The Shorelines Arts Festival Portumna

For the last couple of years I have been stalking Facebook, in particular The Shorelines Art Festival page. I have looked on longingly as locals from my hometown celebrated the gifts of music, drama, poetry, literature, art, dance, sculpture, film, photography, and other artistic talents in Clanrickarde’s Castle, The Irish Workhouse Center, my old school and local pubs.

I believe that this world is a far better place because of the arts, and what better way to showcase local talent than at an arts festival. Ireland is filled with artistic talent, and this festival is a great outlet for those talents.

Members of the shorelines Art Festival accepting the Galway Mayor's Award for Arts and Culture in November 2012 (Image Source Shorelines Arts Festival Facebook Page)

Members of the shorelines Art Festival accepting the Galway Mayor’s Award for Arts and Culture in November 2012 (Image Source Shorelines Arts Festival Facebook Page)

The Shorelines Art Festival began in 2008. The original idea for a one day festival celebrating local talent, was stretched to a weekend. Since 2008 the festival has grown in leaps and bounds, winning the Galway Mayor’s Award for Arts and Culture from Galway County Council in November 2012.

This year I will be flying over to Ireland and attending the festival. Being a self-published author means that you have to advertise yourself, so I did. I contacted one of the main people involved with the festival and she very kindly arranged for me to do a 15 minute reading from The Foundling, on September the 21st at a Literary Brunch.

The Foundling by Loretto Leary

The Foundling by Loretto Leary

I am flying over with 25 copies of The Foundling and 25 copies of Mona, the body in the bog. If you would like a copy of the books and you will be attending the festival, I am selling them for 10 Euro each, and 100% of the profits will go to The Shorelines Art Festival.

The Foundling is a fictional story set in Portumna in 1843, and includes an historical account of Clanrickarde’s castle.

Mona, the body in the bog by Loretto Leary

Mona, the body in the bog by Loretto Leary

Mona, the body in the bog is a Celtic murder mystery which begins in North Tipperary.

This year’s festival starts on September 19th and closes on the 22nd. It features a poetry reading by Paul Durcan and a concert by Luca Bloom. There is also a recital competition, Lines Learned By Heart, which I will definitely attend.

I hope to see you at one of the events! I know I plan to attend as many as I possibly can. I will hopefully make this an annual event. I just can’t wait to attend The Shorelines Art Festival 2013.


Irish Workhouse Center Re-opens Aprils 1st

The Irish Workhouse Center in Portumna County Galway, Ireland will re-open for the season. The Irish Workhouse Center will be open from April 1st until September 30th.

A Terrible Beauty

The Irish Workhouse Center, Portumna

“They used to call them blackberry men, because they ate the blackberries off the bushes,” South East Galway Integrated Rural Development Manager Ursula Marmion explains, “Knights of the road, itinerant workers.”

Blackberry men, knights of the road, paupers or inmates, whatever you want to call them, they were the residents of the workhouse; a part of Irish history that has left memories of dire poverty.

“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,” local historian and author John Joe Conwell said.

“The idea was to feed them, clothe them and give them a bit of work, hence the name workhouse,” Conwell explained.

An Irish Workhouse Center in Portumna, County Galway wants to preserve the workhouse’s stories and retell them to visitors.

The goal is, “To tell the story of the Irish workhouse, because that hasn’t been done very comprehensively,” Marmion said and added, “It’s kind of a period of history we just choose to forget about, because I suppose it is just so painful for people.”

Many people committed crimes intentionally to go to jail rather than go into a workhouse Conwell said. “You would be better fed in jail than you would in the workhouse,” he added.

The concept of developing a workhouse center explaining the history of Irish workhouses seemed outlandish initially.

“At the beginning I think they (local community) thought we were all a bit mad,” said Marmion and added, “The local community has really bought into this. Just yesterday, we had a massive clean-up of the site. We had almost forty people working here,” Marmion said.

The goal is to prepare the Irish Workhouse Center Portumna for a “soft opening on July 1,” said Marmion.

Visitors to the Irish Workhouse Center Portumna on July 1 can expect a visitor’s center telling the history of the Irish workhouse. The history according to Marmion is interesting.

“The workhouse sort of embodies the story of the destitute poor of that time,” Marmion said. “We still have Portumna castle where the landlord lived, so you had two sides of the coin,” she said.

The other “side of the coin,” is the painful part. Wealth and poverty co-existed in towns like Portumna during the famine years.

Local landlords during famine years were required to pay for the workhouse keep of people who had a valuation of less than four pounds per year.

“As a result the landlords moved out people, assisted immigration,” Conwell explained and added, “It was cheaper to get assisted immigration, give them a few pounds, pay their fare.”

The population of the town of Portumna and surrounding lands plummeted as a result of immigration and starvation during the years 1845 to 1850, when the potato blight was at its’ peak.

“We have records of boat loads of paupers leaving Portumna for Liverpool to sail for America,” Conwell added and said, “They were the lucky ones.”

Funding for the workhouse renovation has come primarily from government agencies and within the local community.

  “One day it will be good to remember these things.” 

Virgil’s Aeneid

“We’ve got funding from Galway Rural Development, Galway County Council, The Department of the Environment, The Heritage Council,” Marmion said.

Money has become of primary concern at present due to the recession in Ireland.

“To date we have spent 312,000 Euro on the project,” Marmion said. “To get it up and going we are looking at raising the guts of three million here,” she said and added, “The money is very tight here with people.”

Preservation of the seven buildings on over eight acres is a labor of love for both Marmion and Conwell.

“We have a good team,” Marmion said. “It’s a joy for me. I love coming to work everyday. It’s such a nice project to be working on,” she added.

According to Conwell the Irish Workhouse Center in Portumna County Galway will become, “an integral part,” of Irish descendants abroad tracing their ancestry and understanding why their ancestors  left.

“I am getting a lot of inquiries about people abroad who have traced their ancestry to here,” Conwell said and added, “We are trying to encourage people to come back and trace their ancestry and the workhouse has a role there too.”

With an estimated 70 million in the Irish Diaspora Conwell and Marmion want to get the story of the Irish Workhouse Center to as many Irish descendants as they can.

“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,” Conwell said.

The launch of the Irish Workhouse Center website,, on June 21 will provide the 70 million Irish Diaspora an opportunity to learn the story of the Irish workhouse, assist financially and help with ongoing preservation efforts through the Friends of the Irish Workhouse Center program on the website.

South East Galway Integrated Rural Development was set up by members of the community in 1997 to promote, support and engage in local development initiatives that benefit the area. Managing  rural bus services, providing training for people returning to work or trying to start their own businesses, tourist information and developing tourism product and social housing. The company’s flagship project is the Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna.

Portumna Workhouse August 2009

Constructed between 1850 and 1852, the workhouse in Portumna was designed by the Poor Law Commissions Architect, George Wilkinson.

The plaque on the wall at the start of the video clip is actually a misnomer. No one from the famine ever died at Portumna workhouse. The workhouse construction began when the famine mortality rate was at its’ height. By the time construction was completed in 1852, socially the country was dealing with poverty as an aftermath of the famine and population levels had dropped as a result of assisted immigration and death.

The raised platforms on either side are where the inmates of this workhouse would sleep. These are the original floors, doors and the original ceiling.

Life in the workhouse was so unappealing to the Irish that they often preferred going to jail than going into the workhouse. Therefore purposefully committing a crime with the intent of being sent to jail was a common event.

Inmates or paupers would have to rise when the bell rang, dress themselves in workhouse donated clothing, after they had washed in cold water and then stand before the matron to be fully inspected.

Women slept in one portion of the building and men in the men’s block and children in a separate block. A dividing wall in the exercise yard insured that the men and women never saw each other again upon entry into the workhouse.

Children three years old and under were permitted to stay with their mother. Mother’s had to request special permission to visit with their children, all visits being supervised.

As soon as a pauper was admitted, his name and religious persuasion was entered in the register, and he was then placed in the probationary ward, or in some room to be “exclusively appropriated for the purpose,” and was then examined by the medical officer of the workhouse.

“All the paupers in the workhouse, except those disabled by sickness or infirmity, persons of unsound mind, and children, shall rise, be set to work, leave off work, and go to bed at such times, and shall be allowed such intervals for their meals as the Board of Guardians shall, by any regulation approved by the Poor Law Commissioners, direct; and these several times shall be notified by the ringing of a bell.” Workhouse Rules

Courtesy of  Peter Higginbotham /

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.

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

Irish Workhouse Center, Portumna


On Tuesday, May 24th I spent one hour with Irish Rural Development Manager for South East Galway and co-coordinator of the Irish Workhouse Center Portumna Project, Ursula Marmion along with  local historian and Irish Workhouse Center, Portumna  Chairperson John Joe Conwell.

The location of the interview was the workhouse in Portumna, County Galway in Ireland. A place that reminds of a line from a W.B. Yeats poem, “A terrible beauty.”

If you are one of the 70 million Irish dispersed around the globe, the facts of “assisted immigration,” as explained by John Joe Conwell are astounding. Please watch the videos to learn about the history, future and preservation efforts of The Irish Workhouse Center, Portumna. Who knows? You might even want to get involved.

Irish Workhouse Center

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?

LL: Yes?

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?

UM: Exactly.

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?

LL: Yes?

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?

LL: Yes.

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 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.