The Workhouse

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.

Irish Workhouses were not designed for Famine conditions.

By 1845, 123 Irish 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 in Ireland during the famine (through taxation), to keep the numbers of inmates as low as possible.

    Kinsale Workhouse Admissions

Kinsale Workhouse Admissions Office Building


A roll call was carried out each morning. 

A typical day inside an Irish famine 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

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 Famine Register

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

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.

Workhouses during the famine in Ireland:

  1. Antrim:

    • Belfast Workhouse
  2. Armagh:

    • Armagh Workhouse
  3. Carlow:

    • Carlow Union Workhouse
  4. Cavan:

    • Cavan Union Workhouse
  5. Clare:

    • Ennis Union Workhouse
    • Ennistymon Workhouse
  6. Cork:

    • Cork Union Workhouse (North Infirmary): Located in Cork city
    • Cork Union Workhouse (South Infirmary): Serving the southern part of the city
    • Bandon Union Workhouse
    • Kinsale Union Workhouse
    • Macroom Union Workhouse
    • Mitchelstown Union Workhouse
    • Skibbereen Union Workhouse
    • Clonakilty Union Workhouse
    • Youghal Union Workhouse
  7. Derry/Londonderry:

    • Derry Union Workhouse
  8. Donegal:

    • Letterkenny Union Workhouse
  9. Down:

    • Downpatrick Union Workhouse
  10. Dublin:

    • North Dublin Union Workhouse
    • South Dublin Union Workhouse
  11. Fermanagh:

    • Enniskillen Union Workhouse
  12. Galway:

    • Galway Union Workhouse
  13. Kerry:

    • Dingle Union Workhouse
    • Listowel Union Workhouse
    • Tralee Union Workhouse
  14. Kildare:

    • Naas Union Workhouse
  15. Kilkenny:

    • Kilkenny Union Workhouse
  16. Laois (Queen's County):

    • Abbeyleix Union Workhouse
    • Mountmellick Union Workhouse
  17. Leitrim:

    • Carrick-on-Shannon Union Workhouse
  18. Limerick:

    • Limerick Union Workhouse
  19. Longford:

    • Longford Union Workhouse
  20. Louth:

    • Dundalk Union Workhouse
  21. Mayo:

    • Ballina Union Workhouse
    • Castlebar Union Workhouse
    • Swinford Union Workhouse
  22. Meath:

    • Navan Union Workhouse
  23. Monaghan:

    • Monaghan Union Workhouse
  24. Offaly (King's County):

    • Birr Union Workhouse
    • Tullamore Union Workhouse
  25. Roscommon:

    • Ballinasloe Union Workhouse
    • Castlerea Union Workhouse
  26. Sligo:

    • Sligo Union Workhouse
  27. Tipperary:

    • Carrick-on-Suir Union Workhouse
    • Cashel Union Workhouse
    • Clonmel Union Workhouse
    • Nenagh Union Workhouse
    • Roscrea Union Workhouse
    • Thurles Union Workhouse
  28. Tyrone:

    • Omagh Union Workhouse
  29. Waterford:

    • Dungarvan Union Workhouse
    • Waterford Union Workhouse
  30. Westmeath:

    • Athlone Union Workhouse
    • Mullingar Union Workhouse
  31. Wexford:

    • Enniscorthy Union Workhouse
    • New Ross Union Workhouse
  32. Wicklow:

    • Baltinglass Union Workhouse


Irish Famine Workhouses

Ennistymon Workhouse was one of many workhouses in Ireland during the famine (1845-1852) to provide relief to the poor and destitute. The Great Famine, also known as the Irish Potato Famine, was a period of mass starvation and disease that resulted from a potato blight, which severely affected the staple crop upon which the Irish population heavily depended.

The Ennistymon Workhouse was built in the town of Ennistymon, County Clare, and it was part of a larger network of workhouses established under the Irish Poor Laws of 1838. These workhouses were designed to provide a place of refuge for those who were unable to support themselves, often due to extreme poverty and the failure of the potato crop.

Conditions in the workhouses during the famine were notoriously harsh, and families were often separated upon entry. The workhouse system was based on the principle of providing relief through a "test" of labor – individuals and families had to perform menial tasks in exchange for food and shelter. However, the conditions in many workhouses were deplorable, with overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, and insufficient nutrition leading to high mortality rates.

During the famine, the Ennistymon Workhouse would have been a place of desperation for those seeking assistance. The harsh conditions and the separation of families made it a symbol of the suffering endured by the Irish population during this tragic period in history. The workhouse system itself faced criticism for its inhumane treatment of the poor, and the memory of the Great Famine continues to be a significant aspect of Ireland's history and cultural identity.