The Famine Years

The onset of the great famine in 1845 tested the newly introduced poor relief system to its limits as more and more people tried to gain admittance to the recently built workhouses. Many workhouses were forced to build temporary wards and extra accommodation. In Donegal the effects of the famine were not as harsh as elsewhere in the country and while some of the unions in west Donegal, e.g., Glenties and Dunfanaghy, did suffer extreme hardship, Milford union was less badly affected.

As could be expected potatoes disappeared from the diet of the paupers and were replaced by Indian meal and rice. This change can be seen from a meeting of the guardians in May 1847 during which they authorised the purchase of 10 cwt [hundred weight] of Indian meal and 2 cwt of rice. This change in favour of Indian meal was confirmed a few weeks later when a resolution was passed stating that even oatmeal should now be replaced by Indian meal as the prejudice against it no longer existed.

The number of admissions also increased to such an extent that the workhouse was filled to capacity. At a meeting it was ordered that as the workhouse was full all paupers who had been refused admission or would be refused admission should be given a ticket in order that they could apply for outdoor relief.

In order to relieve some of the pressure off the workhouses the provision of outdoor relief by the board of guardians was authorised in 1847. The first statistics available for this relief are those contained in the outdoor relief register for Milford union beginning in January 1848. There were 250 cases of outdoor relief granted in January and 1,327 between January and July. The numbers receiving relief dropped sharply from the high of 250 in January to only fifty-seven in May of the same year.

Employees of the union were not unaffected by the reality of life in the workhouse and this was seen most clearly around the time of the famine. Between 1 January 1847 to 1 May 1847 fifty-four officers including 7 clerks, 9 masters, 7 medical officers and 6 chaplains died from diseases contracted by them during the discharge of their duties.

Above Right: Extract from the minutes of the order passed by the board of guardians stating that the workhouse was full and that people refused admission on this basis should be given outdoor relief, (BG/119/1/2, 24 May 1847)

Above Left: image is an extract from the outdoor relief register from February 1848. (BG/119/3/3).

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