Irish Workhouse Center Portumna Interview Part 2 Transcribed

Inmates were locked in.

Ursula Marmion and John Joe Conwell

Irish Workhouse Center Portumna

Tuesday, May 24th 2011

Part 2

Reasons to go to the workhouse, clothing, warmth.

Loretto Leary: What reasons would have resulted in a person coming to Portumna Workhouse?

John Joe Conwell: The general ah? Typical reasons would be if they were unable to look after themselves, poverty, youngsters if their parents had died, unable to gain employment which was quite a common thing, starvation, lack of food, lack of abilities to look after themselves or clothe themselves. Those sort of things were quite common.

LL: That brings me to my next question, clothing wise, what would they have worn here? And what would have happened to the clothes that they had coming in?

JJC: Well the clothes that they had coming in would have been very scant. In some cases, some traveler reports would talk about entering a hovel of some of the tenants around here and around the west of Ireland generally. Finding huge numbers of children with the pig in the parlor as the saying goes and they, no clothes at all. And indeed Bishop Cohen here, the local bishop would talk about families not being able to go to mass for scarcity of clothes.

Ursula Marmion: Actually when they came into the workhouse in through the waiting area and the probationary wards they would have been deloused. Their clothes would have been taken off of them. There’s an old clothes store, the remnants are still out in the yard in the footprint of the building. Ah, deloused, old clothes taken away and they would have been put into the workhouse uniform then.

LL: And what was the standard uniform? Colors would have been black or?

UM: I am not sure about that. We still have loads more research to do. But we think it was just something sort of calico, am? Brownie, striped.

LL: Would it have been similar to what they were wearing in English workhouses? Similar to that?

JJC: It would be very similar and also they would eventually become part of the work in the workhouse, of making those sort of clothes as well.

LL: Would those clothes have been warm enough to keep them…?

JJC: I would say so yeah. They would certainly have been a lot warmer than what they had on. But the big thing as we said already here today, was ventilation to keep down disease, curtail infectious diseases.

LL: Well we are standing at a fireplace, so the first question I would ask is, it’s an open fireplace so most of the heat is going up the chimney, and we have lots of ventilation as you have already mentioned, to get rid of diseases. How cold would it have been in here?

JJC: Quite cold, it would have been cold.

LL: Would they have been given blankets?

JJC: They would in later times. But by the time this workhouse would have been built there would have been blankets.

UM: But it’s interesting to note that there’s one fireplace for all of this dormitory.

LL: Would they have been lit through the night? Who would have tended them? They were locked in?

UM: Not sure, but what we do know is that down stairs in the matron’s quarters there’s two fire places in two small little rooms. So.

LL: Ah! They were a little warmer?

UM: Yeah.

JJC: Well a fair amount of heat would have come up as well. Yeah.

Supply of food, Grand Juries, Board of Guardians

JJC: They were put out to tender, the various things like the supply of potatoes, bread and so on, and it’s a pity we haven’t, ah we can’t put our camera on a document which shows the tendering process, which is very useful historically because you can tell who was tendering for these various things, what were they requiring, what number. And from that you can infer what the demands were here. So the workhouses were also centers of employment for people outside, ah, because they were able to supply to the workhouse. And, from a landlord’s point of view ah, the Board of Guardians was the first time that you had people other than landlords controlling things. Prior, we tend to forget of course, now we have local authorities like the County Council, but they only came into existence in 1898. Prior to that, you had the Grand Juries, which consisted almost entirely of Landlords. So, when the Board of Guardians was set up you had elected people so for the first time you had some sort of local government, with symbols of local democracy coming into the game as well. So we tend to forget, the famine is the high point, I suppose that is the wrong term to use, everything changed after the famine. Ah, the system of control, the system of landlord-tenant changed. So, there is a huge point in our history where we were never the same after it. Don’t forget between 963 and 1845, there were eighty famines in Ireland, but the only one we remember is the one in the middle of the 19th century because four out of the five years the potato crop failed. And there was such a dependence on the potato crop. It is said of course that an average Irish man ate fourteen pounds of potatoes per day.

LL: Why was that? If there was other food in the country, why was it the main staple in the diet?

JJC: Well they, a lot of the corn for example, we have records here of the corn being exported from the ports up along Rossmore, Williamstown and you’d have riots going on for those. Ah, when the famine started first, Peel who was the Prime Minister at that time, brought in hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of Indian corn and it caused a lot of problems because the digestive systems of the people here was so conditioned to potatoes and carbohydrates they couldn’t manage the shells of the corn, the cellulose, and it upset their stomachs, and all attempts at boiling it, the same with the soup kitchens when they established them first. And surprisingly where we are here, right by the Shannon, they never managed to eat the fish, or very, very seldom, because they weren’t, their digestive system wasn’t designed or had become unaccustomed to handling large amounts of protein, which of course fish are primarily. So, we get that question all the time, how come they didn’t live on fish and the rivers are teeming with fish, their digestive system, they had become so accustomed. The other thing about the potato of course, you needed such a small amount of land to grow sufficient potatoes. And low quality land would do as well, once it’s up on ridges, and it’s out of the water, it would grow very, they’d, you’d get sufficient potatoes. And, of course you had a lot of subdivision. There was a lot of contributory factors to the famine. If a potato blight didn’t come we’d have some explosion anyway, some sort of social explosion because the country could not sustain the population we had. We probably had close on nine million rather than eight, because the census was taken by police the first time in 1841. And, a lot of them didn’t trust the police and particularly around here, they’d run into the hills.

South East Galway Irish Rural Development Manager Ursula Marmion,in purple and local historian and author John Joe Conwell at the Irish Workhouse Center Portumna, County Galway on Tuesday May 24 2011

Sleeping Conditions

LL: They slept on straw mattresses?

JJC: Just straw mattresses or rushes or whatever was convenient, dried grass, hay, anything at all, whatever was available. And as I say, much, much worse in other workhouses than here.

LL: if somebody died in here how were they taken or removed from the room?

JJC: They were taken out to the dead house. But first of all before that, if they were showing symptoms of diseases they would have been put into the infirmary which is, as you see out there it is just being roofed, at the minute, that’s the infirmary. Now, way out on the outside, but not visible anymore was the dead house. Ah? So, this is part of it here as well. And you see..

LL: Oh, with the roof missing?

JJC: Yeah. Now you see also the wall, the dividing wall that partitioned off. These are the adults’ quarters back there.

UM: This would have been the women’s courtyard and the one the other side of the stone wall would have been the men’s courtyard.

JJC: And they were kept separate.

LL: What are the future plans for the workhouse? Do we know what the buildings could possibly be used for?

UM: Well, job one is to conserve the buildings. So, it’s about getting the roofs back on, keeping the water out and keeping the air in. that’s the most important thing or they will be used for nothing. So we have nearly five at that stage now. As I said, the first thing will be the visitors’ center telling the story of the Irish workhouse, which is quite interesting in Portumna because the workhouse sort of embodies the story of the destitute poor of that time. And we still have Portumna castle where the landlord lived, so you had two sides of the coin. So that’s story one. Then we are looking at a number of ideas and all along we should bear in mind, that this should sustain itself financially as well. We’ve two ideas that we’ve been doing some work on. One is the notion of having a quality family type hostel, holiday accommodations in one of the blocks. Portumna has loads, you know, its got Lough Derg, its got the Shannon, its got the forest park, its got walk ways, its got mountain ways, but there is nothing coordinating all that. So maybe to offer people package outdoor type holidays and the experience of actually staying in a workhouse. That’s one thing we’ll be doing a feasibility on. The second thing is a slightly mad idea, but, it might be a little less mad than what we thought. We had a notion of maybe am, we’ve done a lot of market research around different sites and all that and one thing that struck us is that animals are always a big pull for people to come and see. And one thing that hasn’t been done in Ireland, though it has been done successfully in two places, one in France and one in Hungary, is having native Irish breeds that would have been around in the time of the 1800’s and that. So that’s something we’ll be getting some expert help on and we’ll be looking at that idea. So basically, we’re open to ideas but all the time we’re thinking it has to pay for itself, it has to pay for itself.

LL: Now both of you can answer the final question…

JJC: Can I just say in relation to that that we’re now living in a time, given the Queen’s visit and given President Obama’s visit.

UM: Is feidir linn! (“Yes we can,” in Irish)

JJC: Is feidir linn, ah, there’s now a greater, ah, I am getting a lot of inquiries about people abroad who have traced their ancestry to here and we are involved in very much trying to encourage people to come back, and ah, trace their ancestry and the workhouse has a role there too. I mean we have a huge amount of nameless people whose descendants are still alive around the world and we’d love to be able to help them and to trace people of all, of all ah, strata in society.

LL: So, with regard to the whole of Ireland, with Ireland Reaching Out hopefully this Workhouse Center will become a very important place to stop in tracing your roots.

JJC: An integral part, absolutely, yeah. Yes, yes.

LL: How would you both like to see people getting involved? For the people watching this video online, what would you tell them, how would you tell them to help?

UM: Well we’d say at the minute, there are so many people, the local community has really bought into this. And at the beginning I think they though we were all a bit mad. But for instance we would have a group of over fifty people, who could call on. Just yesterday we had a massive clean-up of the site, we had almost forty people working here, half of those in a voluntary capacity. Now if people are overseas and they would like to help, I’d say number one, get onto our website which will be which we are launching on the 21st of June 2011, the longest day of the year.

JJC: or the IRO (Ireland Reaching Out)

UM: Or the IRO, also we have a Facebook page under the Irish Workhouse Center. Am? People, I suppose really what we do need is money, there is no short way of saying that. When we started here we hadn’t a penny, am, it’s going to cost a couple of million. To date we have spent 312 thousand (Euro) on the project, which we have raised through various grants and local contributions. This year we have almost a hundred thousand to spend again, so the organizations have really come in. To get it up and going we are looking at raising the guts of three million here. So we are starting a friends program, if somebody would like to become a friend of the Irish Workhouse Center, they can check out on the website how to do it.

LL: John Joe, do you have any suggestions of how people can get involved?

JJC: Well I suppose I am involved in both, but particularly in the broader one of Reaching Out from east Galway parishes.

LL: Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

JJC: Yes, well this is a project that began with a past student of my own who has a very simple idea that instead of waiting for people to come back and trace their ancestry, a lot of the time anonymously and we don’t know about them, that we systematically go parish by parish after them, see who has left, and trace their descendants and invite them back. And, we also haven’t been the best hosts when people come, ah unnanou….,we haven’t been doing the job well so we need to improve ourselves. We need to up-skill ourselves and, in terms of knowledge of the locality so we promise to our visitors now in these parishes coming back, we’ve them all trained up and ah, and they are all well equipped to give  people a wonderful week of welcomes at the end of June and it will become an annual event. And it will grow of course as years go by and we contend ah, it is stated that as a result of the famine that today across the world there are 70 million worldwide, I think there are 40 million in the states alone.

LL: And wouldn’t it be wonderful if they all gave one Euro.

JJC: Well what we’re trying to do, that’s part of it, but that’s not the key element. The key element is, well what we are trying to do is develop virtual communities. So if you’re from Portumna, we have about 1,800 people in Portumna but worldwide people could claim Portumna ancestry, could run into 30,000.

LL: Absolutely.

JJC: And if we could even identify those, have communication, there are virtual Portumna communities. And indeed all of the parishes across South East Galway, we expect that this is going to roll out nationwide next year. The Department of Foreign Affairs have bought into it, and it would be wonderful for our country at a time when we badly need it. And we depend on people like you and your good work abroad to do that for us.


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