Cholera was the epidemic disease most feared around the world in the nineteenth century.A letter from Tullamore of 1832 describes the devestating disease of cholera. ‘We had 165 deaths. All bridges to the town are cut and broken. Every house is shut up and there is no such thing as business. Men who would eat their breakfact in perfect health would be buried before dinner.’
In the eighteenth century neighbouring countries began to suffer from the disease and in the nineteenth century it attacked Europe. Cholera spread around the world in great epidemics from its traditional base in the Indian sub-continent and carried with it high mortality rates, severe suffering and terrifying symptoms. These began in 1817 but the first wave did not reach Europe and was halted temporarily at the shores of the Caspian Sea. From there in 1829 it spread rapidly through Europe. It arrived in Ireland around St Patrick’s Day 1832. This was the most serious cholera outbreak in Ireland in the nineteenth century and it has been estimated that 25,378 people died during that epidemic. The Irish death rate was high when compared to other countries for the same period.
In 1832 the causes of cholera were enveloped in inscrutable mystery and thought to be beyond human control. Doctors who understood the causes of typhus, smallpox and other contagious diseases were perplexed by cholera. Whatever the causes of the transmission of the disease it was almost instinctively known that it would have its biggest impact on the poor, the undernourished and the badly housed and dressed. Because of that there were repeated exhortations to the public to eat well, not to over indulge, to keep warm and to avoid large gatherings of people. In 1832, Archbishop Murray, who had a long association with Offaly where he spent his holidays every year with the O’Brien family in Rahan, told his flock that cholera had been sent by God as they “had disregarded the warnings of the word of God” and that, “He has sent a preacher to your doors…” Murray saw cholera as a punishment sent to a sinful people by God.
In June 1832 the outbreak of the cholera disease was followed by a general panic. One of the first reports of the epidemic in Offaly came from the parish of St Rynagh, Banagher. A local committee was established on 12 May 1832 and by 29 May the committee reported that there had been no new cases for four days. Banagher was unusual in having a doctor on the committee, namely Richard Joynt. Banagher had a population of 3,000 but as the committee complained there was no local trade and the poor of the area were generally employed in labour. This committee raised a small fund and got matching funds from Dublin Castle. The money was used to purchase oatmeal, potatoes and straw for the local poor. The straw was for bedding and the poor were encouraged to dispose of their old straw beds.
In Edenderry most of the poor relied on agricultural labour which was subject to great variation and uncertainty as to rates of wages and to the numbers employed. In Portarlington, agricultural labour was again described as the principal employment but in Birr and Banagher labour is the phrase used to describe employment reflecting the outlets in distilleries and mills in these towns. In Clara many were employed in the cotton and linen trade but since the failure of these trades many of the labourers have turned to agricultural employment which was described as “very casual”. The other area in Offaly where there was a distinctive craft, was Rosenallis where the weavers were in the same difficulty as casual workers. The Rosenallis committee chaired by Samuel Crossdaile complained that the labourers were almost wholly without work and the inhabitants in general were miserably poor and, in many instances, destitute even of the necessities of life. Roscrea with a population of 9,000 had a distillery, a brewery and a large dense pauper population. There June was described as the “dead season” for distillery workers and so many were idle. Even in the grain growing area of the county around Moneygall and Shinrone, there was a shortage of agricultural employment.
The fear that cholera would strike was almost as great as the terror when it arrived. So the Portarlington committee applied in June 1832 for money to buy bedding to prevent the disease spreading. Curiously the disease was confined to the Offaly part of Portarlington and money was expended in preventing it crossing the river into county Laois. In nearby Edenderry, the disease arrived in June and the local committee had collected a mere £24=12=0. It planned to fit up a small fever hospital in the town and the local fund included £5 from the town’s principal landowner, the Marquis of Downshire who resided in Hillsborough Castle in Co. Down. Edenderry had a small population of 2,000. In Birr the population was 9,617 and there cholera appeared at the end of May 1832. Within countries cholera also travelled along trade routes. It hit Portlaoise (formerly Maryborough) hard and indeed was still virulent there in March 1833. A local committee reported that homes had been deserted as people fled to the country and a soup kitchen was opened for the poor. Borris-in-Ossory or the parish of Aghaboe in Laois was described as being on the public road from Dublin to Limerick with “constant intercourse from the nearest towns of Maryboro, Mountrath and Roscrea where cholera has made its appearance.” Mountmellick’s population of 4,000 had a rich variety of work in the 1830s. There was employment in wool combing, worsted spinning, woollen and cotton manufacturing, malt houses, breweries and a distillery. Turf cutting and saving was also mentioned as a significant employment as turf or peat was the fuel mainly used in these establishments. The towns on the periphery of the county on the main routes west and south suffered badly. Athlone’s 7,344 inhabitants felt the impact of the disease early in May 1832 and by March 1833, 65 deaths had occurred in the town from the disease. Athlone also had two distilleries and a brewery but its other main source of employment was described as “government works and intercourse with the military”.
Birr suffered its first cases in May 1832. A committee was set up to give aid and apply for government funds on the 25th. day of May 1832. The committee was chaired during this period by John Lloyd and included the following; Hubert O’Kelly, Thomas Hackett, A. G. Judge, M. J. Usher, P. Kennedy, William Kinahan, John Brereton, P. O’Malley and Thomas L. Cooke. By the end of August 1832 the first epidemic appeared to have run its course in the town and only a few solitary cases occurred in the period up to the middle of October when it returned with greatly increased virulence. The committee expressed regret that there was no mendicity institution in the town to which the poor could turn for aid. Consequently the members felt obliged to feed the poor as the best means of preventing the spread of the disease. The applications made in November 1832 for aid were made by a new committee chaired by Lord Oxmantown, one of the resident magistrates who had been away during the first serious outbreak. Some of the old personnel survived and the new committee assured the Cholera Board that the funds had been properly spent by the old board. Reporting on victims the new Birr Board stated that there had been 53 deaths from the disease up to the beginning of August 1832 but that the later outbreak had carried off twice as many victims. The local board commented that it could not account for this lamentable effect. The unknown nature of the disease perplexed people. By the 25 January 1833 the committee reported that cholera had ceased for the last week but that 146 persons had died by then.
In Tullamore the population was gripped by terror when the epidemic struck and as in Birr and elsewhere, those who could afford to flee did so. It was reported that 145 of the 160 persons who had contracted disease had died and this led to the town being isolated by the surrounding rural dwellers. The canal was drained to prevent barges from trafficking with the town. In Kilbeggan, the local Board of Health employed men to prevent those fleeing Tullamore from entering that town. The siege mentality can also be seen in Portarlington where the local committee employed guards to prevent the disease spreading from the Offaly side of the town to the Laois side. The Tullamore applications for aid to the Cholera Board in Dublin Castle began after a local committee was established on the 15th June 1832. The chairman was William Wallace and the committee consisted of Edward Gorry, James Whitney and John Lever members. The application noted that the population of the town was 9,673 persons and that the employment available was mainly manual and agricultural. The Committee reported that private funds had been exhausted, that the disease had appeared suddenly and that it had a devastating effect on the town. £300 was given by the Board and it helped fund a hospital in the town. The Tullamore committee got another £100 from a London charity and £50 from the Earl of Charleville, the town’s proprietor. By July 1832 the committee reported that private doctors were working in the area and that the committee was compensating persons for articles burned to prevent the spread of disease and to aid widows and other survivors of cholera. Cholera reappeared in the town in November after which it disappeared.
The Banagher committee chaired by T. St. John Armstrong, landowner and magistrate, complained that there was no trade and that the poor were only supported by manual labour. The committee there purchased oatmeal, potatoes and other provisions to relieve the distressed state of the poor “as the cause which appeared to aggravate the awful visitation of cholera, those provisions are distributed every second day.” The committee claimed that wholesome food and constant attention to cleanliness were the main reasons as there was only one death in the first week of the disease reaching the area. In June the committee looked for money for coffins, a hospital and other necessities. Food alone was not sufficient to stop the spread of the disease. The disease lingered in this area and there were still applications for funds for medical relief in January 1833. The need to look after the poor was also mentioned by the committee for the parishes around Philipstown or Daingan. John Walsh as chairman of the Philipstown committee was still reporting deaths in January 1833 when 3 persons died in one week. He wanted funds for food, for cleaning and to pay the nurses and medical attendants.
There are many references in the cholera papers to hospitals in Offaly. From Edenderry, there was correspondence with a Dr Hugh Gilligan who wrote of the need to establish a small hospital and to take precautionary measures to combat the disease. Charles Bagot, chairman of the Clara committee and a landowner and a justice of the peace, wrote in June 1832 that;
“From the town of Clara (where a case of cholera has already occurred) being
situated between Tullamore (where the disease has raged with particular
violence) and Moate near where cholera has also made its appearance, we have
a strong reason to fear the immediate occurrence of the disease, we therefore
think it necessary to establish an hospital, to provide medical assistance,
medicines, blankets, beds and all the other means as usually adopted for the
prevention of this fearful malady.”
The Cholera Board sent £150.00 in June 1832. In Moneygall in the south of the county the local committee was set up in July 1832 with William Minchin in the chair. The object of the application for funds was to have in readiness a fund to provide a place for the reception of any persons who may “be visited by cholera”, to provide blankets and other requisites together with a nurse and an assistant. As in many areas when the first applications were made in June and July 1832, all the Moneygall magistrates were absent. The disappearance of so many must be further evidence of the flight of those with means as the disease approached. Moneygall was one of the few Offaly towns that had a dispensary and so had the nucleus of a medical relief establishment. The chairman of the dispensary board had also given at his own expense lime to clean and whitewash the houses in the town. The town had a number of proprietors listed, Lord Bloomfield who was non resident, the Rev William Minchin, Alex Holmes, Rev Arthur Holmes and Rev William Gresson. Curiously a later application for more funds makes no mention of the town suffering from an outbreak of the disease, but it still attracted aid.
In nearby Shinrone, H. Lloyd was chairman of the local committee established in June 1832. There was no local subscription raised from the 5,631 inhabitants but the prevalence of cholera in Birr was sufficient cause for the committee to attract aid. In Shinrone the longer list of landowners reflected the absence of larger estates in that area. The landowers are listed as the Atkinsons, Trenchs, Lloyds, Minchins, Hammersbys, Whites, Smiths, Doolans and Spunners. In Roscrea there was a serious outbreak of the disease and the town attracted considerable funding for its cholera hospital. The 9,000 persons living there were badly effected and there was additional distress as the town’s distillery was closed during the summer of 1832, described by the local committee as “the dead season of the year.”
The last of the local cholera committees included in the Offaly file was that set up in Rosenallis, county Laois. The town of 5,000 inhabitants was suffering from chronic poverty as much as from the threat of disease. The principal landowners, the Marquis of Drogheda and James Kemmis, were both absentees, John Pigott was deputy lieutenant for Laois, Lancelot Crossdaile was a magistrate and Thomas Pigott was both the vicar and a local landowner. There was a small outbreak of cholera and medical attendants were employed. By January 1833 the appeal to Dublin Castle for aid was for the relief of ordinary poverty and with some references to further precautionary measures which were required.
By 1838 the new poor law was introduced and then the poor rate made the local contribution mandatory. The evidence of local contributions in 1832 shows how difficult it was to get local aid mobilised.