Originally published in 1996, the book “Desperate Haven” is the definitive study to date of the Great Famine and its effects in the towns and villages of West Waterford. This long out of print and much sought-after volume was the product of more than 5 years of research by Dungarvan Museum Society (now Waterford County Museum). Written by William Fraher, Bernadette Sheridan, Seosaimh O Loinsigh and Willie Whelan this book is now available to purchase online from Amazon.

It might seem a strange time to publish a book on one of the most depressing events in Waterford history, but as the Coronavirus Pandemic continues the similarities and differences with our great 19th century tragedy are becoming clear. Doctors, nurses, carers and Dungarvan Community Hospital are once again at the forefront of the state’s response. What was once a workhouse is now a medical facility, still tasked with caring for the most vulnerable in society. In the pages of “Desperate Haven” there is tragedy, but also heroism, self-sacrifice, generosity and community spirit.

The story of how our ancestors overcame the cataclysm deserves to be told and their names deserve to be remembered. Over the next few weeks, we will serialise extracts from the book in this newspaper.

The Famine in Dungarvan

It is difficult to describe the horrendous impact of the Famine to a modern person. The absence of film or photographs and the passage of time has led to it fading from memory. At the height of the Famine, in 1847, almost 4000 people were living in Workhouses around Dungarvan town. Several thousand more were dependent on food handouts (outdoor relief) to survive. The scenes around the town would have been comparable to the Ethiopian famine of the 1980’s. Such was the pressure to accommodate the starving, that the shop counters in Boyle’s House (now Whelan’s Newsagents, O’Connell Street) were removed to allow the 200 girls inmates lie down to sleep. At the height of the Famine 4,000 men, women and children from all over West Waterford were housed within the workhouse and auxiliary workhouses of Dungarvan. Thousands more were dependent on soup kitchens and “outdoor relief” to prevent themselves starving.

In 1838 the ‘Act for the Effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland’ was passed. By this Act the country was to be divided into 130 administrative units known as Unions. A Union was an amalgamation of adjacent parishes to form one administrative unit. Each Union was to have a Workhouse run by a Board of Guardians which comprised of elected Guardians and local Justices of the Peace. The Dungarvan Union was declared on 28 March 1839. It comprised an area of 163,826 acres and had a population of 57,640 in 1831. Its electoral divisions, with the population of each, were: Dungarvan East & West (16,028); Ardmore (7,407); Grange (1,874); Kinsalebeg (3,170); Clashmore (3,386); Aglish (4,762); Whitechurch (3,176); East Modeligo (592); Colligan (1,009); Seskinane (2,162); Kilgobnet (2,364); Kilrossanty (3,119); Fews (1,247); Stradbally (3,398); Ballylaneen (3,835).

The Building of the Workhouse

Once the Unions had been formed the government set about building the Workhouses. Designed by architect George Wilkinson from Oxford to accommodate 600 inmates, the contract for the construction of the Dungarvan Workhouse was issued in December 1839 and was intended for completion by June 1841. The building was to cost £6,480, with £1,600 to be spent on fitting it out. This workhouse in time became St. Joseph’s Hospital, now Dungarvan Community Hospital.

Dungarvan Workhouses

As the Famine progressed and the scale of the disaster became obvious in 1846 and 1847 additional auxiliary workhouses were rented to accommodate the “paupers”. The following are a list of the main workhouses. Omitted from the list are some hospital buildings such as Cairbre House & Shandon House that were used to treat patients suffering from cholera, dysentery, scarlet fever etc.

The Dungarvan Union Workhouse [2000 people (designed to accommodate 600)] – Dungarvan Community Hospital

Kiely’s Store No. 1 – Quay Lane [350 people]

Kiely’s Store No. 2 – Quay Lane [150 people]

Dee’s House, Blackpool – [200 boys] formerly Power’s Bakery, O’Connell Street

Boyle’s House, Blackpool – [200 girls] Whelan’s Newsagents, O’Connell Street

Carbery’s Store, Strandside South [550 people] – now demolished, adjacent to the Castle Keep Estate, Abbeyside.

Galwey’s Store, Strandside South [150 people] – now demolished, located in Stoke’s Field beside Abbeyside Church.

Keating’s Store, The Quay – [600 people] demolished c1921 located behind The Old Bank Restaurant, T. F. Meagher Street.

The impact of the Famine was extreme, it is almost impossible to know how many died or emigrated but the following population figures for Dungarvan town tell their own story about the catastrophe that befell the town.

  • Dungarvan 1841: 8,625 people
  • Dungarvan 1911: 4,977 people
  • Dungarvan 2016: 9,227 people

How Did the Workhouse Operate?

Able bodied people who were starving or without shelter could not get any support from the state unless they entered a workhouse. Paupers had to opt in to entering the workhouse, but as it was not a jail they could leave at any time. However, if a pauper left, they would get no food and would have a difficult time being readmitted. The workhouse regime was designed to be difficult to prevent paupers viewing it as an easy option. There was a perception among the wealthy that if poor people could easily get support, they would be less inclined to take poorly paid labouring jobs in agriculture and industry. If a pauper was successful in their application to enter the workhouse, they had a medical inspection, were disinfected and had their uniform issued to them. Their own clothes were taken from them, washed and put into storage along with any possessions they had with them. These would be returned to them when they were discharged from the workhouse. Within the workhouse system family units were broken up on admission. Men, women and children were accommodated separately. Paupers were expected to work to help run the workhouse, cooking, shoemaking, mending clothes or engage in menial tasks such as road repairs. A uniform had to be worn and your day was governed by a strict timetable. Even in good times the workhouse diet was repetitious and barely sufficient for sustenance.

Buy the Book

This paperback book is priced at €18.50 and the digital version is priced at €9.10 (free to Amazon Prime members) both available to buy online from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk etc. Search for “desperate haven waterford”. If you cannot shop online get in touch with the museum via history@waterfordmuseum.ie leaving your contact details and we can order a copy for distribution to you once the Covid 19 epidemic allows.

All profits go towards supporting Waterford County Museum. The 2020 edition of the book was edited by Willie Whelan.