Life within the workhouse was extremely difficult and sight should not be lost of the fact that factious relationships existed between ‘inmates and with those in authority.
Occasionally, matters came to head between ‘inmates’ and master, resulting in riot and disorder. In April 1888, Thomas Tackaberry, the master of Dungannon workhouse reported to the board of guardians that a number of paupers had refused ‘to eat the fare of the house’ and had assaulted him. A general revolt being feared, the police were sent for and two of the mutineers were arrested and taken before the magistrate and remanded for seven days.
On another occasion, two so-called ‘muntineers’ who refused to eat the food, Green and Lamb, were arrested by the police who had been called to disperse the riot.
Entries in Tackaberry’s journal, which survives, provides a number of examples of ‘inmates’ protesting and acting in a violent manner towards workhouse officials. One such fracas was thus reported:
Yesterday morning it was found at a plate glass window in the tramps warden Dungannon workhouse had been broken during the night and
make an inquiry to workhouse master was informed by a tramp named Thomas read that he had taken a bottle of blowhard from two other tramps as there were drunken noisy and had thrown it at the wall with the intention of breaking it but it had a luckily come through the window unfortunately for his temperance professions the master stated that it was read himself who had some what had been somewhat unsteady while the other men were sober he was subsequently brought before measures Michael McCrory JP and TJ Aiken JP at a special court and
charged with maliciously breaking the window the magistrates to charge him with a caution on condition that he left the town at once.
Tackaberry himself was the victim of a violent attack the following month by an ‘inmate’ named Devlin and it took the assistance of the porter to rescue him. His journal sheds light on the often violent nature of life within the workhouse, which children were often witness to. On another occasion, Mrs Johnstone, the infirmary nurse, was badly injured when attacked by a female ‘inmate’.
Fights between ‘inmates’ were also not uncommon. Two women who entered the workhouse in 1934 while drunk proceeded to cause trouble and were brought before the courts for their conduct. In 1922 rumours that a man had been assaulted in the workhouse before he died were refuted and a case dismissed after his body was exhumed. Mr Roberts the workhouse master had brought the case to prove that the rumours were false.
For the modern reader terms such as ‘lunatic’ and ‘idiot’ are unacceptable when describing people, yet in the nineteenth century there were wards for people categorised like this in Dungannon workhouse.
It is likely that some who were committed to the ‘Lunatic Asylum’ in Omagh were suffering from illness, hence their perceived erratic and violent behaviour. The journal of Thomas Tackaberry, workhouse master, has numerous entries about the removal of ‘inmates’ for Omagh Asylum in the 1880s and 1890s.
For example, in January 1894 he reported that: The master also begs to report that on Thursday last he was obliged to have Michael O’Neill, a lunatic committed to Omagh asylum as he had become dangerous to himself and others and owing to a clerical error in the warrant of committal the master had to drive the following day to Benburb and from that to Parkanaur to have the correction initiated by Mr McKean and Colonel Burge the magistrates who signed it. The cost of the car was 7 shillings six pence.
Likewise, in September 1896 he noted that: The master begs to report he was obliged to have a man named Peter Montague committed to Omagh Asylum on Thursday last as a dangerous lunatic. He was admitted to the hospital on the Friday previously.
In Dungannon or Omagh, people such as Montague or O’Neill had difficult lives.