Jack’s story

By Ellen Finnerty

Jack (41) and his wife Margaret (38), their eldest daughter Maureen (12), son Seán (10), daughter Eibhlín (3) and baby Joanna (9 months) have been admitted to the Workhouse.

This was their very last resort as they are now homeless, starving and their clothes are reduced to rags. Jack has seen his wife and children getting thinner every day. Their desperate cries for food and shelter have brought them to Ballinrobe Workhouse.

They are relieved to know they will get some clothes and food and will be inside away from the wind and rain. Not outside on the cold nights without shelter.

Their relief is short lived however as they are told they will be separated and sent to different sections of the workhouse. Relief turns to grief at this terrible turn of events.

Jack is put through a thorough washing, de-lousing and disinfecting process. He is examined by a doctor for TB, fever and any signs of disease. He is pronounced healthy and fit to work. His own clothes are taken away and he is given workhouse clothes to wear.

Later he lines up with other men and he follows them to the dining room. He receives a piece of hard bread and an enamel mug of stirabout -a type of rough porridge made from Indian meal. He sees a barrel in the corner where the men go for drinking water.

He goes to a corner to sit with some other men and notices their gaunt and haggard faces.

Jack is hardly able to eat anything; he is so shocked at being separated from his wife and family. He is feeling very bitter as his whole family are reduced to ‘paupers’ in a Workhouse.

A man named Máirtín, sitting beside him, sees his chance and snaps the uneaten bread out of Jack’s hand. They talk; tell each other how they ended up in the Workhouse. Jack soon realizes that Máirtín and everyone there are all in the Workhouse because their situations and circumstances are as bleak as his own.

Jack’s experience of the latrines, dormitory and the sanitary conditions do nothing to ease his anguish. The stench in the dormitory from overflowing receptacles is overpowering. Máirtín fights with him for the filthy mattress and blanket he is given,  

The rats running along the walls and over his feet make his skin crawl. Máirtín  cautions him against trying to kill them or scare them away as they will only turn vicious and bite him.

Morning comes. A loud clanging bell at seven o clock signals roll-call.

As they line up, Máirtín tells him about all the different types of work they could be assigned to. Work for the men included, breaking stones for road-making, weeding or digging the workhouse garden, loading and unloading carts, cleaning the latrines, cleaning the Charnel house where the dead were laid out for burial, chopping wood and much more. He tells him that the worst job is digging the pits for burying those who die from the dreaded fever.

Jack learns that on Sunday at the chapel, a list of the names of those who died that week will be read out. He can only hope that his family lives for the rest of the week.

Food rations during the day are barely enough to stave off hunger yet alone nourish a body that has to work so hard. Some of the men have been starving for so long that their strength is depleted and they succumb easily to any disease or fever. Every day brings the depressing sight of some of their Workhouse comrades no longer able to carry on.

Máirtín, a tenacious and streetwise person, watches for opportunities to get or steal extra food and clothing. He befriends Jack and advises him chances are better if they stay alive. They may be in the Workhouse but they are not prisoners, he states. Maybe, they will get hired by a local farmer or blacksmith, work in the bog or help tilling the crops, do deliveries or anything at all. They must keep their strength up as best they can and watch for an opportunity that will change their lives for the better. Then Jack can think of getting his family back again, but it won’t be easy.


Course: Remembering our Heritage – Ballinrobe Workhouse

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