Carlow Workhouse and the Famine

During the 1840's a new disease was found in the Irish potato crop. The first outbreak reported in County Carlow was in September 1845. At the beginning it was less virulent than in other parts of Ireland. However by the end of March 1846, it was estimated that between one third and one half the crop had been destroyed. The southern part of the county, particularly the areas around Borris, were the worst affected. By May 1846 the price of potatoes in Carlow had risen to fifteen shillings per barrel. This was about three times the normal rate. The situation continued to worsen rapidly. At the end of 1846 the crop had completely failed and no potatoes were available in the County.

During 1846, distress and destitution were widespread around County Carlow. Unemployment was increasing among the labouring classes. The rate was as high as fifty per cent in the Clonmore-Hacketstown area and up to eighty per cent in Borris.

Schemes of public works were established in order to provide monetary relief. Local schemes were sanctioned at a presentments session in May 1846, but there were delays in implementation. A presentment was a grant given by a grand jury (the precursors of County Councils) for the construction or repair of roads or buildings. They were financed by the County cess at special presentment sessions. Clergy and landowners protested and Dr. Haly the Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin informed the Government of the general poverty and destitution.

The Government of the time ordered that relief was to be provided only by means of public works or through relief committees. A new public works Act was passed, which stated that schemes were to be paid for by local taxation. The government would advance the money and each barony had to repay the amount in annual instalments. During the years 1846 and 1847, the presentments were not able to cope with the distress. Over three thousand people were employed on relief schemes in County Carlow.

The Relief Committees also helped those in need. The Gentry and Clergy collected subscriptions in aid of which equal grants were given by the government. Donations were received from individuals, and religious congregations such as the Sisters of Mercy in Carlow organised subscriptions in their local area.

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