History of the Dunfanaghy Workhouse

The Poor Unions 
The Poor Unions were introduced into Ireland under the Poor Law Act of 1838. It was introduced following the amendment of the same act in Britain several years earlier, and the act was to provide provisions and relief for the most destitute in society. This was completed through the establishment Poor Unions –  specific townlands – with Workhouses acting as the centre where provisions and relief were provided for the most destitute in society. Ireland had a total of 130 Poor Unions by 1845. In 1831. the Dunfanaghy Poor Union consisted of townlands such as Dunfanaghy, Creeslough, Derryreel, Falcarrach and Derryveagh, and the population, according to Census Records, was 15,793. 

The Workhouses 
Workhouses were brought into Ireland with the Poor Law Act. Most of the Workhouses across the nation were designed by the chief architect of the Poor Law Act, George Wilkinson, and they follow a similar format in their structure. Many also had similar facades, making it easier for the destitute to identify them. They consisted of a reception, a main hall, dormitories, workshops, an infirmary, school rooms, kitchens, and storage for tools, all contained within yards and high stone walls. A Board of Guardians was elected and monitored the administration of the workhouse, the poor rates and the operations, such as hiring staff. They would have met weekly and were elected by local authorities, except for the Justice of the Peace who was typically a local person. The Master of the Workhouse saw to the daily running of the Workhouse. Other staff included the Matron, the Porter, the Clerk, Schoolmistress, Doctor, Nurse and Officers. 

The Dunfanaghy Workhouse 
The Dunfanaghy Workhouse opened its doors on June 24th, 1845. It is one of eight Workhouses in Donegal. Conditions inside the workhouse were very basic, although the Dunfanaghy Board of Guardians, who were responsible for the operation of the workhouse, insisted that flagstones be used instead of earthen floors. The total cost of the building was £5000, funded by a loan from the century body, the Poor Law Commissioners. This loan was ultimately repaid by the local poor rates. Local stone was used for the building, with limestone quoins from nearby Ballymore Quarry. Unlike most Workhouses across Ireland, it also had a split entrance block. Upon it’s opening, the Workhouse admitted five paupers. 

The Dunfanaghy Board of Guardians consisted of 22 men, drawn from the local gentry, landowners, merchants and Justices of the Peace. Three local landlords were prominent on the Board; Stewart, Olphert and Hill. Local merchants such as William Ramsey were also Important.

List of the First Board of Guardians of the Dunfanaghy Workhouse

Alexander R. Stewart      Neal Lafferty               William Smyth        Denis Cannon        Wybrants Olphert          Michael Boyle             Edward Coll              James Gallagher

George V. Hart               George Weir               Thomas Lurgan        Lord George A. Hill   Captain Gilbert              Denis Sweeney            Bernard Rodden       Patrick O’Donell 

William Ramsey            Thomas Robinson        Edward McElroy     Francis Mc Garvey       Patrick McFadden       Tinlay Ashe       

The Workhouse would close its doors in 1918, four years before the dissolution of the Poor Law Act in 1922.  It was then converted into a Co-Op for the community, and then storage for road signs. In 1989, it was declared a Heritage Site and the Workhouse reopened in 1995 as the Donegal Famine Heritage Centre, 150 years after it’s first opening. 

The Famine in Dunfanaghy 
Between 1845 to 1852, Ireland was in the grips of hunger known as “An Górta Mór” or the Great Irish Famine. Famine was not uncommon in Ireland. The food supply across the nation frequently either failed or was in short supply, causing hardships for many people but in 1845, this reach unfathomable proportions. An airborne fungus called Phytophthora Infestans or “Blight” was brought in by imports from North America heading into Britain. This fungus thrives in moist environments and directly affected potato crops. At this time, more than 1/3 of the nation or roughly 3 million people survived on the potato for both food and livelihood. In Donegal, this was nine tenths of the population. 

1845, when the Workhouse opened its doors, it only had 5 inmates living within it. However, as the crops began to fail, the numbers began to rise. By 1847, known nationwide as “Black ‘47” as this was the worst year of the Famine, the Workhouse had to be expanded to fit more paupers and they ceased providing Outdoor Relief. By 1851, 481 paupers were living within the Workhouse. Compared to other places across the country, the Dunfanaghy Union escaped the worst of the Famine’s impact but that does not mean it was immune. Paupers survived mostly on soups and stews provided by foods from the poor relief, and in areas around Sheephaven much of the population survived on a diet of fish, crustaceans and seaweed from the shorelines.