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Star of the Sea : A Postcolonial/Postmodern Voyage into the Irish Famine

Workhouses: Where the Paupers Crammed Together

Workhouses were established through the Poor Law system, and became a way of survival for families and individuals during the famine. According to Hilary O’Kelly, “the governing principle of the workhouse system was that relief given at public expense should be less than that which could be obtained by exertion outside it…. Inmates should be worse clothed, worse lodged and worse fed than independent labourers in the districts” (145). In order to prevent everyone from flocking to the workhouses, they made the conditions worse than the outside. Thereby, it became a way to provide the workhouse relief necessary all the while controlling the masses flocking to these houses. When making the conditions of the Irish even more horrible than outside of the walls, the Irish population was reluctant to commit themselves to such a prison-like environment.

The first workhouses were opened around 1840 on a trial basis, but only five years later 130 workhouses were opened, one in each Poor Law Union. By mid-October 1846, “about one-fifth of union workhouses were full” (O'Grada 69). This was a rather rapid increase in the number of inmates. However, in badly famine-affected areas, the workhouses were not as full as the better off areas. But these places did not stand vacant for long: by April 1847, all workhouses were completely full. According to Virginia Crossman in an article of History in Focus, “Workhouse occupancy rose from around 417,000 in 1847, to around 932,0000 by the end of 1849” (Crossman). This number shows that just within two years, the need for workhouse admittance increased rapidly as the famine conditions grew along with the desperation of the population.

In order to be admitted, either individually or as a family, to a workhouse there was one main condition of entry: “the applicants had to be destitute, that is, without either possessions or property” (Kinealy, This Great Calamity 195). That meant that the family was forced to completely abandon all their possessions and land in order to receive this specific type of relief. Many people were reluctant to admit themselves to a workhouse because of this condition. It was the attempt of these workhouses to make it clear to the admitted paupers that this was worse than even the lowest-paid laborer outside the walls. They used this as a way of encouraging the Irish to not seek this type of relief.

Workhouses had external walls between nine and eleven feet tall in order to create a major difference between their lives on the inside and the lives on the outside. In addition, a normal workhouse layout would include large dormitory blocks, officers’ quarters, and boardrooms of the guardians. This was in order for the paupers inside to feel it utterly impossible “to contest the physical and institutional array of awesome power” (Smyth, “The Creation” 121). These boundaries also clearly separated the ruling class from the paupers, giving the governing class greater peace while they oversaw the inmates of the workhouse.

When the Irish were admitted as workhouse inmates, they agreed to surrender their lives to the norms of the Poor Law. Right away, they were classified into five groups: “males above the age of fifteen years; boys aged two to fifteen; females above the age of fifteen; girls aged two to fifteen; and children under two years of age” (Nally, “That Coming Storm” 727). This classification was to separate them into groups based on their ability to work and their maturity. Apart from everyone else were those labeled idiots, lunatics, and women with children born out of wedlock. They were placed in other parts of the property to avoid intermingling and influence on other inmates. Thereafter they were placed into “various industrial departments such as baking, dressmaking, spinning and carpentry” (O’Mahony 151). The result of these jobs would bring more resources to the workhouse and the surrounding areas.

While these jobs could provide some resources, there still remained the problem of food. British writer Harriet Martineau travelled around Ireland and wrote letters about the famine conditions where she stated: “The people are hoping now to be allowed potatoes twice a week; and great is the pleasure with which they look forward to this treat” (Martineau 122). Potatoes were a rarity in Ireland, especially during the potato crop failures of the famine, therefore it would be practically a delicacy to receive it at the workhouse. At a workhouse in Lurgan, the ward master, Thomas Lutton, stated that: “the bread had been bad for more than a week and he believed it ‘unfit for human food’—with many sick paupers unable to eat it. Beef used in the paupers’ soup had a ‘very offensive smell’ but was nevertheless sent to patients in the fever hospital” (Atasney 166). This suggests that the workhouse food could do more harm than good for the starving bellies of the Irish. The statements from Martineau and Lutton provide two very opposite portraits of the workhouse conditions, but they also show how food was a major part of their survival in the workhouses.

There are many horror stories about the workhouse conditions, but one of the major issues with the high admittance was the overloading of inmates. In the Cork workhouse, it “contained 4,400 inmates, even thought it had only been built to accommodate 2,000 persons” (Kinealy, This Great Calamity 109). This happened in most workhouses, which caused the further problem of disease spreading throughout the property. Statistics show that from 1846 to 1848, the number of deaths in workhouses increased from 14,662 deaths to 68,890 deaths (Smyth, “The Creation” 127). By looking at these numbers, it is evident that the overloading of inmates in the workhouses led to even more deaths during the famine years. Workhouses attempted to temporarily save the Irish population from death, but the overloading and horrible conditions only contributed to the rising death toll and desperation of the Irish.

Works Cited
Atasney, Gerard Mac. “Lurgan Workhouse.” Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Ed. John Crowley, William J. Smyth, and Mike Murphy. New York: New York University Press, 2012. Print.

Crossman, Virginia. “The Pooor Law in Ireland, 1838-1948.” History in Focus. Web.

Kinealy, Christine. This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-1852. Ireland: Gill & MacMillian, 2011. Print.

Martineau, Harriet. “The Workhouses.” Letters from Ireland: Harriet Martineau. Ed. Glenn Harper. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2001. Print.

Nally, David P. “That Coming Storm: The Irish Poor Law, Colonial Biopolitics, and the Great Famine.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 98.3 (2008): 714-740. Web.

O’Grada, Cormac. Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. Print.

O’Kelly, Hilary. “Famine and Workhouse Clothing.” Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Ed. John Crowley, William J. Smyth, and Mike Murphy. New York: New York University Press, 2012. Print.

O’Mahony, Michelle. “The Cork Workhouse.” Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Ed. John Crowley, William J. Smyth, and Mike Murphy. New York: New York University Press, 2012. Print.

Smyth, William J. “The Creation of the Workhouse System.” Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Ed. John Crowley, William J. Smyth, and Mike Murphy. New York: New York University Press, 2012. Print.
Researcher/Writer: Ellen-Marie Pedersen
​Technical Designers: Derek Rachel and Amanda Lundeen

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