Scariff Workhouse

By Gerard Madden

The Scariff Workhouse Union, an area of 170 square miles, 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 accommodate 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.  A site was purchased outside the village of Tuamgraney for a new graveyard. A contemporary 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 its inmates – the deaths averaging from four to twelve daily. It is horrifying to behold a donkey 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.’

In1849, Scariff Workhouse 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 provisions in Scariff, considered his removal to Skibbereen 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 hospital. There was no change of clothing and some of the sick were even without a shirt. Yet there were multitudes seeking relief and admittance. Many remained whole nights in the most inclement weather, 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 probation wards.  Twenty-three 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 choose not to. Those that did,
performed their duties in an exemplary fashion in the most appalling circumstances. On the 19 November 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 heart rending, 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 the 17 May 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 Sept. 1905 states, ‘He may fairly be described as the father of the Poor Law Officials in Ireland.’

The East Clare Brigade of the I.R.A 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 150th anniversary of An Gorta Mór, 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?’