Apart from overcrowding and disease, the biggest problem in many of the workhouses was the behaviour of young women. The women, who perhaps had been brought there as children, were now adolescent, many of them unruly and wild. They tended to be the most troublesome, involved in fighting and, on occasions, rioting. Their behaviour resulted from boredom. While males could be employed breaking stones, or farm work, there were not enough jobs for females, and no effort made to educate them or train them in any skill. By June 1850 in the Mountbellew workhouse, Co Galway, females made up 60 per cent of the inmate population. Three hundred and eighty two were adult; while 199 were aged between nine and 15 years.
Although panic and despair was still evident among country people in the poorer districts of Ireland, the harvest of 1847 was a success. Unfortunately only a few were able to rejoice in nature’s turnaround. So many people had been relying on public work schemes, and were not on their farms, that too few potatoes had been planted that spring.
Cruelly the land was not going to return to its bountiful generosity so easily. The potato blight struck again just before the harvest in 1849, but not with the same intensity as previous years. Then a new horror was added to the daily grind of survival. Cholera swept through the countryside. Once again there was a rush for workhouse care, where overcrowding only added to the ease with which the disease spread.*
By1849-1850, however, the government optimistically felt that the worst was over. The famine was gradually coming to an end, abating from east to west. Believing that the workhouse scheme, (there were more than 130 throughout the country ), had coped adequately during the worst of the crisis, and was again working satisfactorily, it withdrew all public work schemes, and left the upkeep of the workhouses on the shoulders of the local ratepayers. Any public money spent on relief of the destitute was, from then forward, to be considered an accumulating debt. Needless to say, the ratepayers were fed up and furious that such a burden should be, once again, their responsibility at such an uncertain time.
The number of children entering the workhouse during the Great Famine had alarmed the authorities. Workhouses became a dumping ground for children, and for decades after. Often they were abandoned by their parents, or by a single mother as no other institution would accept them. In most cases the parents were desperate. Believing that at least their child or children were being cared for, parents, who might have entered the workhouse as a family, quietly slipped away looking for work. If emigration was the only solution, then the belief was that once settled in America or elsewhere, they would send for their children. Wives, left behind, waited in the hope that one day their husbands would send for them.
As the family was segregated on entering the workhouse, for a long time children were not aware they had been abandoned, and their long-term fate was to grow up in the workhouse. As the famine drew to a close it was estimated that throughout the country, some 90,000 children were locked into the workhouse system.
Both the workhouse guardians and the local ratepayers became anxious to reduce the female population as quickly as possible. Although new workhouses were being built, it was accepted that it would be best if the long-term female inmates were not transferred to the new premises ‘as they had a poor work ethic, and a disorderly approach to the institution’s rules, which would have a negative impact on the other inmates.’
The solution was the new ‘assisted emigration schemes’, which all workhouses were anxious to take up. Australia and Canada desperately needed female domestic servants, and a balance to the mainly male population. Indeed the Australian authorities were so anxious to promote the scheme, that it provided free clothing for the girls and a free passage; only obliging the guardians to bring the girls to an English port for embarkation.
While it was argued that sending the girls would benefit the colonies and provide the inmates with a fresh start in life, the real motive was to improve the workhouses’ deteriorating financial problems.
Initially girls between the ages of 15 and 18 were selected. It can be imagined the excitement that it all aroused; the new clothes, the prospect of the voyage, and good weather at their destination, and the opportunity to leave behind forever their barrack-like surroundings. In the first two years of the scheme, 4,114 workhouse girls left Ireland for Australia.
The Mountbellew guardians sought permission to send a number of girls there too. In November 1852 the workhouse master, Mr Joyce, accompanied 30 girls to Plymouth from where they sailed on the Travencore to Western Australia.** The total cost to the workhouse was £105, two-thirds of their annual upkeep there. The savings were considerable, and the Mountbellew authorities now moved swiftly to off-load as many young girls as they could.
Next Week: Galway girls journey to Canada, and a rude awaking.
NOTES: *Apart from famine and disease, there was the unusual sight of large scale movement of people throughout the landscape. Many unscrupulous landlords took advantage of the controversial Gregory Quarter Acre Clause, and evicted large numbers of tenants, many of whom were hopelessly in debt. Emigration was now the only realistic hope for a better future for many. By 1849, emigration to America was estimated at approximately 200,000 per annum, and rising.
**Among those who sailed to Australia that day were Catherine Tully and Mary Anne Taylor from Castleblackeney, Mary Dooley from Clonbrock, and Mary Mannion from Ballinakill.
For this week’s Diary I am leaning on Gerard Moran’s essay “Permanent deadweight’ - Female Pauper Emigration from Mountbellew workhouse to Canada, published in Woman and the Great Hunger, by Quinnipiac University, USA.