The workhouse was introduced into Ireland as part of the English Poor Law system in 1838. The British government believed it to be the most cost effective way of tackling the desperate state of poverty in Ireland. Some English politicians also believed that it would prevent the Irish destitute from swamping England.
Workhouses were not designed for Famine conditions.
By 1845, 123 workhouses had been constructed, one per district or Poor Law Union. The cost of poor relief was met by the payment of rates (a tax) by owners and occupiers of land and property in that district.
Each Poor law union was overseen by a Board of Guardians which consisted of elected members, magistrates and justices of the peace.
Conditions of entry into the workhouse were very strict and entry was seen as the last resort of a destitute person. Once inside the inmates were forced to work, food was poor, and accommodation was often cold, damp and cramped.
It was in the interests of those who funded the workhouse through taxation, to keep the numbers of inmates as low as possible.
Kinsale Workhouse Admissions Office Building
A roll call was carried out each morning.
A typical day inside an Irish workhouse was to rise at 6am, breakfast at 6.30am, work until 12noon, lunch break and then work until 6pm. Supper was served at 7pm, with lights out at 8pm.
Meals were served in a communal dining room and held in silence. Husbands, wives and children were separated as they entered the workhouse and could be punished if they attempted to speak to each other. An inmate’s only possessions were his/her uniform, mattress and blanket. Once a week the inmates bathed and the men shaved.
Kinsale Workhouse Graveyard
The Famine caused a crisis in the Irish Workhouse System.
By the end of 1846 many of the workhouses were full and refusing to admit new
applicants. There was widespread shortages of bedding and clothing. Unwashed clothes of inmates who had died from fever or disease were given to the next new inmate arriving at the workhouse. There was often a shortage of coffins and burial grounds were often located close to the workhouse, sometimes next to the water supply.
Kinsale Workhouse Death Register
As panic gripped the country, and with no other options available, there was a great rush to enter the workhouse.
The road to the workhouse became known as ‘cosan na marbh’ or ‘pathway of the dead’, and over a quarter of those admitted died inside the workhouse.
Kinsale Community Hospital (formally Kinsale Workhouse)
The 1847 Soup Kitchens Act gave some relief to the workhouses. However, in the summer of the same year, the newly elected British Government declared the Famine to be over and ceased providing financial relief. The Poor Law Unions were made responsible for future relief measures. There were unable to cope and large numbers of people continued to die.
The workhouse system was abolished in the early 1920s, when Ireland gained independence from Britain.