In the mid-nineteenth century, Ireland was mostly a rural based peasant society. Out of a population of over 8.5 million people, 86 per cent lived in rural Ireland and the vast majority of those struggled to eke out a meagre subsistence.
The fundamental problem in pre-Famine Ireland was poverty. Much of the illness and disease that afflicted the country was attributed to poverty.
A government commission enquiring into the condition of the Irish poor during the 1830s found that for at least thirty weeks of the year, in ‘normal times’, at least 2,385,000 of the population were destitute. It was a population acknowledged by a further government report in 1845 as unparalleled in Western Europe for the depth of its poverty.
State-funded medical relief to the poor did exist from the 1790s through dispensaries, asylums, county infirmaries and fever hospitals. By the 1830s these institutions reached most parts of Ireland, although they were scattered and underfunded.
Doctors were distributed throughout the country, but they had no back-up and had completely inadequate institutions and facilities to support them in their struggle to serve the vast majority of the population which was cripplingly poor and lived in abject poverty and squalid conditions.
In this part of the country there were medical dispensaries at Skibbereen, Baltimore, Castletownshend, Glandore, Rosscarbery and Schull.
In 1838 the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland introduced a Poor Law into Ireland as a method of dealing with the extreme levels of poverty and destitution.
The island of Ireland was divided into 130 geographical areas, called Unions, and in each of these areas a Workhouse was built, usually in the largest market town or urban location. These Workhouses were to be paid for by taxes raised locally.
Skibbereen was one of eleven Unions in County Cork and a workhouse was built in Skibbereen town.
The Workhouse in Skibbereen was built to accommodate 800 people and opened on 19 March 1842. It was on the site now occupied by Skibbereen Community Hospital. There is nothing left of the original workhouse, but the high forbidding perimeter wall is the original.
There was also a burial ground attached to the Workhouse in Skibbereen but at the height of the Famine deaths became so numerous that a death cart left the Workhouse every morning carrying those who had died to a mass grave at Abbeystrowry Burial Ground.
In March 1842 the Guardians of the Skibbereen Poor Law Union appointed Dr Daniel Donovan MD, to be physician to the workhouse, and Mr Jeremiah Crowley, apothecary, to be the dispenser to that establishment.
There was a deep-rooted antipathy against entering the Workhouse. To gain admission people had to be completely destitute. An individual could not seek entry to the Workhouse, the whole family had to present itself.
There were three ways of obtaining admission, but most applicants just presented themselves at the main gate on the morning of the Board of Guardians meetings and had their cases assessed.
If a family did gain admission to the Workhouse the first thing that happened was that they were split into different classifications – males over the age of 15, boys aged two to 15, females above the age of 15, girls two to 15, and children under two year of age. With the exception of the physically or mentally ill, all paupers had to work in the house or grounds.
An important difference between the Irish and English Poor Laws was that English paupers were guaranteed relief, albeit in the Workhouse, while in Ireland there was no provision for any other form of public charity if the Workhouse was full. So, if you were completely destitute and you could not gain admission to the Workhouse, you were left to your own devices.
Also, the geographical size of Unions mattered. In the case of the very large Skibbereen Union, destitute people who lived in areas far from the workhouse suffered particularly badly. There are accounts of people walking 25 or 30 miles to the Workhouse in Skibbereen, not being allowed admission, and then having to walk the return journey home. And this was when these people were in a state of advanced starvation!
At the heart of the workhouse system was the principle of ‘less eligibility’ – that the standard of living within the workhouse should be less than that of the poorest people outside. This was to discourage anyone but those in dire need from securing assistance.
Many Irish workhouses were in a state of almost inconceivable filth, disorder and neglect. In a series of ‘spot-checks’ on various workhouses during the winter of 1844, it was found that in Skibbereen the fittings and furniture were discovered to be ‘in a deplorable state of neglect’.
In the initial years the Workhouse accommodation was more than adequate to deal with the levels of pauperism in the country.
In fact, up to the summer of 1846 the Workhouse system was operating well below its capacity as the figures for the weeks ending 24 March 1844, 1845 and 1846 indicate. The numbers in the Workhouse in Skibbereen on 24 March 1844 were 293; 24 March 1844, 305, and 24 March 1846, 314.
At a meeting of the Board of Guardians in July 1843 the physician of the house, Dr Donovan reported – that there were 259 paupers in the house, which gave entire satisfaction, only two fever cases remaining in the infirmary, all the others having been successfully treated, and patients recovered.
When the potato crop failed in Ireland in 1845 causing immediate terror for the three million people who depended on it for their survival, the burden for providing for people was put on the Poor Law system which was never intended to cope with a full-blown Famine emergency. With the intensification of the Famine the workhouses were faced with awesome responsibilities.
Skibbereen Union was disproportionately affected early in the crisis because it was one of the largest Poor Law Unions in the country in terms of size, and it was also one of the poorest.
A Fever Hospital to accommodate forty patients was built adjoining the Workhouse and stables were converted to accommodate a further forty patients as conditions deteriorated.
It was only after the second failure of the potato crop in August-September 1846 that Ireland began to descend into total chaos and from October 1846 the Workhouse system became overwhelmed.
By mid-October 1846 workhouses were coming under increasing pressure and admissions continued to increase so fast that workhouses in the worst-hit regions were being forced to refuse admissions by the end of the year.
A report from Skibbereen in the Cork Examiner on 18 December 1846 said: ‘The mortality in the Workhouse proves the number of deaths in that establishment to have amounted, since the first of the present month, up to last Tuesday evening, exactly fifteen days, to the enormous number of sixty-seven. … Out of those sixty-seven only twelve persons were over forty years of age. It is daily occurrence, I understand, for the applicants for relief to expire in the hall, or before they have been twenty-four hours in the establishment’.
The report went on to say that: ‘In the Workhouse, the stables have been converted into a ward for the convalescent fever patients; and in some of the wards in that establishment there are as many as six fever patients in a bed together’.
A meeting of the Skibbereen Relief Committee on 15 December 1846 heard that ‘eighty persons were admitted to the Workhouse on Thursday week, and out of these sixteen have since died’.
A few weeks later, in early January 1847 the Workhouse had to close because ‘of the dangerously thronged state of the Workhouse, as well as the perilous state of pestilence and disease affecting a large number of its inmates, and the unprecedented mortality’.
Between 10 October 1846 and 7 January 1847, 266 people had died in the Workhouse in Skibbereen.
Death rates in the workhouses soared in early 1847 as the grossly overcrowded buildings became infected with fever and served as a place of last resort for the starving masses. To an extent it is possible to track the descent into chaos in Ireland through the statistics from the Workhouses. Very quickly the numbers trying to gain entrance to the Workhouses increased and the death rates rose significantly.
It should be remembered that for every death in the Workhouse there were many more taking place outside, in and around the town of Skibbereen. When the land could no longer support those living in the densely populated countryside, people were either evicted or they abandoned the land and crowed into Skibbereen looking for admission to the Workhouse or for aid. Those who could not gain admission to the Workhouse took shelter in abandoned hovels or outhouses in the town.
The mortality rates in Skibbereen Workhouse peaked in March and April 1847. For the week ending 20 March, 82 died; for the week ending 27 March, 106 died; for the week ending 3 April, 67 died; for week ending 10 April 1847, 60 died.
Throughout 1847 and 1848 conditions in the Workhouse in Skibbereen continued to be extremely distressing.
An outbreak of Cholera in November 1848 placed further enormous demands on the fever hospitals that were financed by the Poor Law Unions.
The returns for the Workhouse show that on 3 May 1848 there were 2,538 persons under the age of 18 in the Skibbereen Workhouse or Auxiliary Workhouses. It can be assumed that many of these under-18s were either orphans or abandoned children.
Auxiliary Workhouses were stores that were taken over by the Authorities to house the thousands of destitute paupers crowding into the town. A.G. Stark in his Journal of a Tour in Leinster and Munster 1850, said that ‘in the main workhouse and about twenty auxiliaries – which were formerly employed as corn stores, warehouses, private dwellings, etc., – there are upwards of 4,000 paupers fed, lodged and clothed in idleness at public expense.’
Among the Auxiliary Workhouses were Swanton’s Store on Levis Quay, right in the centre of town, Daly’s store on Bridgetown quay, McCarthy’s store adjoining, Mr. Marmion’s store, Deelish, Coppinger’s buildings, Union Hall, Leap, Burke’s, Baldwin’s, McCarthy’s, and Abbey Hospital.
A report in the Cork Examiner of 8 December 1848 under the heading ‘Alarming state of the Skibbereen Poorhouse’ recorded that the total number in Skibbereen Poorhouse and its auxiliary houses was about 4,230.
In June 1851 there were still over 3,000 paupers being supported in Skibbereen Union.
According to the Census returns the deaths in the Workhouse in Skibbereen between 1841 and 1851 were 4,346. In the temporary Fever Hospital in Skibbereen 651 people died. Up to the beginning of 1846 the death toll was minimal, so the majority of the deaths took place in the six years 1846–1851.
While that stark figure is extraordinary, we would reckon that total of 4,346 may well be an under-recording. Add to that the thousands who died outside the Workhouse. In March 1847, right at the height of the crisis, the Skibbereen Relief Committee estimated the deaths every day were between 35 to 40, exclusive of those in the Workhouse.
The Workhouse in Skibbereen was completely destroyed by fire in June 1921, during the War of Independence. A report in the Southern Star of 25 June 1921 stated: ‘The Skibbereen Workhouse was set on fire between twelve and one o’clock on Thursday morning, and burned to the ground. About 300 armed men entered the premises and ordered the inmates to leave, removing the helpless and the bed-ridden to the fever portion of the extensive buildings remaining. The male and female portions of the house, the chapel, the hospital, and officers’ quarters and the boardroom were completely gutted’.
Unfortunately, the records of the House were destroyed in that fire.
Over time, many of the Workhouses in Ireland evolved into local hospitals and in Skibbereen the Sisters of Mercy took over the management and running of the hospital there for many years. The site now contains Skibbereen Community Hospital and many Health Service Executive facilities and clinics.