PUBLIC WORKS

 In the Spring of 1846 plans to provide poor relief by means of employment on public works were introduced by the Government. These schemes consisted mainly of road building and although funds were provided by government, it was intended that most of this finance should be recouped by local taxation. In the case of schemes operated by the Board of Works, half the cost was paid by government in the form of grants and half by loans. Before public works could commence in any barony special presentment sessions had to be held in order to pass approval on the schemes. This delayed their implementation and it was the end of the year before the schemes began to take serious effect. Employment on schemes organised by the Board of Works was generally limited to those in possession of tickets issued by the local relief committees. By the end of 1846 half a million people were employed on these schemes throughout Ireland. The total number employed on official schemes of public works in Wicklow by March 1847 amounted to 6678, or five and a quarter per cent of Wicklow’s population. Because of fears that farm labourers would refuse to accept normal spring and summer agricultural work for lower rates, the public works began to be phased out early in 1847 and government-assisted soup kitchens were relied on to meet the needs of the destitute poor. Resort to the soup kitchens was considered by many of those needing relief to be demeaning in a way in which employment on the public works never was.

The road referred to in the report transcribed below is the present coast road south from Wicklow. Many visitors who use this road to reach the beaches of Silver Strand and Brittas Bay are probably unaware of its historic origin. Locally, however, it was referred to within living memory as the Famine Road. Like many such relief works it was a road to nowhere, as work stopped abruptly in the spring of 1847, leaving it uncompleted. For a century after the Famine it remained like this and ended at the Silver Strand. It was not until the early 1950s that the road was extended to meet the original road south from Wicklow at Magheramore.

Rathdrum December 27 1846

I have the honour to inform you that the Wicklow men who struck work on Thursday last returned to the works yesterday. From all I could learn, the reason they struck work was, the pay clerk having in compliance with an order he received on the 30th from the superintending engineer, told the labourers they should be paid for Christmas Day, and his having subsequently received an order to pay them up to Thursday the 24th but not to allow them for Christmas Day; they had no sooner received their pay on Thursday morning than they left the work. In consequence of what the priest said to them they were persuaded to retum to work yesterday moming and give the day’s work, for which they had previously received payment. One of the overseers on the Drumbur [sic] Road, where 110 men are employed, told me five men were sent from the work on which the men had struck to get the men on his line to “tum out” for an increase of wages, at the time they were being paid one shilling per diem (day). I warned them that if I heard any further complaints, I would recommend the works being stopped. I have also to inform you that I consider it necessary to have another extraordinary presentment session for the Barony of Newcastle with as little delay as possible, as many of the works will soon be finished. I was told yesterday publicly by several of the Rathnew men that they had been idle for some days though they had tickets, and that if work was not given them they “could not starve, and would turn out and rob”. They could all be employed if the work marked (5) in the schedule was commenced, and I hope you will send an order to Mr. Leonard, the assistant engineer in charge, to employ the people on Tuesday morning on whichever line has received the sanction of the Commissioners. I feel called on to urge this most strongly, for I fear there will be an outbreak, and if once commenced we know not where it may end. The people of Rathnew are certainly enduring great privations, and much delay will make them desperate.

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