There was a high death rate amongst young children in Irish Workhouses which was a cause of concern to the authorities. By 1859 the Poor Law Commissioners acknowledged the problem: ‘A great rate of mortality prevails everywhere, as well as in Workhouses, in the class of children under 2 years of age; but that rate is much increased in the Workhouses in regard to children who are without mothers. There is no doubt that the best substitute for the mother, in such cases, is obtained by placing the child during infancy, at nurse...and this course we have recommended that the Guardians of Unions may be allowed to pursue.’
The 1862 Poor Law Amendment Act allowed the Boards of Guardians to send out to nurse orphan and deserted children under five years of age. The age was extended to 10 years in 1869. The scheme was seen as a new form of outdoor relief. When the child had been sent out to nurse its name was entered into an outdoor relief register. The relieving officer was given various duties to ensure the children were being properly cared for. He was to ensure that the child was vaccinated and had to visit the children at least every month and submit a report to the Guardians.
In 1863, the first year of the scheme, only 77 children in the entire country were put out to nurse. By 1866 the number was 473 and by 1872 it was 1,540. In the South Dublin Union the nurses were paid £7 for each child under one year and £5 per annum for older children. However, the payment varied in each Union. The first child sent out to nurse from Dungarvan Workhouse was Peter Gallagher, an orphan aged 4 years. He was sent to Mary Veale of Garranbaun in May 1863 and she was paid £5 per annum.
In August 1868 the Poor Law Auditor submitted the following report on the children out at nurse: ‘The attention of the Guardians is requested to the cases of the children Mary Spratt, Margaret Kennelly and Peter Gallagher, at present out at nurse. The two former children are at present over five years...Peter Gallagher being at present over 8 years. Resolved, That the Commissioners consent be requested to have...Mary Spratt and Margaret Kennelly continued at nurse outside till they attain the age of 8 years, as, from their delicate constitution, the Board considers their being so kept at nurse will be beneficial to their health.’ The Guardians ordered that Peter Gallagher be sent back to the Workhouse. However, there was a happy outcome for young Gallagher. The minutes of 20 August record that Margaret Veale had agreed to keep the boy without payment. ‘He is in good health, well cared, and is going to school. Ordered, that Peter Gallagher be left with Mary Veale.’
The Poor Law Commissioners came under pressure to change the age limit of children at nurse to over 5 years. This happened in 1869 when the Board of Guardians was allowed to leave a child out at nurse up to the age of 10. There was a considerable increase in the number of children out at nurse between 1863 and 1872.
The minutes for 10 February 1870 record the names of other children. ‘The Master reported that the children to be sent out to nurse are:- Bridget, Mary and Johanna Casey, aged respectively 8, 5, and 1¾ years, father and mother died of fever at Abbeyside. First two charged to Dungarvan and the last to the Union at large. Also Hannah and Cecilia Keily, father dead, mother married a second time and gone to America, leaving these two children deserted. They are aged 3½ and 2½.’ Bridget and Mary Casey were sent to nurse to Mary Daniel and Johanna Casey was sent to Mrs Power of Clonea. Hannah and Cecilia Keily were sent to Norry Driscoll.
The first annual report of the Irish Local Government Board published in 1873 gives a breakdown on what happened to these children at nurse between the years 1862 and 1872. Out of a total of 3,035 fostered out, 618 were returned to the Workhouse, 231 were adopted by their nurses, 71 were adopted by relatives and friends, 24 were claimed by their parents, 439 died and 110 were taken care of by other means.
At their meeting in November 1873 the Dungarvan Board of Guardians issued the following instructions to the relieving officers in charge of the children out at nurse: That all children be brought to the Workhouse for inspection on Board day once every three months and that the Master should pay unannounced visits to the children, at least twice a year and report on their health, appearance, diet, clothing and living conditions. The sending of children out to nurse was eventually replaced with the opening of the large industrial schools and by the introduction of legal adoption in 1952.