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The Union Workhouse

The Union Workhouse / District Hospital

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. A detailed study of  the Workhouse records, excellently carried out  some years ago by  Martin Fennelly late of Rathmoyle, paints a grim picture of life and conditions inside that institution. There was a Board of thirty two guardians responsible for the day to day running of the Workhouse, and they in turn had to answer to the Commissioners in Dublin. While it appears that the local guardians under the chairmanship of Viscount de Vesci were inclined to be as benevolent as they could towards the Workhouse inmates, they were reprimanded on a number of occasions by the Dublin Commissioners for being too liberal and generous. To their credit it appears the local Board paid little attention to the rather harsh and uncharitable directives which emanated from Dublin, and on occasion were happy to go over their heads with direct approaches to the Parliament in London with some of their proposals. For all the Board’s efforts, conditions in the Workhouse were extremely depressing.

Situated in the area of the modern District Hospital on the Ballinakill road, the building itself constructed of dark limestone with small high windows presented a most forbidding appearance. The segregation of the sexes in the institution meant the heartbreak of separation of husbands and wives, brothers and sisters for most of the time.  The food was bland, a basic diet of potatoes, often of very poor quality,  with very little else, some chicken or bacon perhaps at Christmas or Easter. The able bodied inmates were expected to work, many were employed in tilling the grounds of the Workhouse where potatoes were planted. In 1844, 171 barrels of potatoes were harvested but only 141 barrels were fit for human consumption, which was approximately one month’s supply. Discipline was strict, for example, one man was put on half rations for a month when his workrate was considered unsatisfactory.  Many in the Workhouse enjoyed a smoke, but tobacco was very rarely available, and most had to make do with a pipeful of crushed white turf of which there was plenty, apparently.  A school for children of the Workhouse was organised, but seems to have been very basic. In a report during 1844, it was stated that  “the scholars in the boys’ school were backward in penmanship and arithmetic, owing to a want of animation, energy, and ingenuity, on the part of the schoolmaster”.

Shortly after, the schoolmaster contracted a fever and was removed to hospital, and the boys were put at breaking stones until he recovered.  As parents died from the rampant fever among the inmates of the Workhouse many children were left orphans, and many of the orphaned young  girls were sent out to Australia as emigrants. It is known that 28 young Abbeyleix girls found themselves on boats to Australia in the years up to 1848,  and while it may have seemed a charitable policy to the authorities of the time and many of the young emigrants may have been much better off eventually, it must have been a most distressing time both for the children and any relatives they were leaving behind.

The burial place of those from the Workhouse, and other destitute people was on the left of the Carlow road, a place known locally in those days as the Shankyard. There was apparently very little ceremony about the burials there.  It is said that during the next sixty years, over 2000 were buried in pauper graves in the Shankyard, the majority during the terrible years of the  Famine, and over 140 years were to pass before anything was done to indicate that this was a Christian burial ground.