Irish Workhouse Center Portumna Transcribed Interview Part 1

Irish Workhouse Center Portumna

Tuesday, May 24th 2011

The Irish workhouse project started in 1834. The building of the workhouses was part of the Poor Law system. The UK government sent over people to survey Ireland.

John Joe Conwell: “It was a system to gather up people who were wandering around the place, didn’t have any work or didn’t have anyone to look after them. And the idea was to feed them, clothe them and give them a bit of work, hence the name Workhouse.”

John Joe Conwell: “In 1836 they had what was called the Poor Inquiry and they came up with recommendations totally different than what they had in England because we’re a different country. However, the recommendations were too expensive. They talked about drainage, education in farming methods, a lot of ideas, board of works, public works for the people who didn’t have any employment. So when this report was submitted to parliament it was found to be too expensive, so they said they would use the model they had in England so in 1848 they brought in the Poor Law System into Ireland by act, I think it was around July. They divided up the country into 130 Unions and each union was to build a workhouse. It was to gather up the people who had no work, bring them in here, feed them, clothe them and look after them. OK? And as a result get menial work for them as well, not hugely productive. Each, ah? There was a lot of controversy about it because each Union, ah the rate to sustain it was to be raised on the land. So the landlords didn’t like it, Clanrickarde here in Portumna hated it, objected to it strongly and he was in the British Cabinet later and in 1838 he’s quoted in the papers saying it would never work in Ireland because there was too much poverty, and in a way he was right. There was a lot more poverty here than there was in England. OK? So, but anyway, it was brought in despite a huge amount of petitions against it. As I said the country was divided into a hundred and thirty Unions. Our, and each Union had a workhouse, our Union had its workhouse not here, but in Loughrea so the local workhouse for the, or the nearest one for us would have been Loughrea, and it was open in 1842. And it was built for 800 people, or 800 inmates as they called them. And in ‘43 and ‘44 there were very few people going into it, because the Irish hated the workhouse, they didn’t like the notion of it. And in matter of fact they were closing down some of the rooms upstairs, they were closing down some of the fireplaces, and of course ’45 came and September ’45 was the start of the potato blight. And as I say, Loughrea that was built for 800 people in 1842, by 1849, ’48 ’49, it had 3,200 on its books. They had to build six auxiliary workhouses. Ballinasloe, pretty much the same. You had the same story right down the western sea board. The worst of all was Skibbereen, then Kilrush, then Gort and up to my own territory up in Mayo. So your over congestion and crowding. So much so that in 1849; So Galway had six workhouses at that stage. So they decided that they needed to build extra ones, so Galway got four extra ones as a result. They got Oughterard, Glenamaddy, Mountbellew and Portumna. OK? And, but by the time this one was opened, in 1849 they decided to build these extra ones. So in total the country got thirty three extra ones. Ah, Portumna got one, but it wasn’t open until 1852. And people think a huge amount of people died here, they didn’t. The famine was actually over. So I have gone through the records and the number of people who died here per year was something around twenty five to thirty which was very, very small in comparison. You were getting that per day at the peak of the famine in 1847, ’48, ’49, in Loughrea workhouse for example. So it is much misunderstood. It was not built because of the famine, well this one was built because of the famine, but the whole system of 130 workhouses around the country were not built because of the famine. It was the first kind of social service scheme, it was the biggest building project of its time in the entire country, and for a long time afterwards.

Loretto Leary: So Portumna workhouse really was built to deal with the aftermath of the famine?

JJC: Correct yes. Well yes, the huge surge in inmates as a result of the famine.

LL:  OK. How long would it have been busy with inmates? How long was it needed?

JJC: Here?

LL: Yeah.

JJC: It wasn’t, I would say it was never full, never full this workhouse wouldn’t have been ever full. It would have had quite a few and ah, there would still be bad memories about it because anyone that came in here, generally went out in a coffin. That would be the story. No one ever, ah in its peak  workhouse system, for example I have a wife and two kids, son and a daughter. So if we came into Portumna workhouse because of poverty the two front blocks would house the two kids, the two back ones would house myself and my wife and we’d never see each other again. And the big wall, the dividing wall dividing up the exercise yards and we’d never see each other again. And people were so horrified of the workhouse, particularly the diet, they would commit a crime and be put into jail, because you would be better fed in jail than you would in the workhouse.

LL: The intention was though for the workhouse food though, that conditions would have to be so bad on the outside that you’d really want to come in to stay alive? That they didn’t want to make it conducive to just coming in?

JJC: Absolutely yeah. Especially when famine conditions got very bad, the last thing they wanted people to do was to come to the workhouse because the landlords hated it as well because they raised a rate to sustain the workhouse system. And anyone with a valuation less than four pounds, that had to be paid by the landlord. So as a result the landlords, and Clanricarde would have been involved in this too, moved out people, assisted immigration. So if you take Drumscar, Cloughernagh, for example Drumscar out in Gortanumera  where I live, in the 1841 census it shows a town land with three hundred and fifty three acres, thirty eight houses, two hundred and fifty two people living in it. By 1870, one house, two people living in it. Completely, out of the population.

LL: So it was cheaper?

JJC: The same in Cloghernagh. It was cheaper to get assisted immigration, give them a few pounds, pay their fare, and probably up the Saint Lawrence, we don’t know. We have records of boat loads of paupers leaving Portumna for Liverpool to sail for America. We have no names, it would be a lovely challenge if we could find people coming back.

LL: So anyone watching this video, of Irish ancestry, possibly was helped out of Ireland by this.

JJC: And they were the lucky ones.

Ventilation and Disease Control


Ursula Marmion: Really ventilation was very important in how the buildings were conserved. Ah, Wilkinson who designed all of the 163 workhouses, he was really a master at making sure they were well ventilated. So we can see here there are vents just under the sleeping platforms. The air came in here and it circulated out, and went out through the stone vents in the wall. So you had constant circulation of air.

JJC: To minimize disease.

UM: A lot of windows and lime washing then which kept disease down.


Sleeping Accomodations

JJC: The accommodations were most basic, you had these platforms on which the inmates would lie, or as the porters would call them, the paupers would lie. And as I was explaining to you earlier the diet was of minimum. Adults only got fed twice a day, children got fed three times a day. And the minimum amount as they would prefer to commit and offense outside and be put into jail because it was better for them. These are the platforms on which they would sleep and of course huge congestion. Now we didn’t have congestion here in Portumna, but in the other workhouses, in Gort and Loughrea, Kilrush, Skibberean all of these ones, huge, huge numbers. Huge congestion therefore the contagious diseases would spread.

Separation of Families

UM: Children under three years of age could stay with their mothers but if they were three or more then they were separated from them. And if a mother wanted to see her child, she had to make an appointment to see it. And either the matron or the master or somebody in charge would be present for that time.


Architecture of the Workhouse

LL: The stonework on the doors is absolutely beautiful.

UM: Yeah, it’s amazing to think that all the workhouses would have been built  by contract, and here would have actually, I mean its seven buildings. In today’s terms we have over 4,000 square meters of floor space. They would have all built, within two years. Yeah. And everything counted, down to the last nail.

JJC: And the emphasis on ventilation over the door, it’s perforated there you can see.

LL: And these are the original doors?

UM: Yes, everything here is original.

JJC: All the handles, would be made, hand made.

LL: Handmade? Here in Ireland?

JJC:   Yeah, hammered, screws, nails, handmade, not mass production.

LL: Why such a big lock?

JJC: Well, when they were in they were in. When you did the count you had to make sure that no one was going to get out.

LL: So they were locked in at night?

JJC: Locked in, yeah.

on Tuesday, May 24 2011


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