the Great Famine in Lurgan

Vol. 7 No. 1 - 1995

Some aspects of

the Great Famine in Lurgan Poor Law Union


by Gerard Mac Atasney

This article is the result of ongoing research work into the effects of the Great Famine in the Lurgan/Portadown area and concentrates on the major events either side of Christmas 1846.

In 1839, as part of the process of establishing a Poor Law, Ireland was divided into 130 Poor Law Unions - each Union being constituted from a number of local electoral divisions. The Lurgan Union, which was declared on 16 January 1839, comprised portions of Counties Armagh, Down and Antrim and, according to the census of 1841, contained 71,128 persons living on 79,201 acres.

One of the first duties of the new Board of Guardians was the construction of a workhouse and they eventually decided on a six acre site on the new Lurgan-Tandragee Road in the townlands of Tannaghmore South and Aughnacloy.

The building, constructed by Arthur Williams and Sons of Dublin, was capable of housing 800 inmates and was officially opened on 22 February 1841. Workhouses were designed to be a refuge of last resort with Poor Law Commissioner George Nicholls remarking:

"I wish to see the workhouse looked to with dread by our labouring classes." 1

Hence, upon entering such institutions the poor suffered minute and regular observance of routine, total separation of the sexes, separation of families, labour and total confinement. An example of the severity of workhouse life is offered by an analysis of the pauper's diet which was little better than that on offer in prison:

  • breakfast: 6oz meal and 1/3 quart buttermilk
  • dinner: 3lbs potatoes and 1/3 quart buttermilk
  • supper: 5oz meal and 1/3 quart buttermilk

Consequently, those entering the workhouse represented the truly destitute and impoverished in each locality and the following cases demonstrate that in 1843 the Lurgan workhouse was being used by the old and infirm, mothers with young children and orphans or deserted children:

Sarah Arnold - 84, widow, infection of the lungs, wretched and filthy looking, came in a cart.

William and May Dynes - 10 and 7 respectively Motherless and deserted by Father - starved and nearly naked.

Sarah McCorry - 34: spinner: widow: admitted with one child, both in fever, came to workhouse in a cart, dirty, filthy, ragged and miserable.

Until 1846 the Lurgan workhouse coped well with the demands of the poor and in fact numbers never rose above half the capacity of the building:

YearAverage weekly number

As the figures for 1845 indicated the potato failure of that year did not have a significant impact in the Lurgan union. Indeed, it proved to be rather localised in nature and the only reference to it was that potatoes supplied to the workhouse by Joseph Berry of Moira had been found to be "very insufficient, there being a great number of rotten and of very small size." 2

The poor quality of the crops ensured that prices increased and this was manifested by the gradual replacement of potatoes with oatmeal and yellow Indian meal in the workhouse diet.

However the second successive and much more sudden failure of the potato crop in July-August 1846 proved to be much more widespread and devastating in its effects. By November the numbers in the workhouse totalled over five hundred and, given the condition of those therein, it is hardly surprising that serious fever outbreaks resulted. On 11 November the workhouse Master, Meason, died and in the three weeks that it took to appoint a replacement, numbers increased dramatically so that by the end of December the workhouse was filled to capacity with 805 inmates - a point made by John Hancock, agent to Charles Brownlow, who in a letter to the Board of Works in Dublin commented:

Distress is increasing here in consequence of the severe frost and our workhouse is filling rapidly."3

This pattern was not unique to Lurgan and was repeated throughout the country - by the end of November the workhouses of the Ballina, Cork, Granard, and Waterford unions were full. Indeed by Christmas over half of the 130 workhouses were full. With the Poor Law now stretched to its limits, the burden of relief fell on local relief committees. Such groups had emerged in other parts of Ireland in 1845 but now that the north-east was experiencing problems similar to those in the south and west, people felt the need to establish committees which could help alleviate widespread destitution at a local level. Consequently relief committees were established in Lurgan, Portadown, Kernan, Drumcree, Clonmacate, Moira, Donacloney, Magheralin, Tullylish and Ballinderry.

Destitute condition of the labouring classes

The papers relating to these committees offer us an insight into the terrible conditions in which many people found themselves in the midst of famine. From Moira came reports of the "destitute condition of the labouring classes"; in Donacloney there existed an "awful want and destitution on the part of those applying for relief," whilst in Drumcree the condition of the poor was described as being one of "extreme deprivation and distress." 4

Given such circumstances the importance of local relief committees cannot be overstressed - without them many hundreds of people would undoubtedly have perished. Their major role was the purchase and distribution of food - usually meal and soup. This was financed by public subscription to each fund complemented with an equal amount from government funds in Dublin. Most of those subscribing were local clergy, farmers and gentry, although money was donated by many outside relief agencies. Hence we find donations from groups such as the Belfast Relief Fund, the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, and the Durham Relief Association.

As a result of such subscriptions the Lurgan committee was able to sell "good substantial nourishing broth"5 at one penny per quart. In Ballinderry and Donacloney Indian meal was being sold at half price while the committees of Moira and Drumcree were catering for three hundred and two thousand five hundred people respectively.

One of the worst affected areas was Tartaraghan where soup and meal were being given to over 1,300 people, a number, according to Rev. Clements, which was "expected daily to increase." 6 The same source offered this general picture of the area:

"Both weavers and labourers are daily becoming less equal to work, and starvation is pictured in their countenances. Numbers are subsisting on less than one meal per diem and upon raw turnips and any herbs they can gather. Already one case of death from starvation has occurred ... and several have only just been [p]reserved from it while fever has attacked very many in the district ... we hardly know where to turn for assistance." 7

More chance of death than survival

Assistance for many, however, meant extra into the workhouse but as the weeks passed, it appeared that this refuge offered more chance of death than survival. The first week of January saw 18 deaths in the workhouse and in the following weeks mortalities totalled 36, 55, 58 and 68 until 6th February when 95 died. Such a large number of deaths had not gone unnoticed by the Poor Law Commissioners and they sent a letter to Dr. Bell demanding an explanation of the situation.

Bell stated the majority of deaths occurred because many people in a very sick condition, were admitted to the workhouse and died very shortly afterwards. Hence, in his view, "mortality in the workhouse is much greater than under ordinary circumstances and it is a well-known fact that many dying persons are sent for admission merely that coffins may be thereby obtained for them at the expense of the Union" 8

As regards sanitary conditions, the doctor reported that as there were four times the usual number of inmates, the building was now overcrowded and as a consequence it had been impossible to provide dry beds: "This sleeping upon damp beds has also increased fever and bowel complaints which have in many cases proved fatal". 9

However, this assessment does not stand up to scrutiny as increasing numbers of staff, presumably sleeping in dry beds, began to become ill. By late January the porter had dysentery while the assistant ward master and schoolmaster were ill with fever. In early February the assistant ward master died and the clerk was reported to be suffering from the "high symptoms of dysentery".10

Drastic action was called for, and on 5 February the Guardians decided to have the following notice pasted throughout the Union:

"Notice is hereby given that in consequence of the present state of the Workhouse and Fever Hospital the Guardians have been obliged to close the doors, for the present, against all further admissions."11

The Poor Law Commissioners were obviously still monitoring the situation and decided to send Dr Smith from the Board of Health to investigate the Workhouse. The fast that Dr Smith only visited two other workhouses, Bantry and Cork, both of which were suffering severely, and then travelled almost 300 miles to Lurgan, demonstrates how seriously they regarded the situation here and their determination to effect a remedy as soon as possible.

A picture of neglect and discomfort

In a long and detailed report, Smith described "a picture of neglect and discomfort such as I have never seen in any other charitable institution".12

The male and female infirmary wards were found to be overcrowded with, in some cases, two, three or four patients to each bed. The walls had not been whitewashed for a long time; buckets, used as lavatories, were allowed to sit for hours without being emptied and medicines and drink were served out on the floor which was in a filthy state.

As regards burials, it was found that many had taken place close to the fever hospital - in some cases less than four yards from it. The centre of the burial ground was a well which was used to supply the hospital with water - the graves had been dug so close to it that the water had become muddy and unfit for usage.

Smith concluded that the problems in the workhouse had developed when the master had died in November; a three week period elapsed before the appointment of a successor and in the meantimne overcrowding emerged and was allowed to continue until the end of January. Thus "ventilation, whitewashing and cleanliness appear to have been neglected at the very time when the strictest attention to these important means of arresting the spread of disease were most imperatively called for." 13

However, Smith also believed that what he termed "a little more activity" 14 on the part of Dr Bell and a stricter surveillance by the Guardians would have prevented much of the mortality. He concluded thus:

"I am of the opinion that the chief causes of the evil in question are internal and the result of defective management of the institution."15

Smith's report proved to be a damning indictment of the Guardians and staff in the workhouse but worse was to follow when a letter from the Episcopalian Chaplain, Rev Oulton, necessitated an internal inquiry and further eroded the credibility of those charged with administering the workhouse. In a long letter Oulton complained bitterly of the quality of food being served in the workhouse:

"It is hardly to be wondered at that so much disease should be in the workhouse if the description of food has for any length of time been such as I saw here today."16

He stated that the bread used for supper was dark coloured, insufficiently baked and sour. Coupled with this, the broth was so bad that many paupers could not use it. Indeed the master had reported that cutting the meat for broth the smell was so offensive that he could hardly stand over it. Oulton himself described the meat as being "of the worst description that could be got in Lurgan Street - more like the flesh of an animal that had died of disease than being killed for food."17

He also doubted if the cooking utensils and kitchen were clean, remarking "It was once in a very bad state and might be so again." 18 The clergyman concluded by expressing the following opinion:

"I could not refrain from mentioning these matters to you which doubtless have had no inconsiderable share in producing the dreadful mortality which has sweeped our workhouse."19

The subsequent investigation, involving many workhouse officials, illustrated the gradual deterioration in administration standards in the institution.

Unfit for human food

The ward master considered the bread in use to be "unfit for human food"20 while Dr Bell concluded "the disease in the house would not have been so bad if we had sufficient supply of wholesome bread and good beef such as was contracted for".21 This opinion was echoed by Dr McVeigh who believed that the poor quality of bread would have much increased diarrhoea and dysentery now in the house.22

The immediate result of the enquiry was the return of almost 200 lbs of bread to the contractor. However, and more significantly, in light of the evidence produced by both investigations, the doctor, Bell, and the master, Mr Easton, resigned.

The fact that Lurgan workhouse had been portrayed as an institution where neglect, incompetence and negligence were rife had left it open to scrutiny by both the Poor Law Commissioners and the general public. Consequently the Board of Guardians emerged in a very bad light and they immediately sought to improve matters. On 11 March a new medical officer, Dr McLaughlin from Downpatrick, was appointed. From now on he had to attend each Board Meeting and present weekly reports of sickness, mortality, medical requirements and dietaries. The master was now required to have his books written up and given to the clerk each Tuesday; he also had to attend each Board meeting "with all the necessary books of the establishment under his control for the information of the Board."23

Hand in hand with better administration went sanitary improvements. All ventilators had to be cleaned and improved; lids with hinges placed on all night stools; the porter was ordered to burn the clothes of deceased paupers and to fumigate with brimstone and sulphur the clothes of those still alive. As a consequence of these changes in sanitation and administration the succeeding months witnessed both a marked decrease in the number of workhouse mortalities and a general improvement in the conditions therein.

Although this account offers only a glimpse of life during the famine it is very revealing in that it illustrates that many of the recorded deaths could have been avoided if the Lurgan workhouse had been effectively administered in the vital months either side of Christmas 1846.

Without the work of the various relief committees Lurgan could have suffered mortality levels as great as anywhere else in Ireland, Consequently we owe a great debt to the work carried out by clergymen of all denominations who ensured that this area did not become, like Skibbereen, a byword for destitution, poverty and hunger.

  1. Patrick Durnin - Derry and the Poor Law; p.91
  2. Board of Guardians Minutes, Lurgan Union; 1845 p.255
  3. Letter Book of John Hancock P.R.O.N.I. - D.1928/J/5; p.305
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Board of Guardians Minutes, Lurgan Union; 1847 p.426
  8. Ibid.; p.426
  9. Ibid.; p.455
  10. Ibid.; p.458
  11. Inquiry into the state of the workhouses in Cork, Bantry and Lurgan March 1847; p.14
  12. Ibid.; p.15
  13. Ibid.; p.15
  14. Ibid.; p.15
  15. Ibid.; p.15
  16. Board of Guardians Minutes, Lurgan Union; 1847 p.469
  17. Ibid.; p.469
  18. Ibid.; p.469
  19. Ibid.; p.469
  20. Ibid.; p.470
  21. Ibid.; p.476
  22. Ibid.; p.477
  23. Ibid.; p.520