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Dungannon, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland Workhouse: Where life, like the times, were hard!

Written by Bertie Foley, Dungannon
Original in Dungannon News & Tyrone Courier, 19 April 2021
Reprinted with Kind Permission of
Donaghmore Historical Society

Tucked away in a quiet secluded area in the grounds of South Tyrone Hospital in Dungannon is a small patch of ground covered with grass and weeds and surrounded by some old bushes and trees.

It is neglected and few people go there. It doesn’t seem to be of any importance yet down below the surface is the history of the poverty, disease, hardship, hunger and death suffered in the wider Dungannon area from 1841.

This is the graveyard where hundreds, of men, women and children who died in the Dungannon Workhouse were buried.

From the beginning of the nineteenth century successive governments struggled to find a solution to the poverty in the country. The industrial revolution seemed to have by passed Ireland and most of the population, many of them small farm holders paying high rent to landlords, were still trying to make a living from the land.

In 1827 the Duke of Wellington said: “There never was a country in which poverty existed to the extent that it exists in Ireland.” (Wellington became Prime Minister in January 1828).

A prominent English traveller Henry D. Inglis wrote about his travels in Ireland in 1837:“The destitute, infirm and aged form a large body of the population of the cities and three quarters of them die through the effects of destitution, either by decay of nature or through disease induced by scanty or unwholesome food or by epidemics. The condition of the agricultural labourers is scarcely less deplorable almost all of whom live on the verge of starvation. The real and true cause is the want of employment. The Government has a duty to do something to improve the situation."

The 1821 census of Ireland recorded a population of 6.8 million and 20 years later it had risen to 8.2 million. Today there are approximately 7 million. In 1841 in Tyrone there were over 300,000 people and to-day only about 200,000.

The Government in London set up a number of enquiries and committees to look into the situation and finally in 1838 they passed the Poor Law Act for Ireland. The legislation was largely influenced by the English Poor Law Act of 1834 but the problems of the poor in Ireland were different to the problems in England.

The Act provided for the building of a series of workhouses where relief was to be provided financed by local taxation. The Dungannon Poor Law Union covered approximately 160 square miles and was overseen by a Board of Guardians. Twenty six were elected, representing 19 electoral divisions. Aghnahoe, Altmore, Ballymagran, Bernagh, Brantry, Clonaleese, Clonavaddy, Crossdernot, Derrygortrey, Meenagh, Minterburn, Mountjoy all returned one member each while Benburb, Castlecaulfield Drumaspil, Donaghmore, Dungannon, Moy and Tulliniskan returned two each. There were also 8 ex-officio Guardians making a total of 34.

Workhouse cost £6,650

In 1841 a six acre site was purchased from Lord Ranfurly and the workhouse was built at a cost of £6,650 plus £1,350 for fittings. The architect was George Wilkinson who had designed many of the English workhouses and the contractors were a local firm John & Thomas Lilburn, Builders Dungannon. It was planned to accommodate 800 people.

The front row of the building was an administrative block which contained a porter’s room and a waiting room for new entrants. The Guardians Board Room was on the first floor where they usually met every second Thursday. This block was extended with the addition of a children’s accommodation and schoolroom.

Moving through an archway you came to the main accommodation block. The Master’s rooms were at the centre with male and female areas to each side.

At the rear of the complex was a range of single storey utility rooms such as a bakehouse and wash house connected through to the infirmary and a ward known as the ‘idiots ward’ via a central spine containing the chapel and dining hall.

The building was declared fit to open on 16th May 1842 and the first people to enter did so on 23rd June the same year. In 1846 a Fever Hospital capable of holding 200 people was built on the site now known as the Coronation Wing of South Tyrone Hospital

Everyone entering the workhouse had to obey the strict rules which included working each day except Sunday. Work included cooking, washing, scrubbing, breaking stones, rearing pigs, gardening, repairing the building or picking oakum. The latter was unwinding old ropes strand by strand, picking out the weak pieces and then rewinding into a strong rope to be sold by the workhouse.

Once inside, your life was controlled by a bell and a strict routine. A typical day was to rise when the bell was rung at 6am; breakfast at 6.30am, work until 12 noon, lunch break and then work until 6pm. Supper was served at 7pm, with final lights out at 8pm. A roll call was carried out each morning. Meal breaks were in the communal dining room and held in silence.

An inmate’s only possessions were his/her uniform, mattress (a sack filled with straw) and a thin blanket. Toilet facilities were primitive to say the least. Once a week the inmates were bathed and the men shaved.

In 1842 the prescribed workhouse diet for children from nine to fourteen years of age was :

Breakfast: three and a half ounces of oatmeal and a half pint of new milk;

Dinner: two pounds of potatoes and a half a pint of new milk;

Supper: Six ounces of bread.

Certainly, a daily diet such as this would not be a great help during a famine or at anytime.

An adult in the workhouse in 1845 had three meals per day, breakfast, dinner and supper. Breakfast consisted usually of six to eight ounces of oatmeal served in a stirabout form with either sweet or sour milk. Potatoes, meat and vegetables were for dinner. However, the amount of meat was very small being no more than 4 ounces per week. Vegetables very often in the form of soup were grown in the workhouse and not always available. Supper was bread and tea. During the worst of the famine potatoes were in very short supply and replaced with Indian meal from America. (This was coarse meal usually fed to animals).


Master and Matron

In the Autumn of 1841, the Guardians advertised for a Master and a Matron (a man and wife) of middle age and without incumbrance. Salaries were £35 and £25 respectively with an apartment provided plus coal, provisions and candles.

Also required were a schoolmaster and schoolmistress (salaries £20 and £15 per annum); and a Porter (£10) also with apartment, provisions, candles and fuel. The porter was also provided with a suit of clothes and a hat annually.

The duties of all employees were clearly laid down with emphasis on strict adherence to the daily routine and regulations. The Master reported weekly to the Guardians who met in an upper room at the front of the complex. He was entrusted with the power to punish anyone who broke the rules. Punishment could include flogging, or withholding food, or bringing the person to court.

On being accepted into the workhouse, men, women and children were given clothes. The clothes they were wearing (usually just rags) were washed labelled and kept. The old rags were returned if the people left. There was a report in a local paper of two men climbing over the wall to escape. They were captured and charged with stealing the workhouse clothes they were wearing. They were brought to Omagh Court wearing their old rags in freezing conditions.

Husbands, wives and children were separated as soon as they entered the workhouse and could be punished if they attempted to speak to each other. Adults were those over 15 years of age, children were between three and 15 and babies up to two years of age.

The mother was permitted to see their babies and attend to their needs. Occasionally the Master may have given parents permission to speak to sick children. When you passed through the doors seeking refuge from the dangers outside, you were ending family life.

In the early years there was a reluctance for people to enter. They were frightened but eventually as the famine arrived and food became even more scarce, parents had to make the decision that it was better to be inside than outside. Outside there was no work, no shelter and for many, no food.



The Guardians were constantly reminded to save money. Most of the costs were paid by the local rate payers. One method of reducing costs was to help young men and women to emigrate to America, Canada or Australia and New Zealand.

A newspaper article in 1846 reported that 20 young people, inmates of Dungannon Workhouse, had departed for America. An Irish Famine website in Sydney Australia gives the names of some young orphan girls who left from Dungannon Workhouse in 1848 on the ship “EARL GREY”. One of them was Margaret Patterson who was only 15 years old when she arrived in Sydney on 6th October 1848, after a journey of over FOUR months. Another was Eliza Ady, who was 16 years old when she arrived in Melbourne on the ship DIADEM in January 1850.


As with all workhouses, Dungannon was slow to fill up. A year after opening there were still only 190 residents. In October 1845 the House had 284 seeking shelter and a year later there were 467.


At a meeting of gentry and Clergy in Dungannon Courthouse in October 1846, Rev John Montague, the Parish Priest in St Patrick’s, said there were about 500 people in Dungannon who were not in constant work and another 200 stressed people who were unable to work.

Rev William Quain of St Annes agreed that there was a great number of widows and orphans to be relieved, but it was very difficult to persuade them not to enter the workhouse.


Over 1,000 inmates

In December 1847 the number inside was over one thousand. Many people on the outside believed that the poor were dishonest and disreputable and to go into the workhouses was seen as shameful.

The buildings with their strong brick walls were also known as harsh places with poor class of food. People also realised that once they moved inside the family would be immediately separated. Even poor people have their pride and if they had a small holding, they didn’t wish to see the landlords taking it over. Nor did they wish to see the end of family life. You had to be desperate to want to go into a workhouse.

Francis Corrigan was the first to die in Dungannon workhouse. He passed away on 12th August, 1842 aged 40 years. By the end of the year nine had died. In the following years the number of deaths rose steadily. Conditions on the outside were deteriorating. Food was becoming very scarce and work was even harder to find. The number of admissions grew and a fever wing was added to cope with the outbreaks of disease and fever.

In 1847 the great Irish Famine was at its peak. The potato crop was ruined. The sight of field after field with the potato stalks turned black by the blight forced many more to seek shelter in the workhouse. The building now had twice as many people as it had been built to hold.

Fever, malnutrition and disease took hold. From the 4th March to the 21st June a staggering 270 people died. The worst single day was 8th May when 15 died. Instead of having a contractor to build coffins, the Guardians employed two carpenters to make them on the premises. Some people were possibly buried without a coffin, a shroud or maybe without even a prayer. It is difficult to think what was going through the heads of those watching the bodies being wheeled up to what was sometimes referred to as “the barley field” for burial.

Maybe it was a husband or a wife, a son or daughter or baby. Dr Dawson the medical attendant in the fever hospital fell ill and died of the fever in February 1847 and in the same year so too did Rev David Bennett, the Presbyterian Minister in Dungannon and one of the Chaplains to the workhouse.


Births and deaths

During the 1850s the large number of deaths continued. Between July 1851 and February 1861 approximately 400 died. The deaths were male and female, young and old, Protestant and Catholic. By the end of the century over three thousand had died in the workhouse and the majority would have been buried in that graveyard which measured approximately 100 yards long by 28 yards wide and a gravel path up the centre.

The first baby to be born in the workhouse was Patrick Campbell on 11th December, 1842. Unfortunately, he only survived a few minutes. Between 1842 and 1905 over 450 babies were born. Most of them were baptised by local clergy and a large number of the mothers were unmarried.

Life must have been very hard for them in those days. Towards the end of the 19th Century the workhouses began a system of “boarding out” young boys and girls over the age of six or seven to sent local farmers.

One of these was Herbert Simpson who was sent to a family in Kiesha. In an interview with local newspapers in the 1940s, he spoke about the loneliness of a young boy in the workhouse and the poor quality of the food. During his time there weren’t enough children to hire teachers, so he went to school in the local Drumglass primary and he says he spent a lot of his time looking across at the workhouse and at the new railway line in the distance.

The powers of the Board of Guardians changed over the years. By 1848 they were also assisting in outdoor relief and as the decades rolled on they had more responsibility for health in the community. Cholera, measles, typhus and diphtheria etc were very common.


Dungannon hospital

Part of the Workhouse gradually became the Dungannon hospital and finally closed its doors in 1948, the building being taken over by the new National Health Service. In the coming years most of the old dormitories and out houses were demolished to make way for a new hospital wing.

Local businessman Jimmy Donnelly managed to save the bell, had it refurbished and presented it to the South Tyrone Hospital, where it is on display to-day. The front buildings of the workhouse were used for meetings of the Rural District Council and for the Registration of Births Deaths and Marriages. The graveyard was forgotten about.

In the 1970s, Margaret McGinty, a member of Donaghmore Historical Society, campaigned to have a plaque erected as a reminder of those who had sought refuge and of the many who had died there.

With the support of Dungannon District Council, it was erected outside the old wall of the workhouse on Quarry Lane, almost opposite the Police station. Present were members of the Council, the local Churches, the Historical Society and interested members of the public. Hundreds of cars pass the spot daily and don’t realise it is there. It is on a very busy dangerous corner, with no pathway. Out of sight and out of mind.

Over the last year Donaghmore Historical Society has been asking the Southern Hospital Trust to erect, or allow the erection of, a fitting memorial on the site of the actual graveyard up at the back of Loane House and we are hopeful that this will happen soon.

Memorials have been erected in recent years at the Armagh and Cookstown sites in recent years, but we believe the Covid 19 Crises has delayed the Dungannon project. Over the years, as the hospital expanded, part of the burial ground has been built over. Mid-Ulster Council has been very supportive in the Society’s efforts to have a memorial and so too have the local clergy and History Societies.

The Great Famine was possibly the greatest battle ever fought in Ireland when at least one million died and millions more emigrated. The people buried in the Dungannon Workhouse graveyard were not strangers. Almost all of them came from East Tyrone.

We should never forget the quiet, lonely battle fought by the poor, the hungry, the sick the young and the old. We look forward to seeing a fitting memorial erected on that small, quiet, peaceful, green patch that holds an almost forgotten story of the misery, hunger and disease suffered by our ancestors.