Saturday, August 18, 2012

Ireland: Co. Donegal, Dunfanagy Workhouse & Famine Cemetery

Bunbeg was at the half way point of a Donegal loop drive.

We did the second half of the loop yesterday, and before arriving in Northern Ireland, we visited the site of an 1846 workhouse, which opened during the second year of the famine. Being destitute and poor was just about the same as being a criminal. People who just couldn't take it any longer, were admitted on a certain day of the week, appeared before a committee of governors to prove they had nothing, and that they were willing to give up everything.

If they were admitted, they were stripped, deloused and washed, their clothes the same- only taken from them and held until they left again, and were then seen by a doctor to see if they were fit for work. Then they received a special suit of workhouse clothing.

They were required to work, but could not compete with local trades and businesses. In the case of this workhouse, the men broke stones 12 hours a day, and built roads, and modernized the local harbors. The women cooked, cleaned and made clothing, bedclothes, furnishings, and anything else they needed in the house.

The people were separated by sex and age. Even babies were taken away from their mothers. Everything was designed to put you off of wanting to be there, the worst place you'd ever want to be in.

Regulations stated you would get a certain amount of 'wholesome' food, i.e. buttermilk, oats, potatoes, one of the photos has the list, but you rarely got the quantity that was stated.

The story of Wee Hannah Herrity was a real life story that illustrated how someone might come to be in a workhouse. Hannah's mother died in childbirth. Her father was a traveling tailor who remarried, but the step mother didn't like Hannah or her siblings. While her father was away, Hannah was beaten mercilessly and constantly with a switch, the stepmother doing everything she could to kill her.

When the father came home and saw this, he got Hannah a job as a milkmaid at a local farmers. She was only 10 years old, and the farmer said she couldn't stand up to his nasty cow, but she did. Her next 10 years was a succession of farm jobs. She got ill and the farmer refused to help her or pay her, so when she got better, she refused to work for him again.

She became ill again, the doctor was 42 miles away. She walked 84 miles three times in one year, and the doctor really didn't help her. In the end, she was left with no alternative but to go to the workhouse.

She was put to washing clothes. She was resting on the side of the basin in order to keep from falling down when the doctor saw her. He examined her, told her that she was not to work again until she was recovered. He gave her a tonic, and told her to come back when it was gone. She rested all summer recovering her health. She said if not for this doctor, she felt she would have been dead within a week.

As soon as she was well enough, she left the workhouse, became a tinker for while, and did other jobs for the next 70 years, but eventually she was too old to work, and became a beggar. One woman in her town became her friend and benefactor. She got together the people in the town and they built her a one room cottage. There was a large party and they all brought her gifts, so she had everything she needed for herself. It was her first home.

About a year later she died, in 1926, at the age of 90. She and her friend were both buried head to head in the nearby paupers cemetery.

One of the photos is a reproduction of a paupers coffin. The coffin could hold up to 8 bodies, was placed on a horse drawn wagon, and taken to the paupers cemetery. One end slid open as the coffin was tilted and the bodies slid into mass graves.

The Irish famine is considered to be just as bad as the famine in Somalia today.

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