The following is an excerpt from my upcoming historical fantasy novel set in Ireland in 1846. The scene is in Donegal, where Valentia McDowell has insisted on touring the squalid workhouse, to see for herself the conditions therein.
The building was a grey brick structure with four floors and windows. It would have looked grim, even if she was unaware of its purpose. When she entered, though, the first thing that hit her was the stench. Unwashed bodies, feces, sweat and fear mingled with industrial scents to slap her in the face with an almost physical presence. She staggered for a moment, while Mellon chuckled.
“It’s a wee bit fresh in here, Mistress. Someone ought to have warned ye.”
She shot him a disgusted look, breathing through her mouth as much as she could.
They were in a bare hallway, with what looked like dormitory rooms on either side. She glanced in, noting rows of bare pallets with a single, threadbare blanket on each.
“Men sleep on the left, women on the right. The children are on the other end of the
They continued until they came into a larger room filled with women doing needlework. The light was poor, and most were stooped over their work, trying hard to see. The dust in the room made it even more difficult to breathe than in the hallway near the dorms.
“How many hours a day are the workers required to work, Mr. Mellon?”
“Ten. The men are in the yard, breaking stone for roadworks and bridges.”
“And the children?” There had to be some, but none were with the women.
“Oh, they get schooling, until they are old enough to work. We even train them for proper jobs.”
“What sort of jobs?”
“Factory work and the like.”
While they were passing by, one woman fell out of her rickety chair, landing on the fabric she had been stitching. Mellon grunted and flicked a hand at a guard who was standing in the corner. The guard came over and propped the woman back up into her chair, but she fell over again.
“That woman’s in need of medical help, not rough handling,” Valentia said.
“She’s in need of a tawsing. She’s just lazy and doesn’t want to do her work,” he growled, gesturing to the guard again.
Before the guard could do anything, Valentia rushed to the old woman, wrinkled and shriveled like crumpled paper. She put her hand on the woman’s forehead, then pulled it away from her burning skin.
“She’s burning up with fever. Where’s your physician? You must call him at once!”
“A physician? For the likes of her? She’s just faking to get out of work.”
“Mr. Mellon! This woman is ill. She is not faking, she’s burning up! Get someone to
help her immediately!”
Mellon beckoned to another guard, who helped the woman up, pulling her back towards the dormitories. Valentia stood, fuming, until they had taken her out of sight.
“She’ll be tended to. Are you done yet?” Mellon said, clearly gruff and impatient.
Valentia considered, but she had seen enough. She wanted to get back to the inn and write O’Brien a letter about what she had learned.
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Don’t miss information on Celtic myth and history, as well as practical travel planning tips, and hidden places, in my travel books.
– Mythical, Magical, Mystical: A Guide to Hidden Ireland
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