Abandoned ireland


The Workhouse

Documenting our Heritage



The workhouse was introduced into Ireland as part of the English Paw Law system in 1838. The British government saw the system as the most cost effective way of tackling the desperate state of poverty in Ireland. At that time the population of Ireland was approximately twice the population of today and many of those eight million inhabitants were suffering from disease and starvation.

By 1845, 123 workhouses had been built, formed into a series of districts or Poor Law Unions, each Poor Law Union containing at least one workhouse. The cost of poor relief was met by the payment of rates by owners of land and property in that district. Each union was over seen by a Board of Guardians which consisted of elected members, magistrates and justices of the peace.

Conditions of entry into the workhouse were strict and entry was seen as the very last resort of a destitute person.

Once inside the inmates were forced to work, food was poor, and accommodation cold, damp and cramped.

A typical day inside the workhouse was to rise at 6am, breakfast at 6.30am, work until 12 noon, lunch break and then work until 6pm. Supper was served at 7pm, with final lights out at 8pm. A roll call was carried out each morning. Meal breaks were in the communal dining room and held in silence. Husbands, wives and children were separated as soon as they entered the workhouse and could be punished if they attempted to speak to each other. An inmate’s only possessions were his/her uniform, mattress and blanket. Toilet facilities consisted of a covered cess pit with a hole on which to sit. Once a week the inmates were bathed and the men shaved.

By the end of 1846 the Great Famine was taking its toll and many of the workhouses were full and refusing to admit new applicants. Widespread shortages of bedding and clothing led to the practice of giving the unwashed clothes of inmates who had died from fever or disease to the next new inmate arriving at the workhouse. There was a shortage of coffins and burial grounds were often located close to the workhouse, sometimes next to the water supply.

The road to the workhouse became known as ‘cosan na marbh’ or ‘pathway of the dead’ as more than a quarter of those admitted died inside the workhouse.

In 1847 soup kitchens were introduced allowing some relief to the workhouses. In the summer of the same year however the newly elected English government declared the famine was over and ceased financial relief from the English Treasury. The Poor Law Unions were now also made responsible for funding the soup kitchens.

The workhouse I visited today remained in operation until the 1920s.

Closed up, overgrown and forgotten it remains a time capsule from desperate years.