In 1839, Boards of Guardians were elected to Galway, Gort, Tuam, Ballinasloe, Clifden and Loughrea and workhouses were built in each of these areas. During the Famine, the union workhouse for the Portumna region was Loughrea. By 1850, the worst of the Famine was over. Connacht had lost more than one quarter of its population. Galway had lost 408,828 people, 30% of its population. The population of 25 townlands in the Portumna region had a total of 3,012 in 1841. This had reduced to 1,012 in 1861 and to 586 in 1911.
The Portumna Poor Law Union, which was formally declared on 22nd February, 1850, was one of thirty three new unions formed after the Famine. It was created from the southern parts of the Ballinasloe and Loughrea Unions, and occupied an area of 121 square miles. The population falling within the Portumna Union at the 1901 census was 9,054. In 1905, it comprised the following electoral divisions: Abbeyville, Ballyglass, Coos, Derrew, Drummin, Eyrecourt, Killimor, Kilmalinoge, Kilquain, Meelick, Moat, Pallas, Portumna, Tiernascragh and Tynagh.
The Portumna Workhouse opened in 1852. It was built for 600 inmates on 8 acres, 2 roods and 39 perches of land for a total cost, including fittings of £7,875. It operated as a workhouse from the time it opened in 1852 until the early part of the twentieth century. To date, the whereabouts of the records of the Board of Guardians of Portumna Workhouse is unknown. The 1901 census records 9 staff and 118 residents. The 1911 Census of Ireland returned 12 staff, the spouse of the workhouse master, 64 residents and 4 people classed as “idiots and lunatics”. The people recorded as part of the Census were from the following areas: Eyrecourt, Duniry, Coose, Meelick, Abbey, Fahy, Clonmoylan and Portumna.
As was the case with many other workhouses, towards the end of 1884, the Mercy Sisters began to visit Portumna workhouse on a daily basis to perform hospital duties. In March 1886, they set up and moved into St. Vincent’s Hospital in the workhouse. In the winter of 1921-1922, a big change took place in Ireland when workhouses and the local hospitals usually attached to them, were replaced by central County Hospitals for the sick, and County Homes for the aged. From this time, the Portumna Workhouse ceased to be used as a workhouse or a facility where the sick, old and homeless were catered for.
Over the years, the Workhouse complex has had a number of uses. Bord na Móna occupied part of the complex from 1951 onwards. The Bord of Works/OPW also had office space and storage. The County Council had its local office here and had storage space and a depot. Waterways Ireland in recent times used part of the complex for storage.
Interviews held with older members of the community show that the workhouse had a variety of other uses, many of these activities being instigated by Monsignor Timothy Joyce, a native of Portumna who was parish priest from 1920 to his passing in 1947. Portumna had an agricultural show, which was held at the Workhouse complex from the 1930s to the early 1950s.
A vegetable co-operative was also set up during the 1970s. What is interesting to note from the interviews is that many of the older people have fond memories of the workhouse and all the activities carried out there, in particular the agricultural show. That said, all acknowledged the stigma that was attached to the workhouse. When Portumna workhouse ceased to function as a workhouse or care centre in anyway, the workhouse in Loughrea became the County Home.
After Monsignor Joyce died, community activity at the workhouse ceased. It was then occupied by public bodies and private businesses and as such was no longer used by members of the general public. From this time on, in general people did not go near the workhouse. It was viewed as a cold, grey complex, all locked up with weeds growing everywhere.
People remember the last caretaker who passed away in the late 1960s. She dressed all in black and had a long key hanging by her side . She also looked after the pound for stray animals which was located in the women’s yard. Younger people interviewed knew little or nothing about the Workhouse, and so in the space of three generations Portumna Workhouse has moved from living memory to being practically forgotten.