Conservation & Re-use

Conservation & Re-use

The Irish Workhouse Centre, a Work in Progress. 

The best way to care for a historic building is to ensure that it has an appropriate use.

  • Background to the project
  • Finding out about the workhouse
  • Principles underpinning the work
  • Some of the work carried out to date



The former Portumna workhouse lay derelict and mostly covered in ivy for decades. In 1999, South East Galway Integrated Rural Development Company (South East Galway IRD), a non-for–profit local development company, approached the then Western Health Board (WHB), owners of the complex, with a view to examining ways to conserve and re-use the site for the benefit of the area.  Arising from this, a conservation statement was commissioned.

Courtesy of Peter Higginbotham

It concluded two major points:

– The majority of buildings in the  complex were salvageable, if work started soon.

–  The solid nature of the buildings would lend themselves to restoration and viable future use.


A working group formed.  This included representatives from the IRD, Galway County Council and the Heritage Council.  A two-pronged approach was adopted:

–  It was agreed that a masterplan, which would serve as a template for the redevelopment of the workhouse was required.

–  It was also agreed that actual conservation work be carried out as soon as possible so as to prevent  further deterioration

The then Minister for Health & Children, Mary Harney T.D. launched the project in Portumna Castle in July 2006.  Over 300 people were in attendance.




A Masterplan was commissioned and in tandem, South East Galway IRD commenced work on conserving the buildings.

In 2011,  the workhouse was opened to the public, as the Irish Workhouse Centre.  The centre is now open 7 days a week, from 1st February to 30th November annually.  It is managed by South East Galway IRD with the help of many volunteers and organisations.

There are currently 5 main objectives:

  • To tell story of the Irish workhouse as an institution, which operated from the early 1840s to the early 1920s
  • To show case a conservation & redevelopment work in progress
  • To attract visitors to the area
  • To provide employment
  • To provide space for community events, projects and other appropriate uses

Work to date has been financed in a number of ways including grant aid from Galway County Council, the Heritage Council, Galway Rural Development and Irish Public Bodies.  Funds are raised locally, in particular through the Friends’ Programme.  Admission fees are charged. The employment of staff is supported  through the Community Services Programme, administered by Pobal on behalf of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaelteacht Affairs and also through the Rural Social Scheme and the TÚS programmes, which are administered by Galway Rural Development Ltd.  Failte Ireland provides training and mentoring support.  The project is  headed up by a voluntary board and a team of local volunteers that help in many ways, including guiding visitiors.



It was important for the project promoters to find out as much as possible about the actual buildings and the site so as to inform the conservation and re-development work.  The conservation statement and the masterplan helped in this regard.  Other sources were available in particular from the National Architectural Archives.

In relation to the design of the workhouses, the Poor Law Commissioners reported in 1838 that:  “The style of the building is intended to be of the cheapest description compatible with durability; and effect is aimed at by harmony of proportion and simplicity of arrangement, all mere decoration being studiously excluded.”

George Wilkinson

The workhouses in Ireland were designed by George Wilkinson. He was born in Oxfordshire, into a family of builder-architects. Although it seems that he had received no formal architectural training, he showed great skill and discipline. By his twenty first birthday, he had built eight workhouses in England. He arrived in Ireland, aged 24, in 1839/40. He was appointed to design and supervise the construction of all the workhouses.By 1840, 84 workhouses were under construction.  By 1843, 112 were finished.  By 1847, 130 were built.  A further 33 were constructed after the “famine”.  The workhouse was built by private contract and each workhouse would have taken about two years to build. The construction of the workhouses, in such a short time frame, was a huge undertaking.

Wilkinson treated the workhouse as a building type.  The first 130 were built to a generic design largely from locally sourced materials.  In the later phase (33 workhouses), during which Portumna Workhouse was built, Wilkinson changed the design somewhat.  Also, in response to criticism of damp penetration in the first phase of workhouses, the facades were rendered with lime and timber instead of iron windows were used.

Portumna Workhouse consists of 7 large buildings, grouped around four yards.

Block A – Girls’ Building including waiting hall, school room and probationary ward

Block B – Boys’ Building including master’s quartersCourtesy of National Architectural Archive

Block C – Women’s Building including matron’s quarters

Block D – Men’s Building

Block E – Chapel & Kitchen/Dining Area

Block F –LaundryBuilding

Block G – Infirmary


The Irish Architectural Archive has a set of 14 drawings of Portumna Workhouse by George Wilkinson.  These are dated 1849.  These drawings are a valuable resource.  They show the original uses, detailed drawings for ventilation, sleeping platforms and the engineering of the laundry building.  The drawings also show infrastructural details such as the location of drains.  While the seven main workhouse buildings are present, little evidence of smaller outbuildings remain.  Again, the original drawings give details of these e.g. the Dead House and the Bake House.  The original entrance gateway has been removed.  This too is detailed in the original drawings, so that any reconstructions can be true to the original.



The main PRINCIPLES OF CONSERVATION are adhered to at all times.  These apply to all old stone buildings, from a cottage to a castle.

REPAIR RATHER THAN REPLACE:   As little as possible, should be done to the original fabric of the building.

REPLACE LIKE FOR LIKE:  If items are gone beyond repair and need to be replaced, then they should be replaced with something as near to the original as possible.

SHOW MODERN INTERVENTIONS AS NEW & MODERN:  Do not try to make things look “old”. Be authentic.

DO NOT USE CEMENT:  Stone needs to breath.  It needs to let moisture gently in and out.  Lime based mortars must be used on old stone buildings to keep this breathability.  If cement is used, it will seal in the moisture, which will escape where it can and cause dampness.

AN ECOLOGICALLY SOUND APPROACH: In so far as is practical, ecologically sound materials and methods are used in the work at Portumna.

Some of the Crew

EVERYONE INVOLVED IS INVOLVED:  Conservation, restoration and re-development is the business of everybody on site, the specialists, the trades people, the general workers, the tour guides.






Ivy Removal                                                                                                                                        

The ivy growth and other vegetation was removed from all buildings.  Five of the buildings were completely covered in ivy.  This was causing serious damage to the structures and to the roofs in particular. First, the ivy was cut at the base and allowed to die back for one year.  It then came off relatively easily.  A bat survey was carried out prior to this work commencing.  Care was also taken not to remove ivy when birds were breeding.



 Re Roofing                                                                                                                           

Women’s Building

 Keeping water out of the buildings was a priority.  Five of the buildings have been re-roofed/reslated to date. The single storey laundry building was in very poor condition and none of the existing roof could be saved.  The roof vent was re-constructed from  the original.  The other roofs were in better condition.  All the buildings are roofed using Killaloe slate. About 2/3 of the original slate could be reused. In general, where water was not getting, the roof timbers were in excellent condition   Repairs had to be carried out to some structural timbers.  The chimneys on all buildings were in fair condition.  These were repaired and re-rendered using Natural Hydraulic Lime (NHL) 5.  Where modern usage was proposed for a building, a breathable membrane (solitex plus) was used. In the women’s building, the lime parging on the underside of the slate is being redone.



Buildings that are currently do not have a use have been re-roofed, (except 2 due to funds) and carefully cleaned out with windows boarded to allow ventilation.  As such, these buildings have been conserved until a new use is found in the future.

Work is concentrated now on two buildings:

Block A, the girls’ block.  The new uses for this building include visitor reception and information, canteen and meeting room, toilet facilities, indoor picnic area, gallery and audio visual room.

Block C was the women’s building.  This building is largely as it was in 1852, when the workhouse first opened.  Here only conservation work and some restoration will be carried out, the intention being to present this building as it was.  There will be no modern interventions.


Windows & Doors                                                                                                                

Window Frame Repairs on Site

There are 280 windows in the entire complex.  26 are sliding sash windows.  These are in the staff quarters.  All the others are casement widnows.  The timber used in the construction of the windows was mostly Pitch Pine and Douglas Fir.  A small number of windows in the staff quarters have shutters.

Most of the windows in Blocks A & Block C were not beyond repair.  Repairs to the frames were carried out on site. This was important given that the frames were placed in the building during the construction of the brickwork instead of placing the frames in the opening of a completed wall. The windows were repaired using pitch pine, to match the original timber used.  Much of the original ironmongery on the windows was still present and working.  This was cleaned and repaired where necessary.  Where ironmongery was missing or beyond repair, it was replaced with matching.

Although historic buildings are not required to meet BER regulations, optimising energy efficiency was an important goal in work on Block A.   There are a number of ways that historic windows can be adapted to reduce heat loss and it was decided here to use the least obtrusive, which was also the least expensive.  In Block A, all the windows and doors were draught proofed by using special strips and brushes.

All of the exterior doors in Blocks A & C with one exception are original.  In Block A, the doors were restored.  In Block C, only essential repairs were carried out.



Discussion Time

There are a variety of floor surfaces in the workhouse.

In Block C, the original sleeping platforms remain and are in remarkably good condition. To date, only careful cleaning has been carried out to the timbers here.  The ground floor of Block C has modern concrete floors. Dampness is evident where the concrete floor meets the stone walls. In time, it is intended to remove these concrete floors.  In A Block, the floor in the school room had the original tile.  It needed repairing in places and this was carried out.  The original brick floor in the waiting hall was intact and just needed cleaning. The boardroom had a timber floor in need of some repair.  Given that this room was to become a workspace, it also needed to be insulated.  The original timbers were lifted and as many as possible saved.  The joists were repaired.  Insulation was provided by putting a breathable membrane loosely over the joist and filling the groves with hemp. Plywood was then fixed on top of the joists and the original floor boards were refitted.  Additional floorboards were needed.  Douglas fir was used here.


Limework & Paintwork                                         

Lime washing in progress

Limewash was used traditionally in the interior of the workhouses.  It was applied to walls, ceilings and structural timbers.  Lime has an antiseptic quality and so helped to slow the spread of disease.  It also brightened up the interiors  and the actual limewashing, gave the inmates something to do.  Over the years, some of the interiors were painted with non-permeable paints.  In damp weather, this resulted in condensation on the walls, as the stone could not breathe.  The first job was to remove these impermeable paints and also prepare other walls for limewashing.  While the inmates’ quarters, had limewash on bare stonewalls, the staff quarters were rendered.  The boardroom where the guardians held their meetings, had a stencil work design on the walls.  It was decided to restore this.  Care was taken to ensure that breathable lime based paints were used.

The exterior of Block A had the original lime render.  It was however heavily discoloured, damaged and missing in many places. The decision was taken to repair the existing render.  It was  washed down and a weak limewash applied.


Universal Accessibility                                                                                                            

Can we get in?

An objective in redeveloping Block A was to keep to best conservation practice, whilst improving energy efficiency and fire safety and ensuring that the ground floor of the building was fully accessible. To this end, the services of an accessibility consultant, who is also a wheel chair user were engaged.  All the ground floor is fully accessible.  This work included the widening of some doors, the provision of external ramps and suitable toilet facilities.


The Irish Workhouse Centre, Portumna, Co. Galway, Ireland.

Tel: 00-353 (0) 90-9759200 |