Saturday, August 6, 2016

Workhouse Howl*


     The workhouse at Baltinglass sat a mile from town on seven acres of land.  All that survives today are the blueprint-like drawings above; even the records no longer exist, lost to fire in 1920.  Poorhouses were established in Ireland as early as 1703 when the Irish Parliament authorized a "House of Industry" in Dublin to provide sustenance for the poor and infirm along with orphaned children.  Over the years, more facilities were built around the island at Waterford, Limerick, Belfast, Cork and a few other localities.  

     With the Act of Union in 1800, Ireland became part of England.  The British answer to the question of  Irish pauperism was to export their workhouse system to Ireland.  While that system may have worked well  in England, Ireland's real problem was the lack of work or other means of supporting oneself.  The idea of being confined to a workhouse was repugnant to the population of Ireland and it was a dreadful and dreaded last resort.  To discourage anyone taking advantage of the system, conditions were made as unpleasant as possible.  Whole families were required to enter the workhouse together, helping landlords clear their property of them, but they couldn't remain together.  Men and women were sent to different quarters and even more cruelly, children over the age of two were taken from their mothers.  Their diet was poor, as was their treatment by the staff.  Conditions worsened during the famine years with rising numbers of inmates and the fevers that afflicted the malnourished population spreading quickly in the confined quarters of  a workhouse.

     I thought my ancestors had all escaped that horror until yesterday.  I feel like I've uncovered most of the information about my direct ancestors currently available on the internet, so I've begun expanding my search to their siblings.  While looking through the parish records the NLI has made available online I came across the baptism of Sarah Holmes in October of 1846, the second year of the famine. Sarah was the daughter of George Holmes and Mary Hore; Mary being a distant cousin of mine and the daughter of my 3rd great-grandfather Michael Hore's brother John.  As I looked at the entry in the Baltinglass Parish register giving the family address, I caught my breath--it read "Workhouse".

     The entry is not in great shape, but I can make out 1846 Spt 6- Holmes Sarah of Geo. & Mary Hora or Horan, Workhouse.  Sponsors ? Hayden and Bridget Breene, I think.  I hate to think of my ancestors, or anyone's ancestors, being relegated to such a ghastly place, or of a tiny baby being born there amidst the crowding and disease.  There were four older Holmes children in 1846 ranging from 17 year old James to 7 year old Thomas, all would have been separated from their parents.  How did this family end up there, how did their state become so destitute that the only alternative was the nightmarish workhouse?  Did George Holmes die, or the famine and resulting evictions cause them to lose everything?  Did baby Sarah survive and what became of them afterwards?  It seems there is still plenty to uncover about my family if I go far enough afield.

* The workhouse howl was a cry of grief and utter despair that not infrequently was heard echoing through the halls of those institutions


  1. Like you, Ellie, I hope never to find an ancestor who had to live in one of the workhouses of Great Britain. How sad for anyone and how hard for us living now to learn of it about one or several of our ancestors.

    "Call the Midwife" has a program or two devoted to a woman who lived at the workhouse (a few decades later than your ancestors but I can't imagine there were many changes over the years). The second book on which the TV program is based (Shadows of the Workhouse) has several stories about people who survived living in the workhouse. The author, Jennifer Worth, seems to have done some serious research to write their stories. It's sad what people can do to each other.

  2. Thank you Nancy, I will have to look for the book you mention. And it did make me sad to find them there, all these years later.

  3. Ellie, I still remember the shock of first finding that my GG-Grandfather's death in a Dublin workhouse - awful - but that was in the 1870s. In 1846, the workhouse system could not cope with the huge numbers of starving famine victims knocking on their doors.

    1. A tragedy indeed, I hope for your grandfather's sake conditions were better in the 1870's.