A Poor Law had been introduced to Ireland in July 1838 which involved the division of the country into 130 “unions” consisting of a group of electoral divisions made up of a number of townlands. Sligo Union comprised 23 divisions and –as a principal town- had a workhouse. This was administered by the Board of Guardians, local men of property. Sligo had 39 such men on the committee. Soon, almost the entire local governance of the emergency was to fall on their shoulders.
The workhouse was financed by the local poor rates on the principle that “property should pay for poverty,” and to force landlords to take full responsibility for the management of their estates, an act was passed making landlords liable to pay poor rates on land valued at under £4 per annum.
Individuals could not enter the workhouse, but paupers entered in whole family units. Once inside, however, sexes were strictly segregated and set to work breaking rock into gravel. The food offered –as Charles Dickens was to famously point out in the contemporary account of Oliver Twist- was of poor quality and of limited range.
In the event, the Government moved with astonishing speed. During the Autumn of 1845, Prime Minister Peel had been apprised of the situation and by November, he had already quietly arranged for the purchase of £100,000 worth of American maize (designated “Indian meal”) to offset the feared famine. He also established Randolph Routh as the chairman of a temporary Relief Commission in January 1846, to advise the Government and to coordinate the efforts of the various local relief committees. These local groups were made up not only of local landlords but also clergymen, magistrates and large-scale farmers. Their task was to purchase and resell the maize at official depots (such as the ports of Sligo and Westport). They were financed by raising local subscriptions which were matched by a government grant, pound for pound. At this stage, the measures taken seemed, indeed, very prompt. Their adequacy was about to be put to the test.
“The progress of decay increases. In the month of February a greater quantity of potatoes rotted than in the previous two months. Letting the potatoes remain undug in the ground was the best way of preserving them…The small farmers (those who pay £4 to£6 annual rent) expect their supply…will be exhausted by the middle of May…The supply of cottier tenants or labourers is now nearly consumed. The impoverished condition and squalid misery of this class of the people of the county has not yet arrived at any extraordinary degree of distress but there is an apprehension of famine that in itself is frightening…Between 16 March and 20 May the farmers will afford to the labourers full employment in tilling the ground… From 20 May to 10 September public works will be the best means of preventing famine. The poorer the ground the sounder were the potatoes. In the mountainous districts where the potatoes were planted in a peat soil, disease made less progress than in in the more cultivated parts of the country.”
Friday 13th March 1846 Engineer’s Report
Corran, Leyny & Coolavin (Parishes in Sligo) RLFC 3/1/724
The promised Indian Meal had arrived in Sligo in March 1846 but did not go on sale until May. The delay was a further cause of local tensions, which were building steadily. The first demonstrations were quite seemly: a hundred men were reported to have marched through the streets of Sligo Town with loaves of bread fixed on poles. When the local guardians promised to give them both work and increased wages, they quietly dispersed.
But the murmurs of the working people began to rise. Scurrilous ballads were secretly printed and began to be sold off in penny sheets at the local fairs; some of the gentry –such as Edward Cooper- reported the receipt of threatening letters. Here’s the concluding resolutions of a Public Meeting held in Sligo towards the end of April 1846 insisting on the sale of the Indian meal.
That from want of employment, consequent on so many being discharged from the merchants’ provision yards, corn stores etc, as well as from the high price of food, that the labouring classes in Sligo town are in a sad state of want and destitution. That an application be made without delay to the Commissioners to put the Indian meal now warehoused there on the market at a moderate rate which will have the effect of lowering the price of potatoes, oatmeal and other food. That a public meeting be called by the Mayor, of aldermen, magistrates of the Petty Sessions, chairman of the Board nof Guardians, Poor Law Guardians, clergymen and other such intelligent gentlemen and merchants as he may approve of, for the purpose of relieving the esisting distress in this town and neighbourhood.”
Wednesday 22nd April 1846 Resolutions of a Public Meeting
By May 1846, Co. Sligo had joined 17 other counties in request for public woks projects.
The partial failure of the 1845 harvest had been followed by a sharp rise in unemployment. The Town and Harbour Commissioners of Sligo appointed a committee and they duly reported that some 2400 were unemployed –a dangerous percentage.
In January 1846, O’Hara was planning public road projects and was to add many workers to his estate staff through the summer. An August issue of the Sligo Journal noted that O’Hara had employed over 300 men, daily, during the previous six months and had provided liberal amounts of oatmeal for them.
O’Hara’s laudable energy showed what could be accomplished by well-meaning men who had the means and inclination to counter the rising panic. The general situation was somewhat different, however. Legislation had been introduced by March 1846 preparing the ground for relief works. Mostly this work comprised the repair and construction of roads. The money for these projects was to be raised locally and nationally: half a Treasury grant (to be repaid by the local area) and half a free grant. The distressed area had to first make application to the Lord Lieutenant, which was then forwarded to the Relief Commissioners and the Board of Works. Upon approval the application was sent to the County Surveyor for inspection, returned to the Board of Works for their comments and then recommended back to the Lord Lieutenant who then made direct application to the Treasury Department. It was a tedious and bureaucratic procedure which created frustrating delays.
To make matters somewhat worse, the local relief committees had to choose to whom they would give work tickets. It was often the case that a local landlord would be on the Relief Committee and choose those of his own tenants who owed rent.
The labourers would earn less than shilling a day.
Across North Connacht, during the summer of 1846, the number of those employed each day rose from 7000 in June to almost 98,000 by mid-August. On 21st July 1846 the Treasury announced that all the public works were to be curtailed in the expectation that the coming harvest would render them unnecessary.
Father James of Bunninadden encountered the problem of living in a rural area with an absentee landlord
We…beg most respectfully to inform you of the state of extreme destitution of many of the poorer classed in these districts in which there is no resident landed proprietor and consequently but little employment can be obtained by the able-bodied labourer, nor has any public work been as yet undertaken altho’ applied for long since and no relief committee has been formed that we are aware of for the barony of Corran in which these parishes are situated…[We] implore some immediate relief from the funds in your hands or a supply of Indian meal from the depot at Sligo.
Draft Reply: Forward list of subscriptions however small… and a grant in aid will be recommended. Indian meal can be purchased at Sligo Depot by any duly constituted relief committee.
Sunday 14th June Memorial of James Henry PP, John Finn CC and 29 parishioners of the parishes of Cloonoghill, Kilturra and Kilshavey to the Relief Commission RLFC 3/1/3271
The Catch-22 situation at Bunninadden was that without resident landlords, Father James’ local efforts were without official sanction. As they continued to lobby for support in subsequent weeks they were curtly reminded that “There are vacancies in Boyle workhouse and also in Sligo Workhouse. There is a constabulary depot in Ballymote already.” It was a chilling reminder that the only official provision remaining was to be treated as destitute or as criminal.
This situation was far from being unusual. John Armstrong, a Justice of the Peace at Tubbercurry, became a vocal advocate of the rights of the poor. During this period he wrote angry missives almost daily, demanding support.
Extreme distress prevails in the upper half barony of Leyny, containing a population of 7,500. The funds are only £190 and no public works have commenced. The committee fears that the extreme destitution will compel them to dole out a considerable portion of our small means without being able to exact work in return.
This radical suggestion provoked an immediate response by return of post:
Under no circumstance can gratuitous relief be sanctioned except for the infirm poor and then only in the event of there not being any vacancies in the workhouse. Employment must be provided and the commissioners cannot conceive that any part of the country is in such a state as not to present a variety of small public works of utility, suitable both for males and females.
Thursday 25th June John Armstrong JP to the Relief Commission RLFC 3/1/3585/
Draft Reply 27th June