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from Called to Account (formerly The Poor Law Inspector) by Frank Parker

Chapter 9

Although the events of that day were not repeated, there was no reduction in the number of people seeking assistance. Where we deemed it appropriate, in the case of the old and the very young, persons who were quite evidently incapable of work, we provided food. We remained resolute in our determination to grant such aid only to the most deserving. Persons whose physical condition indicated an ability to work were refused assistance however well rehearsed and presented were their pleas. Were it to become known that the Kilrush Union was ready and willing to provide support to the undeserving, the town, already filled with beggars, would quickly become the destination of every mendicant in the county.

Some of those to whom we did provide food were eligible for admission to the workhouse but many showed a remarkable reluctance to enter. At times the suspicion that some part of the food they received was being passed on to some less deserving individual was hard to deny. It was undoubtedly the case that many women and children had been deserted by husbands who had been tempted away by the promise of work overseas, there remained, however, large numbers of men pleading for aid. How many of these, once acquainted with our determination to restrict the distribution of aid to the most deserving, then preyed upon those very individuals in order to satisfy their greed, it was impossible to know.

The presence of Lieutenant Lewis and his troop helped deter the kind of scene witnessed on the first day of December. In the week that followed it was instrumental in securing the detention, on two separate occasions, of men engaged in just such despicable acts.

Their readiness to share their meagre rations with the undeserving was not the only explanation of the reluctance of so many to agree to enter the workhouse. Often, faced with the choice of going without food, or experiencing the limited comforts available within the walls of the house, they chose the former. To see a young woman, hardly able to bear the weight of an infant on her hip, another waif clinging to her tattered garments, each displaying the symptoms of near starvation, turn away when told they must, for their own good, enter the house, frequently caused me to shake my head in wonder.

I learned that such women would return days later, their condition and that of their children yet further reduced. The wailing that then accompanied the separation of mother and child was the most touching evidence of the reason for the earlier refusal.

The rising number of deaths in the workhouse presented another reason for people to refuse admittance. Indeed, fear of disease was becoming almost as widespread as disease itself. The opening of the new hospital in the former slaughterhouse had made little impact on the numbers of inmates dying in the workhouse and more were now dying in the hospital. I had a premises and beds and quickly filled those beds with fever stricken individuals. Finding people willing to enter the premises in order to tend to the sick was the part of the enterprise that presented most difficulty. I made frequent visits to the hospital myself and it was as well that I did so, for, without my example and that of the priest, I am in no doubt that many of those appointed to care for the sick and dying would have remained outside the doors.

Some have described my readiness to enter such places and, at other times, to assist those exhibiting obvious symptoms of fever, as foolhardy. In retrospect I can fully understand such accusations; I had responsibility for Georgina, Elizabeth and Elizabeth's governess. Should I be struck down with fever they would be left to fend for themselves. Were the contagion I acquired by contact with diseased persons to be transmitted to either of them I would be distraught. And yet, I could not in all conscience leave a fellow human to suffer when a simple action on my part might contribute in some small measure to the relief of that suffering. The resources at my disposal for the bringing of relief were so limited that I deemed it incumbent on all who had the ability and the opportunity, to take whatever steps were necessary to supplement the meagre support provided by the Commission and the various sources of charitable donations. Moreover my position as a representative of the Commission made it essential that I show an example for others to follow.

I am aware of many who demonstrated equal determination to assist the afflicted who were, as a consequence, overtaken by fever. Priests, physicians and men of my own profession. During my time in Kilrush I was called upon twice to support the Ennis Union when incumbent inspectors succumbed to disease. At the beginning I was unaware of such dangers, but I continued the same behaviour even after becoming well informed of the dangers.

Georgina, too, was aware of the dangers I faced on a daily basis. Not once did she remonstrate with me or beg me to take greater care. On the contrary, her own willingness to become involved in the relief of suffering without material reward inspired me to redouble my own efforts.

One boon arising from admission to the workhouse was the acquisition of clothing of a better standard than that possessed of most of the destitutes outside. That, and shelter from the elements. Many a night I lay in my bed beneath woolen blankets, my dear Georgina by my side, as the wind roared in the eves and rain rattled against the windows, and marvelled at the fortitude of those poor souls huddled in the doorways of the town or in ditches and bog holes in the countryside.

When I discovered, not once but many times, that people admitted days before were still in their filthy rags my ire was raised and I had an angry exchange with O'Shea, whose duty it was to ensure an adequate supply of garments to meet the expected number of admissions. I wanted to know how it was that female inmates, who should have been cutting and sewing in order to produce the missing garments, were idle. The explanation, that the stock of fabric had been used up and not replenished, added to my exasperation with the man who was clearly not able to cope with the demands of the job.

I considered it important that newly admitted clients be deprived of their vermin infested clothing upon admission, the same to be replaced by the standard uniform of striped jacket and trousers for the men, white cotton petticoats and grey ticking dresses for the women. This was, of course, only possible if an adequate stock of such garments was kept in hand. No-one having anticipated the rapid increase in numbers now occurring every other day, the stock quickly evaporated.

O'Shea, or his wife, the Mistress, upon seeing the stock diminish ought to have ordered bolts of material to facilitate the manufacture of replacements. Not only was this important for ensuring a continuing supply of clothing for the ...

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