workers of the Scariff Workhouse
The Scariff Workhouse Union, an area of 170 square mile,
with a population of 47, 894, was declared in July 1839.
The union comprised of Scariff, Ogonnelloe, Killaloe, Bodyke,
Tulla, Feakle, Mountshannon, Whitegate and Woodford. Its
workhouse was built in 1841 and opened in May 1842 to accomadate
600. By 1851, it had 3,212 inmates. The population in the
union in 1851 was reduced by more than 50% to 23,057.
In 1846, the rate of 'famine' burials in East Clare from
the infamous workhouse at Scariff was so great that the
existing graveyards were filled to capacity and a site was
purchased outside the village of Tuamgraney for a new graveyard.
A comtemporary account published in the Limerick Chronicle
of January 6th 1847, tells its own story.
'The Workhouse at Scariff, County Clare is so overcrowded
with paupers, that a disease almost amounting to a plague
has broken out amongst the inmates - the deaths averaging
from four to 12 daily. It is horrifying to behold a donkey
and cart laden with five and six bodies piled over each
other, going to be interred, and not a person attending
the wretched cortege except the driver. The graves are so
dug that the coffins are barely covered with earth, rendering
the air infected. No coroner's inquests have been held.'
In 1849, Scariff Workshop had the unenviable distinction
of being the most wretched and destitute in the south of
Ireland. James Rollestown, who had been administering the
Poor Law in Scariff, considered his removal to Skibereen
a release, as "however great the destitution in Skibereen,
it was almost nothing compared to the lamentable conditions
of all classes in the Union of Scariff."
In December 1849, January 1851 and November 1851, the demands
of creditors forced the auction of the assets of Scariff
Workhouse. In February 1851, the situation was so bad, there
was frequently no bread, milk or even light for the sick
in the hospital. There was no change of clothing and some
of the sick were even without a shirt. Yet there was multitudes
seeking relief and admittance. Many remained whole nights
in the most inclement whether, under the surrounding walls,
without any shelter. "From this has resulted fever
and various infectious diseases, as there is no change of
clothes even for those admitted and their rags steaming
with wet, have spread malaria in the probations wards. 23
persons died of fever in one night."
There were many influential people in East Clare, who could
and should have done much more to alleviate the poverty
and distress, but chose not to. Those that did, performed
their duties in an exemplary fashion in the most appaling
circumstances. On November 19, 1847, Mrs William O'Brien,
matron of the Workhouse, died from fever caught in the discharge
of her duties. When her remains were being removed "the
cries and lamentations of the poor inmates were loud and
She died as she lived - a true Christian." Four of
her children also succumbed to fatal diseases. The distraught
husband and father William O'Brien tried to "maintain
his post as Master of the workhouse in the midst of all
the devastation" but in May 1848 he vacated his situation.
Fr Patrick Treacy contracted fever in 1848, "while
visiting the sick in one of those receptacles of woe for
which that portion of the Poor Law Union of Scariff is notorious."
He was only 44 years of age and is commemorated with a plaque
in Bodyke church. Joseph Parker was appointed Clerk of the
Scariff Workhouse Union in July 1850, though he was not
yet 21 years of age. He was born at Oldham, Lancashire and
came to Ireland in 1844. The enormity of the workload imposed
on his young shoulders is best exemplified from his own
records, which state that on May 17, 1851, there were 4,121
inmates located in 17 different buildings comprising the
various auxiliary workhouses and hospitals. He acted as
Clerk of the Scariff Workhouse for 55 years and Clerk of
the newly established Rural District Council from 1898.
The writer of his obituary in the Clare Journal on September
1905 states, "He may fairly be described as the father
of the Poor Law Officials in Ireland."
The East Clare Brigade of the IRA unceremoniously and unfortunately
destroyed his lifetime of work, meticulously recording the
'social history' of East Clare in the deliberate burning
of the Workhouse in 1921.
To mark the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of An Gorta
Mor, East Clare Heritage created a famine memorial park
at the site known as the Casaoireach. This word, in old
Irish, traditionally referred to a badly tilled or uneven
garden. The uneven surface resulting from subsiding burial
trenches may have suggested the name. The trenches can still
be seen. It has now been planted with the indigenous trees
of County Clare. The forgotten and unfortunate victims of
the last dark age in Irish history are remembered with the
living gift of trees.
'Where they record, who can tell
The names, the numbers, of those who fell
Of that unknown, un-numbered throng
Gone to chant in Heaven the martyr's song?'
The 'Casaoireach' Tuamgraney
Courtesy of The Clare Champion