Poor Law Administration Mayo 1800s, Charlestown

In 1735, Bishop G Berkeley posed the pertinent question of, whether there be upon the earth, Christian or Civilised people so beggardly wretched and destitute, as the common Irish.

One hundred years later there was no improvement, as Gustave de Beaumont testifies, misery naked and famishing, that misery which is vagrant, idle and medicant, covers the entire Country. It shows itself everywhere and at every hour of the day - wretched Ireland bursts upon your view everywhere.

For seventy years the population grew rapidly despite severe famines and favourable growth factors were good, export prices for food were encouraging, the pattern of early marriages was continuing and ironically the nutritional excellence of the potato sustained the people. Employment was almost non-existent. Only land guaranteed survival, but rapidly repeated sub-division (despite contrary legislation in 1822) reduced the size of holdings drastically.

The margin of safety was eroded, when forty four per cent of the holdings were under three acres and the population density was as high as four hundred and sixteen people per square mile of arable land. Ireland in those far off days was a horrible place to live and try to bring up a family. It is a miracle how we survived as a people. So in 1838, an "Act for the more efficient relief of the Destitute poor in Ireland" was passed by the British Parliament. It enshrined the principle that: Local property must support local poverty. This Poor Law Act divided Ireland into one hundred and thirty Poor Law Districts or Unions. Each Union was to have it's workhouse, administered by an elected Board of Guardians and their officials, all accountable to the Commissioners in Dublin. The cost of administration was to be borne by a levied rate on valued property.

The new Units did not respect county boundaries and Mayo (1840) had five Unions which were: Ballinrobe, Castlebar, Ballina, Westport and Swinford. Generally the Unions had a radius of twelve miles from a good market town, where the Poor House was built and they in themselves comprised several Electoral divisions.

Swinford Union was formed on the 2nd of April 1840. It had a defined area of 133 acres and a population of 73.529 in it's ten electoral areas. The Board of Guardians numbered twenty-eight, seven resident Justices of the Peace who were ex-officio members. They were elected from Charlestown, who had three candidates, and two each from : Achonry, Kilmactigue, Swinford, Killasser, Killedan (Kiltimagh), Aughamore, Kilmovee, and one each from Toomore, Meelick, Bohola and Knock. The Guardians were responsible for fixing a new valuation on every tenement in the Union, and this was to be done as cheaply as possible. Detailed directives were supplied to ensure uniformity, consistency and fairness.

The valuation process began after March 1841, and was supervised and co-ordinated by Richard Griffith, 1848-1864, and it forms the core of today's rating system.

During this period of time, Charlestown came into being. Lord Dillon's agent, Charles Strickland had a difficulty with the Knox Estate, which came as far as Bellaghy, over the weighing of oats and potatoes etc. in Bellaghy. Sir Henry Doran was head of the Land Commission in this area and lived in Tavrane House, between Charlestown and Ballyhaunis. Sir Henry and Charles Strickland were good friends and they gave permission to John Mulligan of Bracklagh to weigh oats etc. The Knox Estate sued the Dillon Estate for taking the market from Bellaghy to Charlestown. The case was held at the local Petty sessions and the Dillon Estate won.

Charlestown was now becoming a reality. Strickland gave permission to John Mulligan to build a house, which was to be rent free forever. John Mulligan's wife was Elizabeth Haran, and they had one daughter Mary. About this time a marriage was arranged between Mary and Michael Henry from Swinford. The house was completed in 1846 and the newly wed couple moved in soon afterwards. John Mulligan lived with them until his death in 1876.

The town was called Newtown Dillon at first and later on was changed to Charlestown in honour of Charles Strickland. Michael Henry and Mary Mulligan had two sons, John M born in 1852, died in 1892, and Mark C born in 1854 and died in 1952.

© Cathal Henry