnell 20, Mary Harte 40, Mary Plunkett 50, Peggy Meehan 80, Ned mc kenna 80. Seven inmates spent the first christmas there and from then on the numbers rose. The austerity of life in the workhouse was seen by the Poor Law commissioners as 'a test of destitution'. The toll of the workhouse bell called inmates to rise, to eat, and to sleep. In the early years breakfast consisted of 7ozs of oatmeal made into stirabout and 1.5 pints of milk or a pint of buttermilk. Dinner for adults was boiled potatoes (3.5lbs weighed raw) and a pint of buttermilk. Children got lesser amounts. In line with the workhouses all over the country, adults got two meals a day and children were given and evening meal of bread and milk. Manorhamilton workhouse was built to accommodate 550 and although numbers increased steadily from its opening, the real crunch came with the great Famine of 1845-1849. Blight, which first appeared in America in 1843- 1844, was carried to Belgium in a cargo of what seemed to be healthy potatoes. It spread rapidly in that part of Europe, made its way to southern England and was recorded at the Botanical gardens in Dublin by Dr. David Moore on august 20th 1845. The main variety of potato grown in Ireland at that time, the lumper, was particularly susceptible to disease and very soon reports of  a total loss of the potato crop were widespread. Panic ensued. The 130 Workhouses in Ireland at the time were built to accommodate 100,000 but by winter 1846-1847 more than five times that number had qualified for admission. In Manorhamilton the number of those seeking to enter the Workhouse was thought to be in excess of 1000. In an effort to cope, five additional premises were rented in the area. Conditions in the home itself were deplorable and disease rampant. the turf and straw sheds became fever wards and the Grim Reaper claimed many. It is impossible to say how many passed away here in those horrific times. The Minute Books of the workhouse record many deaths but on some weeks the only indication we have of the death rate is by the number of coffins ordered. The entry for the 4th day of may 1847, for example, shows that order to have been for 47 large, 17 second and 7 small and this may not have been the full picture as children were not always afforded an individual coffin. The three cemeteries at Manorhamilton Workhouse were filled to capacity, as was evident when archaeologist Declan Moore and his crew were working on the site in the preparation for the building of the H.S.E. offices. In the excavated area, coffins were laid so close together as to be almost touching. In the summer of 1849, famine and its related diseases still claimed many victims in Manorhamilton workhouse. In June 80 deaths are recorded, in July 100 and in August 60. Finally in November of that year, a week came when no deaths occurred. The famine had passed. Life in the house took on a semblance of its former normality. In time the dreaded word 'workhouse' was replaced by the title 'County Home'. Between November 13th and 26th 1936 all the inmates and staff in the manorhamilton home were transferred to a new County Home in Carrick-on-Shannon. Eighteen years later demolition of the workhouse here made way for Our Lady's Hospital in 1954.

written by Mrs. Margaret Connolly

Published in Local News

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