1800-1859 | Famine | Ireland

Workhouse turns away 260 starving Irish famine victims

The famine memorial in Dublin –
Chmee2 – CC License – via Wikimedia.

12 June 1847

An incident occurred today in 1847 which was typical of many during the Irish potato famine which claimed at least a million lives. 260 starving refugees from Ireland’s remote north west coastal region of Erris, where there had been no sustained attempt at organising relief, managed to survive a trek of forty miles to a workhouse in the small town of Ballina. They were turned away at the gates. The workhouse was already full, and the guardians, who had been forced by savage cutbacks ordered from London to borrow heavily, were finding it near impossible to feed even the few famine victims they had already accepted.1

Three weeks later, on 5 July, the workhouse doctor informed the guardians that its inmates would not be able to survive on the rations provided and that in his opinion several recent deaths were already due to starvation. He also noted that some of those it cared for did not even have any clothes or blankets. The Ballina workhouse, like all the others in Ireland, was almost entirely dependent for its funding on the British Treasury, but London was determined to curtail relief measures as they ran contrary to the principles of laissez fair economics by undermining the market price of staple foods.  The workhouse already owed £6,000 (approximately £660,000 in today’s money) and on 1 August bailiffs entered to seize goods as security against payment.2


  1. Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-49, Penguin Books, London 1991, pp. 311-312.
  2. Ibid pp. 312-313.

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