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Famine reaped bitter harvest for 'rich' - archives


Inmates: A group of men in the dining hall at the Bailieborough Union workhouse, Co Cavan, circa 1895

Inmates: A group of men in the dining hall at the Bailieborough Union workhouse, Co Cavan, circa 1895

Mary Evans / Peter Higginbotham

Inmates: A group of men in the dining hall at the Bailieborough Union workhouse, Co Cavan, circa 1895

Through death or emigration, the Great Famine virtually wiped out Ireland's poorest, but it also reaped a bitter harvest for many who once enjoyed wealth and position, newly available archive material reveals.

The Dublin Workhouse Admission and Discharge Registers and Minute Books, released through the National Archives of Ireland in collaboration with history website Findmypast, provides a fascinating insight into the sad fates of starving souls who were forced to take the 'cosan na marbh' or 'pathway of the dead', to the 'Poorhouse', where the average inmate lived just 1.6 months before succumbing to disease and starvation. Close to a quarter of inmates died within a fortnight.

And it wasn't just the poor and unemployed. Impoverished street urchins, prostitutes, orphans and starving country people driven from their land by the famine, sought refuge in the capital's workhouses.

More than 1,100 doctors and nurses, 1,056 teachers, 32 clergy and 175 lawyers and solicitors subsisted on "stirabout" a watery form of porridge, unless they lived to see Christmas when they would be treated to their annual ration of meat, according to the records.

George Fitzgibbon Lysaght, a scion of one of the most wealthy families of Ireland's landed gentry, was one of thousands of once-wealthy upper and middle-class professionals, clergy and military who ended up toiling in the workhouse.

The son of the wealthy land-owning Lysaght dynasty from Ennistymon, Co Clare spent several months as a pauper inmate of a lunatic asylum in Dublin's North Brunswick Street in 1853 before he wound up an inmate at the Rainhill Asylum in Liverpool, where he was described as "a lunatic who was not a danger to himself who had clean habits".

His tragic life story is revealed in a series of Irish Workhouse records that have been digitised for the first time.

Members of the public can now readily access more than 2.5 million records online that give first hand accounts of the grim conditions in Irish workhouses that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 paupers between 1840 and 1919.

Such was the scarcity of food that one group of desperate female inmates instigated a near riot in a South Dublin workhouse in February 1848 after they wrote a letter to the governing Board of Guardians highlighting the stark conditions they were forced to endure.

In the letter, which is contained in the newly-released archives, the women wrote: "Painful and starving necessity obliges us to address you with these few lines regarding our food. We have waited patiently, time after time, expecting a change, we can subsist no longer for we are in a state of starvation.

"We want nothing unreasonable. All we want is our own country meal for breakfast and white bread for dinner, a quart of water rice is no substitute for dinner for girls to work hard on.

"We cannot nor want, it is not sufficient to support nature. Gentlemen, when our own meal and flour was dear we got better stirabout for breakfast and white bread, and now it is so reasonable, we leave it to your own kind consideration."

But their pleas fell on deaf ears and, in return, the eight educated women were instead charged with insubordination and violent conduct and sent to the Magistrates of Police for punishment.

Sunday Independent