( Famine & Workhouse )

by
Jim Reynolds
Potatoes were introduced into Ireland in the mid 1700's, rooted not only in the soil but deep in Irish history. The Great Famine of 1847 was severely felt in Mohill and the surrounding areas while shiploads of grain were being exported to England to pay for exporting rents to absentee landlords. Irish landlords were not noted for careful management of their estates. Many were only interested in hunting, drinking and building large houses. They let their land in parcels to middlemen on long term lease.
During the 18th century a new method for dealing with Irish property was adapted, large tracts of land were let at fixed rents too single individuals on long term lease and he sublet this as he chose. This was the middle man system. This led to misery for a lot of people. The landlord rid himself of responsibility and assured himself of a regular income. Holdings were split into smaller and still smaller fragments until families were attempting to exist on plots of land less than an acre.
In Mohill the rent required by landlords was oppressive. The landlords or his agents did not take into consideration the low productivity due to the over working of the land. When rents fell in arrears evictions were common. Families were evicted onto the roadside and the agent and their henchmen left their small thatched cabins in a heap of rubble. Some landlords were more compassionate than others were and an extension of time on payments was sometimes granted In the Devon Report of 1844 it stated that the yearly rent for Mohill town was seven thousand-pound. This was paid to Sir Morgan Crofton of Lakefield (who rarely lived there). The Crofton family were the owners of Mohill town. The population of Mohill Parish was 11 ,700 in 1841. The Devon Commission whose terms of reference were to enquire into the living conditions of the people and their occupation of land, visited Leitrim in July 1844. The Commission sat in Mohill and in Carrick- on Shannon and took evidence from a cross-section of people. Their findings stated that the conditions of certain people e.g. labourers and cotters lay wretched beyond belief. D.R John Duke a dispensary doctor in Mohill stated: "I am obliged to visit these people and go where no gentlemen would go, they have no bedsteads, they are lying in straw, they have no blankets to cover themselves. Often straw bedding is wet as dampness seeps through the earthen floors. Children are under nourished often naked; fever is on the increase. Their houses were often one room. The walls were constructed of bog sods and clay; The roofs were thatch with rushes straw or reeds, with a hole in the roof to release the smoke. The people had been accustomed with coping with near famine conditions in previous years; notably in 1817-1821. In the autumn of 1846 the dreaded blight wiped out the entire potato crop. Flocks of wretched people searched through the potato fields for fragments of edible potatoes".
The winter of 1846 was most severe, heavy snow fell in early November and icy winds blew from the east.
Meanwhile public work schemes were under way. Roads were being built and drainage work was seen carried out on the river Shannon under the supervision of The Board of Works. In September 1846 30,000 people were employed, this figure leaped to 300,000 by the end of the year throughout the country. Their wages were 8- 10 old pence per day. Men began to faint with exhaustion and there was a rapid increase in the number of deaths on works from starvation, aggravated by exposure to cold snow and drenching rain. In the summer of 1847 the Work Schemes were replaced by Government Soup kitchens. A Soup kitchen existed in Lower Main Street Mohill. This was set up and run mainly through the organising efforts of local clergymen of all denominations. The people detested the method of distribution. Each person was required to bring a bowl or a pot and stand in line until his/her turn.
The poor law or workhouse system had been introduced into Ireland in 1833, following this 130 workhouses were built throughout the country. George Wilkinson from Oxford in England was appointed architect to draw up a standard set of plans and supervise the building of the workhouses. His salary was £600 per annum. The style was Jacobean English period, with lofty towers, high-pitched roofs and pointed gables. Mohill Workhouse was built between 1838-41 on a seven-acre site belonging to the Crofton estate. It accommodated 700 people. It was situated where the Creamery and Hyde terrace are today. The walls were built of Limestone quarried locally. The inside walls were unplastered just white washed. The ground floors were made of lime mortar on top of stone and shale. The final cost of the building was £3000.
Its first admission was on the 8th June 1842. The Board of Guardians who administered the system was made up of wealthy farmers and businessmen. Its chairman was Lord Leitrim. They laid down strict regulations for its running. It directed that no person should be sent to the workhouse except those who were sick or unable to maintain themselves. On entry the people were segregated by sex, age and physical condition and were sent to separate wards. Families were allowed to meet for short periods once a week. Everyone had to work: the women in the kitchen while the men broke stones and chopped wood.
The diet of the workhouse was oatmeal and milk for breakfast. For dinner three and a half pounds of potatoes and buttermilk was given. The Adults received no supper while the children got bread and milk. Paupers who disobeyed regulations were flogged or denied their food rations. Transportation orders were served on those who continued to disobey orders.
On the 11th of June there were 139 paupers in the Workhouse. By December of 1846 the numbers had reached 800. Two cartloads of orphans (about 25 in all) were turned away because the workhouse was already overcrowded. The fever hospital, which adjoined the workhouse, contained 95 seriously ill patients of which 14 died in June 1847. Death became a way of life in the workhouse. Dead paupers were taken after short prayer service on a cart to Bully's acre and buried without a coffin in an unmarked grave. The system under which this terrible condition came about in Ireland was one of centuries of successive conquests, confiscation's and punitive legislation.
Ireland was a broken and conquered country: the Irish peasant a dispossessed man, his landlord an alien conquer.

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