Warning, you may find this post upsetting.
I went along to the Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna, Co. Galway. As I arrived a bell from a nearby church was tolling, the sky was a dull grey and the wind was blowing the cheerful pink Heritage Week flags around against the stark exterior of the workhouse walls.
I was, as always, early. So I was invited to take a look at the exhibitions in the centre while I waited for the tour to begin. The first exhibition was extremely moving; ‘Dark Shadows’ by Kieran Tuohy. This exhibition features 24 pieces carved from Galway-sourced bog oak, all centred around the theme of the Irish Famine. It’s an amazing body of work and Kieran is so talented. I had goosebumps walking around.
The second exhibition tells the story of Paweł Strzelecki, a forgotten Polish hero who saved hundreds of Irish people during the famine. I’d never heard of this man before and he really was a hero. This is a permanent exhibition at the workhouse and very interesting.
Now onto the tour. We started the tour in the ‘waiting room’ which was the place were people would have arrived in. Dolores was our tour guide and she was very interesting and knowledgeable. There were 163 workhouses in Ireland. Dolores told us about the conditions of the place, the daily life of the inmates (that was what they were called). We watched a short video where we heard more about the history of the workhouse and we got a guided tour of part of the building, including the female dormitories, laundry room, matron’s room and canteen/chapel.
We got a glimpse of what it must have been like for these poor people, and they were poor people, the poorest in society. The workhouse would have been the very last resort for them, in fact prison was said to be a better option. Families arrived and after they were bathed and disinfected, they were dressed in a uniform. The families were segregated into different parts of the workhouse; boys, girls, men and women – families often never got to see each other again.
Food was a bare minimum, adults had two meals a day – small amounts of stir-about (porridge) and skimmed milk for lunch, potatoes and skimmed milk for dinner. Children had three meals a day – stir-about, potatoes and bread with milk. That was it, no nutrition there. Understandably, due to overcrowding and malnutrition, diseases were rife and many of the residents died in the workhouse.
The road on the way to the workhouse was known as ‘cosan na marbh’ or ‘pathway of the dead’ as a lot of people died on the way to the workhouse. Some had to walk 20 miles to get there and it really was a last resort, a way to ensure children were ‘looked’ after when the parents were so close to death.
We saw what remains of the solitary confinement cells, they still have the concrete ‘beds’ intact. These were placed just beside the toilet – which was one room with a bench with several holes, the waste ended up in an open, dry, cesspool. If you thought the workhouse couldn’t be any bleaker the solitary confinement must have been horrific.
As we were standing there a tiny blue butterfly landed just beside me, little things like this and the flowering weeds that bloom in such a desolate area really seemed to add to the feeling.
It’s hard to explain the mix of emotions. A lady on our tour was understandably moved to tears. We heard of parents who were told their daughters had died when they were actually sent to Australia as part of the Earl Grey Orphan Scheme.I don’t know if these were the lucky ones as Dolores told us not many others ever left the workhouse.
It’s a heartbreaking part of Irish history but one I feel needs to be talked about so that we never forget these people. If you like to find out more about the Irish Workhouse Centre you can visit the website here.