“The Workhouse was the most feared and hated institution ever established in Ireland”
– John O’Connor, The Workhouses of Ireland.
The local workhouse building remains a familiar sight in many towns across the island of Ireland. Built to provide relief for the poor, the controversial and tragic history of these buildings reverberates to this very day. The Irish Architectural Archive are custodians of a collection of the surviving architectural drawings for these buildings. UCD Digital Library, in collaboration with the Irish Architectural Archive, have made a representative sample of these drawings, plans, and documents available online in the Workhouse Drawings Collection.
A system of workhouses to provide relief for the poor was established in England and Wales by the Poor Law Act of 1834. The report of the Royal Commission on the Poorer Classes in Ireland 1833 resulted in the extension of the workhouse system to Ireland. The country was divided into Poor Law Unions, each managed by a Board of Guardians, and a workhouse was constructed in each Union. In England and Wales competitions had been held to appoint architects for the construction of workhouses. The Poor Law Commissioners in Ireland decided against this approach, opting instead to ascertain “which of the architects employed in the construction of the English workhouses had been deemed on the whole the most successful”. Their investigations led them to George Wilkinson, an architect from Oxford. Wilkinson had initially won the competition for designing the workhouse at Thame, Oxfordshire. He went on to design many other workhouses in England and Wales. According to the Poor Law Commissioners 5th annual report it was this experience in Wales “under circumstances, and with materials not very dissimilar from what exist in Ireland” that led to the appointment of Wilkinson by the Commissioners.
Wilkinson drew up standard designs in a Tudor domestic idiom for two sizes of workhouses – one for a 400 person workhouse and one for an 800 person workhouse, both capable of being extended, if necessary, to accommodate m ore people. The general arrangement of the workhouses was a front entrance building separated from the main building by a courtyard, garden, and separate yards for the boys and the girls. The main building included the master’s house, dining room, chapel, as well as separate wards for girls, boys, women, and men – family members being separated upon entering the workhouse. The infirmary was placed at the back of the building, separate from the wards housing the healthy.
The Report notes that the style of the building was “intended to be of the cheapest description, compatible with durability…all mere decoration being studiously excluded”. Wilkinson seems to have been allowed some leeway in this approach, however. A description accompanying the bird’s eye views notes that the style of buildings was designed to suit the nature of the materials available in the country and while this style was considered “the least obstrusive”, “its gable roofs and elevated chimney-shafts give it a pleasing and picturesque appearance”. Wilkinson was also concerned with the quality of the buildings, stating in the Specifications of Works that all materials used in the works should be of the very best quality and the workmanship executed in the best manner.
By 1847 Wilkinson had overseen the construction of 130 workhouses. A second phase of construction was undertaken during the Famine with fever hospitals added to existing workhouses from circa 1847 onwards. Between 1849 and 1853 a further thirty workhouses were built, though these were plainer buildings with a different layout.
A considerable number of drawings would have been required for each building in the workhouse programme, including elevations, plans, sections and details. The Workhouse Collection in the Irish Architectural Archive includes surviving drawings for eighty-one workhouses, all located in the twenty-six counties of the Republic of Ireland. For some buildings twenty or more drawings remain; for others, only one or two. Occasionally drawings are accompanied by other documents, including the standard printed specification or, more rarely, items of correspondence. Many are in extremely poor condition because the room in which they were stored was flooded at some point. Access to the physical documents is precluded due to their extreme fragility, but this made the collection an ideal candidate for digitisation, and the online collection now makes wider digital access possible.
This online collection provides access to drawings and documents relating to the Mallow, Castleblayney, Lismore, and Gorey workhouses. The drawings for Mallow Workhouse may be considered a representative set of the surviving drawings for the Tudor style workhouses built by Wilkinson. The majority of the drawings were produced mechanically (engraved and printed). The inclusion of drawings from Castleblayney, Lismore, and Gorey, in addition to those of Mallow, ensures that this online collection includes samples of each printed drawing.
George Wilkinson retired as architect for the Poor Law Commission in September 1855. Continuing to practice as an architect in Dublin, Wilkinson went on to design railway stations such as Harcourt Street, Athlone, and Sligo, as well as two asylums at Castlebar, Co. Mayo, and Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. The buildings designed by Wilkinson continued to function as workhouses into the early 1900s. During World War I a number were used for military purposes – the Oldcastle workhouse in Co. Meath, for example, became an internment camp for German and Austrian men resident in Ireland. During both the War of Independence and the Civil War some workhouses were destroyed, damaged, or became derelict. Post Independence the surviving workhouses became County Homes, District Hospitals, or were closed.
Of the surviving buildings over 40 continue to function as hospitals to this day, including Mallow General Hospital (Cork), Lagan Valley Hospital (Antrim), and Swinford Hospital (Mayo). Of the 163 workhouses, 74 have been completely demolished and a further 7 are now derelict. Accompanying the digital collection is a dynamic map showing the locations of the workhouses, and noting details of the current use of the building or if it has been demolished. While the majority of the workhouses became hospitals, some of the surviving buildings have been put to a variety of other uses. Kilmallock Union Workhouse, Co. Limerick is now a courthouse and library; Borrisokane Union Workhouse in Tipperary is now a Community College; while the Kilkenny Union Workhouse has been incorporated into MacDonagh Junction Shopping Centre. Like other former workhouses sites, MacDonagh Junction seeks to acknowledge and commemorate the tragic, and often shocking, history of the workhouses with a famine educational experience and a memorial garden. Repurposing historic buildings for modern use, while respecting and acknowledging their history, is often core to successful restoration projects. The vital mission of documenting the workhouse experience is central to the restoration of a number of the former workhouses, including the Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna (Co. Galway), the Donaghmore Famine Workhouse Museum (Co. Laois), Carrickmacross Workhouse (Co. Monaghan), and the Dunfanaghy Workhouse Heritage Centre (Co. Donegal). Ensuring the legacy of the workhouse is sensitively remembered is surely an appropriate use of these landmark buildings.
- This guest blog was contributed by Orna Roche, Metadata Librarian in UCD Digital Library.
O’Connor, John (1995) The workhouses of Ireland : the fate of Ireland’s poor. Dublin : Irish Books & Media.
Ireland. Poor Law Commissioners (1839) Fifth annual report of the Poor Law Commissioners. London : W. Clowes and Sons.
Wilkinson, George (1840) Specification of works required to be performed in the erection of the Union Workhouse. Dublin : Alexander Thom.
Irish Architectural Archive. Workhouse Drawings Collection.
Crossman, Virginia and Gray, Peter (eds.) (2011) Poverty and Welfare in Ireland, 1838–1948. Dublin: Irish Academic Press
Gray, Peter. (2012) ‘Conceiving and constructing the Irish workhouse, 1836-45’, Irish Historical Studies, 38(149), pp. 22-35. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0021121400000602
Gray, Peter. (2009) The Making of the Irish Poor Law, 1815-43. Manchester: Manchester University Press
Mahoney, Paschal. (2016) Grim Bastilles of despair: the poor law union workhouses in Ireland. Cork: Cork University Press