The Irish Workhouse System

The Irish Workhouse System

The Irish workhouse has been described as ”the most feared and hated institution ever established in Ireland”. The workhouse system was established on the back of the British parliamentary inquiry into the state of poverty in Ireland in the 1830s and recommended that workhouses, as they had done in England and Wales, would be a suitable means to relieve poverty

In total 163 workhouses were built in Ireland in the nineteenth century, operating from the early 1840s until the 1920s in the Republic of Ireland and the 1940s in Northern Ireland. Initially, 130 workhouses were built, followed by a further 33 during and after the Great Famine.

Described by Paschal Mahony as ‘grim bastilles of despair’, the workhouses were austere buildings and deliberately so. According to the Cormac O’Grada were built as ‘solid, plain and durable structures’ and were never meant to be anything else.

For many, entry to the workhouse was a last resort and during the Famine many ended their days in these institutions. Indeed, during the years of the Great Famine, within the walls of the workhouse system, 1/5th of all Famine deaths occurred in there.

The introduction of the workhouse system in Ireland in the late 1830s provided the basis for the emergence of a local elite who challenged landlords across the country. Coinciding in most parts with the politics of Repeal led by Daniel O’Connell, board of guardians elections and the boardroom proceedings were hotly contested spaces.

Initially, the workhouse was intended for women, children and the infirm, or those unable to work or take care of themselves. It was never envisaged that the huge numbers who flooded through the doors of Irish workhouses during the Famine would be there.

The management of the workhouse during the Famine became problematic as rates went uncollected. Thirty boards of guardians were dismissed for their inability to manage affairs.

Within the walls of the workhouse families were separated. Males and females were placed on opposite sides of the house. For many who entered the workhouse, the ‘dead house’ or mortuary to the back of the building was their final destination.  

For more information on the Irish Workhouse and the Poor Law in general see the following works: