Life in the Workhouse

By Mary Kyne

 “ I still have vivid and harrowing memories of the prison – like interior…. the dark walls… the appalling “uniforms’…. the great witch’s cauldron in which one inmate cooked a watery Indian meal stirabout… the rancid butter and the stale bread…”

Thomas Harrington

What was life in the workhouse like?

One thing for sure it was well regulated and disciplined.  The inmates rose at 7am, dressed in their rough workhouse clothes and brogues.  They went to the central dining hall where they waited for prayers to be said, ( paupers were government property and had to be accounted for) and then they were inspected for cleanliness.  They then took their pannies and tin mugs and lined up for their ‘stirabout’( porridge) and milk.  They sat down on wooden forms, grace was said collectively, and the first meal of another day in their poor lives was eaten in silence.  One of the rules stipulated that, “any paupers who shall make any noise when silence is ordered to be kept shall be deemed disorderly and shall be punished accordingly”.  After breakfast they set to work. 

Dinner was usually in late afternoon and consisted of potatoes or brown bread and soup.  Leisure time was restricted.  The inmates could not go to the dormitories until bedtime at 8 o’clock, nor were they allowed to play cards or any games of chance, smoke, or have or “consume any spiritous or fermented drink’. They could receive visitors only in the presence of the Master of the Workhouse, the Matron or other duly authorizes officer.

Workhouse Garb

The prescribed clothing for adult males was a coat and trousers “ of barragon”, cap, shirt, brogues and stockings and for females a striped jerkin, a petticoat of  ‘linsey- woolsey’ and another of stout cotton, a cap, a shift, shoes and stockings.

Children were not provided with shoes or stockings on the grounds that they were not accustomed to footwear.

However this standard of clothing was not provided during the famine years because of lack of funds. The shoddiest clothing was considered good enough for paupers, many of whom arrived at the workhouse half naked and half starved. We must bear in mind that the Oughterard workhouse was the second poorest Union in Ireland, Kiltimagh being the first.  Rates were struck for the first time locally to subsidise the workhouse.

In later years the late Pat Gibbons remembered the uniform worn by the inmates. The women wore a check dress. The men wore white corduroy trousers, waistcoat, heavy overcoat and a Tammy Shaunter Cap. ‘Oughterard Union was written across the bottom of the men’s trousers.

Workhouse Work

“ It was a fundamental rule of the workhouse system that no individual capable of exertion must ever be permitted to be idle in a workhouse and to allow none who are capable of employment to be idle at any time”. The inmates were set to work, the men breaking stones, grinding corn, working on the land attached to the workhouse or at any other manual work about the house. 

The women mended clothes, washed clothes, attended the children and the sick and even joined in the breaking of stones.  This was work without incentive or motivation as they received no compensation for their labour.

The Management of the Workhouse

Town-lands in Ireland were selected and united to form Unions.  There were 130 Unions in Ireland. There was a Board of Guardians in each Union which controlled and managed the workhouse in the Union.  The Board was responsible for the erection, maintenance and running of the day-to-day activities within the workhouse.  Only ratepayers were eligible for election to these Boards and this effectively ruled out the majority of native Irish who were at the time landless, being mostly tenants-at-will.  Priests and Ministers were not eligible to become members of the Board.  There was general hostility and suspicion to the system of election.

Staff of the Workhouse

Clerk to the Board of Guardians

Treasurer of the Union

Medical Officer of the Workhouse

Master of the Workhouse

Matron (who deputized for the Master)

Porter of the Workhouse

School Master of the Workhouse

School Mistress of the Workhouse


Rate collectors, Relieving Officers, Nurses and Servants were also employed with the approval of the Board.  The inmates were also employed and this kept the number of paid staff at an inadequately low level.

Last Occupants of the Workhouse

The last Master of the Oughterard workhouse  was Isodore Darcy. His wife, who was a Dublin woman, was Matron of the hospital. Isodore was brother of Johnny Darcy who came from Garrai na Groigh, Killannin. Isodore resided in a large building within the workhouse grounds.  The relieving officer was Stephen Quinn. Stephen Lydon and Tom Walsh were permanent workers there. They carried out maintenance work – white-washing, fixing slates etc. Thady Lydon, father of Stephen Lydon, worked there too in earlier times. Clerk of the Union was P. H. Joyce. Gate Keeper Mr Nalty. Board Members: Mr Davsd Walsh, Cregg, father of the late Jim Walsh, who had a vote. David later worked on the Railway at Canrawer. Nurse  Costello died attending fever patients in 1910. Mary O Toole was one of the last relieving officers. She was a cousin of the poet Padraic O Conaire and a relation of Senator Joe O Toole whose family came from Lettermore.

Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, on her journey around Ireland, lecturing on the prevention of TB (tuberculoses) visited the Workhouse.  

Erection of the Workhouse

Some locals maintain that the workhouse was built in 1846 but John O Connor in his book, “ The Workhouses of Ireland” states that it was built in 1851, area 7 acres 3 roods. Griffith’s Valuation of Land 1855 gives the acreage as 12 acres 3roods 3 perches with a valuation of £85.

The Workhouse Graveyard

There was a Fever Hospital attached to the workhouse. Nearby stood the Dead House. People who died from famine and fever were buried in the workhouse graveyard on the Canrawer Road. This graveyard was known locally as ‘Teampaillín’.  The place was not blessed so therefore it was not called a cemetery.  The Rev. Canon Tully said prayers there in 1995 and blessed it. It is said that nurses and priests are buried there also as there were four nurses tending the sick at the workhouse. Inmates who died in the workhouse were brought from the dead-house in a small handcart. A simple plain coffin with a false bottom was used to transport the deceased to their place of rest.  Stephen Lydon and Tom Walsh were in charge of the burials.  Frank Mc Donagh R.I.P. from Bealadangan, who died on the 16t of August 1916 had a headstone erected by his family.

Workhouse Buildings

You entered the workhouse through a large gate.  On the right hand side stood the caretaker’s house.  Denis Nee, Rosmuc was the last caretaker. To the left was the Dispensary. It was later moved to the Court House and then to the late Dr Cotter’s residence at Claremount.

A hundred yards up the hill stood a row of houses for the inmates on either side. Behind the houses on the right stood a very impressive two storey building.  On the second floor you had the boardroom and underneath the boardroom provisions were stored flour etc. Attached to the boardroom there was a large dining hall -  90feet by 30feet with a daub floor, long tables and benches.  Behind the dining hall there was a lawn set out in front of the home of the Master of the Workhouse.  Behind that you had the hospital.  To the left of the hospital was the Dead house, school, chapel and workhouse.  Two long buildings for the inmates stood in front of the school and in front of that again there were large gardens and two wells for water.

Life in Latter years in the Workhouse

Pat Gill, father of the late Mrs. Tom Joyce, Camp St., drove the worhouse van – a covered in vehicle.  The van was drawn by two horses. This was a large van, with four big wheels, that travelled around Connamara to collect the inmates. It was known as the ‘Cóiste Bodhair”.  Old women who were interfering with their son’s newly married wives were also packed off to the workhouse.

In 1921 a Boxing Tournament was held in the dining hall. Seamus Ó Máille, a former IRA man, who was executed in the workhouse in Tuam, was to box in the Heavy Weight Competition but when his opponent saw him he ran away – “he was no Oughterard man!” as Pat Gibbons said.

David Walsh won the heavy weight bout on that day against a Mick Duffy.  Tom King, Camp St., beat Frank Egan – a brother of the late Jim Egan, Lake Hotel on points. An R.I.C. man helped the locals to erect the ring on that day.

The daub floor of the dining hall was later concreted and the locals played  hand ball in it. On the gable wall of the dining hall hung a big bell that was rung at 4 o’clock and 6o’clockto summon the inmates. When the workhouse was closed David Walsh removed the bell. Harry O Toole and James Mc Carthy transported the bell in a cart to the newly erected Camus Church. It is said that Dr O Dea treated the men well on arrival at Rosmuc!! The bell remains in Camus to this day.

Burning of the Workhouse

In 1922 the local Republican Movement were given orders from Dublin to burn the building so that the Free State Army wouldn’t have a lodging place in the area. Many local people didn’t approve of the burning as they sold milk and turf to the workhouse and for many it was a source of income for themselves and their families.

Closure of the Workhouse School

When the school was closed the inmates attended the local boy’s school at Waterfield (opposite St. Paul’s Secondary School). The local children at the time maintained that the inmates were better off than they were as they had shoes on their feet and butter on their bread going to school – something their families couldn’t afford.

The Workhouse Chapel


In the chapel, the ruins of which remain to day, the local priests offered mass – Fr. Jim and John Considine and Fr Cauley. The locals were also allowed to attend mass at the workhouse.

Fr Hyland turned the chapel into a C.Y.M.S. Hall. Boxing tournaments, plays, concerts and even a dance was held in it on Race Night. Peadar Duignan, a local vocational school teacher, organized concerts in the hall. The Vocational School was located at the time in the big house owned by John Morley on the riverbank across from Mc Namara’s shop. The classrooms were upstairs and the woodwork room was on the lower floor. The school relocated to the Railway Station in 1935. Eventually it closed due to a shortage of pupils.

The Workhouse Crib

Isadore Darcy, master of the workhouse, gave the crib figures in to the safe keeping of Michael Roland, Main St.  In 1959 when Leam church was opened Patrick Roland, Michael’s son, gave the crib to Josie Geoghegan, Glengowla. Josie erected the crib every Christmas from 1959-1985 in Leam church.  The year before he died Josie asked his son Martin to take care of the crib. Keeping with tradition Martin erected the crib every Christmas up to 2003. Sunday is not celebrated in the church now.

Cepta Carey (nee Geoghegan) restored the crib to its present magnificent condition.  The crib takes pride of place in front of the altar in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Oughterard during the Christmas season. Margaret Geoghegan, Josie’s wife, places the infant Jesus in the manger on Christmas morning. We are so fortunate to have such a precious relic from the past.

Gabhaimid buíochas le clann Uí Eochagáin as ucht an aire a thug siad don chliabhán seo i rith na mblianta.


This page was added on 13/09/2010.

No Comments

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published.