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Kilrush Union Minute Books 1849
INTRODUCTION by Ciaran Murchadha

The Kilrush Poor Law Union
The first inmates were received into the newly-completed workhouse at Kilrush on 9 July 1842, a building erected to cater for a maximum of 800 inmates, or ‘paupers’. The Poor Law Union, the hinterland for the workhouse, whose destitute inhabitants it was intended to serve, contained a population of 82,353 persons according to the 1841 census, spread out over a geographical area of nearly 116,000 acres, extending into three baronies. With total property valuation of only 59,000, even before the first failure of the potato crop in 1845, the Kilrush Union was one of the most impoverished areas of the west of Ireland. During the years of the Famine, its people suffered on a horrendous scale, and tens of thousands died from the effects of starvation and disease. The suffering of the people of Kilrush Union accelerated after the Poor Law Extension Act of 1847 placed financial and administrative responsibility for relief of distress entirely on the poor law, which could not remotely support the burden.

Governing Body
From its first declaration as a union in 1839 until March of 1848, Kilrush was governed, like all unions in Ireland, by a Board of Guardians. The guardians decided on the level of the poor law rate, the property tax which funded the union’s operations, they appointed the different officials who actually ran the workhouse and supervised their management through meetings, and made final decisions also on individual applications for admittance to the workhouse.

The most important Union officials included the Master and Matron, who managed the workhouse; the Clerk whose responsibilities were financial as well as organisational, and who functioned as secretary to the Board; the relieving officers whose task it was to assess, according to regulations, the eligibility of different candidates for admission to the workhouse or for outside relief, and to arrange for this relief; and the rate collectors on whom depended the collection of the rate.  Each rate collector had responsibility for the different geographical areas of the union, the district electoral divisions; the relieving officers for the different relief districts, which were distinct from the electoral divisions. Among the other union officials were the workhouse physician, the union solicitor, the union valuator, schoolmaster and schoolmistress, the porters, and overseers for outdoor works.

Originally there were 38 guardians on the Kilrush Board, divided into two categories, the ex-officio and elected members.  Both categories were chosen annually, at different times of the year, the former from among the magistrates of the county (9), and the latter from among the ratepayers (29). The elected guardians each had responsibility for particular electoral divisions, with one electoral division often having more than one guardian.

As in many workhouse unions, the Kilrush guardians of both kinds were for the most part not competent to the responsibilities incumbent upon them. Very few treated these responsibilities with the seriousness they required, and most in fact never even turned up for meetings on a regular basis unless for the specific reason of exercising the patronage of appointing officials or granting contracts to the union’s suppliers.

Dissolution of the Board of Guardians
This situation was tolerable enough in pre-Famine times, when the duties of guardians were not especially onerous, and where the assiduous attendance of the few conscientious guardians was enough to cover the neglect of their fellows. It was a very different matter when the workhouse became filled to overflowing with the hapless victims of famine destitution, as it had by the middle of 1847. By that time the few attentive guardians had become overwhelmed by the tasks of processing applicants for relief, and with the other administrative tasks relating to their maintenance in the workhouse. The weekly meetings of the Board became inadequate to deal with the press of routine business, and within a short time, the guardians began to lag farther and farther behind in their work.  Inefficiency and neglect resulted in all departments, exacerbated by a high turnover of staff, and incompetence of successive replacements.

As famine conditions worsened, the ineptitude of the Kilrush Board became ever more problematical, and the intermittent attendance of many guardians increasingly obstructive of the routine business of the union. The problem became chronic after the Poor Law Extension Act (1847) greatly increased the responsibilities of the Board. In November, 1847, an inspector was appointed to the Kilrush Union, part of whose remit was to bring the guardians to some sense of their responsibilities. This was Captain Arthur Edward Kennedy, who became celebrated for his dedication to the cause of the poor in Kilrush, and his courage in facing down powerful landlord influences. He was to remain at Kilrush until the middle of 1850.

Captain Kennedy’s efforts at reforming the guardians were unavailing and on 7 March, 1848, after a succession of episodes in which the guardians demonstrated the grossest neglect, ineptitude and indifference to the poor under their care, the board was dissolved on his recommendation. One of the precipitating factors of the dissolution was a particularly disgraceful Board meeting in mid-February, when after appointing as Master ‘a mere lad’, the Guardians dispersed immediately, ‘leaving the wretched paupers unadmitted to a late hour, and the principal business undone’.

On 11 March, 1848, the Poor Law Commissioners appointed two vice-guardians, Edmund Kelly and Michael Meagher, to take over supervision of the Kilrush Union. Messrs. Kelly and Meagher were paid officials, and with the close co-operation of Captain Kennedy, over the ensuing twenty months or so, gradually brought order to the financial and administrative affairs of the union, greatly improving conditions with the workhouse, and the level of medical care of the disease-ridden multitudes of the ragged, starving poor, whose numbers swamped its capacity to provide the food and shelter they sought. The three men also struggled as best they could to relieve the much greater numbers of the poor outside the workhouse, who by reason of their dire state were also entitles to rations of food.

There is every reason to believe that the vice guardians and Captain Kennedy (who himself acted as vice-guardian on occasion) applied themselves to their appointed task with efficiency and dedication. However, this task was a hopeless, impossible one, in the appalling circumstances of mass destitution, and mass death by starvation and disease that prevailed within the union, and even as they worked themselves to exhaustion, the labours of vice guardians and inspector had very little effect.

The main reason for this was that the new poor law, grotesquely inadequate to the task of relieving the destitution that prevailed at its passage, in a number of clearly definable ways itself a major contributor to the enormous increase in that destitution, the results of which were just being felt as Captain Kennedy took up his appointment. 

The Kilrush workhouse had been overcrowded since the middle of 1847, and the property holders even at that time were struggling to pay the existing poor law rate. The Poor Law Extension Act, passed in the Summer of that year, led to hefty and continuing increases in the rate bill for landlords, middlemen and all grades of tenants of an annual valuation above 4 per annum. Occupiers below this 4 threshold had their share of the rates paid by the landlord (under and Act of 1843). Many landlords and middlemen were rendered insolvent by the upward spiral of rates, and surrendered or sold their properties, and emigrated thereafter. Others went bankrupt and the administration of their estates turned over to the courts.

At a lower level of society, the poorer tenants were much worse affected. Those who were immediately vulnerable were those with valuations hovering just above the 4 annual valuation. Extremely high rent and rate payments combined to reduce this social grouping to destitution, and continued afterwards to reach upwards into strata of society which had once been comfortable. Large numbers of tenants, ruined by the weight of rent and rates emigrated if they could scrape the passage money together, or failing that joined the ranks of the broken-spirited multitudes now streaming towards the workhouses.

The new Poor Law also acted as a powerful stimulant to a campaign of evictions within the union which continued from early 1848 into the first years of the 1850’s. Since the landlord was responsible for the entire rate on holdings, one way of reducing a potentially ruinous rate bill was to eliminate these holdings altogether, the cottiers who held them, not having in any case paid rents for several years now.

The Kilrush evictions or clearances, known to contemporaries by the more expressive phrase, ‘exterminations’, were on a colossal level. One contemporary estimate was that between 1847 and 1850, some 20,000 persons were permanently removed from their homes in the area of the union, a quarter of the population of the Union as recorded in 1841. Little could be done for these people, and the vast majority of them, too poor to emigrate, perished of starvation and disease, in the most agonising manner. Given the limitations placed by government on relief at this time, if there had been ten main workhouses in the Kilrush Union, it would still not have been enough to prevent the mass deaths which occurred.

The vice-guardians attempted to cope with the waves of destitution and misery which engulfed the union, much as the guardians had done, although there is little doubt but that they went about their business with infinitely greater efficiency and resolve. There were three main ways of which they attempted to deal with the situation. One involved the provision of extra accommodation, mainly through the renting of buildings outside the workhouse in which to house paupers newly-manufactured by the poor law and the evicters. These were the ‘auxiliaries’, buildings whose notoriety for the number of inmates who perished in them from diseases of various kinds, was lessened to some extent under the vice-guardians’ regime. Another stratagem used by the vice-guardians was to recommend the continuation of outdoor relief to the able-bodied, under very close monitoring by the Commissioners. The numbers here peaked in mid-July, 1849 when over 30,000 persons, between able-bodied and infirm, were in receipt of assistance outside the workhouse, a figure which approached nearly half the estimated, much reduced population of the union.

A third manner of response to the deluge of destitution which engulfed the union reflects least credit on the vice-guardians. This was the practice of adhering so closely to the regulations governing eligibility for relief, already savagely restrictive, that large numbers could be legally lopped off the relief lists, regardless of their state of physical debility. This was done in all unions in Ireland and was approved of by the Poor Law Commissioners, under the pretext of combatting the fraud or ‘imposition’, which was held to be universal. The most common method used here was the workhouse ‘test’, under which persons who applied for relief were offered places in the workhouse, and where they refused, as they did for many reasons, were deemed not to be in want, and therefore removed from the relief lists. Was this why the numbers on outdoor relief in the Kilrush Union declined from 30,701 on 19 July 1849 to the 11,194 on the lists at the beginning of November? Certainly destitution showed no signs of abating in that period. Analysis of the surviving documents, especially the minutes here presented will determine the true reason.

The above account makes not attempt to provide a connected history of the Famine in the Kilrush Union, merely to provide a context for the present document, the minutes of the meetings of the vice-guardians during 1848, and (after 3 November) the restored Board of Guardians.

The circumstances of their compilation as outlined above, explain the format of the minutes. The vice-guardians do not record their discussions, only the decisions made, in terse businesslike manner, that gives us very little insight into their thinking or into conditions within the workhouse or union. Neither do the minutes enable us to ascertain how the vice-guardians and the inspector, Captain Kennedy, managed to function amidst the sea of human suffering in which they worked, or dealt with the guilt brought on by the harsh decisions forced on them by their office and circumstances. If one were to judge by the minutes alone, one might be led to believe Messrs. Kelly, Meagher and Kennedy were extraordinarily unfeeling of the misery and suffering which surrounded them, and there is in fact other evidence that shows them to have become somewhat case-hardened by what they witnessed on a daily basis for so long. But that certain strong humanitarian feelings remained is evident form the often quoted remarks of Captain Kennedy, delivered many years later:

I can tell you. . . there were days in that western county when I came back from some scene of eviction so maddened by the sights of hunger and misery I had seen in the day’s work that I felt disposed to take the gun from behind my door and shoot the first landlord I met.

By comparison with the minutes of the meetings of the vice-guardians, those of the reinstated board, individual members of which furnish much stronger grounds for accusations of callousness than the vice-guardians, provide quite plentiful data concerning the workhouse, paupers, and conditions within the union.

None of the above should be taken as minimising the significance of this invaluable record, which up to recently was thought to be lost. These minutes are of great importance in building up a picture of the financial administration of the Kilrush union, at a time when it was under the most enormous pressure, and a close analysis of the statistical and other data it contains will reveal in detail how its managers acted and reacted in respect of unprecedented destitution and limitation of resources. There is a mass of material which will enable us to make statements about everything from the workhouse dietary, the exact details of supplies of different articles to the workhouse, the composition of the workhouse contractors, the workhouse staff, the financial situation of the union, and disease and mortality within the workhouse and the union at large.

The minutes provide and essential supplement to the many other documents which illuminate the history of the Kilrush Union in this period. Largely due to Captain Kennedy’s efforts at publicising what was happening in Kilrush, there exists a greater body of material for study than perhaps for any other union in Ireland. These include the many documents in the different divisions of the Chief Secretary’s Office (National Archives); the many collections in the repositories; the letters and reports of Captain Kennedy and the vice-guardians contained in published parliamentary papers; the descriptions of visitors such as Rev. Sidney Osborne Godolphin, and R. R. Madden, together with the rich material in newspapers such as the Limerick and Clare Examiner and the Clare Journal. The richest source, is, of course, the near 300 pages of the Report and Proceedings and appendices of the House of Commons select committee of inquiry into the Kilrush Union (1850). The present edition of the minutes of the meetings of the vice-guardians and guardians of the Kilrush Union, produced by Clare Local Studies Project which goes from strength to strength with each publication it undertakes, caps this rich treasury of material, by making it more widely available and accessible.

With such an abundance of material now ready for study and analysis, the Kilrush Union awaits only its historian.

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