Irish Workhouses- History of Suffering & Survival– BY GUEST AUTHOR ROXANNE When I was planning my trip to Ireland, it was very important to me to visit Irish Workhouses. My grandmother’s family immigrated from Ireland in the 1850s, after surviving the Great Hunger, and the workhouses. I wanted to better understand my heritage, and the depths of horror they endured, so I routed our itinerary to the Portumna Workhouse Center. Visiting Portumna was educational, enlightening, and emotional. When I returned home, I was anxious to tell friends of this experience, and how it impacted me. I was proud to learn of the strength and the tenacity of the Irish spirit that my ancestors must have had, and that I identified with. I was sadly surprised to find that no one even knew what the Irish Workhouses were.
Over 33 million Americans claim to have an Irish heritage or ancestry, but very few know of the Irish Workhouses. They can cite many facts and myths about Ireland, with St. Patrick and the Catholic Church topping the list, closely followed by potatoes, the famine, and the long-standing conflict with Great Britain. Yet, each of these pieces of history is interwoven with the history of the workhouses.
[caption id="attachment_7392" align="alignleft" width="239"] Poverty stricken Irish Family depicted in these statues[/caption]
Huge waves of desperate poor emigrated out of Ireland in the mid to late 1800s, to escape and avoid, the workhouses, starvation, and the oppression enforced upon them by the British. Their posterity and heritage spread throughout the western world. The descendants of the Irish around the world outnumber the citizens of Ireland, by 7 times!
Of course, the Irish themselves have tried to push the workhouses from their memories. They were not the inherent reason for their suffering, rather a symptom of the overall degradation. But their presence of a workhouse in nearly every community, and their detestable conditions resulted in them becoming a symbol of the suffering, and all of the wrongs put upon the Irish people for centuries.
This all started all the way back in the 12th century. Prior to that, Ireland was an independent country, with a Celtic heritage, traditions, and language. There were small kingdoms across the land, and the rulers of each reporting to a singular, High King. The Norse, commonly referred to as Vikings, had established footholds throughout north-western Europe, but it was in the 1170s when a powerful Anglo-Norman invasion took place, and the last High King of Ireland, Roderic O’Connor, was defeated, that gave Henry II the opportunity to take control of Ireland.
For 6 centuries, Ireland was ruled by England, through a system of Earldoms, with each Earl reporting to the throne of England, with all of the laws and taxes that typically came with that rulership. A series of attempted overthrows took place, but the English authority remained intact through each. It was in the early 18th century when a most detrimental blow to the Irish people took place: the enactment of the Penal Laws. [caption id="attachment_7391" align="alignright" width="339"] Staff of infirmary at Portumna Workhouse[/caption]
At that time, nearly 75% of the population of Ireland were poor Catholics. The Penal Laws punished them for their faith. Catholics were forbidden from practicing their religion, from teaching, entering the army, any civil service position, or legal profession. They could not own a horse worth more than 5 pounds, own or bear arms. They could not purchase land. If a Catholic already owned land, it would be divided among his successors upon his death, but, if one heir converted to the Protestant religion, he became the sole owner, leaving his siblings with nothing.
Within 100 years, the majority of the Irish became homeless laborers, with no available work. The majority survived by what was known as the Conacre system. A landowner (a Protestant English citizen) rented small cabins and a plot of land large enough to graze a cow and raise a garden of potatoes, to a laborer for a single season. The worker was “paid” for his work, and his rent was taken from his earnings. The poor had little money for anything but rent, but they at least had food. If the laborer did not “earn” enough to cover his rent, he would be evicted.
Read about the Conacre system to get a better understanding of the dire situation these Irish families were placed in.
[caption id="attachment_7393" align="alignleft" width="432"] Children in the cold Workhouse[/caption]
By 1800, when the British monarchy fully claimed ownership of Ireland, it then had to assume responsibility for the conditions. One Royal Commission after another assessed the problem of poverty in Ireland and enacted laws to “improve” the situation, which had virtually no effect. They enacted the Public Works Act, through which Irish poor were hired to build roads, and other such infrastructure needs. However, the poverty was too extensive, and too little work was available. In 1838 it was finally determined that the power of the Poor Law Commissioners, who oversaw workhouses in England and Wales, would be expanded to Ireland.
Ireland was divided into 130 “Unions”, which were based upon the already existing Townlands system. Each Union had an elected board of governors, but only ratepayers (tax paying landowners) could vote. In January 1839, architect George Wilkinsonwas hired to design and oversee the construction of a workhouse for each union. The overall design was the same for each newly built construction, with cost and durability being the primary concerns. The typical setup of the workhouse, became known as an H Block style, with the structures set up in the formation of a letter H. There was a central acceptance building, which also housed the governors meeting rooms, and the storerooms, and on each side were the male and female dormitories.
Life at the workhouse was meant to be unpleasant. It was a common belief that poverty was a result of laziness. Workhouse life was to be so undesirable that it would only be seen by the poor as the last resort. Workhouses in England and Wales already had dozens of rules and restrictions, but those in Ireland were even harsher. Read the rules of the workhouses.
Any citizen who owned even the smallest parcel of land could not enter the workhouse without turning over the ownership of this land. Any citizen so destitute they sought sustenance at the workhouse could not enter the workhouse unless his entire family also came to the workhouse.
[caption id="attachment_7394" align="alignright" width="348"] Child in Irish Workhouse Center[/caption]
Upon entry, the destitute and starving citizens would often be required to prove their need, sometimes although many were near death. They would be inspected, medically assessed, and then split up. Families were required to enter together but they were not allowed to stay together. Only children under age 2 could stay with their mothers. Children from 3 to 15 were separated into the girls and boys dormitories. At 16 they were treated as adults and separated into the men’s and women’s dorms.
The dormitories were set up in stark white fashion, with the walls lime washed, for sterilization purposes. Bedding consisted of straw mats laid in rows on the floor. Heating was provided by a single fireplace at one end of the room, so those at the far end received little warmth at all.
Anyone unable to support themselves outside of the workhouse would be required to work, for their keep, while in the workhouse. Sitting idle, at any time, was not allowed. The women attended to the housekeeping tasks, including cooking, cleaning, laundering, and mending. Laundry included boiling linens in huge vats and laying them out overheated metal piping.
Mens work included breaking stones, cutting wood, and tending the land around the workhouse, as well as physical repairs on the structures themselves. Even the elderly and infirm had duties to their abilities, which included picking oakum. This was a process where lengths of used rope, such as from fishing boats, were unwound strand by strand, to pick out the impurities. This same task was often given to prisoners as punishment. The rope could be rewound and sold by the workhouse for profit.
Sunday was a day of rest. During the winter months inmates were allowed to rise an hour later and did not start work until 8:00 am.
The general work schedule of the inmates including a 10-hour workday, starting at 0700, with a one hour break for the lunch/dinner meal. Despite this labor, it was expected that the diet in the workhouse would be less satisfactory than the typical diet of those outside of the workhouse in the community. Since most Irish were in a dreadful state of poverty, they were eating very little. So the diet in the workhouse consisted of 2 meals per day for adults, a breakfast of a thin oatmeal porridge, called stirabout, and a bunch of potatoes and milk. Children were more fortunate, being afforded a supper, which consisted of bread and milk.
Conditions in the workhouse were miserable as planned, but the staff hired by the elected board of governors often let them go beyond deplorable. When inspections did occur, there were often notes in regards to the sad state of hygiene and health of the inmates.
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In 1945 a potato blight spread throughout western Europe, causing the potato crop to go black, and die. Although this impacted millions of people, nowhere was it as devastating as in Ireland, where the poor lived on potatoes for sustenance. Had this blight affected only one year, recovery may have been possible, but it continued for 4 years. Over a million Irish died of starvation during the famine, and it became known as the Great Hunger.
The saddest fact of the famine was that other crops were growing in Ireland, as well as livestock. But wealthy landowners and farmers continued to sell and export this food, while the poor Irish starved.
[caption id="attachment_7390" align="alignleft" width="395"] Reconstructed women’s dorm[/caption]
The workhouses were designed to house 600 to 800 persons each, but more and more citizens who could no longer bear the hunger sought a refuge. At times as many as 1200 poor would be present in these workhouses on a given day. The school rooms and even stables were used to house inmates. Waves of disease spread through, and large numbers of inmates died. In some cases, mass graves were used.
Conditions were so bad, that in 1848 the British government finally took two further actions. They began actively supporting emigration. The landlords greatly supported this, because the fewer people there were on their land, the lower their rates, or taxes, were. Hundreds of thousands of the poor saw emigration as their most viable option and left by whatever means they could, many with a term of indenture. Conditions on the transport ships were horrid, and thousands died of disease during the voyages, to be buried at sea.
The government also voted to expand the Poor Law Unions, adding another 32 unions. The Workhouse which I visited, in Portumna, was one of the additional 32 established. Built in 1852, it came into existence after the worst of the Great Hunger. Nonetheless, the available records make the despair of conditions clear.
[caption id="attachment_7381" align="alignright" width="339"] Barren Workhouse floor[/caption]
From the beginning, the ratepayers opposed the establishment of this Union, voting to abolish it and send the paupers elsewhere. They were overruled by the Dublin Commission. It is also clear, that despite the poverty and suffering of the people, that many saw the workhouse as economic opportunities.
Even priests and chaplains argued over salaries and refused to provide their services, even to minister the dead. Farmers signed contracts to provide food of certain types and qualities, but instead failed to meet the terms of their contracts, or provided food of a far inferior quality.
Portumna was a smaller workhouse built to house 200. Most of the time it was open, it’s occupancy was around 125. Still, it’s history is one filled with sorrow, suffering, and loss. Today, it is one of few left standing in almost it’s complete original composition.
During the Irish Revolution, in the 1920s, many of the workhouses were burned down by one side or the other, to prevent the opposition from using the houses as a military base. Once Irish freedom was won, the remaining workhouses were shut down, but the buildings were used for county hospitals.
Over the decades after the closure of the workhouse, and then the closing of the hospital, the Portumna structures were used for many things, housing different businesses, including a knitting company, an agricultural show, a textiles company, and a packing company, then warehouses and storage, then sat vacantly. It wasn’t until the 1990s that today’s center was envisioned. The following is from the Workhouse Centers informational materials:
Portumna Workhouse is one of the last remaining buildings of its kind in Ireland and a conservation order was placed on it which ensures its structural survival. The complex lay derelict and covered with ivy for a number of decades and in 1999 South East Galway Integrated Rural Development Company, a voluntary local development group, approached the Western Health Board with a view to conserve the site and reusing it for the benefit of the area.….. The Irish Workhouse Centre opened to the public in 2011 and tells the story of the Irish workhouse as an institution. The project is led by a voluntary board and a team of local volunteers guide the visitors around the complex.
The story of Portumna is unique. It has been said that the workhouse is regarded as the most despised of all institutions ever imposed upon Ireland, representing all of her people’s suffering. But it is a history that must be told and remembered, and the Portumna Workhouse Center has taken on that task. Gradually they have worked to restore the center, as time and funds are available.
[caption id="attachment_7383" align="alignnone" width="972"] Before restoration of workhouse began in Portumna[/caption]
As said at the onset of this story, I visited Portumna to connect with my own family history. My grandmother’s family experienced the misery of the workhouse, before escaping to the United States. Walking through the dormitories, seeing the straw mats, seeing the laundry vats, hearing the stories, understanding the separation of husband and wife, mother and child, was powerful in itself. To know that my family survived this life, was overwhelming.
I cannot hope to truly convey the suffering and the fear of the poor Irish, nor their hatred for the workhouses and the landowners. Seeing it first hand gives a glimpse. If you have Irish ancestry, you owe it to yourself to understand this heritage, and the strength it took to bequeath you with the life you have today. Visit the Portumna Workhouse Center if the chance arises. To be honest, the experience was so absorbing, that I never had the thought of taking my camera from my bag. It is only thanks to the volunteer staff at the Portumna Workhouse Center that I have photos to share.
Plan your visit to Portumna Workhouse Center Check out their information about Portumna community activities and involvementAbout the Author:Roxanna Keyes is a mom, grandma, and a Senior Distribution Manager, for the US Postal Service, in central Illinois. While she has dedicated a significant portion of her life to her career, she has learned that life, and making a living, are not the same thing, and too many of us confuse the two. She started her blog Gypsy With a Day Job to encourage others to recognize that fact before it is too late and to inspire them to see the world, and to live out the adventures that make the stories of their life worth sharing.]]>
Doune Castle in Perthshire: (Castle Leoch) – Medieval stronghold near Stirling Castle, built in the 14th century by Robert Steward, Duke of Albany. This was a really fun visit because the show didn’t have to change much about this well-preserved castle. There is an audio guide tour that actually has the actor who plays James Fraser (Sam Heughan) in Outlander that is narrating, and yes ladies, it is as lovely as it would seem.
Culross Fife (Crainsmuir): Where Claire and her Husband Frank stayed at the beginning of season one. This is where we saw the ghost of Jamie looking up at Claire in the window. I honestly wish I could have spent more time in this charming little town! There are small little B&B’s and hotels that look like they could have been operating in the middle ages. It is actually one of the most well-preserved cities from the 17th Century. There is a path by the sea with beautiful wildflowers and a FANTASTIC little tea shop tucked up around the left-hand side of the center of town that has a fantastic cup of tea. Funny enough, this is also where Sam Heughan had his own cup of tea and I literally sat right by the signed photo of him (insert sigh) sipping on a wonderful warm cup of Scottish Tea whilst nibbling on my bannock.
Blackness Castle (Fort William): This is where Jamie (in Outlander) was flogged and kept a prisoner. It is the setting for Black Jack Randall’s Fort William. Coincidentally, it actually used to be a prison for the worst of the worst. The prisoners were put in a pit at the tip of the castle where, when the tide would come in, it would actually flood the prison cell. The prisoners would get soaked with the frigid water and many would end up freezing to death because of the bitter cold that often envelops Scotland. Even just standing in the guard room above the cell, in the middle of June, was VERY COLD. This particular cell was at the very tip of the castle and would require the prisoners to be lowered into the pit by a rope. The castle itself is known as ‘the ship that never sailed’ because it looks like a flagship in its unusual shape. It is easy enough to do a self-guided tour as there are placards dotted throughout the castle with detailed descriptions and drawings to explain what life would have been like for these prisoners. I arrived early in the morning and didn’t realize that you can actually park close to the castle itself, but I parked far away and ended up walking quite a ways to get to the entrance. It was a nice peaceful walk over the bridge to the castle itself. I let my imagination run wild with imagining how it would feel to be a prisoner taken to this castle. Can you imagine trudging to this place knowing you were likely walking into death’s cold and harsh embrace? It was a sobering thought indeed.
Aberdour Castle (Abbey of St Anne): (This is where Claire cared for Jamie after his time in Wentworth Prison in the first season of Outlander) This 12th-century hall is the oldest standing stone castle in Scotland and features 17th Century painted ceilings. The feeling in this place was so relaxing, homey, and really like you could have stayed overnight and had crumpets and tea in the morning. I can almost imagine Cinderella singing with the birds in the attic above 😉 It is often used as a place where couples get married and maybe that is why there is such a great feeling within Aberdour’s walls. There are also BEAUTIFUL gardens within a stone’s throw of the castle. You can stroll around the perimeter and smell the lovely roses, reflecting on how lucky you are to be able to visit a place like this that has withstood the test of time and amazingly still holds so much whimsical, romantic charm.
Glencourse Old Kirk, Midlothian (the church where Jamie & Claire were married): I wasn’t actually able to make it to this location; I kept getting lost and was a little stressed about driving on the other side of the road for the first time, lol. The BMW I was driving got a little scratched on the wheel covers…..oops. Because of the fact I didn’t know how to properly drive in Scotland, I kept getting lost because the address I had for this place was utterly useless — bottom line, I didn’t make it here. Apparently, during filming, they made the Glencourse Old Kirk seem abandoned, when in fact it is actually quite nice inside with red carpeting, seating and an altar. It is located on the Glencourse House Grounds and if you look it up on the GPS, it actually says it’s a private road, so proceed with caution so we all don’t get in trouble for pursuing a picture at this adorable and romantic little church.
Newtonmore (The Highlander Villages): This was far more impressive in person than it appears in photos. The drive to the village is long, but to be able to see this perfect recreation of 17th century Highlander life made it completely worth it. Make sure to bring enough cash to enter the Village as they do not accept cards. You start out by wandering through a recreated 18th-century village. As you wander through the village, every step brings you further back in time. By the end, you are able to wander through the woods to this quaint and perfectly replicated village of the 17th Century Highlands. There were ducks, chickens, cows, and even a carpenter that was making new homes. The thatched roofs were made of twigs & then heavy stones were tied around and attached to the roof to help keep the roof down during the strong winter winds in the Scottish Highlands. There is even a house for the Coo’s (Scottish for Cows 😉 so that during the winter months they do not freeze to death. The people of that time period would actually welcome the animals into their home on the cold nights so as to help heat the inside of the home. I asked one worker dressed in period clothing if she was able to see when they were filming Outlander. This lovely woman laughed and said that the film crew would get really frustrated with the all the noise that one of her chickens used to make and would ask her to make the chicken cluck on cue and the rooster not crow so much. Apparently, the chicken and the rooster do NOT like to have a whole lot of people around. So there was quite a lot of fuss about how to keep the animals quiet while they were filming. One thing about Scottish people is that they are really dedicated to their animals. I mean, even the Queen of England has dedicated a whole plot INSIDE Edinburgh Castle to the Royal Furbaby guard dogs 🙂 Just knowing how dedicated they are to animals made me enormously proud to be Scottish.
Hopetown House, Edinburgh (Duke of Sandringham’s House): This house is open to the public during the summer months and has specific opening hours. Most international museums have a ‘last call’ entrance, where if you don’t make it to the museum or residence one hour before closing time, then you are out of luck. I hope to visit Scotland again next year so I will have a chance to visit this place because it looks absolutely stunning. The house is located in Queensferry which is about 20 min outside of the center of Edinburgh. You will likely need to either pay for a tour, a taxi or take an Uber and hop around to the other tourist locations nearby like Stirling Castle and my favorite, Midhope House (aka Lallybroch).
Tulloch Ghru (When Claire & the Clansman head to Castle Leoch in the first Season and is also in the opening credits): It is located just outside of Aviemore, I had a bit of a hard time finding it but with all the beautiful landscape around you, I doubt you will be sad if you don’t find the EXACT location.
Linlithgow Palace, West Lothian (Wentworth Prison): Once the royal seat of the Stewart kings of Scotland and Mary Queen of Scots’ birthplace. Mary Queen of Scots only actually was at Linlithgow Palace for seven months before she was moved to Stirling Castle for better protection. There is a lovely hill and picnic tables near the ruined palace. The roof collapsed from a fire set by the British soldiers, unfortunately, but you can wander through the ruins and imagine what all the rooms must have looked like in the 1500’s. There is an eerie feeling inside, but once you step outside and are surrounded by a beautiful lake and lush green hills with a church right next door, that eerie feeling goes away. I may have been tainted by Outlander and the dark things that befell our beloved James Fraser here. After coming home, I learned that Linlithgow is actually said to be haunted with two different apparitions of ghosts seen on the property, both women in dresses, one blue, and one white. (Take this with a grain of salt though, Scottish people tend to be very superstitious, but I guess with all the history of this country — I would be too).
Midhope House (Lallybroch): Partially ruined 16th Century tower house near Edinburgh by the Hopetown House. I literally felt like I was Claire walking up to the house for the first time, at the beginning of Season One. The outline of the house is so iconic for the series I literally started giggling and skipping down the road. This is the first time in my life that I have actually visited a place that was associated with a TV series or movie of some sort. I found I really like visiting countries or locations this way because it helps the imagination make what was once an abandoned old house come alive with people, flashes and images of ‘what once was.’ I loved every peaceful second here. If trying to navigate here, I would definitely put the address into the car navigation system. Upon driving to this particular location I traveled along a few dirt roads with charming fields and sheep grazing lazily on them. When you arrive, it looks like you are pulling into someone’s private farm. There is parking down the road, but everyone suggests to get here early as it can be crowded with tourists who have been touched by the ‘Outlander effect.’ Be respectful of the property, please. Observing is great, but don’t try and break in. It has not been up kept up due to the expense and could be very dangerous inside with unstable flooring. The filming on the inside of Lallybroch was actually done in a studio, not inside the house. They also used computers to change the windows to look like it was lived in and not in ruins. (For the actual history of the house and more information, click on the link embedded in ‘Midhope House.’)
Clava Cairn (the standing stone circle) Inverness IV2 5EU, UK: The one on the TV series was partially rebuilt in the middle of a farm somewhere in Scotland, allegedly. But this one is so similar you will barely notice. Plus you get the added benefit of experiencing the burial grounds that are here as well. I felt like it added a certain mysticism to the place. I think after being here, I truly felt like magic did exist in this beautiful country at one point. It’s an easy drive and there is no fee to enter. I recommend getting there fairly early so you can see the way the sun hits the stones. Be gentle on the stones, and please don’t climb on the burial grounds; it’s bad form, people. I don’t care how big you think you are on your social media channel — this is my heritage and ancient history. Consider yourself warned.
Directions: This is the best-plotted course I used myself for the Self-Guided Outlander Tour. I utilized Google maps and wrote down the exact address for each of the locations. If it was rural, I took note of the town name so that I could at least ask for help when arriving in that particular town. I found everything fairly easy to locate and if I was lost, I just pulled out my phone and plugged the address into Google Maps, and I was easily able to find each location. Here is the map for your own Outlander Self Guided Tour (via Rental Car). This map does not include leaving from Edinburgh or a stop in Inverness to see Culloden. For more information read The Battle of Culloden. Other tips:
Rental car: most cars in Europe are manual transmission but there are automatic transmissions available, you just have to actively search for them. I also recommend getting navigation within the car itself. Many of the places you will drive through are very remote and often do not have cell phone service. Also, make sure that the car has unlimited miles in the contract itself so you can enjoy traveling without having to worry about the cost of the miles. Last but not least, if you are NOT used to driving on the opposite side of the road (for all my left seated and American drivers) PLEASE GET INSURANCE! I was literally screaming the first 30 minutes in the car on the way out of town because people get SO CLOSE when they pass you. I also arrived at the rental place (Europcar) as soon as they opened, or the bus could get me there so I would miss all of the morning traffic.
As always….Happy Travels, Happy Tales, see you on the flip side.