In praise of the workhouses, those '˜grim Bastilles of despair'

The workhouse has a bad name. People dreaded it. Would you want to go there? No. Nor I.

Monday, 20th March 2017, 4:07 pm
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 11:09 am
A beggar accosts a gentleman.

‘Grim Bastilles of Despair’ is a newly published short study by Paschal Mahoney on the Poor Law Union workhouses in Ireland for the Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University (writes Mike McKeag for the North of Ireland Family History Society).

The publisher’s blurb states: “The folio explores how, despite strong Irish resistance, the British authorities established the Act for the Effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland, which was to become one of the most despised Acts ever to come into effect in Ireland. The ideology of segregation and confinement, as well as the traumatic daily experience of the paupers, who had been forced by eviction and starvation to enter these brutal institutions, is described and illustrated with drawings and photographs. The folio also describes the devastating impact of Great Famine and how these flawed institutions imploded under the enormity of this great tragedy, causing almost one-third-of-a-million people to die within their grey stone walls during the Famine years (1846-51).”

It is hard to disagree with that. But does it tell the whole story? Is it entirely fair? Surely one cannot praise workhouses?

Also known as The Poor Relief (Ireland) Act (1838), 130 Poor Law Unions were set up (more were added later), each run by a Board of Guardians. A workhouse to accommodate 800 or so men and women and children was to be built in each Union and a local poor rate levied to pay for this. Most were finished in 1843 but many Unions had difficulty in levying the poor rate. The website has a good description of these workhouses and their operation.

What relief was available to the poor before then? Since 1800, when Ireland had begun to be governed from Westminster instead of from Dublin, there had been a lot of ineffectual hand wringing. The responsibility for paupers rested with the parishes. A few of the larger towns had established their own workhouses but these covered only a small proportion of the population.

The Ordnance Survey Memoirs, which were written parish by parish as the Survey worked its way through Ulster, described the provision of relief in each parish. This varied enormously.

Macosquin, for example, complained that “The parish is infested by running beggars from distant parts of the county.” The beggars presumably knew which parishes were relatively wealthy. In next door Aghadowey “There are 30 badged paupers.” and “Badges are of tin with the word ‘Aghadowey’ stamped on it.” The rector and elders disburse £36 to paupers of good character; also the rector’s family and other families help paupers.

In a parish of about 1,500 people across the Bann “Though it may be said that the Grange of Kildollagh is a poor district, yet there are very few actual paupers … They mutually assist each other and if any individual falls into distress by ill health or widowhood, he or she is prevented by the kindness of friends from adopting this course and, if necessary, a hut is gratuitously built for them. As much potatoes as are necessary are given and occasional employment granted.”

In contrast the Grange of Agivey had been the granary of the monks of the monastery of St Peter and St Paul and was the only parish in Co Londonderry exempt from paying tithe and church cess. Consequently, there was no money to support the church and so it fell into disuse and ruin. There was no dispensary; there were no schools; there was no organised support for the poor. “The farms are very small, ranging from 3 to 10 acres in size.” And many of the houses “are poor and dilapidated and uncomfortable in the interior”.

Outside Ulster, in the poorer regions of Munster and Connaught particularly, and even in Ulster in some parts of west Tyrone, for example, there were many parishes suffering the poverty of Agivey or worse and unable to fund relief. For them the 1838 Act was better than nothing. Had the workhouses not been finished by 1844, what would have happened in 1845 when the potato crop failed and the Great Famine arrived? At least the workhouse provided a roof and a meal. Without the workhouse many, many more would have died in the street. As it is the workhouses were overwhelmed – intended to cope with 1% of the population, by 1851 they were catering for 4%.

Was enough done for the poor? No. Could more have been done? Once the workhouses were full, the rule banning outdoor-relief was ignored. The problem was paying for it – many Unions were seriously in debt.

Would I have wanted to go into the workhouse? No. Had I been starving, would I have been grateful that the workhouse existed for me? Yes.

Perhaps the title of this article is wrong – maybe it should be In Defence of Workhouses.


The North of Ireland Family History Society’s Research Centre, courses and branches, with their meetings, are open to all. See

Tuesday, March 28, 10am-12pm, course, £10: Family Tree Maker: Basics and Benefits, at Unit C4, Valley Business Centre, 67 Church Road, Newtownabbey. (Bookings: [email protected])

Tuesday 28, 2-8pm, Research Centre open at Valley Business Centre, Newtownabbey. (Queries: [email protected])

Tuesday 28, 7.30pm, talk: A Visit to the Somme and the Ypres Salient, in the CS Lewis Room, Holywood Arches Library, Holywood Road, Belfast. (Queries: [email protected])

Tuesday 28, 8pm, talk: Adding a Story to your Family Tree, at the Guide Hall, Terrace Row, Coleraine. (Queries: [email protected])

Thursday 30, 7.15pm, talk: A Tour through Ulster’s Graveyards, Michelin Arts Workshop, Braid Arts Centre, Ballymena. (Queries: [email protected]).