21 April-Kilkenny Workhouse

In common with towns and cities throughout Great Britain and Ireland workhouses were established in Kilkenny City and Carlow town in the early 1840’s. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 established workhouses in England and Wales. The Act with modifications was introduced in Ireland in 1838 ‘for the more effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland’.

Workhouses had existed throughout Great Britain and Ireland prior to 1834 but on a much smaller scale and in a less organised manner. In 1837 George Nicholls was sent to Ireland to see how the British system could be made to work in Ireland. He spent just six weeks in Ireland visiting towns and cities throughout the country, including Carlow and Kilkenny. Daniel O’Connell was derisory about the survey carried out by Nicholls and said ‘He calculated everything and was accurate in nothing.’

The recommendations of Nicholls were accepted by the government in London. Despite vigorous opposition from Irish MPs, of all shades of opinion, the bill introducing the workhouse system to Ireland was passed on July 31st 1838. Work on building the workhouses began immediately and 123 had been built by 1845.

However by 1846 the workhouses that were open were only half full. This was because of difficulties in collecting the money from the rate payers to run the system. There was also a reluctance by people to enter the harsh environment of the workhouse. In order to deter people who were poor but able bodied, conditions for those did enter the workhouse were often miserable. Conditions for people inside the workhouse could never to be better than those enjoyed by people on the outside.

Inside the workhouse men and women had separate accommodation. This divided families. Sleeping areas were cramped, beds were uncomfortable and ventilation and sanitation were poor. Diet was poor and inmates, though often malnourished and in poor health, had to work. Women generally did the domestic work and men were usually involved in growing vegetables or breaking stones.

Each workhouse did have schools for boys and girls and some medical assistance was provided. Overcrowding, hunger and disease particularly during and after the famine led to a very high mortality rate among the inmates. The workhouse system with some modifications continued in operation in Ireland up to 1923. Some were destroyed during the war of independence or as in the case of Carlow were occupied by the military. Others became homes for the elderly and a few became local hospitals.

The workhouse in Kilkenny city, which was located close to the railway station, received its first admissions in the year 1842 On This Day.


Image from page 108 of “The Industries of Dublin. Historical, statistical, biographical. An account of the leading business men, commercial interests, wealth and growth” (1887)




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