THE CALLAN Heritage Society has just published a new book. It is titled Memoir of an Irish Pauper.
It is a unique book.
It is the only known first-hand account written by an inmate of an Irish Workhouse.
This is hard to believe considering that well over a million people passed through Irish Workhouses between their opening in 1842 and closing in the 1920s.
It is the extraordinary memoir of then 20-year-old John Logan Power who spent over 8 years as a child pauper in Callan Workhouse from 1842 to1850.
It was written in New Orleans four years after he travelled to America alone in a Coffin Ship at the age of 16 in 1850.
The 63-page elegantly written manuscript was made available by his great grandson Professor David Moreau from North Carolina, USA.
John Logan Power was born in Mullinahone in 1834. His father died when he was very young.
His mother remarried and went to America in 1841 with her new husband, Patrick Egan, a widower with two daughters, leaving him with an aunt.
The aunt however was unable to support him and when Callan Workhouse opened in the Spring of 1842 she applied to have him admitted as a child pauper.
Admitted he was, joining a group of other boys in the Boys’ Section of the then new institution.
In his autobiography, as he calls his memoir, he gives a very detailed account of what life was like for an inmate in an Irish Workhouse prior to and during the Great Famine of the late 1840s.
He narrates for example how he spent two months in the Fever Shed during a cholera epidemic, was written off by the doctors, and only saved from certain death by a kind nurse whom he calls a saint.
Some 3,515 people died in Callan Workhouse from malnutrition and disease during the Great Famine.
On the other hand he received an education and became an apprentice tailor in the workhouse’s workshop.
But not alone did his account illuminate what life was like in the workhouse, it also detailed what emigrating to the USA in1850 entailed just after the Great Famine.
Here for the first time we discover that it was via Waterford that most emigrants from this area went to Liverpool to embark on ships for the long trans-Atlantic voyage.
The voyage and what conditions were like on board a Coffin Ship are narrated in detail.
Arriving in the New World the emigrants faced new challenges.
Sixteen years old John arrived alone, shabbily dressed, and virtually penniless.
He had to use all his ingenuity and charm to get from New York City, in the depths of winter, to his final destination in Lockport in northern New York State (not far from Niagara Falls) where his mother, step-father, and family resided.
Again we get a detailed account of an eventful journey by boat, train and sleigh.
No fairy tale
Alas, being reunited with his mother, step-father, and family created no fairy tale ending.
In fact it was the opposite.
He found them in poverty due to his step-father’s drinking problems, and after a period of friction left them, and went his own way becoming an apprentice printer and eventually moving to the Deep South of the US.
Professor Moreau narrates John’s subsequent amazing career as an officer in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War (1861-’65), where he was involved in two battles and a major siege; newspaper publisher; dedicated husband and father; and tireless humanitarian worker in Mississippi, one of the poorest States in the US.
He went on to become the Secretary of State for Mississippi, and when he died in 1901 he was given a State funeral.
John’s manuscript is an amazing document, and the author’s resilience and positivity radiates out of it.
Here was a little orphan boy who survived multiple miseries and disappointments but who never lost hope, belief in himself or in Divine Providence, to find a better life.
Find a better life he did, going on to help others less fortunate than himself in his new home.
Here was someone who exuded no personal bitterness, or self-pity, even though the hand of fate was cruel and unfair to him multiple times.
It is an uplifting story for all of us, especially in this time of stress and uncertainty caused by a global pandemic.
The epitaph on his tombstone in Jackson, Mississippi simply states: Friend of the Orphans.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions there is no formal launch of the book.
It was hoped to have a launch in Callan and another in Mullinahone.
The book is available at Callan Post Office, SuperValu, and at Joe Lyon’s Shop, West Street.
It is available at the Book Centre, Kilkenny and in John’s birthplace, Mullinahone. The book is on sale at €20.