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Walk Endangered Thurles Heritage – Great Famine Double Ditch

With our Harvest moon waning and Autumn wind, low temperatures and rain prevailing outside today, let us take a virtual walk on the Great Famine “Double Ditch”, starting from the Mill Road side of Thurles, in Co Tipperary.

Warning, during our simulated walk of this existing location, do watch out for the barbed wire. Same was placed on either side by the Thurles Municipal District’s work force, reducing progress along this right-of-way, to single file only.

Yes, since Thurles Municipal District own the land on either side it is highly unlikely that anyone else came in to fence using barbed wire; ergo, they are aware that the public legal right, established by usage over the last 175 years; to pass along this specific route and Mass path, does truly exist.
This of course remains contrary to the recent nonsensical statement made by Thurles Acting District Manager Ms Janice Gardiner and former Thurles Acting District Manager Mr. Eamon Lonergan.

Let us chat as we walk: (Ignore the “flytipping’, and burnt-out crab apple trees. Most of the fridges, 3 seater couches, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, beer cans, children’s toys and broken sinks etc. remain covered this Autumn courtesy of Mother Nature, in her effort to hide our shame.)

As we begin our walk, remember this Double Ditch was built by a group of men and boys who understood what it was like to watch their families starve and who had, themselves experienced extreme hunger; something no man, woman or child, thankfully, has to endure or experience, unless wilfully, in our Ireland of the 21st century.

For the Thurles paupers of 175 years ago, the only existing social welfare system that existed, was an overcrowded ‘Workhouse’ from which very few would leave in their own lifetime.

What Is A Double Ditch?

A single ditch is a narrow channel dug at the side of a road or in a field. Its purpose is to either hold, drain or carry away flood water.
In Anglo-Saxon, the word ‘dïc’ was pronounced ‘deek’ or ‘deetch’. In digging such a water trench the upcast soil will form into a bank alongside it. This banked soil thus means that the word itself included not just the excavation alone, but also the bank of soil derived from such efforts.
Latter word would later evolve into the English words we more commonly use today, e.g. ‘dyke’ or ‘ditch’.

Now, if we dig two ditches side by side and you will create a double ditch which in turn creates a high platform in the centre, enabling people to cross extremely wet land without wearing waterproof overshoes (Galoshes) or the then worn leather Wellingtons (Latter first invented around in 1817 and the then privilege only of landed gentry and aristocracy.)

In the case of the Thurles Double Ditch, both sides of the raised platform were faced with limestone; which came free from a stone quarry the property of Rev. Dr. Henry Cotton.

On the day that this Thurles Great Famine work project began, we learn from further hand written communication sent to the Trustees appointed for the distribution of Indian Meal, quote: – “In the town of Thurles alone there are at this moment 768 families containing 3364 inhabitants in actual want; of these 739 are old men, women and children, unable to work and who have no one to labour for them; and the remaining 2625 are depending on the daily hire of the sons and heads of the families to the number of 790 able to work and now out of employment”.

The idea of this Thurles “Double Ditch” was to provide work for paupers unemployed and starving.

The following rules for labourers employed to work on this ‘Double Ditch’ were adopted: –

(1) Hours of labour to be from 7.00am to 7.00pm with 2 hours for meals.
(2) Any labourer found to shirk from reasonable and fair work or refusing to follow the directions of his overseer shall forthwith be discharged and not admitted to the works again.
(3) That the persons employed shall be paid every evening.
(4) That in case of a greater number of labourers shall offer themselves, than the funds will enable the committee to pay. A preference shall be given to those who have the largest and most necessitous families”.

It was further agreed that, quote: –

“Henceforth there be two rates of payment; 8 pence and 5 pence, and that no boy under 12 years old be employed. That tickets of the form now agreed on, should be printed to admit labourers to work – those for men in black ink and those for boys in red ink; Ordered that 500 red and 500 black tickets be printed. Families containing 7 members and over and having 2 men over 17 shall, at the discretion of Committee, be entitled to 2 black tickets; Families having a less number shall, if the Committee wish, get 2 tickets, one red and one black”.

On December 4th 1846, we learn that “In workhouse this day 740 (Persons) – House built to contain 700.
Five families were refused admission on Thursday last by the Guardians; in three cases the husband applied with the wife and children stating that he was employed in the public works but that the hire scarcely keeps them alive; in the other 2 cases the wives and children applied without the husbands and stated the hire would not support them. The men offering to support as many of their families as the wages would enable them.”

The Thurles Workhouse

The Thurles Workhouse was built during the period 1841- 1842 to accommodate 700 inmates, on a 6.5 acre site at Castlemeadows, Gortataggart, Racecourse Road, Thurles, Co. Tipperary, (back then known as East New Street).
The finished workhouse building was declared fully fit for the reception of the destitute poor on the 25th April 1842 four years before the Great Famine. First admissions however were not received until November 7th of that same year. The workhouse was demolished completely except for a low wall, 16 years ago, in 2004.

Later, with the loss of the potato crop, beginning in the Autumn of 1845; in 1846 sheds to the rear of the main building, originally designed to house straw (latter to make mattresses for beds) and turf (for the provision of heat), would be converted into a 70 bed Epidemic Typhus, Fever Hospital; latter killer disease spread by body lice.

In a report sent from Thurles to the “British Association for the Relief of Extreme Distress in Ireland and Scotland” and forwarded to Lieutenant Col. Douglas on February 11th 1847 we learn; –
“Of the population of the united parishes of Thurles, 8,000 are on the relief list. The majority obtains very inadequate relief by employment on Public Works. There are about 300 destitute families having no person to work, to whom gratuitous relief must be given; there are other families varying from 10 to 12 having only one member able to work, whose wages 10p a day would not be adequate to the support of two persons at the present famine prices of food. The poor house built to accommodate 700 has now stowed within 940 and there cannot be any more admissions, and groups who cannot be admitted are to be seen shivering in the cold and wet anxiously expecting the fragments of cold stirabout that remains after the inmate pauper meal. We have lived to see the poor sitting at the pauper’s gate among the crumbs that fall from the pauper’s table. We have not had any deaths from actual starvation but numerous deaths have occurred from severe and long continual privation. The weekly average of deaths has increased fivefold.”

Thurles Municipal District Council in conjunction with Tipperary Co. Co. we believe, now wish to eradicate this important history from our midst, instead of using same to attract much needed and currently non-existent tourism.

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