Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Carlow Workhouse


Extracts from CAROVIANIA 1975 by J. A. Robins

Also reproduced in “Carlow Now and Then” Vol1 #4 Summer 1998
Source:- 'Carloman'

Carlow Workhouse pre 1970
This photo of Carlow Workhouse was taken pre 1970 when the grounds were
been cleared for the new  Institute of Technology Carlow which now occupies the whole of this site.

The photo is courtesy of Carloman.

This photograph was taken by Jim Banbury for the Office of Public Works c.1955.

Carlow Workhouse Burial Plot. Image by M. Brennan c1999.
1847 - 1928
the darkest day the longest night
we also were of Ireland
ar dheis de go raibh said
HUGHES                                                                                                                                              CARLOW





More images of Carlow Workhouse Graves (website)

Engravings related to the Irish tragedy of 1845-51 and appeared in The Illustrated London News 1842 - 1857.
A thatched house in Co Carlow
Images taken by W. Muldowney c2006

Carlow Town Centre Map c1844

Detail from a pre-ordnance survey map of Municipal Boundary changes in Carlow Town, executed by Thomas A. Larcom, Lieut Royal Engineers. It accompanies a "Report upon the proposed municipal Boundary of Carlow" by Thomas R. Mould. This detail shows Carlow Goal, R.C. Cathedral (R.C. Chapel), Courthouse, St Patrick's College and Lunatic Asylum. Workhouse site is marked on the map with an X, beside land owned by Mr. Carey. The Kilkenny Road is shown close to the workhouse site and the River Barrow can be seen on the other side of the Kilkenny Road. Source: Carlow County Library

The Carlow Workhouse

 The impact of the great famine of 1845-1849 on the western and south-western seaboards has been described in a number of historical studies and its tragic manifestations in these areas are generally well known. Considerable less is known about the conditions of the period in the Irish midlands. In the course of collecting material for a broader study I had occasion to examine the original records for these years of the Carlow Board of Guardians as well as some Poor Law Commission papers relating to the board. They show how the famine affected Carlow Workhouse and reflect the conditions prevailing outside it. The following account is based largely on the board's minute books and to a lesser extent on the extant papers of the Poor Law Commissioners.

The account is necessary selective and does not attempt to do anything other than briefly describe some of the more interesting facts recorded in them .

 The Commissioners who had inquired into the conditions of the Irish poor during the years 1833 to 1836 had estimated that the number of persons who were destitute in Ireland for at least thirty weeks of the year was not less than 2,385,000. Yet after the workhouse system had been created following the passage of the Irish Poor Relief Act of 1838 the vast majority of the pauper population were prepared to suffer destitution rather than to accept the shame and indignities of the workhouses. Even during the early part of 1846, with famine conditions rapidly developing. There were only about 50,000 people in the one hundred and thirty workhouses that had been opened throughout the country.

Attitudes in Carlow were no different from elsewhere. Carlow workhouse had been built to accommodate 800 paupers. The Union it served comprised the whole of County Carlow and a small portion of the then Queen's County. Early in 1845 it had only about 250 inmates of whom about half were children. There was as yet no hint of the terrible conditions which lay ahead. The inmates appeared happy with their conditions and in August of that year the visiting committee was gratified "to hear many of the inmates testify their gratitude to the Master and Matron for their great kindness." When the poor rate was struck in September 1845 it varied between 2½d and 5d for the electoral divisions of the Union and although it is unlikely that the Poor Law was welcome to the ratepayers of Carlow, there was no reference in the minute books to any resistance to the collection of the rate.

During October came the first omen of the pending famine, the board of guardians received only two tenders for the supply of potatoes both "at an extravagantly high price" and rejected them. After consultation with the Poor Law Commissioners it was decided to give the inmates a diet of oatmeal, rice and bread. Later the rice was omitted from the dietary. Yet despite the conditions which were developing outside. There was as yet no significant influx into the workhouse.

In January 1846 there were about 350 inmates and in April the guardians anxious to accept further inmates, asked the Poor Law Commissioners to allow individual members of a family to be admitted and to waive the regulation that obliged all members of a family seeking relief to enter the workhouse together. The Commissioners refused the request. By September the guardians were grieved to learn about great distress throughout the Union particularly in the Carlow, Ballon and Myshall areas. But to the hungry peasants the workhouse was still anathema and on 26th September it had only 380 inmates of whom 213 were children. The guardians recognising that the workhouse would not in any event remedy the widespread destitution urged the Board of Works to undertake the immediate draining of the Barrow as a relief scheme but the board refused. The guardians then sent a memortal to the Lord Lieutenant the Earl of Bessborough requesting his intervention with the Board of Works but he appears to have ignored them.

By the end of 1846 the widespread hunger was breaking down resistance to the workhouse system and many people were reluctantly seeking its modicum of relief.

At the end of January 1847 there were nearly 1,200 persons crammed into the accommodation meant for 800. The guardians had two sheds built urgently in the yards as temporary dormitories and a further 250 persons were admitted to these. All others seeking admission were turned away without any assistance for, as the law stood, there was no provision for outdoor relief and once the workhouse was full the responsibilities of the guardians were ended. In all parts of the Union many starving people now awaited hopefully a place in the workhouse, their original destination of the system overcome by their terrible plight. In the Queen's County divisions of the Union alone there were in mid February, 1847 over 900 persons awaiting a place and towards the end of that month the guardians decided to build further temporary accommodation for 600 In. mates. This accommodation did not appear to have been provided, probably because the number seeking admission fell once the harsh months of winter and early spring had passed. Yet In March the Board reported that fever and Infectious diseases were "increasing to an alarming extent" throughout the Union and fever hospitals which had been established at Mill Lane in Carlow Town and at Doonane were unable to accept further patients. In April, Dr. Porter the medical officer informed the guardians that fever was also present in the workhouse and was increasing rapidly, particularly amongst the women. He blamed this situation on the overcrowding and on the pestiferous effluvia issuing from a cesspool lying contiguous to the female department.

"The visiting committee which made a tour of the institution at this time were nevertheless incredibly complacent. They found the inmates "in a highly satisfactory state" and were "happy to say that the fever appears mitigatory."

In the middle of 1847 the government was compelled to accept that its inflexible attitude towards outdoor relief could not be maintained as long as so many starving people in all parts of the country were unable to secure admission to the over-crowded workhouses. The Poor Relief Extension Act (10 & 11 Vic. C. 31) empowered guardians at their discretion to grant relief outside the workhouse to the aged infirm and sick and to poor widows with two or more dependent children. The act also empowered the Poor Law Commissioners to allow local guardians to give out door relief in the form of food to ablebodied persons for limited periods. But the Carlow guardians set themselves firmly against the grant of out-door relief expect in the most exceptional cases and as the winter of 1847 approached the numbers being admitted to the workhouse and its ancillaries steadily increased. During the week ended 25th September there were 1,135 inmates - of whom 561 were ill Dr. Porter who was receiving a salary of only £100 a year for looking after the sick in both the work- house and the local fever hospital complained about the inadequacy of his salary for such "hazardous" duties. The guardians determined to keep down the poor rate were unsympathetic. In October the master reported that all the neighbouring graveyards were so over- crowded that he had been refused permission to bury the workhouse dead in them. He had nevertheless been removing bodies from the workhouse in the dead of the night and burying them by stealth. The guardians were not prepared to condone this practise and decided that the dead should be buried within the workhouse grounds in pits which would contain three of four tier of coffins.

As 1847 drew to a close the cost of the Poor Law was becoming an intolerable burden for the ratepayers, many of whom were themselves close to destitution. There was determined and widespread resistance to the collection of the rates. In Ballickmoyler property seized by the collector was rescued from him. Matthew Farrell the collector for the Queen's County divisions, reported that “a determined resistance to the payment of rates is observable in the middle class of farmer which comprise the majority of the ratepayers in the barony" Property was being removed out of the area to prevent it being served. In Arles and Shrule districts seized property was rescued from collectors and the guardians wrote to the Poor Law Commissioners asking for a force of military and police to protect the collectors.

The guardians, intimidated by the ratepayers, set the harshest of standards for the grant of outdoor relief. When Pat Daly a coa1miner in the Shrule area had his back broken in the pit a doctor certified that he could not be removed from his home "without imminent peril to his life" Yet the guardians decided that he would be granted relief only if he and his whole family entered the workhouse.

The policy of the guardians in regard to outdoor relief aroused the wrath of a number of local Catholic clergymen, particularly Father Maher, parish priest of Graiguecullen, and another clergyman named Fitzgerald, who publicly condemned the guardians for their unyielding insistence on admission to the workhouse. Although the population of County Carlow was predominantly Catholic the majority of the guardians were Protestant a fact which made the workhouse suspect where the Catholic clergy were concerned. It was of course a period when religious passions ran high. The bible societies well organised and with an abundance of preachers and pamphlets were active. In all parts of the country and there were many Catholic clergymen who feared that workhouses in areas controlled by Protestant guardians would be used as centres of proselytism. It must be said to the credit of the Pour Law Commissioners that they generally succeeded in curbing the activities of both Catholic and Protestant proselytisers in the workhouses of the period. There is no evidence that the Carlow guardians ever attempted to Influence the religion of those under their care but nevertheless their minute books and extant correspondence of the Poor Law Commissioners show that throughout the famine years the local Catholic Clergy were extremely hostile towards them.

At the beginning of January 1848 there were about 1.600 Inmates In the workhouse nearly 500 of whom were ill. On 27th January the relieving officer for Carlow Town reported that 100 starving paupers had arrived by train from Dublin their rail fare having been paid by Dublin Unions anxious to rid themselves of the burden of country paupers. They were unwelcome visitors to the Carlow for they were not of local origin but were natives "of various counties In the South of Ireland" but the relieving officer felt obliged to provide them with food since otherwise many of them would have died from hunger. The guardians were having the greatest difficulty in providing for their own and about this time acquired additional accommodation in a Starch Works on Athy Road and in an adjoining malt house. By mid February the various premises were sheltering about 2,100 persons of whom half were children. In addition the guardians were giving out door relief to a further 4.100 persons for faced with such widespread wretchedness they now had no choice but to grant out- door assistance on a large scale.

On 1st April 1848 there were 1,845 persons in the workhouse and its auxiliaries and 5,307 on outdoor relief. Nearly 700 of those in the workhouse were ill and Dr. Porter complained as he had done often before, of the lack of assistance. He wrote “I have no hesitation in stating that many must necessarily be consigned to an early grave from my inability to reach on their wants how- ever desirous I may be to prevent it.”

Despite the conditions now prevailing throughout County Carlow it is clear from the minute books of the guardians that there was no breakdown of prevailing local prejudices and social attitudes. When in April 1848 a subcommittee of the guardians was asked to look into the question of sending persons from the Shrule. Graigue and Arles electoral divisions to the fever hospital at Doonane it reported - “We beg to state that the greatest unwillingness and strongest prejudice exists in the minds of the poor people residing in the lowland portion of these electoral divisions against being sent up to the mountains of Doonane and placed among people of very different habits when suffering from illness. These people will suffer every privation and neglect rather that have recourse to the benefits of Doonane Hospital."

The committee suggested that fever accommodation might be provided for these people at Ball1ckmoyler but when the guardians decided to build a number of sheds there to accommodate 100 patients their decision gave rise to a vehement protest from the Catholic priests of Ballickmoyler who claimed to speak on behalf of the local inhabitants. They wrote to the guardians in May 1848 “We have just heard with very great pain that the board of guardians of this Union intend to have sheds erected for the accommodation of 100 patients in Ballickmoyler. Now. sir, we beg leave most emphatically to assure you and the other members of the board that in this district there does not exist at present nor has there existed to our knowledge for a considerable time back 10 fever patients in the rank of life which would entitle them to accommodation contemplated or who would avail themselves of it if at present existing in Ballickmoyler. This district has always been remarkable healthy thank God!! a resident gentry and rich farmers affronting a fair share of employment which if it did not remove altogether at least tended greatly to alleviate the distress of our poor and thus preserved them form those diseases consequent of famine".

 The accommodation if executed will either remain idle or have to be supplied with patients from Carlow or from the Colliery district. We cannot think it is intended to bring patients form Carlow therefore it must be supposed the supply is from the Collieries Now. Sir it is really shocking to think of introducing the malignant type of fever that at all times prevails amongst the colliers (whose habits. occupations. mode of living and disease are in great measure peculiar to themselves). it is we assert shocking to think of introducing this form of disease among the healthy agricultural population of this district: a great means of diffusing it through all ranks will be the frequent visit of the half naked starving friends of the colliery patients Faced with this opposition the guardians dropped the proposal to build the fever sheds. But it did not prevent fever reaching Ballickmoyler. Later with the rest of the country, it was swept by cholera.

By the middle of 1848 the board of guardians was providing relief either within or without the workhouse for nearly 10.000 persons. The mortality rated was high and in the one-week both the Catholic and the Protestant workhouse chaplains died from fever. In the overcrowded workhouse it was impossible to keep the great numbers of inmates occupied but some of the men and boys were sent out daily to sweep the streets of the town. The resistance of the ratepayers to the collection of the poor rate grew stronger as the rate increased. In August 1848 the collector for the Queen's County divisions reported that when goods seized by him were publicly auctioned there was not a single bid. Another collector succeeded in collecting rates from one ratepayer only. The harassed Guardians struck off nearly 3.000 persons from the outdoor relief lists during the same month and in October the chairman of the board Mr. Fishbourne informed the Poor Law Commissioners that if, in consequence injustices arose the Commissioners themselves would have to accept the blame.

By Christmas Eve 1848 when there were 1,972 persons in the workhouse and its ancillaries the numbers on outdoor relief had been reduced to 37 and the total expenditure by the guardians on outdoor relief during Christmas week was only £16 / 5s ½d. There were other troubles for the guardians. It is clear from the minute books that as in many other workhouse of the period some of the workhouse staff were disreputable or incompetent individuals. But early in 1849 there was general indiscipline both amongst the staff themselves and the paupers. The position was not improved by the local Catholic clergy who were hostile towards workhouse officers, particularly Mrs. Rose the matron. Allegations were made by them to the Poor Law Commissioners and the guardians about her lack of humanity in dealing with inmates and about her anti-Catholic bias. For a period the charges made against her were ignored or rejected. But the charges persisted, as did allegations about other workhouse staff. Finally the guardians harassed by allegations and counter allegations from the workhouse master, matron, schoolmaster, porter and the Catholic and Protestant chaplains appealed to the com missioners to send one of their inspectors to carry out an investigation. His subsequent report in November 1849 revealed a state of near anarchy amongst the officers responsible for the care and discipline of the inmates. The inspector found that the matron. Mrs. Rose had assaulted the workhouse master on a number of occasions. She had also been involved in “proceedings of an improper nature” in the laundry of the workhouse when on a number of occasions some of the female inmates extracted money from contractors visiting the workhouse. The Commissioners in transmitting the inspector's report did not attempt to decide as to the precise degree of impropriety, which may have attended these proceedings. The matron had also held drunken parties in her room and the workhouse master himself had been seen in an intoxicated state on a number of occasions. The assistant schoolmaster was shown to have been guilty of “various acts of impropriety including the giving of whiskey to workhouse girls”. The porter had conducted his own drunken parties and there was evidence of other acts of immorality. The infirmary nurse had allowed male and female inmates to meet together for the purpose of drinking tea and punch and the assistant clerk appeared to have been in a frequent state of inebriation. All were dismissed. A temporary committee was established to manage the workhouse until new officers were appointed.

It was a formidable task. Within a few days of their appointment the female paupers rioted. Stones were thrown and the windows of the infirmary were smashed. The outburst was quelled only after the local constabulary intervened and removed six of the women to the county gaol. A few days later there was another riot and a further five women were imprisoned. In the meantime the workhouse horse died as a result of “hard driving" by the medical officer. Dr. Porter who in the prevailing conditions must have been over- whelmed by his duties. Nevertheless the guardians decided that he should refund to them the price of the horse - £7. 12s 6d - a last straw, which led to the prompt resignation of Dr. Porter. Later he withdrew his resignation despite frequent subsequent indications from the minute books that he regarded himself as inadequately remunerated and harshly treated by the guardians.

The great famine is generally regarded as having faded out towards the end of 1849. Yet at the time there were still through tout the country over one million people in the workhouses or on outdoor relief and for several years afterwards social conditions kept large numbers dependent on the Poor Law system for their subsistence Carlow was no exception. In February 1850 there were over 2,500 inmates in the workhouse and its ancillaries of whom about 1,300 were children many of them orphaned by the famine. Cholera was prevalent in the workhouse throughout that year. Dr. Porter complained frequently about the extent of his duties in the various buildings and fever hospitals and the inspector from the Poor Law Commissioners was critical of the manner in which he was treated by the guardians.

The schoolmaster was reprimanded by the guardians in June 1850 for giving the boys their dinner and supper together in order to save himself trouble. In November of the same year he was threatened with dismissal after taking a young Protestant boy to Mass. As elsewhere the large number of children now under the care of the guardians created the greatest workhouse problem.

In May 1851 there were 1,275 children under sixteen years in the workhouse and its ancillaries many of them of very tender age the workhouse environment was clearly unsuitable to them but as yet a boarding-out system had not been introduced. Here as In other workhouses the child mortality rate was high and Dr. Porter reporting on 21st

May. 1851 about the deaths of children noted -

"The mortality existing in the house and its auxiliaries has been altogether in a class either completely broken of constitution or in a state of delicacy from exposure to privations before their admission.”

The young there are contradictory entries. In the Union minute books about the quality of the care the children were receiving in the workhouse. When sixty-seven workhouse boys and girls were taken to a service in the local Catholic cathedral in June 1851 the bishop drew the attention of the congregation to the cleanly and well-fed appearance, which they presented. He complemented the workhouse staff and recommended the shelter of the workhouse to any paupers in his congregation. The bishop's attitude did not reflect that of some of his clergy, A week later Dr. Porter complained that many boys being sent from the workhouse to the fever hospital were “in a most weakly state and much emaciated” because of the inadequate workhouse diet. He continued to agitate, both about the manner in which the children were being treated and about his own conditions, Two months later the guardians decided to dismiss him and to advertise for a wholetime medical officer to the workhouse fever hospital and other Union buildings, The Poor Law Commissioners would not agree to Porter's dismissal but suggested that his duties at the fever hospital be assigned to another doctor. Porter at first refused to resign from his post at the hospital but eventually acquiesced in the suggestion of the Commissioners.

During the next few years, as social conditions became more normal, the numbers of workhouse inmates particularly the adult population, rapidly dwindled. As a group the famine orphans were slowest to free themselves from the workhouse environment. Many had been admitted to the workhouse as infants or very young children and had no choice but to remain there until they grew old enough to secure employment as domestic servants or farm labourers. Then with a suit of clothes presented by the guardians they went out into a world for which they were often ill prepared. Workhouse education and training during these years was often non-existent or entirely inadequate and the minutes of Carlow Board of Guardians do not suggest that the children there fared any better than those in other work- houses of the period. According to an entry in the minutes during July 1853 the Carlow boys were employed in cleaning out the workhouse cesspools. The work was so repulsive that they were given an allowance of tobacco and whiskey to encourage them to do it! This entry epitomises not only the atmosphere of the early workhouse but the attitude of those in authority towards the workhouse child.

When the famine had passed, its consequences to County Carlow had been extreme. According to the census taken in 1841, the population of the county was the 86,228. The census held In 1851 revealed that it had dropped to 68,078. When one allows for natural increase in population it is clear that about one quarter of the population had perished or emigrated during the terrible intervening years.

(Also reproduced in “Carlow Now and Then” Vol1 #4 Summer 1998)

Source:- 'Carloman'

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