Only the deserving poor

By Ciaran Parker

Bawnboy Workhouse

In 1838 the English Poor Law system was extended to Ireland. This was viewed by the British government as a cost-efficient means of tackling the huge level of poverty in Ireland, many of whose eight million inhabitants suffered from disease and under-nourishment. This action was fundamentally flawed. Many members of the British and Irish establishment held fast to the schizophrenic belief that the ranks of the destitute were not really poor at all, and that any scheme to alleviate poverty should be directed only at “the deserving poor”. It should also be as cheap as possible for those who would have to pay for it.

Poor Law Unions
The system as extended to Ireland bore many of the hallmarks of that operating in England and Wales which had itself been recently overhauled. It was based on the erection of a series of districts or Poor Law Unions, in each of which a workhouse was to be built. These would be the only places where food and assistance would be provided. These would be intentionally very grim, so as to deter all but the most needy. At first Ireland had one hundred and thirty Poor Law Unions, each one named after the place where the workhouse was to be sited. The costs of poor relief and the associated upkeep of the workhouses would be met by payment of rates, both by the owners and occupiers of land and property. In each union this would be administered by a Board of Guardians, comprising both members elected by the rate payers and an equal number of magistrates and justices of the peace.

The Poor Law in Cavan
In drawing up the Poor Law Unions there was a desire that no poor house should be too distant from any local inhabitant. County Cavan initially had three Poor Law Unions, based on the towns of Cavan, Cootehill and Bailieborough, each of which had a workhouse. However, part of the south of the county lay in the Granard Poor Law Union, while much of the vicinity of Virginia formed part of the Oldcastle Poor Law Union.

The birth of Bawnboy Poor Law Union
The horrendous problems of the Great Famine showed up the total inadequacies of the Irish Poor Law system. Nevertheless it was maintained as the official means of providing poor relief. In 1848 the number of unions was increased to one-hundred-and-sixty-three. Co. Cavan; a union district based on Bawnboy capable of providing assistance to the poorer areas of west Cavan, as well as neighbouring areas of Co. Leitrim (including Ballinamore) was established.
The new union was formally declared in April 1850 and met for the first time in February of the following year to choose a site for the workhouse in Bawnboy. A twelve-acre site just outside the village, offered by local landlord James Rochford, was chosen for construction, although this was not free, and came with a price-tag of £200. The workhouse building would accommodate 500 souls, and unlike all the other workhouses built in Cavan it was thankfully never full. There was accommodation for both adults and children, along with a dining room, kitchen, chapel, infirmary and mortuary. Its construction costs amounted to nearly £5,900.

The first Board of Guardians in Bawnboy
The chairman of the first Board of Poor Law Guardians in Bawnboy was local magistrate Perrott Thornton. It numbered twenty-eight members, few of whom attended on a regular basis. Half were elected annually, but our notions of democracy played no part in these election. The franchise was restricted to rate payers, which meant that only those above the level of middling farmers with annual valuations in excess of £4 had a vote. If your farm was worth more you got more votes, up to six votes, though it was possible to possess as many as eighteen votes in all. Both the person who occupied and farmed the land AND its owner got votes. An open-voting system was employed where ballot papers were filled in and signed and then returned to a counter: they could be seen and scrutinised by anyone who wanted to see who an individual had voted for. While there was no formal property qualification for those seeking election it was nevertheless expected that they should be better-off than their electorate.

Workhouse opened
The workhouse was formally opened in November 1853 providing relief for fifty-two people. It also had a permanent staff consisting of a master (receiving £35 per annum), matron (£20), schoolmaster (£12), school mistress (£10) and infirmary nurse (£4). There was also a porter who in addition to his annual wages of £10 received a suit of livery.
The appointment of a teacher led to some controversy. At the meeting of the guardians held on June 5th 1854 it was pointed out that the Union had sought in its advertisements a teacher “trained under the board of National Education” but that the candidate ultimately chosen by the board, Thomas Courteney, lacked such qualifications.

Generosity knowing
no bounds
The parsimony of the guardians was also visibly demonstrated at the same meeting when the need to provide supper to the inmates was questioned, especially in light of the non-provision of supper in Cavan’s workhouse. If this were withdrawn it would effect “a great saving.” The high cost of a pauper in Bawnboy’s infirmary was also highlighted by one of the guardians, as it was found to amount to the huge sum of 3s 5d per week, while the equivalent cost of a pauper in the infirmary of Cavan’s workhouse was only 2s 3 1/2d per week. Another guardian, Thomas Maguire referred to “the great number of persons that were on the sick list” adding “that it ought to be inquired into whether there were some in the infirmary that had no business there.”
Given that the guardians were in general such a mean-spirited group it was not surprising that some sought to lay hands on their precious property by more direct means. In June 1862 Peter Rorke was convicted at Cavan Quarter Sessions of having stolen a rug from a Poor Law guardian, John McKiernan of Ballinamore, while attending a board meeting in Bawnboy. In the event Rorke only received a sentence of three months. He might have escaped detection altogether had he not attempted to pawn the rug in Belturbet.

Life in the workhouse
Life in the workhouse had few comforts. It wasn’t meant to be comfortable – that was the whole point of a workhouse. Families were strictly segregated and only came into contact during times of religious worship. Their days were governed by a strict and unyielding regime, punctuated by the spirit-numbing clang of the workhouse bell.
Those who passed through Bawnboy workhouse came from a myriad of disadvantaged backgrounds. All were poor and destitute; they included those who could not be adequately absorbed into local society, such as children from broken homes, as well as people with mental and drink-related problems.
The complex of buildings formed an important part of local life. Many locals preferred to attend mass said in the workhouse chapel by the Roman Catholic chaplain than travel elsewhere. This caused some of the guardians, as well as the Board of Local Government (successors to the Poor Law Commissioners), much concern. In 1891 they directed that no “strangers” be allowed to attend mass, except for a handful of infirm local people. This stricture was generally ignored. The infirmary was also used by people who had suffered serious injury in the locality and for inoculating children against contagious diseases.
By 1901 the workhouse was the unwelcome home to 70 people, with a resident staff of six.

An upwardly mobile inmate
The late Chris Maguire in his book Bawnboy and Templeport: History, Heritage, Folklore tells of one inmate called James Brannigan. In the Board of Guardians’ minutes of April 1879 it is said that he had been sent to the Blind Asylum in Glasnevin because it was believed “he should be able to work and earn a livelihood”. He eventually made his way back to Bawnboy Workhouse for the master noted in January 1891 that he was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment at hard labour. Incarceration in Sligo gaol did not reform him, and on the fourteenth of the following month the master again noted that Jimmy “had made use of intemperate, insolent and abusive language in the presence of the Porter and inmates”. For this he was confined to the refractory for six hours’ a day. The master subsequently reported that the punishment had been carried out. Jimmy was obviously chastened by this as he then became a type of odd-jobs man in the workhouse, sweeping chimneys and whitewashing walls.

Drunk on the job
Chris also tells of the disreputable behaviour of one medical officer, accused by the master in 1891 of turning up drunk for work. A coroner’s inquest revealed that a man who had been sent to the workhouse had died because of inadequate medical attention. The medical officer was dismissed.

Bawnboy workhouse closed in November 1921. Many of its remaining residents were sent to the County Home in Cavan; others to Carrick-on-Shannon while the remainder were sent back to their families. The buildings remained in use for many years: Irish classes were held there and one wing became the Bawnboy vocational school while the boys’ school was pressed into service as a dance-hall and centre for games. Other parts of it became private residences.
In recent years its gaunt and forbidding walls have been used as a film set.