Sceal Mháirtín – Máirtín’s Story

By Anne Patterson

I have been in the Workhouse now for three weeks. Three weeks that feels like three years. This place is not called a Workhouse for nothing! We are here to work and if we don’t or can’t, we get no food. Would you believe, the first job I was given was to break and crush a load of bones brought in here by the local butchers. What in ainm Dé is this all about? I asked. I was told to get on with the work and stop wasting time asking questions.A few bones at the top of the pile looked fresh and pink, with some animal scraps stillattached. I smelt them, yes, fresh. I cracked these bones asunder; smelling again. I wasdelighted to taste and suck out the marrow. This would keep me going, as the extranourishment was welcome.

The man smashing bones a few feet away from me explainedwhat he had been told. The powdered bones we were producing would be mixed withwater and other mixtures to be used by Pottery Factories in England. That’s where theymake china cups, saucers and plates. China? I asked. Yes, he said that is what the Lords and Ladies use when eating and drinking in their mansions, Fine Bone China’, if you don’t mind. Now for you!

I hammered away. My pile of white powder grew high enough to be measured. All I wanted was food. Stirabout in the morning with a mug of water or watery milk, a piece of bread and soup later on. You couldn’t really call it soup though; more like water. Stirabout again in the evening, really coarse and horrible, but food is food!

When the supply of bones didn’t come in, I was sent to the stone breaking yard. This was back breaking work. The stones were graded by being put through a large sieve that was used to measure them. Then the broken stones were shovelled into a large rectangular timber box which had to be filled. We would get no food until it was full to the very top. A Dhiabhal, (addressing the Devil) these Workhouse masters measured and counted everything!

Everything except the cabbages, turnips and apples I regularly stole from the delivery carts being pulled into the yard, beside the kitchen. I hid the stout cudgel, used for breaking stones and bones, under my jacket. When the young lad led the horse into the yard and no one was watching, I threatened him with a clout over the head, if he shouted for help. He pretended to be tightening the traces on the horse while I grabbed what I could. I hid my loot in the storage barrels near the kitchen door and came back in the dark to feast on my ill- gotten goods. I had learned how to slink around in the shadows making myself invisible, my eyes always watching and darting about. My heart would be pounding however, because the punishment, if I was caught would be solitary confinement in the refractory (punishment cell), with no food or water.


Course: Remembering our Heritage – Ballinrobe Workhouse

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