Birr Historical Society

Birr Historical Society Conference on Birr Workhouse

6 & 7 September 2013

The conference was opened by Rev. Irene Morrow,
President of Birr Historical Society

  • Lectures by academics and researchers
  • Reflections about the experience of the workhouse
  • Birr Photography Group's exhibition of creative photographs of Birr Workhouse
  • Poster explaining diseases and medications during the Great Famine
  • Laying of wreath at the cemetery of Birr Workhouse.

William Smyth, Emeritus Professor, UCC, explained how the Poor Law, based on the English workhouse system, was introduced to Ireland where it was entirely unsuited to conditions here at the time. Most of the original 130 workhouses, of which Birr was one, were ready for occupation by 1842. Residency was low at first but poverty, hunger and destitution, aggravated by blight in the potato crop, staple diet of the majority in 1845, led to overflowing numbers by . Only by entering the workhouse could welfare be obtained; males, females and children over two years were sent to different parts of the complex, everyday life was regimented, diet basic with inadequate nutriments, and inmates, now called ‘paupers’ were not to be so comfortable that they would remain for long. In fact, as soon as they were able, most people left.

During epidemics, workhouses were overcrowded, unpleasant and unhealthy and, though extra buildings were then leased in an attempt to accommodate enormous numbers and to isolate patients with contagious diseases, suffering could be appalling and mortality alarming during crisis periods.

Schemes such as public works, soup kitchens and outdoor relief during the famine, were started and stopped by government order with disastrous consequences. Since construction and maintenance of the workhouses were funded by rates on local property rather than by central funds, intractable problems in Birr and elsewhere arose from the inevitable decline in income from employment, property and rents, leading in turn to reduced rates and income for the workhouses.

Professor Smyth illustrated his lecture with local images, maps and reports from official sources and local newspapers from the nineteenth century.

Mary E. Daly, Emerita Professor, UCD, explained how the function of the buildings evolved after the famine from workhouse to long-stay institution or nursing home before being closed in 1921. The Medical Charities Act (1851) made the Poor Law Guardians responsible for basic health services including dispensaries and fever hospitals. Workhouse infirmaries were available as hospitals to non-destitute patients from 1862 and conditions improved when religious sisters joined the nursing staff, as the Sisters of Mercy did in Birr from 1882. Outdoor relief was available from the 1860s and children could be boarded out, though not in Birr for some reason. Some adults obtained outdoor relief from the 1870s and demand increased during the Land War.

The Local Government Act (1898) led to considerable changes in how welfare was organised and delivered; the Poor Law Unions were abolished and their responsibilities transferred to the new County Councils.

The Vice-Regal Commission on Poor Law Reform (1906) is an excellent source for the later years of the workhouse, when inmates included aged and infirm, casuals, vagrants and destitute women and children.

Analysis of the 1901 and 1911 censuses is useful, though hampered by the fact that workhouse inmates were represented only by their initials.

The Old Age Pension, originally worth five shillings per week was available from 1909. Quite a substantial sum at the time, it probably accounted for the decrease in numbers of the elderly in the workhouse between the 1901 and 1911 censuses.

Seen as outmoded institutions by the late ninteenth century, the UK government contemplated separate provisions for the sick, the elderly and mothers and children.

Dáil Éireann abolished the workhouse system in 1920 and later established a county home and a county hospital in each county, leading to many disputes. Birr Workhouse closed in 1921 during the truce in the War of Independence.
Watch the video recording of Prof. Mary E. Daly's lecture at UCD History Hub

John Joe Conwell compared the role of the 14th Earl of Clanricarde with that of the 3rd Earl of Rosse during the Great Famine. Both men were almost exact contemporaries with large estates in Portumna and Birr respectively and seats in the House of Lords - Clanricarde a Whig and Rosse a Tory.

Clanricarde’s marriage to Harriet Canning, daughter of a Prime Minister, led to a career in politics, diplomacy and administration, while Rosse’s marriage to Mary Field, a wealthy heiress, helped him achieve international distinction in engineering and astronomy and build the Great Telescope. Both men supported Catholic Emancipation but opposed Repeal of the Act of Union.

Rosse was a resident, progressive and improving landlord, actively involved in estate management, encouraging best agricultural practice and a member of the Board of Guardians of the workhouse. Birr and Loughrea workhouses both opened in 1842 for 800 inmates.

Clanricarde was described as taking ‘little or no interest in the improvement of his estates’. He concentrated more on his political career in the UK and his other pursuits included hunting, horse-racing and extra-marital affairs. Nineteenth century travellers in Ireland commented on his neglect of the town of Loughrea.

Both men were Lieutenants of their respective counties in 1845 when the famine struck and whereas Rosse was active in the organisation of famine relief in the King’s County, Clanricarde, a member of the cabinet 1846-52, delegated to his agent. Both men contributed to debates about the Irish problem in the House of Lords; both opposed the Poor Law ( Ireland) Act in 1838 but both supported the controversial Gregory clause in 1847. Rosse, whose only daughter died that summer, aged 8, took a more stringent and authoritarian approach to estate matters from then on.

Clanricarde’s son, the 2nd Marquess of Clanricarde was responsible for the notorious and historic Woodford evictions during the Plan of Campaign in the 1880s.

How over 4,000 Irish orphan girls came to migrate to Australia in the years 1848-50 was Margaret Hogan’s topic. Gender imbalance arose when poor young females survived the famine better than their cohort of males, while males were more likely to be transported to penal colonies in Australia. The Female Orphan Emigration Scheme was devised by Earl Grey to partly address this problem. Orphaned girls in workhouses, aged between 14 and 18 years were invited to volunteer for migration to Australia. Each girl was offered free passage, a promise of work on arrival and provided with a box filled with an attractive selection of new clothes.

65 girls set out from Birr in two groups and names of 42 have survived.

Thirty girls from Birr were safely at sea and already near Adelaide in May 1849 when a cholera epidemic devastated Birr, leading to 101 deaths in one week and 3,246 persons requiring shelter in the workhouse or in auxiliary workhouses. The names of the next group of 35 girls from Birr survive in shipping lists together with the names of their parents and other details. Their voyage by sailing ship in 1850 lasted nearly four months and on arrival they were accommodated at first in Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney.

In Australia, the girls met with a mixed reception: if demand was great for domestic servants and for wives, there was some ridicule also for unsophisticated, Irish, Roman Catholic, poor workhouse girls. But most married, had large families and many descendants. Russ Blanch’s ancestor, Eliza Dooley helped her English-born husband run an inn near Uralla gold diggings and Russ was one of several descendants who visited Birr to see the workhouse.

Bridget Sullivan recreated the orphan girls’ outfit for the conference. She had her son make a box to the historic specifications, filled it with clothes like those ordered for the voyage to Australia and dressed a draper’s model with outer garments. Eliza Dooley left Birr with her sister Catherine in 1850. She married an English man, had a large family and they ran a tavern near the Uralla gold diggings. She is fondly commemorated by her descendant, author Russ Blanch who visited Birr Workhouse on two occasions. Ann Faraday’s orphan girl ancestor Ellen Dooley left her mother and uncle behind in Birr Workhouse in 1850, married a man from Tipperary transported as a convict but later a police constable and had a large family and Ann also visited Birr Workhouse.

Birr Photography Group’s exhibition of creative photographs of the workhouse elicited widespread admiration and was in such demand that it later transferred to Birr Library where it was available to a wider public and to visits by school groups.

Robert Revill speaking at the conference on behalf of Birr Photography Group, said it was a privilege and a wonderful opportunity to photograph such a visually exciting building with permission of the owner. There was endless inspiration for creativity: magical light, shadows, texture, colour, invasive ivy, boarded up windows, flaking paintwork and the noise of rushing wind, creaking hinges and cooing pigeons. The intricate architecture, handcrafted stone and cantilevered stone staircase seemed in contrast with the original function of the building which is now rapidly deteriorating.

Paddy Heaney’s account of the famine in the Cadamstown area came through his father whose own father lived through the calamity. When potatoes failed, people sowed black oats which they boiled with turnips. One family walked all the way to Daingean for oats but sadly died on the way, leaving two orphaned children to be supported by a kindly neighbour. Many people preferred to die at home rather than enter the workhouse. The population of Cadamstown decreased from 1,500 in 1821 to 420 now. The Famine is commemorated every year in Rathlihen graveyard.

Jack Ryan read a poem he composed which poignantly evoked Birr Workhouse Cemetery where over 4,000 people lie buried.

Tread lightly on this hallowed ground
For they sleep in their thousands here
Covered in a blanket of clay.
Nothing marks this neglected spot
Except the concrete cross
That cries out 'Known only to God'.

Sr Anne Hannan has vivid memories of listening to Mother Lua’s stories and her memories of nursing in the workhouse. The Sisters of Mercy volunteered to nurse there in 1865 during a cholera epidemic when other nurses refused. Little by little, conditions in other workhouses were improving as religious sisters insisted on hygiene and better practice. Birr Board of Guardians invited the Birr sisters to take up permanent residence in the workhouse which they did in June 1881 after training in Thurles and Cashel workhouses.

Australian historian Dr Perry McIntyre came to the conference in Birr fresh from coordinating the Conference of the International Famine Commemoration in Sydney only a few days previously. Migration to Australia began with transportation of convicts in 1788, followed by free migration and assisted migration including the Female Orphan Emigration Scheme. The Great Irish Famine is commemorated at Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney by a symbolic monument which includes a glass wall engraved with the names of some of the orphan girls who migrated from Ireland during the famine..

Tommy Lyndon joked that although he was not born in the workhouse, he was reared in the workhouse buildings, as his father, John Lyndon was managing director of a factory which manufactured footwear in the buildings from the 1930s to the 1960s and the family lived in the quarters vacated by the Sisters of Mercy. He vividly described how each part of the complex was used and how huge and exciting it all was to him as a boy. Horse-drawn drays arrived daily; leather was cut, stitched, pressed, joined, nailed and dispatched. It was an exciting and busy place where a boy could range widely and the front building then housed a clinic with a doctor and dentist.

Leo Walsh, graduate in pharmacy from John Moore’s University, Liverpool, researched medications used during the famine as listed in a tender for Birr Workhouse in a local newspaper in xxx together with a record of diseases in the Birr Board of Guardians Minute Books. Having translated the Latin terms, he investigated each medication, its provenance, the ailment it targeted and even what it cost at the time, and displayed his findings in a fascinating large poster.

The conference ended with a trip to the workhouse complex, where Anna Kavanagh laid a wreath at the monument erected by the late Violet Doolin in the workhouse cemetery, where over four thousand persons are believed to be buried.


Birr Workhouse 2006

Birr Workhouse 2013

Deterioration setting in

Eliza Dooley left Birr on the Female Orphan Emigration Scheme in 1850. She is commemorated in a story board at Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney.
Inset is her descendant, author Russ Blanch.

Eliza's descendant Russ Blanch at the Commemoration of the Great Irish Famine at Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney

Bridget Sullivan with her recreation of the orphan girl's outfit provided for Eliza Dooley who left for Australia in 1850

Sr Anne Hannon read prayers at Birr Workhouse Cemetery, here pictured with Anna Kavanagh, her son and Brian Kennedy, iincoming President of Birr Historical Society.

Anna Kavanagh laid a wreath at the Cemetery Cross.
Here pictured with John Carroll, Chairman of Birr Town Council.

Pictured at the Cemetery Cross are Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, TD, Brian Kennedy, President Birr Historical Society, Yvonne Claffey, Teresa Ryan Feehan, Bridget Sullivan, Jimmy Shortt, Margaret Hogan

Perry McIntyre (left) speaking as coordinator of the International Famine Commemoration in Sydney and (right) at the conference with Ros Hopgood.