While the 19th Century was a time of great industrial change throughout much of the United Kingdom, Ireland was widely regarded as a poor, destitute country with many people already suffering from extreme poverty even before the famine. The economy in Ireland was weak and almost totally dependant on agricultural production with 66% of all families in pre-famine Ireland making their living from the land. Consequently, just one poor harvest could lead to arrears of rent, the threat of the bailiff and even eviction. This already difficult situation was to get much worse when in October 1845 the first signs of the potato blight or ‘phytophthora infestans’ was detected in Athlone. The purpose of this essay is to discuss the role of the Athlone workhouse in dealing with distress during the great famine. The objective is to demonstrate how hard and difficult life could be in the workhouse, but also to show how the workhouse saved lives during this crisis period. In 1838 the Irish Poor Law was introduced into Ireland by George Nicholls.
This legislation implemented a system of relief for the poor which would be administered solely within workhouses which were to be built all over the country. Initially 130 Poor Law Unions which were to be comprised of electoral districts were formed and in 1839 by a local landlord John Hancock, who was given the task of forming the union for Athlone. The Athlone Union was officially formed on Saturday 6th April 1839. By May of the same year a local Board of Guardians had been selected to govern the workhouse and a clerk and treasurer were also appointed. An area known as the ‘Abbey Fields’ was chosen as the site for the construction of this workhouse which opened for the first time on the 22nd November 1841.
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Although the first year of the workhouse would appear to be quite successful it was not without its problems and there were reports of cruelty, insufficient nutrition and heartbreak suffered by families who were forced to separate in order to gain admission to the workhouse. However by the winter of 1845 the situation in Athlone workhouse was to deteriorate even further as evidence of the devastating potato blight was identified in the area and was even to be found in the workhouse garden where there were now few edible potatoes left. While oatmeal had to be substituted for potatoes in order to feed the paupers in the workhouse, outside many people were not so fortunate and very quickly many were destitute. The problem was that many people were completely dependent on the potato and even in this first year of a diseased harvest meant that many were increasingly unable to pay their rents or feed their families. While some resorted to eating rotten turnips, wild plants and even dead animals in order to survive, others were evicted and so were now homeless as well as starving.
When taking into account the worsening situation in Athlone, it is not surprising that the workhouse was often considered to be a welcome alternative to complete destitution. For example, even when food was readily available the mud huts and cabins in which many people lived were themselves often overcrowded with more than 20 people living together in one cabin. As a result of the deteriorating situation, numbers in the workhouse began to rise rapidly. In June 1846 there were only 384 people residing in the workhouse which was originally designed to accommodate 800 people, however, by December of the same year, this figure had increased to 732. By June 1847 numbers were continuing to rise and reached a staggering 1137 by December. During the height of the famine there was also considerable overcrowding in the workhouse with many people who were half starved and often ‘nearly naked’ from all areas of the union begging for admission. Indeed for many the workhouse was their last and only hope for survival.
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Not surprisingly disease was a major problem within the workhouse. Cholera and famine fever were rampant and often deadly especially among crowds of starving paupers huddled together in filthy conditions. By June 1849 there were 207 cases of cholera in the workhouse infirmary which resulted in 86 fatalities and people were dying at a rate of 20 a week. However, while the situation in the workhouse was extremely difficult during the famine it did at least offer some measure of social welfare to the starving and homeless and even medical treatment for those who were sick. One affliction, while not fatal and which was very common among children especially in the workhouse was opthalmia. This was a disease affecting the eyes and is described by local historian Brendan O’Brien as ‘the other single greatest threat to the health of the inmates in Athlone workhouse’. It is interesting to note that the Board of Guardians of Athlone engaged a teacher who was qualified to teach the blind and who instructed them in basket and mat making, items which were then sold in the local market.
Of equal importance is the fact that the workhouse offered many paupers the opportunity to learn new skills and many were taught how to spin, weave and dye material as well as other useful trades such as making and repairing footwear. This employment not only gave the paupers some sense of fulfilment but as specified in the legislation of the poor law, able-bodied paupers were contributing their labour in return for food and shelter. Children also received the benefits of a basic education in the workhouse. While many teachers were often poorly qualified, children were at least instructed in basic life necessities, for example skills such as reading, writing and the principals of the Christian religion. They were also instructed with other virtues considered important at this time such as industry and usefulness.
However, the most important aspect of life within the workhouse for those who were not considered either sick or infirm was the relentless and demanding regime of work and paupers were often expected to work for ten hours or more each day. While such work was expected to reduce idleness and unruly behaviour, reports to the Board of Guardians suggest that such monotonous work only stupefied ‘already dull children’. Also there were those who refused to work and they were punished by having their food rations withdrawn.
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While the famine is one of the most significant events in Irish history, the institution of the workhouse is perhaps one of the most obvious and well known solutions that were used for dealing with poverty and destitution in Ireland. However while the role of the workhouse is often considered to be controversial due to the cruelty and hardships suffered by the inmates, as demonstrated in this essay, workhouses were also responsible for providing a level of refuge, education and much needed care to some of the most vulnerable people in Irish society. It can be considered to have played a vital role, both positive and negative, during the period of 1841 to 1849 and without which I am sure many more Irish peasants would have suffered terrible deaths.