A Visit to Mounbellew Workhouse

This article was originally published in the 'Western News' on August 9th, 1884.

During a recent visit it to Mountbellew, after inspecting the neat and thriving little town, I had a short time at my disposal before my departure. I proceeded to the workhouse to ascertain some particulars about that institution. I found the master in his office working and the matron attending to her own duties. On informing the master, Mr Buren, the object of my mission, he kindly said he would be delighted to afford me every opportunity to gratify my curiosity, or rather judge for myself how the institution was managed. Before entering I was struck with the splendid crops within the walls, the beat I had seen through the country on my journey, and I came to the conclusion that the place should have been intended as a Model Farm wherein to teach agriculture to the people of the district. Imagine my surprise at being told by the master that the space enclosed within the walls contained a little over four acres which were entirely farmed under his own supervision. He informed me that all the potatoes, onions, and other vegetables used in the workhouse grew on the ground I saw, and that the inmates did the work, so that it did not cost the union one penny for labour. He managed to keep all employed with the result that the potatoes, onions, mangolds turnips (especially) cabbage plants and oats are the best in the country. Everything seemed to be in order, and to have had the most careful supervision. There are very many parts of the outside of some workhouses very objectionable but here there was nothing discernible to offend the eye, and the manner in which certain parts of the establishment are being fitted up go to show that the master pays particular attention to its sanitary state. Before I leave the grounds which are divided into sections for different purposes, perhaps it would be right to state that one little square patch on which hay had been cut caught my eye, and the regularity of the ridges or mounds by which it was covered immediately suggested to me the idea that that small portion of ground, the smallest I have ever seen for the purpose was "God's acres", as Longfellow beautifully designates a graveyard, in which were deposited the mortal remains of the paupers who have died in the institution since its erection. Interrogating the master I found that the idea I had formed of the place was strictly correct, and that an interment had taken place that morning in that spot near the wall where the earth was fresh, and the sods lapped on each other to make in due time a sheet of emerald to cover for ever the bones of the friendless inmate who had been consigned to the pauper's grave that morning. What did I day - never to be disturbed ! Such was my opinion, but on observing more closely that every bit of available ground, with the exception of an of patch has already been utilised, the place is full, and in the course of a short time if it is not enlarged the graves must again be opened to give up their dead to make room for the latest comer, who in the course of time will have to again give place to another arrival. Such a thought strikes one with horror - such an idea would frighten one to have the dust of strangers mingle together in the cheerless graves of a work house burial ground. I know it matters little to where the body is consigned if the soul is pure, and with the blessed in heaven, but respect for the dead is one of the characteristics of an Irishman. In this patch of ground I have described there is nothing to indicate to the uninitiated that underneath that turf repose the deceased paupers of Mountbellew Workhouse - nothing to remind you that the earthly habitation which for a space contained the soul of man lies mingling with the dust on which we tread - nothing to warn you that you are in the abode of the dead. Not a stone, not a cross, not a memorial of the faith of the dead (the Roman Caholics alone are buried here) not an emblem of the sacred sign of Christianity presents itself to the view. Here may repose side by side the rich man who was reduced to penury and want, and the poor pauper born a cripple in the workhouse. There is no distinction, nothing to remind the friends of the deceased, who perchance should an opportunity arrive go there to pray over their remains, in the exact spot where the dear ones lay. But stay ! In the centre of the mound is a little bush growing at the head of a grave, but by whom planted, to whose memory it has been placed there, inasmuch a mystery as who are the occupants of the other graves. There is one consoling thought in it, the hand by whom it was planted. If he should return can point out the grave of his friend, and he can kneel down and offer a prayer for the soul of the dear departed relative. To my inquiry did the Roman Catholic chaplain attend to perform the burial rites over the dead, I was informed that that was no part of his duty at least such had not been the custom. I left the place with gloomy thoughts, and with a mind not much in favour or the Poor Law system, and having gone fully round the grounds I entered the house, and was surprised to fine the utmost order. The inmates were well clad, and young and old spoke in the highest possible terms of the kindness and charity of the master and matron ; the children in particular were loud in their praises of these officers though they were not present at my interrogations. The wards were scrupulously clean, and the wants of the old and infirm seemed to have been particularly attended to. On looking over the visiting book I was pleased to see a report signed by the present Archbishop of Tuam, dated April 25th 1884, in which his Grave states that it gave him much pleasure to go through the entire institution, and that he was much pleased with what he saw. The place seemed to be scrupulously clean, the boys comfortable and in good order, and he testified with great pleasure the contrast it bore to similar institutions visited by him. The master and matron seemed to be very attentive. His Grace highly commended the Mountbellew guardians for the humanity and kindness they showed to the poor under their charge. This speaks well for those who are chosen to watch over the interests of the poor. I ascertained there were 125 inmates in the house, fifty of whom were in hospital. There were 18 children attending school under the charge of a schoolmistress. Of these 18 children the majority were illegitimate, but the number of this class has greatly diminished within the past seven years. Many causes might be attributed for this great reduction in a class of inmates which may to a certain extent be considered as a blot upon such institutions, because they afford a refuge for bad women who live in idleness ; but the chief cause seems to be the great exertions used by Father Ronayne, the respected parish priest, to preserve and maintain morality in the district. As time does not permit I have only a few words to add. The female inmates were loud in their praises of Mrs Bruen, and as the well being of such an institution depends entirely on the efficiency of its officers the guardians of Mountbellew Union ought to feel thankful for having such conscientious and kind people in the charge of God's poor. The guardians have, I am sure, the fullest confidence in their officers as the officers have in them. However, I was informed that the salaries paid to Mr and Mrs Bruen fall far short in comparison with the salaries paid to the master and matron of similar institutions, and on the principle of the proverb, meruit qui palma fecit, would it not be fair if the guardians would show their appreciation of these excellent officers in a practical manner by giving them a substantial increase in their salaries. I am confident that if the board think over the matter rightly they will not have the least hesitation in giving them a fair remuneration.

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