In November of 1845 the diet of the Workhouse inmates consisted primarily of bread, meat, potatoes, sweet milk, sour milk, oatmeal and tea. All of these were supplied to the Workhouse by various contractors, most of whom were local. The diet of the inmates was supplemented by a variety of vegetables grown in the Workhouse gardens.
A pauper had three meals each day, breakfast, dinner and supper. Breakfast consisted of oatmeal (usually served in stirabout form) with either sweet or sour milk. Each adult pauper would have received 6-8 ounces of meal every breakfast. Children under 15 received two thirds of this allowance.
Potatoes, meat and vegetables formed the pauper's dinner at the time. However, it should be stressed that the quantities of meat contained in a pauper's dinner were very small. In November of 1845 each pauper on average received under 4 ounces of meat per week. Supper, the final meal of the day consisted of bread and tea. It can be seen from the above 'menu' that the Workhouse inmate's lot, even preceding the worst ravages of the Famine, was not a happy one. Any breaks or changes in this monotonous diet would ordinarily only have occurred on the holidays of Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. On these occasions the paupers would have received an extra ration of meat, sugar or perhaps cocoa depending on the mood and perhaps even more importantly, the financial position, of the Board of Guardians. Changes in diet also occurred as the vegetables grown on Workhouse land came into or went out of season. On top of what was already a miserable existence, the paupers now had to deal with the worst ravages of the potato famine, which were just beginning to make themselves felt.
It was not for want of effort that no solution was found for the blight. Solutions as wide ranging as applying lime to the diseased potatoes to manufacturing the rotten crop into potato flour or starch were all discussed by the Poor Law Commissioners in Dublin to no avail. At a local level, the Board of Guardians of the Dungarvan Union were experimenting with various methods of sowing and different types of potato beds.
In the Autumn of 1846, having made enquiries of Dunmanway Workhouse about the effectiveness of treacle and water as a milk substitute, the Board resolved 'to change the dietary of milk to treacle and water for breakfast with bread and cheap soup for dinner.' Worse was to come; from early November 1846 an adult pauper's meal consisted of 10 ounces of Indian-meal mixed with treacle for both breakfast and dinner.
Indian-corn flour was initially used as a substitute for the oatmeal in the stirabout the paupers had at breakfast. Attempts were made to procure the Indian-meal in the quantities required for the Workhouse. Initial enquiries were made to the Government Stores in Waterford to supply the meal; however in line with Government policy of the time, the Central Poor Law Commissioners in Dublin Castle refused to release this Indian- corn for sale to the Dungarvan Workhouse. A private contractor named J. Walsh (of Waterford City) eventually offered in early May to supply 10 tons (6 months supply) at 11 shillings per hundredweight for yellow meal and 12 shillings per hundredweight of white meal.
It did not particularly matter to the paupers whether the Board purchased yellow or white meal as both are almost completely indigestible by the human body. The most common use for Indian-corn prior to the Famine had been as an animal feed. Unfortunately the Board of Guardians were unaware that it's nutritional value to humans was very limited because the mills in Ireland could not grind it sufficiently to make it digestible.
The Dungarvan Workhouse was not alone in using Indian-meal as a substitute for oatmeal and potatoes, Workhouses all over Ireland seized on Indian-meal as a viable and above all economic solution to the problem of feeding their inmates. Only hospitalised paupers (on the recommendation of the Medical Officer of the Workhouse) could receive alternative rations to the above. When questioned by the Dublin authorities as to the safety of substituting treacle in lieu of milk, the Medical Officer for Dungarvan replied 'although it is a fact, variety of food is conducive to health...he was of the opinion that the dietary of meal and treacle need not be disturbed, provided he might prescribe such changes as necessary in individual cases.' The Board ordered 'that the dietary do stand as at present.'
Not surprisingly, over the following few months a serious outbreak of dysentery occurred in the house in which quite a few lives were lost. In early January 1847 treacle was discontinued as a food as it had obviously contributed heavily to the dysentery outbreak. The Poor Law Commissioners recommended to the Medical Officer on January 27th 'the expediency of adopting rice into the diet as a check to dysentery.' It was not until May that this advice could be acted upon. Rice was swiftly removed from the diet at the end of May when the dysentery outbreak had become less prevalent.
Conditions for the poor in the surrounding area were even worse than the conditions tolerated by the paupers within the Workhouse. Mr Christian (the Medical Officer of the house) observed that many of the deaths occurring within the Workhouse were as a result of people gaining admission when they were beyond help.
This letter written in January 1849 contained the following recipe for the Workhouse soup. This quantity of soup would feed 800 hundred people, each person would have received one pint containing 3 ounces (87 grams) of solids.
Per 100 Gallons :
92 Gallons of Water
69 lbs of Flour
2½ Stone of Parsnips
2½ Stone of Turnips
7 lbs. of Beet
7 lbs. of Onions
14 Ounces of Pepper
7½ lbs. of Salt