The Workhouse Story
163 workhouses were built in Ireland from 1840 to 1853. If your family was starving to death, your last resort was the workhouse.
Under ancient Irish law, rulers had to look after the sick and the poor. With the coming of Christianity in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, and the establishment of monasteries, care of the poor and sick was undertaken by the religious orders. From 1535 onwards, Ireland was colonised by protestant English settlers. The land was taken from the Irish and the religious were persecuted. The monasteries were suppressed and the care system broke down. By the beginning of the 1800s, the country was desolate. Of a population of 8 million, it was estimated that some 2.3 million people were at near starvation level.
The Act of Union of 1800 made Ireland part of Great Britain. A workhouse system was set up in England and Wales. In total, 689 workhouses were built there. The poor went into the workhouse, where they got food in exchange for work. It was a system based on indoor relief. Afraid that the system would be exploited by lazy, idle people, it was ensured that life in the workhouse was not too comfortable.
In Ireland, between 1720 and 1820, the population more than doubled. This was largely due to the introduction of the potato to the diet. There was little employment in the towns. In the country, the land was rented, often from absentee landlords at rents that were higher than in England. There was no legal provision for the poor, the aged or the sick.
The situation was so bad that something had to be done. However, nothing concrete happened for many years. Then the British Government sent one of the English Poor Law Commissioners, George Nicholls to Ireland to come up with a solution. This was Nicholl’s first time in Ireland. He did a quick six week tour and reported back, that Ireland needed the workhouse system. This was designed to help only the most poor. In the process, it would also get the tenants off the land. This suited the landlords.
The Irish Poor Law Act became law in 1838. It divided the country in 130 unions. A further 33 were added after the famine. Each union was to have a workhouse and the workhouses were to be financed by a tax on land. The system was based on indoor relief only. In England, every destitute person had a right to relief. This was not the case in Ireland. The poor had no legal right to relief. The first workhouses opened in 1842. The Irish hated the workhouse. It was a last resort. Before the famine, the number of people entering the workhouses was low. People were slow to leave their small plots and cabins. However, by autumn 1846, the full disaster became apparent. The potato crop was diseased, rotten, inedible. There was nothing to eat, nowhere to go, except to the workhouse. People began to flood in. In some Unions, hungry men, women and children gathered at the workhouse doors begging to be admitted. In many places the pathway to the workhouse became known as casan na marbh (pathway of death) because so many people died when they could not get admitted. Inside the workhouse deaths were so numerous that corpses were carried on special carts day after day to be thrown into mass pauper graves or pits in the workhouse grounds and covered in lime.
It should be noted that huge quantities of food, in particular grain, were exported from Ireland, often under armed guard, during the “famine” years.
Entire families had to enter the workhouse together. The family members were then split up into separate quarters; men, women, boys and girls. Children under 2 could remain with their mothers.
All of the workhouses in Ireland were designed by George Wilkinson. He was born in Oxfordshire, into a family of builder-architects. He arrived in Ireland, aged 24, in 1839/40. He was appointed to design and supervise the construction of all the workhouses. This was the biggest building project ever to take place in the country. The workhouse system was designed to cater for 80,000 people. The workhouses were built by contract. Each workhouse would have taken about two years to complete. The quality of the building, attention to detail and craftsmanship is testimony to Wilkinson’s expertise.
Life in the workhouse was regulated and disciplined. The bell rang around 7 a.m. when the inmates had to get up. Roll was called. Meals were eaten in silence, off tin plates or timber table tops. The diet consisted mainly of stirabout, milk and potatoes.
Adults had two meals a day. Children had three. Inmates could not go to the dormitories until bedtime. Schools of a sort were provided. Staff in general were harsh. There was a high dismissal rate, with frequent reports of gross neglect and incompetence.
It was a rule of the workhouse that everybody had to work. The women did domestic jobs such as cleaning or helping in the kitchen or laundry and looking after the sick. Older inmates were put to work mending clothes and spinning wool. Girls were trained for domestic service. The men broke stones, ground corn, limewashed the interior of the buildings, worked on the workhouse lands and did other manual work. Inmates wore the coarse workhouse uniform.
Dormitories were cramped. The inmates slept on straw mattresses, covered in rough rags. There was a lack of water and toilet facilities, with two large tubs for urination in each ward. Disease was inevitable.
The Famine pinpointed the fatal weakness of the workhouse system. The principle that relief should only be provided within the workhouse was unrealistic. This was doomed to failure during an emergency. Of a population of over eight million, one million were to die during the Famine years (1846-51). Outdoor relief was necessary. The Society of Friends (Quakers) set up a model system of kitchens for feeding the starving. There were many other relief agencies at home and abroad, including in England. In particular, the help sent from America was on a scale unparalleled in history.
Emigration became a way of life. An Emigration Commission was set up. Its representatives visited every workhouse in Ireland. Those who wanted to emigrate were offered free passage, clothing and a little money. Because of the number of deaths during the voyages, the emigrant ships became known as coffin ships. Between 1845 and 1854, an average of 200,000 persons a year emigrated from Ireland to the United States, Canada, Australia and Britain, a total of two million people.
The workhouse population reached its peak of 217,000 in 1851 and from then on began to decline.
In 1857, with the population reduced by famine, disease and emigration, to about five million, workhouse accommodation was at one percent of the population, the figure on which the estimates for the workhouses were originally based. Care for the sick improved. The Sisters of Mercy started nursing in the workhouses and were instrumental in improving conditions. As a result, some of the workhouses surviving today do so as part of hospitals and homes for elderly people.
Meanwhile in Ireland, the movement for self-government grew.
An independent Irish parliament was set up. It abolished the workhouse system, stating that it would set up a native scheme, which would give the old and the sick, the proper care they deserved. During the War of Independence and the Civil War that followed, a large number of workhouses were occupied by the military. Some of these workhouses were burnt down and others became dilapidated.
Over time, the remaining workhouses changed into institutions for the old, the sick, and vagrants. However, the conditions which prevailed during the famine years remained in the memory of people. Very few people in following generations would admit to having had relatives in the workhouse.
The Workhouses of Ireland
by John O’Connor (in print)