Getting rid of the troublesome women

Week III

‘Emigration vessel - Between decks’, published in the Illustrated London News May 10 1851.

‘Emigration vessel - Between decks’, published in the Illustrated London News May 10 1851.

One of the remedies in dealing with overcrowding, and rebellious behaviour from frustrated and angry women in the workhouses during the famine years, was assisted emigration. This was done on a massive scale. Between 1848 and 1850, 4,175 women were sent direct from the workhouse system to Australia. This was in addition to the thousands already sent away assisted by landlords and other schemes to clear the land of unproductive tenants. The only cost to the individual Poor Law unions was for new clothes, and travel expenses to Plymouth, from where the girls embarked to the colony. 

While the Australian authorities looked for girls ‘of good character’, the Poor Law unions packed off their troublesome women and girls, and those who seemed likely to remain a long-term burden on the rates.

When the Australian route was closed in 1850, Canada, where the demand for domestic servants was high, was the next destination. In four years more than 15,000 girls were sent there, mainly from the Limerick, Galway and South Dublin. In 1854 it was noted that there was a marked reduction in the levels of riots and lawlessness in the workhouses.

Undoubtedly a major factor for the riots and insubordination was the appalling overcrowding of the workhouses. Rev John O’Sullivan , chaplain of the Kenmare workhouse, reported that ‘You cannot have discipline or order, or regularity in a house built for 500 when you have 1,400 in it’. The Galway workhouse opened on March 2 1842 with a capacity for 1,000 paupers. Seven years later it was providing, as best it could, for 3,450. Ennis  had only facilities for 800, yet it accommodated 4,208 by January 1851. In the immediate post-famine years, 265,170 inmates were registered as  paupers in the country’s workhouses.

‘Dispirited in heart’

Unfortunately the emigrant’s suffering was not over when she stepped on board the boat. Shipping regulations were lax, many of them minimally converted cargo ships, owned by uncaring profiteers. Emigrants were given inadequate food, dirty and insufficent water. In Cecil Woodham-Smith’s renowned study The Great Hunger, she quotes Stephen de Vere, son of the well known de Vere family, Curragh Chase, Co Limerick, who made the three-month steerage passage to Quebec in April 1847 “in order that he might speak as a witness respecting the sufferings of emigrants:”*

‘Before the emigrant has been a week at sea he is an altered man. How can it be otherwise? Hundreds of poor people, men, women and children of all ages, from the driveling idiot of ninety to the babe just born, huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in flith and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart... The fever patients, in sleeping places so narrow as almost to deny them a chance of position... Their ravings disturbing those around, living without food or medicine, except as administered by the hand of casual charity; dying without the voice of spiritual consolation, and buried in the deep with the rites of the church.’

‘frightful scenes’

The food, de Vere commented, was seldom sufficiently cooked because there were not enough cooking places. There was hardly enough water for drinking and cooking. Washing was impossible. The filthy beds were never taken on decking for airing, nor were the narrow spaces between the sleeping-berths ever washed. People lay for days on end in their dark close berths, because by that method they suffered less from hunger.

Spirits were sold once or twice a week, and frightful scenes of drunkenness followed. The captain used a false measure for water, doling out three pints instead of a gallon. For this de Vere had the captain prosecuted and fined on arrival at Quebec.

The Great Famine continues to astound me. Between 1845 and 1852 more than one million people died of hunger and disease. More than one million emigrated, two-thirds to the US alone. By the early years of the 20th century, more than 5,000,000 had emigrated, mainly to North America. The population of the entire country was halved.

NOTES: The information about the female inmates of the workhouses concludes an article  by Dr Gerard Moran, which I have taken from Culture and Society in Ireland since 1750, published in honour of Galway historian Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, which will be formally launched at NUIG next Monday July 6.

*Stephen de Vere’s report is on page 226, of C Woodham-Smith’s book, first published 1962 by Hamish Hamilton, London.


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