The Famine

It was hardly surprising that the arrival of the potato blight in Ireland in the autumn of 1845 would result in the rise in numbers entering Dungannon workhouse. In each of the electoral divisions connected to the poor law union there was a large population who depended entirely on the potato crop. 

At a meeting of gentry and Clergy in Dungannon Courthouse in October 1846, Rev John Montague, the Parish Priest in St Patrick’s, stated that there were about 500 people in Dungannon who were not in constant work and another 200 distressed people who were unable to work. The famine had tightened its grip on the wider union area by this time. For those like Henry Brown was Returning Officer of the Union and Clerk of the Workhouse during the Famine, the overcrowding brought its own troubles. In the nineteen electoral divisions of the union, relief committees were set up in eighteen. The number of paupers who received relief varied from 2,500 to 13,082. The population of the union is 66, 075 and the proportion that received relief was varied from one-fifth to one twenty sixth. Able bodied and their families amounted to 9172 and the number who were ‘impotent’ 3,910. The spirit in which the relief committees in the union had carried out their work was widely praised- ‘the truly Christian spirit in which the clergy and laity of all denominations laboured together in harmonious co-operation for the relief of their afflicted and suffering fellow creatures’. Those like Thomas Twigg, chairman of the Crossdermott Committee in the Dungannon union were praised for the manner in which they had worked so ‘beneficially’ and ‘economically’ by Hamilton English, Government Inspector of the Dungannon Union. By February 1847 the Dungannon Relief Committee were still receiving donations to provide relief efforts and amongst those contributing included: Hon JH Knox, £25; Lady Frances Knox, £20; Miss Ann Knox, £5; Col George Knox, Coldstream Guards, £5. These subscriptions, along with others received from Lords Ranfurly and Northland, helped to keep the numbers entering the workhouse down.

In the early stages of the Famine one of the big increases was the number of children under the age of fifteen who entered rising from 192 in February 1845 to 251 the following year to 521 in February 1847. At that time there were 51 fever patients and 72 other cases which required hospital care.

According to a report of 1847 the Dungannon union had a population of about 70,000 people and covered an area of 102,000 acres. It was built to accommodate 800 people; by 1847 additional accommodation had been provided for 240 people, as there 878 people in the workhouse buildings at the end of March 1847. In addition, a fever hospital had been built and a house hired by the guardians. While not excessively overcrowded, compared with other workhouses, the spread of fever and disease in the house was unavoidable and would have the most serious consequences. Within the workhouse the number dying greatly increased in March 1847. Of the thirty-three deaths in the workhouse that month, again more than half were of children under fifteen. Funerals in the cemetery behind the workhouse, known as the ‘Barley Field’, included  

In individual parishes the cost of hunger was soon felt. In the parish of Donaghmore alone, fifty-five people died from the 1 October 1846 to 1 April 1847.  Recalling this terrible period, Rev F Devlin PP of Donaghmore  praised the benevolence of local people in helping to avert the course of the Famine when he applied for further funding for the relief committee, noting:

The mortality of this parish very likely would have been much more appalling were it not for the sources of private benevolence opened to us on the 27th of October last by which we were unable to sell meal at 1 pence per pound to the industrious middle class poor and gratis to the very poor… in the last 40 days some landlords and middlemen are starving their poor tenants out of their holdings and tumbling down there cottages…unless some stringent laws quickly passed to stay the desolating Angel bearing off the poor people I cannot see what woe will end.

As hunger grew, people clamoured to be allowed enter the workhouse and Dungannon was no different. While it was the last resort for many, the workhouse diet during the Famine :

Breakfast- 5 oz of Indian and Oatmeal, in equal quantities, made into stirabout, with ½ quart of buttermilk; dinner 6oz of rice seasoned with pepper and salt, to be changed on alternate days for 10 oz white bread and 1 pint of meat soup; supper 4oz of Indian and oatmeal, in equal quantities made into stirabout, with ½ quart of buttermilk.

Robert Wray, chairman of the relief committee wrote in 1847 ‘we deem ourselves called on by an imperative sense of duty to express in the strongest terms, the deep gratitude which we feel to her Majesty’s government for the extremely prompt and liberal manner in which they awarded grants of aid of voluntary contributions; and we fee confident that this grateful feeling is most warmly participated in by all classes of the community in this Union’.

In September 1847 the relief works were brought to a close in the union, as they were elsewhere across the country and committees wound up. In the Dungannon union, relief committees had been set up in every electoral division (of which there were 19) except in Minterburn. Concluding the proceedings of these committees it was realized that almost £5,000 had been gathered through voluntary contributions during 1846-47. The number of people who received relief in the union varied from 2,500 to 13,082, which suggested that at certain times one-fifth of the unions population were receiving relief.  Hamilton English, a government inspector concluded the relief affairs in the Dungannon union, where he found that those like Thomas Twigg were happy that there work with the Crossdermot Relief Committee had concluded and that their actions had saved lives in the process.  Likewise, the  Moy relief committee, which was part of the Dungannon union, distributed 46,000 rations between April and August of 1847 at
a cost of £374 which fed at it speak some 500 people daily in early July under the directon of Charles Magee JP who was in the chair.