Poorhouse from Galway

“With giant strides destitution and misery progress — the wants of the people daily and hourly progress — the cries for succour and assistance go forth, and ere long, even now, the distress of the poor has attained a degree fearful to contemplate. Turn to what quarter we may, the same dismal tale is told to us — in every direction we see countenance wan with care and hunger. In a like condition are the inhabitants of the rural districts, and we find that parishes — Annadown for instance, which used to supply the markets of Galway so abundantly, after supporting its own people in comfort, are now reduced to a most pitiable condition. There indeed, some of the landlords, at least those who reside at home, have stepped forward seasonably to the relief of their fellow creatures, and headed by the Cregg family, ever remarkable for their benevolence, seem resolved to do their duty.”

Some prescient words there published in The Galway Mercury in early 1846. They proved to be very accurate as the effects of the Famine grew worse and worse all over the country and caused untold misery and death. The other awful legacy of the Famine was emigration. Countless thousands were forced to leave simply to survive, and the large number of fatalities on board overcrowded Famine ships caused them to be called ‘Coffin Ships’.

Many could not afford cabins on board, so they travelled in steerage, the central part of the ship’s load. They had to provide their own food. For £4 to £5, they got a five and a half foot by two foot berth and little else, certainly not much light, ventilation, or water. Many were constantly seasick. One in six died from shipwreck or disease. Most were destitute and had no skills and when they got to America, some were so weak they had to be quarantined. They then occupied the lowest rung of the economic ladder on the dole, and found themselves living in filth and squalor in hovels and crowded tenements.

They were not always welcome. In the 1870s and 1880s, economical and political factors were important reasons for many to emigrate. Our illustration which was published by Harper’s Weekly in New York in 1883 and shows a floating poorhouse with a caption which reads “The Balance of Trade with Great Britain seems to be still against us. 650 paupers arrived in Boston in the steamship Nestoria April 15th, from Galway, Ireland, shipped by the British Government”. The sail on the small boat bears the legend “From New York, the Dynamite”, and the man sailing it is sitting on a box labelled “dynamite”. Obviously, they would love to have blown up the ship and its inhabitants. Shortly after this ship arrived The Catalonia arrived in Boston Harbour with “1,200 Irish paupers”. Many Americans were concerned that some of these immigrants might be prepared to dynamite the British or British interests from American soil.

The Galway Archaeological and Historical Society lecture on Monday next, April 10, will take place at 8pm in the Harbour Hotel. The title is “Portraits, Family and Estate papers of the Eyres of Eyreville, Kiltormer, Co Galway” and the speaker will be Donal Burke. All are welcome.

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