Workhouses' Stories in Co. Mayo

Mayo’s Girls

Between the years 1848-1850, 4,175 orphan girls aged 14-18 left Irish workhouses for Australia under a scheme supported by the Australian government. 

In 1848 only Ballina workhouse participated in the Scheme sending 47 girls to Australia. They departed on two ships: the Lady Kennaway to Melbourne and the Inchinnan to Sydney.

The following year, 1849, four Mayo workhouses sent girls to Australia: 40 of them were from Ballina, 25 from Ballinrobe, 15 from Castlebar and 10 from Westport. They were the best-conducted inmates and were provided with clothing and other necessaries at the expense of the respective unions. All of them were embarked on the Panama to Sydney.

Castlebar Workhouse

In January 1847 the state of the Castlebar’s workhouse was reported to the Lord Lieutenant as very poor and deplorable.

Upwards of 100 people were in the workhouse and each of them looked haggard and famished. Food was supplied on a very irregular basis and sent to the house very late along the day. Meals were scant in quantity (around 200lb) and made of oaten or Indian cornmeal. On New Year’s Day, the paupers got only one meal at a late hour.

Turf was supplied irregularly too or not sent at all for many days. The master was obliged to allow the paupers to lay in bed because of the lack of heat inside the building.

Children were hungry and cold and old men crowded the hospital. Coffins were procured with difficulty for the dead people.

In August the situation got worse, and the burial of workhouse paupers became a severe issue. The inhabitants of the town winced with disgust and got annoyed because often the few people carrying the bodies of paupers who have died in the workhouse took a rest and deposited the coffins on the ground for some time. Coffins were scarcely finished and didn’t cover the bodies adequately.

Following this matter, the Board regulated the burial of the paupers in the ground that was consecrated attached to the workhouse.

Ballinrobe Workhouse

In February 1847 a wandering vagrant was admitted to the workhouse. After few days he died of typhus. The disease spread into the overcrowded house killing hundreds people.

In March 1847 the Ballinrobe’s workhouse was in an awful deplorable state. Officers and inmates were all victims of a fearful fever.

The building turned into a charnel house, and the master, the clerk, the matron and the physician were all dead attending constantly on the sick inmates. The number of deaths among the inmates was unknown.

The inmates, who survived the fever, couldn’t escape starvation and death.

In January 1848 Reverend Phew wrote to the Poor Law Commissioners about the situation in Ballinrobe. More than three hundreds of people stood outside the workhouse seeking admission or outdoor relief every Friday. They stood in the wet and cold weather until night at the door following a 10/12 miles walk from the countryside.

Reverend Phew tried to help them representing their needs to the Guardians and giving them few coins to buy some bread. Often the weakest people died waiting at the door or returning home on the road from Ballinrobe.

Also, there was no relieving officer resident in this electoral division meaning no visit to the cabins of the applicants for relief could be made.

Westport Workhouse

In September 1847 The Telegraph reported the situation in Westport.

On the Workhouse Line, many people tried to get shelter in temporary sheds built with weeds and potato tops. The same scenes could be seen on Newport Line and the road to Rosbeg.

Westport Workhouse was attacked by fever. Inmates and officers both didn’t escape the awful epidemic.

In March 1848 a massive reduction to the large number of applicants for indoor or outdoor relief was reported.

The reason was the Vice-Guardians offered indoor relief instead of outdoor relief. The result was to have more able-bodied men in the workhouse.

The men refused to go to their ordinary work claiming they got very short rations of food, but it was said they wanted to be put on the outdoor relief.

The turbulent state of the house was drastically put to an end selecting 28 men either single or married, discharging them from the workhouse and intimating the other paupers that the same lot would occur to them if they refused to go to work.

Ballina Workhouse

In December 1847 the Ballina’s workhouse was overcrowded.

The patients in the infirmary were several hundred. In order to keep the house in a healthy state additional accommodation were required, and the sick had to be removed there, or many other people would be lost.

Around 300 paupers were moved to the store the Guardians had taken, but still, there were 1698 people in the workhouse. The applicants were in miserable and filthy conditions. There were no clothing and no bedding for 600 of them.

It was reported the Guardians were not well prepared to cope with the situation. They deferred the outdoor relief to people legally entitled to until it was too late and were not able to carry on the business of the Union properly.

Swinford Workhouse

In March 1848 the workhouse in Swinford housed 373 people divided into every section of the house including the infirmary and fever wards.

The discipline and adherence to the rules of conduct relaxed because the master and porter were both ill and there were no schoolmaster and mistress too.

The number of the inmates was decreasing. Many people left the house without authority. Many people left the workhouse without authorisation discharging themselves or leaving for England. There were only several able-bodied men left in the workhouse.

People who left the house spread fever and diseases across the Union.

In order to face the situation out-door relieves were granted on account of the fever and the lack of clothing in the house and to have the old clothing cleaned and repaired and the probationary wards whitewashed too.

It was reported the Committee didn’t attend to their duties properly and for this reason, the house fell into a state of neglect, absence of discipline and filth in the premises.

Michael Davitt

Swinford Workhouse was recalled by Michael Davitt in a speech before The Times- Parnell Commission in London in October 1889.

He stated that as a child he travelled to the workhouse in Swinford with his family, but they were refused admission as his mother refused to accept some of the conditions imposed in those 'abodes of misery and degradation'.

He also remembered hearing from his mother how poor people from between Straide, his birthplace, and Swinford had died of starvation and had been buried in a mass grave. So vivid an impression did these events make on his mind that on a visit to Swinford some 25 years afterwards he went to the burial place without asking anyone for directions.

Mob in Westport.

In January 1847 a robbery was reported in a store in Westport. The mob broke into the building and stole seven barrels of flour which they divided among them.

All the empty barrels were found beside the door. The guardians of the Westport Union decided to close the Workhouse temporarily.

Lord Sligo reacted with indulgence and supplied the house for three weeks waiting for the intention of the government.