The Irish Workhouse


From the early 1840s up to 1922 there were 163 workhouses in operation in Ireland. Their purpose was to provide food and accommodation for those in dire poverty. In exchange, those entering would give their labour in the Workhouse laundry and yards; the women washing and mending clothes and sheets, the men breaking rocks and whitewashing the buildings.


Those entering often had no other choice; they had no money, assets or hope. Many had been evicted from their land and could not afford to pay their passage and leave Ireland. Usually their only possessions were the clothes they wore and these were taken from them in exchange for a Workhouse uniform. Families were separated by age and gender.


Conditions varied depending on the Union, but in almost all, the inmates were provided with the minimum of food needed to survive. The only heat came from the laundry and at night men, women and children returned to cold, often over-crowded dormitories. During the height of the Great Famine disease was rampant, its spread hastened by the cramped conditions. It wasn’t simply hunger that killed people but the famine diseases like Cholera, Typhus and fever. Poor nutrition meant that people could not recover from illness and infections from sores and cuts often became a major problem.


The Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna is one of the best preserved Workhouses in Ireland. It opened in 1852 and at its height, catered for about 300 people. Tours are available and it is a must for those hoping to learn more about the period. Importantly too, the Centre remembers over 1 million people who died under harsh conditions without dignity.

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