A few years ago attempts were made to retain part of St. Vincent’s Hospital as a Famine Museum. Despite the active cooperation of the Eastern Health Board, nothing came of the suggestion. Today the former workhouse remains a silent testimony to the many helpless people who passed through it’s doors since January 1844.
The poor who entered the Athy Workhouse were not allowed to succumb to idleness and all bodied inmates were put to work. Generally this consisted of stone breaking, although at Athy Workhouse paupers were also required to help on the Workhouse lands which in 1853 totalled 34 acres.
In October 1853 the Workhouse master summoned four paupers at Athy Petty Sessions for refusing to work and for disobeying his orders. They were sentenced by the local Magistrates to one months imprisonment with hard labour. Criminal prosecution of “vagrants” as the wandering poor were called was a common action taken by both Athy Town Commissioners and Athy Board of Guardians at different times during the second half of the 19th century.
Understandably the Workhouse contributed to the town’s problems in terms of unwanted vagrants and a local citizen was moved to write in a local newspaper in February 1862 “Athy’s rate payers have their doors constantly besieged by troops of beggars in every grade of wretchedness.” On 24th June, 1886 ten poor men and women admitted to the Workhouse on the previous evening were prosecuted at Athy Petty Sessions for vagrancy. Four of them were sentenced to two weeks imprisonment with hard labour.
In 1906 the Workhouse Clerk reported that a large number of vagrants were coming to the Workhouse. “Twenty five this week, forty five last week and forty seven the previous week”. Mr. Minch, a member of the Board of Guardians and a local resident in Athy, claimed that at one time upwards of 1,500 vagrants visited Athy Workhouse in one year but immediately the Board of Guardians instituted criminal prosecutions, the numbers fell to 500. It was also noted that a number of vagrants arrested in the locality of the Workhouse had notebooks containing the names and addresses of the good Workhouses and those which should be avoided, an early example of an Irish Tourist Guide perhaps! Clearly despite the efforts of the Board of Guardians the knights of the road were attracted to Athy Workhouse. Perhaps it was the meat dinners which the Board of Guardians first authorised for the Workhouse inmates Christmas Dinner in 1859 and for Easter Sundays from 1862 which were the big attraction.
Foundlings were another group cared for within the Workhouse and over the years many young babies abandoned at birth were to live out their early lives there. Names were generally attributed to these babies by reference to the Saints’ Day on which they were found and sometimes also the place where first seen. A child found wrapped in hay was names Hays, while another infant found in the Peoples’ Park was given the surname Parker. A boarding out system for children was introduced in 1862, thereby ensuring that as far as possible those youngsters would not spend all their formative years within the grim surroundings of the local Workhouse.
Schools were opened in Athy Workhouse in 1844. On the 16th of July, 1896 the Commissioners of National Instruction reported on Athy Workhouse School which by then was under the charge of the Sisters of Mercy. “The School is in a high state of efficiency and the course of instruction is carried out by the Sisters in charge with earnestness, zeal and ability. The girls of second and higher grade received instruction in shirt making, dressmaking, underclothing, knitting and darning and the use of the sewing machine”.
A further report on the Workhouse School in 1907 noted that “the pupils are making satisfactory progress. Oral English, Arithmetic and Drawing will require increased attention; kindergarten occupation for a large number of infants attending are urgently required.” The Workhouse Schools continued to operate until the 1940’s when the children then remaining in the Workhouse were sent to the local primary schools in the town.
Today the former Workhouse revamped and refurbished over the years is now a geriatric hospital. The wandering poor and abandoned children are no longer to be found there. To a generation which has lived in the shadow of a comprehensive health and welfare system it is sometimes difficult to realise the difficulties experienced in the early years of the workhouse system. Next year will see the winding down of the Great Famine Commemoration events and it is hoped that Athy will remember in an appropriate way the people of the South Kildare area who died so tragically 150 years ago.
The former Workhouse graveyard adjoining the Grand Canal is presently in a sadly neglected state. Perhaps we should show a measure of respect for the dead by having this sacred ground tided up. After all the poor people who died in the Workhouse so many years ago deserve to have the dignity denied to them in life restored even if only in death.