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Extract: 'To the British government, the Famine was a threat to public order'

Author Gillian O’Brien looks at the workhouse and prisons and what they tells us about the Famine.

Gillian O'Brien

Gillian O’Brien is a Reader in Modern History at Liverpool John Moores University. For her first book, The Darkness Echoing, she travelled around Ireland to discover the stories behind our most haunted and fascinating historical sites, and what they say about Ireland as a nation. From war to revolution, famine to emigration, and finally, to death and ghosts, The Darkness Echoing examines the old, accepted narratives and brings newly unearthed stories from our past to life. In this extract, O’Brien visits workhouses and looks at what they tell us about Irish Famine history. 

WHEN THE FAMINE becomes ‘visible’, it tends to be in places where it intersects with the institutions that did so little to relieve it: prisons and workhouses.

To the British government (and many landlords), the Famine was a threat to public order and they were determined to quash any prospect of revolt.

Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a surge in the prison population in the late 1840s, in part because of crimes of desperation which saw adults and children imprisoned for very minor offences, including stealing a ‘copper coal scuttle’, ‘one pear from a garden’ and, in one instance, ‘handfuls of grass’.

Some of the first convicts sent to the prison on Spike Island near Cobh to await transportation were those who in desperation broke the law. Edward Walsh, a teacher in the prison, wrote to his wife in 1847 that ‘most of the convicts are persons . . . who were driven by hunger to acts of plunder and violence . . . I wept today in one of the wards when some of the people of Schull and Skibbereen told me the harrowing tales of their sufferings from famine, and the deaths – the fearful deaths – of their wives and little ones.’

The prison population was further swelled by the Vagrancy Act of 1847, which made begging and homelessness punishable by a month of hard labour in prison. Kilmainham Gaol had just over a hundred cells, most intended to house one prisoner, but in 1850 over nine thousand committals were recorded (the average number of daily inmates was 259).

The prison inspector’s report noted that ‘numbers of these wretched creatures are obliged to lie on straw in the passages and dayrooms of the prison without a possibility of washing or exchanging their own filthy rags for proper apparel’.

Kilmainham was far from the only prison that was overcrowded during the Famine: in jails such as Wicklow and Nenagh it was common for cells designed for one prisoner to house at least five. Some people were so desperate they actively solicited arrest in the hope of a meal and a place to stay. The quality of prison food did decline during the Famine, but all prisoners were fed.

And it wasn’t just adults: hundreds of children were also held in these jails. In 1847, ten-year-old James McCormack was sentenced to forty days’ hard labour for stealing parsnips.

Those who weren’t arrested often threw themselves on the mercy of the state and found themselves at the door of the local workhouse. Workhouses were a response to the growing poverty evident in Ireland a decade before the Famine. The 1836 Poor Inquiry Commission reported that almost two and a half million people were in such a state of poverty in Ireland as to require organised welfare schemes.

Two years later, the Poor Law was passed, and by the early 1850s there were 163 workhouses spread throughout the country, usually close to market towns. In 1847, there were about 417,000 inmates; by the end of 1849, there were over 932,000. Though most of the workhouses continued to operate until the early 1920s, in popular memory they are closely associated with the Famine. 

Workhouses were forbidding, gloomy places deliberately designed to act as a deterrent rather than a refuge, for the government believed that people would become idle on welfare. They were all designed by George Wilkinson and were very similar – two-and three-storey limestone buildings built along a horizontal H-plan. Segregation of inmates was the primary concern. 

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There were separate dormitories, yards and workspaces. At the back of the complex there was an infirmary for the ill and a ‘dead house’ for the deceased. ‘Wee Hannah’ Herrity, who was an inmate in Dunfanaghy Workhouse in north Donegal, recalled the cruelty of the matron, who, when inmates died, would have their bodies dragged from the dormitory and ‘you’d hear the head of the corpse cracking down the steps till it was put in the dead house below’.

The regime inside the workhouse was prisonlike.

Residents were referred to as ‘inmates’ and obliged to wear uniforms. Every day was strictly regimented and inmates were obliged to work to pay for their keep. Since workhouse employment was not allowed to compete with businesses outside the walls, the work was designed to be ‘of such a nature as to be found irksome’. This meant that, alongside cultivating the food eaten in the workhouse, many inmates picked oakum and broke stones – jobs more usually associated with prison.

More than half of the former workhouses in Ireland have been demolished and, of those that remain, about forty operate as medical facilities – St James’s Hospital in Dublin, Naas General Hospital and St Finbarr’s Hospital in Cork are just three of those that have incorporated former workhouses into their modern facilities.

Extracted from The Darkness Echoing by Gillian O’Brien, published by Sandycove, which is out now.

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Gillian O'Brien

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