Tullyfern (Donegal)

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Milford Fever Hospital (The Infirmary of the Miford Workhouse) in the early 1900s
Milford Fever Hospital (The Infirmary of the Miford Workhouse) in the early 1900s

The Milford Poor Law Union was formed in 1841 and covered an area of 176 square miles.

Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 21 in total, representing its twelve Electoral Divisions as listed below (note: figures in brackets indicate the number of guardians) plus the Board also included 5 ex office guardians, making it a total of 26.

Twelve Electorial Divisions in Co.Donegal: Carrickart (2), Carn (30), Carrowkeel (2), Doon, Glinsk, Greenfort, Kilmacrennan, Meevagh, Milford (3), Oughterlin, Rathmelton (3) and Rathmullan (2). Note: These Electoral Divisions above cover a number of Civil Parishes of Interest (within IrelandXO)  – The Parishes of Clondavaddog, Tullyfern, Mevagh, Kilmacrenan, Killygarvan, and Aughnish.

The population falling within the Union at the time of the 1831 Census had been 29,230 with divisions ranging in size from Meevagh (population 1,463) to Carn (5,124) and Milford itself (29,490). The new Workhouse was built in 1845, was designed by George Wilkinson. It occupied a six acre site a mile to the south-east of Milford and could accommodate 400 inmates.

The cost of the building was £6,250 plus £1,150 for fixtures and fittings. It was declared fit for the administration of paupers on 24th December 1845, and admitted its first inmates just over 3 months later on the 6th of April 1846.

The workhouse followed one of Wilkinson’s standard designs, with a front housing receiving rooms in the ground floor and a board room on the first floor. A central block housed dormitories, school rooms, day rooms, kitchen and food serving rooms. The rearmost block housed the workhouse infirmary. A separate fever hospital was later added erected at the east of the workhouse.A small burial ground lay at the north-east of the site.

The Workhouse buildings were abandoned sometime after 1920 and the site up to recently was occupied by an agricultural market. Only a few fragments of the workhouse  perimeter wall survive today.


The opening of the Milford Workhouse

Milford Workhouse was opened on Monday, 6 April 1846,  The guardians attended on that Monday and every subsequent Monday in the board room of the workhouse, to sanction the admission of the destitute poor to the workhouse. In early February 1846, in preparation for the opening, the master was ordered to take charge of the workhouse and ensure that everything was in order, while the matron was to ensure the workhouse was properly aired and heated. The porter was ordered to move into the workhouse in March so that that everything would be in order by the opening date.

A notice was posted in each electoral division informing the public of admission procedures for the workhouse and warning them against giving money to beggars.


Employees of the Workhouse. Before the workhouse could open it was necessary to appoint staff to manage it. Advertisements were placed in local papers. The salaried officers of the union included the union clerk; treasurers; medical officers; master and matron of the workhouse; porter; chaplains; schoolteachers; rate collectors and relieving officers.

The boards were responsible for interviewing the respective applicants and deciding on the appointments. This could prove to be a contentious issue not within the boards but between the guardians and the poor law commissioners. The commissioners recommended that a married couple be appointed as master and matron for the workhouse and further recommended that where possible a military gentleman should be appointed as master as it was believed that a person with military training would be much better at maintaining discipline and order among the inmates.

Milford Union ignored this recommendation of the poor law commissioners although in this instance the commissioners did not oppose the appointment. Two married couples applied for the positions of master and matron of the workhouse, Sergeant Major Savage and his wife and Mr John Buchanan and his wife Mary. After both couples had been interviewed the matter was put to a vote. Even though the poor law commissioners had requested that military officers be appointed where possible, Mr. and Mrs. Buchanan were appointed by a majority of seventeen.

Upkeep of Inmates. The upkeep of inmates in the workhouse was paid for by the poor rate and covered their food, bedding, clothing and medicine. When the workhouse opened in 1846 the only foods ordered for the inmates were oatmeal, bread, potatoes, sweetmilk and buttermilk. By 1899 eggs, tea, rice and meat had been added and by the early twenties butter, fish, jam and sugar were also included. As the variety of rations given to the patients increased so to did the cost of maintaining a person in the workhouse.

The average cost of maintaining an inmate in 1846 was 1s 9d, this cost rose slowly throughout the latter years of the nineteenth century and by 1899 it was 2s 9d. Between 1899 and 1921 the cost increased dramatically to 11s per person. The cost of maintaining a person in the fever hospital or the infirmary was a few shillings more expensive than in the workhouse due to the cost of medicines and the nurse's wages.

The increased amount of money available to spend on the inmates is likely to have been as a result of the decreasing numbers of paupers maintained by the union. In 1847 at the height of the famine 476 people were in receipt of relief in the workhouse, this had reduced to around 75 in 1899 and before the abolition of the workhouses there were only 49 inmates remaining in Milford.

Outdoor Relief. Initially the relief provided under the Poor Relief (Ireland) Act, was only to take the form of indoor relief administered in the workhouse. However the onset of the famine and the increased numbers of people seeking poor relief placed too great a strain on the workhouses. As a result the Irish Poor Law extension Act of 1847 was introduced.

This allowed for the introduction of outdoor relief to the aged, sick, infirm, and widows with two or more legitimate children, as well as relief in the form of food provided by soup kitchens to the able-bodied for a limited period. Outdoor relief, as the name suggests, was the title given to a form of relief that was administered to those not resident in the workhouse. This type of relief was subject to the ¼ acre or Gregory Clause, whereby people who owned more than ¼ of an acre of land were disqualified from application.

Outdoor Relief Register. The outdoor relief registers contain details such as the name of the individual, the electoral division they came from, their employment, gender, age, religion and the date the relief was granted. The people who received outdoor relief in Milford had a variety of employment backgrounds including weaver, rag man, labourer, dressmaker and blacksmith, while many people were simply referred to as mendicants.

Overcrowding in the workhouses was a major threat faced by the government, as it was feared that, once they opened, people would flock to the workhouses seeking relief. Therefore life in the workhouse was not designed to be easy.

Life in The Workhouse. It was recognised that conditions regarding food and accommodation in the workhouse could not be of a lower standard than those faced by the people outside the workhouse, but inside, segregation, manual labour and discipline were enforced and the government hoped that this would keep all but the most destitute away from the workhouses. Segregation of men, women, boys and girls was strictly enforced and each group were kept in separate blocks of the workhouse.

Even married couples were separated from each other and only allowed to see their children for a short time each day. Each inmate was expected to do some form of work, even the aged and infirm.

Work in the Workhouse. As the name suggested people who entered the workhouse were given work to do in return for their upkeep.

The Adult Inmates - The aged and infirm were expected to pick, card and spin wool, knit and mend or make clothes for the inmates, and in 1847 the union inspector, Samuel Horsley, suggested that the infirm should be employed in making stockings for the house. Partially disabled men were occupied in the kitchen, along with the women, and doing some work around the house and yard. Able-bodied men were employed in stone breaking and able-bodied women were employed in doing the household chores, sewing, carding, knitting and spinning.

Tramps who stayed in Milford workhouse for one night from March 1899 were compelled to break at least one cart-load of stones before leaving.

The Children - While the adults in the workhouse were set to work the children were sent to school. It was important that they got a good education to increase their chances of getting employment when they left the workhouse. The visiting committee comment on a number of occasions on the way the school is run. The committee complained that by July 1847 the children had still not been examined as the Commissioners of National Education had not sent the relevant books and they also complained that useful trades like shoemaking and tailoring were not taught.

Outside of school hours the girls were expected to help out with the household chores while the boys worked in the garden or yards or in some form of trade, so that their hands would become accustomed to labour and their muscular powers could develop. In 1854 the visiting committee suggested that the girls be taught sewing from four to six each evening and in the summer the children were to be taken out for walks after school.


One way to discourage people was to lay down a strict diet. Boards of guardians who did not adhere to it could be fined for not complying with the recommendations of the poor law commissioners. In most areas of the country only two meals a day were given, however in Donegal and other areas of the northern half of the country where it was common for people outside the workhouse to have three meals a day, three meals were given daily inside the workhouse.

The poor law commissioners recognised that on occasion some variation might be needed, in these cases bread was to be substituted for either potatoes or oatmeal, in the proportion of 12oz of bread for 3 ½ lbs. potatoes and 8oz bread for 7 oz of meal. They also suggested that 8 oz meal in stirabout could be substituted for 3 ½ lbs of potatoes and milk or gruel was allowed in place of buttermilk, in equivalent portions. Previous to adopting any such change the board of guardians had to first apply to the poor law commissioners. However as time went on the dietary rules became less stringent and by the early 1900's notes were inserted in the minutes concerning giving extras to the inmates at Christmas and Easter.

During the early years of the workhouses the diets were very basic but efforts were made to ensure that the food was of good quality. The visiting committee of Milford union suggested that a new twelve gallon tub be purchased for the sweetmilk which was being carried in the same container as the buttermilk and this was causing it to sour much quicker than was necessary. Complaints by the inmates in relation to the quality of the white bread were investigated and action taken to remedy the situation.

When the workhouse opened in 1846 the only foods ordered for the inmates were oatmeal, bread, potatoes, sweetmilk and buttermilk. By 1899 eggs, tea, rice and meat had been added and by the early nineteen twenties butter, fish, jam and sugar were also included. Added to these supplies would have been the vegetables grown in the workhouse yard and garden, such as the cabbage plants which are mentioned in the minutes as part of the inmates' diet.

Resolved that the following Dietary be accepted for the use of the Union:

Working men and women and children above 13: Breakfast: 7oz. Oatmeal 1/2 pt. Buttermilk 1/2 pt. mixed Sweetmilk. Dinner: 3 1/2 lbs. Potatoes 1pt Buttermilk. Supper: 4oz Oatmeal 1/3qt. Buttermilk

Old and infirm and children above 9: Breakfast: 5oz Oatmeal 1pt Sweetmilk. Dinner: 2 1/2 lbs Potatoes 1/3qt Buttermilk. Supper: 4oz Oatmeal 1/3qt Buttermilk

Children under 9 and above 2: Breakfast: 3 1/2oz Oatmeal 1/2pt Buttermilk 1/2pt. of sweetmilk. Dinner: 1 3/4 Potatoes 1/3 qt. Buttermilk. Supper: 2 1/2oz. Oatmeal 1/3 qt. Buttermilk

Children under 2 Total per day: 4oz Oatmeal 4oz Bread 1/2qt. Sweetmilk

Discipline in the Workhouse.

Rules: The daily work was backed up with strict rules and punishments. Laziness, drinking, gambling and violence against other inmates or staff were strictly forbidden. Other offences included insubordination, using abusive language and going to Milford without permission. Smoking was also forbidden in the early years but by the 1890's tobacco was purchased for the inmates.

Punishments: Punishments inflicted by the master and the board included sending people to the refractory ward, and for children, slaps with the rod; or for more serious offences inmates were summoned to the Petty Sessions and in some cases jailed for a period of time.

One example of this was Mary Devenny, who was described as "a very bad and disobedient, violent worker". She was imprisoned for six weeks with hard labour as a result of repeated insubordination and the use of threatening language to the infirmary nurse. Catherine Logue took the rod from the schoolmistress when she was punishing the children for which she was given three and a half hours in the refractory ward. By the early 1900's the punishments had moved away from incarceration in the refractory ward to being deprived of their tobacco or getting smaller rations of milk.

The Final Years of Milford Workhouse. After the passing of the Local Government (Ireland) Act in 1898 many of the functions of the boards of guardians passed to the newly formed county councils and a scaling down of the workhouses began. The boards of guardians were drawn into the War of Independence and in 1921 the nurse in the fever hospital, Kathleen Mackey, asked the board to grant her permission to accept a trained nurse's commission in the Irish Republican Army.Letters were received from Dail Eireann asking for the support of the board in severing all links with the English Local Government Board.

This was in effect the final days of what was the closing of the Milford Workhouse.


Shared on IrelandXO by: S.Callaghan (Kerrykeel) 

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Milford Workhouse - askaboutireland.ie Ireland VIEW SOURCE
Milford Workhouse Records Ireland VIEW SOURCE

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