In 1838 the Irish Poor Law Act set up workhouses throughout Ireland, Abbeyleix was chosen as the head of the Union covering an area from Timahoe to Durrow and from Aghaboe to Ballinakill. The contract for building the Workhouse was signed in 1840, and it was designed to accommodate 500 ‘paupers’. The total cost was £6,900 and the work was finished early in 1844, and with the onset of the Famine, it was soon full to overflowing.
The census of 1841 had separated housing into four categories, the lowest class being for the most part one roomed mud huts, totally unfit for human habitation, and the census pointed out that 45% of rural housing in Ireland was in this category. While the inhabitants of the town of Abbeyleix occupied good quality stone houses with well thatched roofs, and the majority of the tenants of Lord de Vesci were adequately housed, there were many in the area who were quite destitute, and in many cases, these unfortunate souls chose the Workhouse where conditions though quite abysmal were preferably to those in which they would otherwise have had to live, and where there was at least some food available.
By the end of 1844, there were 466 inmates in the Workhouse. Nearby, on what is now the County Council yard, the Fever Hospital was built in 1842, and was to continue as a hospital for over one hundred years.
The years 1845 to 1847 brought the potato blight which wiped out virtually the entire crop countrywide, giving rise to the Great Famine, and what must be one of the darkest periods of Irish history. Incompetence, indifference and ignorance on the part of the London government, allowed thousands of tons of grain and other food products to be exported while the peasant population starved. In the Abbeyleix area while the effects were mitigated to some degree by the benevolence of Lord de Vesci, who reduced rents to his tenants, advised that the collection of Tithe taxes be ceased for the duration, and arranged the distribution of flour from the various mills in the locality, never the less, many hundreds died as their basic potato crop failed. Many others, starving and in poor health, were driven to emigrate on what were to become known as “coffin ships”, and so few reached their new world.
Among those who did was one native of Abbeyleix who eventually succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. William Shoney O’Brien was born in Abbeyleix in 1826 and emigrated in 1845. Having arrived destitute in San Francisco he worked his way up from a barman to become the legendary Jolly Millionaire, the Prince of Humility and the Silver King of California. Others succeeded in various parts of the U.S. and in the city of Waterbury in Western Connecticut; many of their descendants have formed an Irish social group known as the Abbeyleix Society of Waterbury.
For those who remained at home, at the summer Assizes in 1847 a scheme of relief work was organised, building new roads in Abbeyleix, Ballymaddock, and Ballinakill, providing some employment and enabling them to begin to rebuild their lives and that of the whole area after the devastation of the previous three years. Some were able to leave the grossly overcrowded Workhouse and restart their family lives in their own homes, but so many were completely destitute that another Workhouse had to be established in Donaghmore to relieve the congestion. It was many years before much of the outlying parts of the parish began to recover from the devastation brought by the Famine.