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Famine Commemoration Directories
What can a directory tell us about the welfare response at the time?
The Medical Dispensary System
The response to the devastation caused by the famine by the government has been described as 'too little, too late'. The politics of the time favoured minimal interference by government into the day to day workings of the economy and people's lives. Market forces were supposed to control the flow of resources. This hands-off approach no doubt contributed to the deaths of thousands.
Relief efforts were based around the workhouse, public works, soup kitchens and outdoor relief. Most forms of relief depended on the recipient being considered worthy of relief, and schemes that offered relief in return for employment were preferred. Road building was particularly popular. Narrow, winding roads, built as part of these welfare work projects, without any real thought given to their useability, became known as 'starvation roads'.
One positive outcome of the famine was the creation of Ireland's first medical welfare system. A visit to the doctor was too expensive for many, and the tragedy saw many suffer and die from typhus, cholera, scurvy, malnutrition and what was known as 'famine fever'. The Medical Charities Act of 1851 consolidated over 700 district dispensaries funded from poor rates. Dispensaries used a ticketing system of black and red tickets. Tickets were issued to the needy by officers. Black tickets allowed a patient a free visit to the doctor at the dispensary; a red ticket got you a home visit.
The Irish medical directory of 1852 lists doctors who would have been active during the famine. Each entry provides a synopsis of the doctor's qualifications and most recent places of employment. Many list working in dispensaries and workhouses, and are noted for their work with fevers.
Children and the Great Irish Famine
The nineteenth century was a precarious time for children. Child mortality was high, particularly for children under the age of five. For families living at subsistence level, seasonal shortages were common, and most children would be used to a certain amount of hunger and 'doing without'. The famine made a precarious existence intolerable. Many children were left orphans, others were expected to fend for themselves, others were simply abandoned by desperate parents.
The population of Dublin increased during the famine as people from all over the country made their way to the capital city. Most were headed for the port and a boat out of Ireland. Others came to the city in the hopes of charity or work. They were invariably disappointed. By the time of the famine Dublin was already notorious for its slums. Already considered some of the worst conditions in Europe, the influx of people from the countryside added to the already overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in the city. Children made up one third of the population of Dublin at this time. Living in over-crowded city tenements they made the streets their homes. On the streets they ran the risk of being jailed for vagrancy and many fell into petty crime and were jailed.
The Deserted Children report of 1854 lists over 500 children who were found abandoned on the streets of Dublin between 1850 and 1854. Just seventy-one of them are named. The directory lists an address where the child was found or abandoned, and an approximate age. Some of the children are as young as 3 days old. A lucky few were adopted, but most end up in the workhouse.