the deserving poor
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 Cavans workhouse. If this were withdrawn
it would effect a great saving. The high cost
of a pauper in Bawnboys 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 Cavans 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.
in the workhouse
Life in the workhouse had few comforts. It wasnt 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
By 1901 the workhouse was the unwelcome home to 70 people,
with a resident staff of six.
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 months
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.
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 coroners 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.