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What has happened to Ireland's workhouses?

Decades after their mass closure by the new Irish Free State, communities are pulling together to save their local workhouse.

Archive image of the Portumna Workhouse, showing the H-block formation.
Archive image of the Portumna Workhouse, showing the H-block formation.

WORKHOUSES WERE INTRODUCED in Ireland in the mid-19th century as a means of providing relief for extremely poor people – but were intentionally run as uncomfortable establishments to deter any thoughts of getting an easy meal.

Up until the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, there were a number of small parish workhouses in Ireland. But under that Act, workhouses became the only official distributor of poor relief and Ireland was divided up into Poor Law Unions to oversee and administer the workhouses. While the system in Scotland encouraged outdoor relief, in England, Wales and Ireland, recipients of relief were expected primarily to live and operate within the workhouse system.

In Ireland, this meant whole families having to enter the workhouse together – and being separated upon arrival into the men’s, women’s, boys’, and girls’ sections. Infants were allowed to remain with their mothers for a limited period.

The main H-block design developed by English architect George Wilkinson was prominent among the 163 built in Ireland in the 19th century, with different sections of the H-formation designated to each of the four different groups housed there.

Image: © Peter Higginbotham/http://www.workhouses.org.uk/

But what has become of Ireland’s workhouses?

Many closed in the later 19th century as the numbers entering into the system fell. Peter Higginbotham, who has carried out extensive research into the workhouse system, says that some of the properties were intentionally destroyed by fighters in the early 1920s in case they would be used as barracks by enemy troops.

“In the North, the system really carried on until 1948 pretty much unchanged. Lots of the buildings in the Republic were damaged during the war of Independence, or Civil War,” Higginbotham told TheJournal.ie. “They were occupied by one or other of the forces and in some cases, when troops left they set fire to the place to stop the other side using it as a base. There’s a number of buildings around where it’s just a shell because of this, though they haven’t been demolished.”

“In the Free State, from 1922 onwards, basically what had been workhouses were closed or turned into district hospitals, primarily, or various forms of residential homes for the elderly – or unmarried mothers in one or two cases.”

Some of these, such as the workhouse in Portumna, are still owned today by the Health Service Executive. John Browner of the HSE’s Estates Directorate told TheJournal.ie that the organisation still uses some of the properties and former workhouse sites for services ranging from acute hospital services to administrative functions.

Naas General Hospital is set on the site of a former workhouse, and though much of the original property was demolished to allow construction of the hospital, the original front elevation of the workhouse was preserved and is attached to the new hospital.

Naas General Hospital in Co Kildare. (Photocall Ireland)

“The health boards were formed in 1969 and the lands deemed to be in healthcare use were transferred to the health boards, and then later to the HSE. Those derelict or not in healthcare use would have remained with local authorities,” said Browner.

“For the last ten years anyway we would not have been spending money on upgrading workhouse properties,” he added. “In a primary care setting, we would be replacing them because they would not have been fully suitable for that use. We have been refurbishing some older places to facilitate community-based staff and to move them out of rental accommodation.”

Originally opened in 1852 and closed by the Free State government, Portumna workhouse was later used by Bord na Móna, the OPW, Galway county council and Waterways Ireland for a variety of purposes, but mostly for storage. It also hosted agricultural shows through the 30s to 50s and a vegetable co-op in the 70s.

Local interest in preserving the workhouse led to a community group forming among people who wanted to get conservation work underway on the property. Ursula Marmion, project coordinator with the Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna, said their group applied for a number of grants to get started and that their first tasks were to check the structural soundness of the properties, remove substantial amounts of ivy and carry out a bat survey.

“Over a number of years, we removed all the ivy, re-roofed five of the buildings and tidied up the entire site,” Marmion said. “We’ve also conserved a number of the original windows – we have 280 windows in total – and there’s more work to be done there.”

“In terms of capital cots, we’d have raised about €450,000 for the project. Getting the first agency on board was the hardest thing but then it became easier to open doors.”

Marmion says that the Portumna group intentionally veered away from focusing on the Famine era “because workhouses were around before the Famine and although the Famine impacted hugely on the situation, we wanted to concentrate on the workhouse itself. And we’ve had loads of people visit us here who didn’t really know what a workhouse was – even older people.”

The group leases the property from the HSE and has opened a museum on-site. Currently open seven days a week until the end of September, Marmion says that with further funding they intend to keep the centre open all-year-round and to expand on the uses of the property.

Video: An introduction to the Portumna Workhouse, by the Irish Workhouse Centre

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Meanwhile, the Donaghmore workhouse museum in Co Laois was used by the former Avonmore Coop when a group of farmers decided to act to conserve the buildings, which were becoming dilapidated. Supported by FÁS schemes, part of the workhouse was opened to the public in 1993 and has an agricultural museum on-site.

Trevor Stanley of the Donaghmore workhouse museum told TheJournal.ie that this centre was built and opened in 1853 to take the overflow of inmates from Roscrea and Abbeyleix, neither of which are still standing today.

Stanley says that a series of sketches were discovered on the site which suggest that the property was used as to billet English troops for a period. The drawings of soldiers have English names and titles and are dated 1919. After spending about a year or so at the property, the troops left and the workhouse lay idle until 1927 when locals and the parish priest set up a co-op at the site.

The part of the original workhouse site which the museum is based on is now owned by Laois County Council, with which the museum group has a lease. It opens seven days a week from June through September, and five days a week over the rest of the year.

Local groups in Dunshaughlin, Co Meath, Callan, Co Kilkenny, Dingle, Co Kerry and Bawnboy, Co Cavan have contacted Dunaghmore and Portumna as part of their research into their local workhouse.

So how do you research workhouses in your area/family history?

Surviving workhouse records of individual inmate details are patchy, at best, given that many records were destroyed in the War of Independence and the Civil War.

“They were very good at record keeping,” Trevor Stanley said. “Laois County  have six of the original annual reports or record books that were kept. Our particular workhouse was open for 33 years and we have six of what should have been a total of 33. From an accounting point of view, it was the clerk’s job to record details of how many pounds of flour were bought that week or whatever supplies were brought in. But there’s minimal records on the inmates themselves.”

There would be a weekly inventory of how many men, women and children entered or how many people died, but not their names or details, Stanley said.

Peter Higginbotham’s interest in workhouses began after he discovered a death certificate for his great-great-grandfather which listed his place of death as a workhouse in Birmingham. He says that birth and death records are a good source of information about workhouse inmates.

“The workhouse records themselves were held locally, there wasn’t a central repository for records,” he said. ”One way [to get information] is through the census, the workhouse was listed like any other household. Or through birth or death certificate. In my case, it was a death certificate that was the connection.”

“Birth certs were particularly the case for unmarried mothers, they gave birth in workhouses as it was often the only medical facility available to them. Actually, a large number of children had the workhouse as a place of birth. And it was often the final resting place for many of the  elderly who either had no family to care for them or who were beyond their care in their final days and weeks.”

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