As the construction work on Athy Workhouse neared completion the Board of Guardians advertised for the supply of Whitehaven coal, oatmeal, best cup potatoes ‘free from clay or hazards’, buttermilk, straw, beef and mutton. What I wonder was meant by the description ‘potatoes free from hazards’? Three months before the Workhouse opened the clerk announced his intention to resign. At a subsequent meeting Jeremiah Dunne was appointed clerk, defeating Mr. Goodwin for the position by one vote. The suppliers to the Workhouse appointed in November 1843 included family names well known in the business life of Athy up to recent years. Mr. Cross supplied Whitehaven coal at nineteen shillings a ton, Mr. Dillon beef at 3¾ pence a pound and Mr. Keating straw at one pound five shillings a ton. In November the medical officer was instructed to fit up the Workhouse surgery and to procure the necessary appliances and drugs at a cost not to exceed £25.
In December 1843 work on the Workhouse was completed. The Board approved payments to the following craftsmen and traders. Samuel Sherlock, painter - three pounds. Thomas Blanc, carpenter - twenty pounds (I assume his full name was Blanchfield). Patrick O’Neill, basket maker - six pound two shillings. James Doyle, shoemaker - fifteen pounds. John Ryan, furniture maker - thirty pounds, with small amounts paid to Daniel Twomey, slater and Patrick English, smith worker. It was decided to open the Workhouse ‘for the reception of paupers’ on 20th December 1843, with posters advertising this fact to be got at the Leinster Express office. At the same time the Rev. J. Lawler was authorised ‘to provide requisites for celebration of Roman Catholic worship at an expense not exceeding ten pounds.’ At its meeting of 19th December the Board of Guardians postponed the planned opening of the Workhouse because the small amount of lodgements made by poor rate collectors left the Guardians without adequate funds.
On 9th January 1844 the Board agreed on the diet for the Workhouse inmates. For adults of both sexes above 15 years of age breakfast would consist of 7 oz. of oatmeal made into stirabout and one pint of mixed milk. Dinner would consist of 3½ lbs. of potatoes and one pint of buttermilk.
Young persons from 3 to 15 years of age were to be provided with a breakfast of 4 oz. of oatmeal made into stirabout and half a pint of sweet milk. Dinner would consist of 2 lbs. of potatoes with half a pint of buttermilk. For supper they received a quarter of a pound of bread and a half pint of buttermilk.
Infants from 1 – 3 years of age received 4 ozs. of oatmeal made into stirabout at breakfast together with half a pound of bread and one pint of sweet milk. Women nursing infants were to receive one pint of sweet milk every night in addition to their ordinary diet. Infants having no mothers in the Workhouse were to receive half a pound of bread and one quarter of sweet milk until they were one year old.
Adults were to have their breakfast at half past nine and dinner at four o’clock. Children got their breakfast at 9 o’clock, dinner at 2 o’clock and supper at 7 o’clock. The final decision of the Board of Guardians before the Workhouse was opened that day was to appoint Thomas Prendergast as contractor to build the boundary wall and gate piers in front of the Workhouse.
On the first day of admission five men, four women, ten boys, five girls and one infant were formally categorised as paupers on their admission to the newly opened Workhouse. A week later a further six men, fifteen women, thirteen boys, five girls and two infants were admitted to the Workhouse.
Just six years previously a letter in the Athy Literary Magazine of March 1838 referred to Athy as ‘completely neglected’. The unidentified letter writer notes how ‘during the late and present inclement weather ….. sickness and starvation visited alike the able bodied and the aged poor’ of the South Kildare town. No surprise therefore to find that within ten months of its opening the Workhouse was home to 297 paupers. The failure of the potato crop first noticed in the Athy area in October 1845 was to lead to widespread hardship in the local area. The construction of the railway line from Dublin to Carlow provided much needed employment for local men ‘who had never (previously) handled a pike or a shovel, never wheeled a barrow and never made a nearer approach to work than to turn over a potato field with a clumsy hoe’. That work ceased when the Dublin Carlow railway line opened on 4th August 1846 and many local families had no option but to enter the Workhouse. At one time towards the end of the famine period the Athy Workhouse system was home to 1528 starving family members, who were accommodated in the original Workhouse and two auxiliary Workhouses in the town.
The Great Famine witnessed the death of 1205 inmates of Athy’s Workhouse. They lie buried in unmarked graves in the cemetery where in recent years on National Famine Commemoration Day, services are held to honour the memory of those unfortunate men, women and children, all of whom were neighbours in Athy town and the wider Poor Law Union Area of Athy.