On Tuesday May 24th I paid a flying visit, literally, to the Irish Workhouse Center in Portumna, County Galway in Ireland.
The Workhouse Center needs financial assistance in attaining preservation goals. Please watch the video for a brief history of the famine, Irish Workhouses and how you can help.
Irish Workhouse Center Co-Cordinator Ursula Marmion spoke to me over the phone prior to my visit about the workhouse.
Focus of the Interview Portumna Workhouse
Ursula Marmion, South East Galway Integrated Rural development Ltd Center Manager and Portumna Workhouse Project head, leads ongoing efforts to finance and develop Portumna workhouse into a financially sustainable group of buildings that will offer a glimpse into the past, develop jobs in the community and preserve a building that she loves.
Portumna Workhouse, in County Galway in Ireland, built in 1852, was on the brink of decay and disrepair, until a group of dedicated locals banded together and brought the workhouse back into the public’s focus.
Despite a downward turn in the Irish economy, there is a grass roots effort to preserve a very painful and important part of Irish history, the workhouse.
Loretto Leary: Where are you at in the preservations plans currently?
Ursala Marmion: Where we are at at the minute is we have a bit of red tape on the legal side.of things. We’re not in a position to fully launch, but we’re nearly there.
LL: Why was the workhouse in Portumna chosen as the flagship project for the IRD?
UM: “Well the buildings were sitting there, just covered in ivy, so when we looked at the project first we thought Oh my God this is too big, you know, its just too big. And then bit by bit we started dreaming about it and just go up and have a walk around the buildings and we realized that if we could just get the ivy off the buildings, just that would hold a lot of the decay. What we did was, well the buildings belonged to the HSE, and how that came about was there was some health act in the early seventies, and any buildings that belonged to the local parishes at that stage were transferred over to the local health boards.
LL: Just to clarify for me, is HSE Heritage South East Galway?
UM: No, no. The HSE is now our health service, the Health Service Executive
LL: Is it just for the South East in Ireland?
UM: No, it’s the new name for the old Health Board. After the workhouse fell into disuse a lot of them were used as nursing homes.
LL: I do remember a dispensary being there. I think I had my sight checked there when I was a kid.
UM: Its still there!
LL: Was Portumna workhouse a hospital as well?
UM: Unfortunately all the records seem to have been lost, we haven’t come across them yet. But what we do know is that the Mercy Sisters began nursing there in the 1880’s. There was a hospital in all the workhouses that were still remaining.
LL: The workhouse opened after the famine in 1882, was there 600 inmates in it?
UM: WE don’t know, what happened was during the famine the Portumna area would have gone to Loughrea workhouse and over the Eyrecourt side would have gone to Ballinasloe workhouse. But because there was such a need during the famine years, before the famine they built 130 workhouses, after that they decided that they needed another 33.So the Loughrea Union and the Ballinasloe Union, parts were taken off that to form the Portumna Union. It was built to cater for 600 people but we don’t know if there was ever 600 people in it. A local historian, John Joe Conwell, he was saying to me that it might have been a winter workhouse. People might have gone to work on the estates in the summer and come to the workhouse in the winter. We don’t have any facts on that just yet, we are hoping that the records might show up some place. We’ve only started to do research on it ourselves, looking at Connaught Tribune (newspaper) reports from the time. See what is interesting is you had the castle where the landlord lived, and then you had the workhouse where the destitute poor of the time had to go. It was cause and effect as well like.
LL: Oh, absolutely. Let’s get back to the workhouse for a minute. I know there are seven buildings on eight acres, in other workhouses there were gardens where they grew vegetables. Was there a garden for inmates to use?
UM: We don’t know, am? No, we just don’t know.
LL: Is there a mass grave or unmarked graves there?
UM: No, it would appear that if any inmate died they were buried in Calvary Cemetery.
Someone with the best meaning in the world put up a stone plaque on the wall of Portumna workhouse, it says “In memory of the Victims of the Great Famine buried here” and it’s a misnomer really because the place wasn’t even open during the famine, but its highly unlikely that there is anybody buried there.
LL: Getting back to 1852, after black 47, was Portumna still feeling the effects of the famine five years later?
UM: I don’t know really but what John Joe Conwell, this local historian guy, what he was saying to me was that really the building of the extra 33 workhouses after the famine wasn’t such a great idea, that the need had died down a bit at that stage. Now that’s just purely opinion, do you know what I mean?
LL: For the present, have people come up with ideas for the use of the seven buildings?
UM: Not for all of it. What we did when we started was we approached the Health Board and said look, have you any use for the buildings and they said no, but they did get a conservation statement done on them because as owners they are obliged to protect them, care for them, but no body was caring for them. Anyways, they got the conservation statement done and that statement found that the buildings were not beyond repair or use. So from that we thought that the roof needed to be urgently done or in the next ten years they’ll be gone. So we got together and we kind of took a two pronged approach. On the one hand all the agencies has been brilliant any one that was asked to help out, the Heritage Council, the County Council, any one that was asked to help out has come on board like, really, really proactive. In the beginning it was oh my God it is so big will we ever achieve anything? We took a two pronged approach, we commissioned a master plan for the redevelopment of the workhouse, on the other hand we decided we’ll start doing the conservation work, we’ll start getting the ivy off and the roof done, they were a priority. So up to now, we have all of the ivy off the building, we have three of the buildings re-roofed, we have 18 of 280 windows restored and at the minute now there is like an employment scheme working up there, and we’ve cleared out all the buildings and we’ve cleared up the site and all that. So basically the last plan was to look at possible uses for the buildings, but its very organic. We’re kind of taking a softly, softly approach with it.
LL: By Organic do you mean it needs to tie in with the purpose of the workhouse?
UM: Yes. Our objective is two fold right? Number 1 its to tell the story of the Irish workhouse, because that hasn’t been done very comprehensively anywhere its kind of a period of history we just choose to forget about, because I suppose it is just so painful for people. That’s our first objective, so we’re calling it the Irish Workhouse center, and we’re using it to tell the story of the workhouse. Now we’ve also done a short documentary on it.
LL: Is that online?
UM: Yes, but don’t tell anybody because we haven’t launched it yet. We’re hoping to have an evening here in Portumna to launch the DVD and the website. Have a look at it on Youtube. We looked at the architecture and the human side of it. The sad thing about the workhouse is entire families had to go in, it was a way of getting the families off the land.
LL: I read that the law was if you owned half an acre or more you could not claim starvation or poverty in order to seek help from the poor law and enter the workhouse. So a lot of people abandoned the land?
UM: Yep. It was just a way of getting them off the land. Entire families had to go in together, but then they were split up. Like the workhouse buildings, you know the way they are in sort of a H block?
UM: You had the boys building, the girls building, the women’s building and the men’s building. The laundry and chapel is in the center. They were split up when they went in and children if they were less than three years they could stay with their mother but if they were three years or more they were taken away from their mother.
LL: Right. Very Sad. A little bit like the Holocaust?
UM: A little bit. I always have this bitter sweet feeling towards the workhouse because I absolutely love the buildings. When we have the website up, I gleaned a bit of information from John O’Connor’s book Irish Workhouses, it is very comprehensive so I synopsized it and put it into my own words, it gives a good overview of the history. Before the poor law Commissioner, George Nicholls, there was a commission and they worked for about three years. They had fantastic ideas about developing Ireland’s resources, creating employment so as to alleviate poverty, but it was just dismissed when it was sent back to Westminister.
LL: Were the reasons for poverty in Ireland at the time different to the reasons for poverty in England?
LL: Will the buildings be used for prevention of future famines?
UM: Well we hadn’t a penny when we started. Now with all the grants we’ve spent over three hundred thousand euro. I have to complete another application, it needs to be in tomorrow to the Heritage Council for another roof. It’s small money, but every bit counts. To keep an eye on it as well, what we’re hoping for this year is just a soft opening. Do you know when you have a deadline and everything falls in line for it hopefully. We’re hoping to have the small visitor center open, with the audio visual with the people presentation as well. We’re training volunteer guides as well. Cause we opening it also as a conservation and redevelopment center that’s another angle to it. But after that like there’s so much space up there, that any good viable ideas. What I was saying to you was number 1 was to tell the story of the Irish Workhouse and objective number 2 was to find uses for the old buildings that are financially sustainable as well. At the end of the day this place is going to have to cover its running costs.
LL: I just wanted to clarify the number of windows repaired, did you say 80 or 18?
UM: I said one eight unfortunately. They are bloody expensive. There are 280 windows in total.
LL: How much are the windows?
UM: It can vary a lot by the state that it’s in, right?
UM: It can be anything from 1,200 to 1,500 euro.
LL: For one window?
UM: Yeah, see we can’t just throw out the old window and put a new window in. The old ones have to be repaired because its conservation work and that is more expensive. One of the good things about the downturn in the economy here is that all the building trades, you can get them that bit cheaper. I am hoping I can get a better deal on the windows, but for now the priority is getting the roofs finished, because once you can keep the water out of the buildings they’re not rotting anymore.
LL: How close are you to the goal of that “Soft Opening?” What can visitors expect to see?
UM: I’ll explain it to you exactly. The girls dormitory is block A, visitors will come inform that side. There will be a little reception area, its quite a nice room actually, its got original features. The original floor and all that. What we are going to do is guided tours on the half hour, every half hour. There are two of us here all summer so we’re available to start it. So there will be two people. We’ve also asked a number of people to be volunteer guides and they were absolutely delighted. We will have a training program, because it does need to be professional. In this little reception area we want to have just very simple story boards, just giving….you know when you go into these places you get so much information you come out with nothing?
UM: We just want very simple story boards like, Portumna is one of 163 workhouses built in Ireland. It cost ten pounds to immigrate to America, it cost twenty five pounds to keep someone in the workhouse. Just little snippets in the waiting area. And the one area where I think we fall down a lot here is in visitor facilities we don’t cater that well for different languages. So translations in the main languages you might expect visitors in, French, German, Italian, Dutch and maybe Polish. So that’s that. Now the room across from it will be for the audio visual. Now its not going to cost us an arm and a leg. We’re getting a screen up there. We’re getting a good quality projector and I got seating yesterday. There is a website called Dundee.ie and I got really nice kitchen type chairs but sturdy, seating for that area for ten euro’s each, you know. You have to shop around. So we go in we do a short presentation for 15 minutes on the workhouse, specifically on the conservation and redevelopment side. Then they’ll watch the DVD which is 13 minutes, that goes more back into the historic side. Then they’ll have the opportunity to walk through the women’s yard and they’ll get little snippets of information as they go through and then up into the women’s dormitory and that building is untouched since 1852 and you kind of feel what it might have been like. We’re not going to clutter it up, just let people experience what it might have been like. And someday they’ll be able to walk into the laundry building, which is a really interesting little building. It would be fun for kids as well. And for this summer in that courtyard, we have four, we’re just putting it into lawn to keep it simple. So people can trample through it. That’s it for this year. Now the castle is open from April until October, and we work very well with Mary Gibson u there. They had 16,000 visitors last year, which isn’t brilliant, but not bad. But we were saying if we were open for just two months and we got 5,000 we’d be delighted.
LL: Well that leads me onto my next question..
UM: Now that was long winded but I wanted to give you the full picture.
LL: No, that was fantastic. What’s the connection between Ireland Reaching Out and the Irish Workhouse Project, are they going to include the Workhouse tour in their ‘Week of Welcomes?’
UM: That’s the Diaspora project. I don’t know if they are, we would have gone to a few of the meetings, and I would have given them our information, but I don’t know if they have us included in their week of welcomes or not. They haven’t done up their exact program. I am sure if its ready, you see we are having a problem getting insurance that’s why I don’t want to go full steam ahead yet. We’re having a hard enough time getting it because everyone shies away from protected structures. We’re ding a big clean up of the yard and we’ll go back to the insurance crowd then. Anyway long story short, if we are open for the week of welcomes and we can accommodate them, yeah certainly we will.
LL: Who does the funding for the ongoing preservation?
UM: The funding so far is a whole mix of funding right? We’ve got funding from Galway rural development, Galway County Council, Department of the Environment, The Heritage Council. There is money out there if you go rooting, and we’re building god relationships with people in those agencies.
LL: Is the workhouse important to you personally?
UM: Oh God yeah, I love it. Absolutely!
LL: Tell me why?
UM: What attracted me personally to it was I absolutely love stone buildings, just the quality of the building work. And then when you start reading into the history of it. Its such a pity from a purely practical viewpoint like just to see absolutely fantastic buildings falling down is a sin and a waste and then when they have such historical and social significance, its even more of a need to bring them back into use. For me its like my pet project and I absolutely love it.
LL: What are the overall costs for refurbishments?
UM: I can’t give you the overall, but phase one, we’ve submitted our planning application to the Galway county council. Phase one is to do three blocks. One would be just a reception and community offices and a training center, the other is the women’s dormitory, that is going to be the visitor’s center. And then in the center block, that’s actually the widest building, we’ve just put down multifunctional space and tea rooms. That won’t get done in the next couple of years, its going to be the most expensive one. To get that done. We are looking at a minimum of 1.6 million Euro.
LL: For the first three phases.
UM: Three buildings yeah.
LL: Is there a plan for how long that will take?
UM: We can’t really put a time on it. The way I look at it is, every year we do what we can do, with the resources that are available. Now we are really stepping it up this year. We are hoping as well to organize “Friends of the Irish Workhouse.” At the local level, the money is very tight here with people. At local level we are going to ask if people would like to give two euro a week, through their bank account quarterly. So if we have a 100 friends, that’s ten thousand. What’s very important about that is when we go looking for funding, we show the local support. Its very easy to say oh we have local support, but if you put down on paper that 100 people contribute each year to the project that’s very strong. It’s a very simple way of raising funds, that “Friends” Program.
LL: When will the “Friends of the Irish Workhouse” start up?
UM: I am hoping May. What I am waiting on is a final lease, then the insurance, and then the County Council to get their tar tank out of there. The tar tank is in the middle of the yard at the minute.
LL: But the friends of the Portumna Workhouse project, is there anywhere online?
UM: Yes we will have that online. I need to examine a few options. Maybe if people overseas wanted to donate they could use paypal or something like that. We haven’t thought ouot he overseas thing in detail yet right? We are waitning for the red tape stuff to be sorted, I am pretty much hoping the website launch will be May.
LL: Is there anybody who would be alive today that knew someone in the workhouse?
UM: There’s one lady who was born in it. She’s 82 now and she’s as fit as a fiddle, and what it was, it was after workhouse times but her family needed accommodation and the priest organized a section in the workhouse as their home. So that was in more recent times.
LL: When did it close?
UM: We’re not 100% sure, the 1911 census shows a number of paupers, 20 something, I can’t remember the exact number at the workhouse. So it was still kind of half functioning as a workhouse then. We interviewed some older people for the DVD, Ger Claffey remembers laborers coming, do you know sort of, Knights of the road, itinerant workers.
LL: Knights of the Road? I love that.
UM: Knights of the Road, yeah.
LL: So they would come and stay at the workhouse then?
UM: Yeah, they used to call them the Blackberry men because they ate the blackberries off the bushes.
LL: The Blackberry men, these are the stories, these oral histories, that give the workhouse a life?
UM: Yeah exactly.
LL: Well that’s it. I think I’ve asked you all my questions and I am glad that the workhouse is being preserved.
UM: Well we have a good team, I might be heading it up but there’s a good team with me. It’s a joy for me. I love coming to work everyday. Its such a nice project to be working on.
LL: That’s fantastic. Thanks Ursula for you time today.