On the 9th of January, 1844 the newly built Workhouse in Athy opened for the first time. Earlier that morning the Board of Guardians met in the Board Room to decide on the meal times and diets of the inmates who had to enter and live in the Workhouse to qualify for relief.
Adults were to have breakfast at 9.30a.m. and dinner at 4.00p.m. Children would eat at 9.00a.m. and 2.00p.m. and have an additional meal at 7.00 p.m.
The diet laid down by the Board of Guardians under the Chairmanship of Sir Anthony Weldon was in keeping with the Poor Law Commissioners recommendation of providing minimal sustenance so as not to encourage poor people to come to the Workhouse.
Adults were to receive for breakfast seven ounces of oatmeal made into stirabout with one pint of mixed milk and for dinner three and a half pounds of potatoes with one pint of buttermilk. The harshness of this diet was marginally improved when the Board of Guardians agreed on the 15th of February, 1844 to allow each adult an extra ounce of oatmeal for breakfast. The Guardians however reviewed this decision within a fortnight and on the 29th of February returned the adults to their original breakfast of seven ounces of oatmeal, but in addition allowed each man and woman to have supper in the evening consisting of two pounds of potatoes with half a pint of buttermilk.
Young persons between the age of three years and fifteen years were to receive a breakfast of four ounces of oatmeal made into a stirabout with half a pint of sweetmilk. For dinner each got five pounds of potatoes with half a pint of buttermilk and supper consisted of a quarter pound of bread with half a pint of buttermilk.
Infants up to three years had for breakfast two ounces of oatmeal made into stirabout and each day received a half a pound of bread with one pint of sweetmilk. Women nursing children in addition to the adult fare also got one pint of sweetmilk each night while infants without mothers were to get half a pound of bread and one quart of sweetmilk until they were nine years old.
At the end of their meeting The Board of Guardians approved the first admissions to Athy Workhouse and that night five men, four women, ten boys, five girls and one infant slept in the Workhouse.
On entering, the paupers as they were classified, were bathed, their clothes were removed and they were supplied with the Workhouse uniform. Men and women were segregated as the separation of the sexes was seen as a fundamental requirement to maintaining discipline in the Workhouse.
Built to accommodate 360 adults and 240 children the Workhouse had 300 inmates on 2 January 1845. On 7th October of that year the numbers had increased to 390 but within two months as the potato famine worsened the number of inmates increased to 615.
On the 26th of December, 1846 there were 732 inmates of which 65 were in the Workhouse hospital and 482 were children under 15 years. The returns for Athy Workhouse for the four months to the 1st of May, 1847 showed that 174 inmates died in the Workhouse in that period.
In the first week of 1849 the number of Workhouse inmates had jumped to 1,399, during that same week 13 persons died in the Workhouse. The overcrowding in the workhouse was alleviated by the opening of two auxiliary Workhouses in the town. One located in Barrack Street occupied a row of five houses while a second auxiliary Workhouse was a store belonging to the Grand Canal Company at Woodstock South.
The Workhouse system was by then part of the lives of the local people and would remain so until the emergence of the Irish Free State.