Thursday, March 20, 2003
Athy Workhouse - The Early Years
In September 1833 a Commission was established under the Chairmanship of Dr. Whately, Archbishop of Dublin, to report on appropriate measures to alleviate the conditions of the Irish poor. In its report in 1836 the Commission estimated the number of destitute persons in Ireland at not less than 2,385,000. It advised against the application in Ireland of the English Workhouse system which had been introduced there in 1834. The recommendations were not acceptable to the Government and on 22 August 1836 George Nicholls, an English Poor Law Commissioner, was requested to go to Ireland and report on the feasibility of applying the English Poor Law System to Ireland. The Government, acting quickly on Nicholls’ report and recommendations, introduced the Irish Poor Relief Act of 1838 which became law in July of that year. With the assistance of four English Poor Law Commissioners, Nicholls was now entrusted with the task of implementing the legislation. Dividing the country into 130 Poor Law Union Areas, arrangements were made for the appointment and election of Boards of Guardians. George Wilkinson, an English Architect, was appointed to prepare plans and drawings for the Workhouses and he was also given the responsibility of acquiring sites for the new Workhouses and supervising their erection. Nicholls, in his report, had recommended four separate buildings within each Workhouse complex to separately house the aged, children, males and females. However, the general mixed Workhouse was planned and built in all Union areas in Ireland within which separation of the different ages and sexes was to be enforced. The Poor Rate, introduced under the 1838 Act to finance the Workhouses, was levied in equal parts on the owners and occupiers of land within each Union Area. In 1843 occupiers of property under £4 valuation were exempted and their rates became payable by the owners. Under the 1838 Act, it was provided that 75% of the Board of Guardians would be elected by the ratepayers of the Unions with the balance appointed from amongst the Justices of the Peace in the Union Area. This was later changed to equal numbers of elected Guardians and nominated Justices of the Peace under amending legislation in 1847. The first meeting of Athy Board of Guardians was held in the Courthouse, Town Hall, Athy, on Thursday, 29 April 1841. Mr. R.M. Muggeridge, an Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, was elected Chairman, William Caulfield, Vice-Chairman, and Gerald Dunne, Deputy Vice-Chairman. Patrick Dunne was appointed Clerk to the Board at the yearly salary of £40. The Athy Workhouse opened on 9 January 1844. Before the opening, the Board of Guardians met and decided on the meal times and the diet for the inmates. Adults were to have breakfast at 9.30am and dinner at 4pm. Children would eat at 9am and 2pm and would have an additional meal at 7pm. The Board of Guardians then proceeded to admit the first paupers to the local Workhouse and, on 9 January 1844, twenty-five were admitted comprising five men, four women, ten boys, five girls and one infant. On entry the paupers, as they were classified, were bathed, had their clothes removed from them and 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. The Guardians met each week thereafter to approve admissions to the Workhouse. On 16 January, forty-one more paupers were admitted and on 23 January fifty-two luckless individuals including twenty-seven children were to don the Workhouse uniform. Admissions ran at an average of fifty a week until the end of February. On 15 February, George Carmichael and his wife Elizabeth were appointed Schoolmaster and Schoolmistress to the Workhouse children on the strict understanding that their own children would not be brought into the House. In the same month, Michael Byrne was employed as a Shoemaker with an allowance of 6d per day and shoemaking fees for instructing Workhouse boys in the trade. Also employed was a Master Weaver at a salary of £45 per annum to teach handweaving to the children. In 1857 the Board of Guardians agreed to do away with the Master Weaver’s position, deeming it to be a useless trade for boys at a time when loom weaving was superseded by machinery. The local Clockmaker, James Plewman, supplied a clock for the sum of £5.10.0. while the Guardians, obviously surprised at the number of children being admitted, ordered one hundred tablet boards for use in the schoolrooms. At 22 February there were one hundred and fifteen adults in the Workhouse and one hundred and seventeen children Michael Lawler was appointed Tailor to the Workhouse in March 1844 at a salary of £12 per annum. Part of his duties included instructing the young boys in tailoring. On 21 March the Guardians urgently sought quotations for coffins and the contract was awarded to Thomas Peppard to supply large deal coffins at 5/- each and smaller sizes at 4/- each. In 1844 there were several changes made in the Workhouse personnel. The returns for that year showed J.B. Pilsworth as Clerk of the Union and Richard Ivers as Workhouse Master, Elizabeth Quinn was still Matron, a position she held until she retired on age grounds on 26 March 1853. Built to accommodate 360 adults and 240 children the Workhouse had 300 inmates on 2 January 1845. Over the next few years Athy Workhouse was to be home to hundreds of impoverished Irish men and women for whom the Workhouse offered the only hope of survival. Their generation would never know happiness or fulfillment. Their lives would be spent in an endless round of misery and hunger until death brought the only possible relief.