It’s never easy to judge the norms of yesteryear through the prism of today’s values, which is why we are so often appalled at the way the poor, the sick and the underprivileged were treated a century, or less, ago. But practices that today we would regard as inhumane and unjust were, back then, accepted as the way things were.
Many Irish people speak of the horrors of the workhouse system, that refuge of last resort for those whose options came to a surrendering of all dignity behind the high walls or certain death from poverty.
The workhouse is a term that resonates to this day within Irish society; it was the most feared institution in the country where families – parents and children – were permanently separated on admittance, where the able bodied were expected to work for their keep, and where a harsh set of regimental rules had to be adhered to.
Even the terminology around the system was Dickensian – they were run by elected bodies known as Guardians of the Poor, they were under the day to day supervision of the Master of the Workhouse, inmates were referred to as ‘paupers’, and to qualify for admission meant relinquishing ownership to whatever little land or property the mendicant might have title.
Mayo had eight workhouses. In the early days, the Boards of Guardians consisted mainly of the landed gentry, whose primary concern was to minimise the running costs that they, as ratepayers, were obliged to meet. By the 1900s, things began to change as local government began to develop and an emerging middle class sought election to new District Councils and to existing Boards of Guardians.
But if the boards’ composition changed, their modus operandi did not, and contemporary records show that the Boards of Guardians – even subsequent to national independence – were every bit as frugal and parsimonious when it came to spending as were their propertied predecessors. These were men who believed in micromanaging every last penny of money spent, and even though their deliberations were fully reported in the local press, they had no hesitation in publicly naming any poor pauper who they felt was exploiting the system.
Thus there are reports such as that from Claremorris, where a watchmaker from Ballina was said to have sent his wife and five children into the workhouse, but, after his wife died, he refused to take out the children. The Board sternly agreed that he would be prosecuted if he insisted on leaving them there.
A meeting of Castlebar Board of Guardians heard how a pauper, after taking his discharge, was found to have taken several articles of clothing belonging to the workhouse in his bundle. The matter was reported to the police and, the Master related with a grim satisfaction, the miscreant was prosecuted and sent to jail for three months.
A woman was transferred from the ‘lunatic asylum’ to the workhouse whose husband, the Master had learned, had a holding of land. The husband pleaded that, due to ill health, he was unable to pay for her keep. The Master was told to institute legal proceedings. In the words of one Guardian: “He should not have a wife if he is not able to support her.”
The workhouse records are full of such stories. But it was not that the Guardians saw themselves as being unduly harsh or cruel in their decisions; to them, they were merely doing their duty. And the converse was that those on the receiving end, resentful as they might have felt, accepted their lot as just being the way things were. Justice or fairness had no part in the picture.