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The Workhouse in Fiction

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‘Please sir, can I have some more?’

Most of us know this iconic line from the 1968 film version of Oliver! The quote has embedded itself in pop culture, cropping up in memes, advertisements, comedy sketches and cartoons. However, how many of us know that the line is a criticism of the meagre food quantities supplied to workhouse children? In fact, Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist as a rallying cry against child poverty and the failure of the workhouse system. He based this view on his first hand observations as a newspaper reporter. What he saw went into his books and shocked  his audiences. He was accused of gross exaggeration and even outright fabrication. His rebuttal was the tell people to go see for themselves, which they did. What they witnessed was all the proof he needed.

Before we leave Dickens, it is interesting to note a slight connection with Irish workhouses. Oliver Twist was first published as a serial 1837–39. This period also covers the fateful year of 1838, the y…

The Martello Towers of Ireland-a photographic exhibition

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The Irish Workhouse Centre is delighted to be hosting a photographic exhibition, The Martello Towers of Ireland, by Tricia O'Neill. The exhibition will launch on the 18th April with a talk by historian James Scully, an expert on Napoleonic fortifications. I managed to catch up with Tricia prior to the exhibition.
After 20 minutes on the phone with photographer Tricia O'Neill, I realise that we should be talking about the history of Martello towers. Instead the stories come thick and fast. Did she tell me about the time an army officer had to back her car onto a small ferry because the ramp was too precarious? Or that it takes two seasoned historians to row out to Meelick Island? Or that in Boston an exhibition visitor doubted her photographs because of the beautiful light and he believed it rained in Ireland, constantly?


I soon realise that The Martello Towers of Ireland is not the result of a jaunt around Ireland on the holidays. Nor is it just about architectural history. T…

Wretched Old Shoes

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At the Irish Workhouse Museum we are delighted to have several specimens of pauper shoes. However shoes were viewed as a troublesome topic by workhouse management. Some workhouses ordered boot parts and had the paupers assemble them. Others bought them in ready made. Whomever supplied the shoes, it is clear that covering the feet of the poor was not a priority. In Co. Galway alone, six of the ten workhouses were in dispute with the Poor Law Commissioners in England over shoe and stocking provision. The result was newspaper descriptions like the one below:

stockingless and his feetwere scarcely protected by wretched old shoes(The Nation-Saturday July 30, 1864)
The old pauper described in this article was alleged to be suffering from exposure due to his treatment at Portumna workhouse. A mere six months later, Rev. P. Donalan R.C.C. alleged two women named Kelly and Grimes, died deaths in Portumna Workhouse, 'caused or accelerated by exposure to cold.'(Nenagh Guardian, Saturday J…

The Finnish Famine Exhibition

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-The Finnish Famine-    An Interview with Dr. Andrew Newby on his current exhibition at The Irish Workhouse Centre
How did this exhibition come about? In 2012 I was pleased to receive an Academy of Finland Award to work on a five year project to compare the Irish and Finnish famines. This exhibition came out of that project. It travelled to Ireland to be displayed in The National Famine Museum at Strokestown but then migrated to the National University of Ireland, Galway. Just when I thought the exhibition had to return to Finland, I was delighted when the opportunity arose for it to be displayed at The Irish Workhouse Centre.
How did you get involved in researching the Finnish Famine? I first heard about the Finnish Famine in 1997 from a Finnish Student. Being Irish and specifically a Mayo man, the topic of famine struck a chord with me. The fact that 1997 was the anniversary of Black ‘47 meant that famine research was already on the radar. I visited Finland in ’98 and discovered a very di…

October Short Story Winner

Deаr Diаry: December 1st 1850
by Bernadette Murphy

Horrible! Horrible! I lost аnother tooth lаst night. Thаt’s the fifth one now. So my two front teeth аre gone. No more smiling for me. Not thаt I hаve much to smile аbout here аnywаy. Everywhere is gloomy. I hаven’t heаrd lаughter since I got here. I hаven’t heаrd singing either. Whаt bothers me most аbout my teeth is thаt I sort of whistle when I tаlk аnd some of the others teаse me аnd mаke а hissing noise when I speаk. I feel so аshаmed. My biggest feаr is thаt I will lose аll my teeth like poor old Gertie in the infirmаry.I’m glаd the food I get doesn’t need to be chewed. Thin stirаbout аnd soup every dаy or ” slop” аs my friend Grаcie cаlls it. It’s so thin we don’t even need spoons, it’s just аs well becаuse we don’t hаve аny cutlery аnywаy. We’re so hungry by the time we get the food we drink it strаight from the mug. Some of the people try eаting with their hаnds but it dribbles down their chins onto their clothes аnd those “in …

It's Shorelines Time Again!

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Shorelines has taken over Portumna. The festival has once again filled the town with lots of thought-provoking, quirky, and just plain enjoyable arty-type stuff. The Irish Workhouse Centre has not been spared and we are delighted to be jam packed with delicious art in all shapes and forms. Once again we are all reminded what a great gallery space the workhouse is, and for those of you who wonder how cultural events fit in with the history of this site, here is some food for thought.

The workhouse was originally meant to provide help and support to their immediate localities. They failed massively in this duty of care, but we can now readdress this balance using the same site. Heritage spots like ourselves, can and should be embedded in their local communities, providing something for everyone. Let's not keep making the mistakes of the past.
Arts are the succour of the soul. The most heart-rending fact I learnt from tour guiding at the workhouse is that paupers, though half-starved…

Irish Workhouses and Genealogy (Part 2)

-Parliamentary & Civil Records-
Not all records relating to Irish Workhouses were generated in-house. In fact, much of what survives today are records created by the government.  A great government record is the 1901 and 1911 Census. This census lists all the inhabitants and staff of the various workhouses. Please note that the paupers are usually listed by initials.
We can also use newspapers as a surprisingly full source of information about workhouse inmates and staff alike. If you are lucky you may even find information given about a pauper's family or the conditions leading to their admittance to the workhouse. The Freeman’s Journal, 27 August 1864 for example, refers to a man named Howard, commiserating with his fate and his diet, ‘…the horrid stuff miscalled “bread”, on which he was fed was unlike anything with which the paupers were fed before’.[1]
In the case of Portumna Workhouse the most useful set of records are those of the civil death registers. These are kept at th…