When you think of a Workhouse, I’m sure most of you think of Charles Dickens and a grimy Victorian England. Workhouses were not just a phenomenon of English inner cities, they exported them to their colonies as well, this is the Kilmacthomas Workhouse in rural County Waterford, Ireland.
Workhouses have haunted my imagination for years. I imagine walking up to these doors, storm raging, nothing but the clothes I’m wearing, unable to feed the kids, knocking on the door to try and get in. Why did Ireland need Workhouses? We have the best land for growing crops, and people who have an affinity with animals. So why in 1850 did we have to build this evil place? Then, why if we needed it so much, did it close in 1919?
I think to understand those years in Ireland you have to look at the population numbers over that time. The population of the area of the country that is now the Republic of Ireland, was in the region of 6.5 million people. The census of 1911 records the population as 3.1 million. What country can cope with loosing half it’s population in 60 years.
History tells us the Potato Famine lasted six years, from 1845. The figures show our population dropping every year until the 1961 census, the first year that showed any increase was 1966 (the year I was born, so well done Mammy) when it went up to 2.9 million. As a comparison the population of America in 1966 was 196.6 million.
Why did the Workhouse close in 1919? Following the Easter Rising, in 1916, Ireland was given more control of it’s own affairs, until full independence in 1922. The whole Workhouse system was abolished by the new Irish Parliament in 1920, but it carried on in the six counties in the north the 1940’s.
Anyway, closed it was, and it has been repurposed. Today you will find many different people in these buildings, artist studios, childcare, bike hire, even an aviary.
Is there anything left to show for the inmates of this place? Well there is, a single mass burial ground, holding 70 years of death. There is a head stone there now, but that is a recent addition.
It’s very hard to find out how many bodies are in this graveyard, as they were not placed in individual graves, but you can imagine the scene from this quote:
Corpses, without coffins, were carried day after day to be thrown into mass burial pits in the workhouse grounds.