In a Workhouse Ward - 16th Nov. 1946


In a Workhouse Ward: Text Version

November 16, 1946


'Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small, to with a workhouse.'

Anyone who read 'Oliver Twist' will remember these lines. Nor will they be likely to forget Dickens terrible account of workhouse life in the England of his day, the inhuman conditions that obtained in the institutions, the heartless boards who governed them, the shocking system of 'getting places' for the youthful paupers, and above all the quality and the meagreness of the fare.

One sentence in that book made the English people wake up to their responsibilities: -

'Oliver Twist has asked for more.'

One little orphaned pauper, driven to despair by the pangs of hunger, had done a thing unheard of, had asked for more – and by so doing had changed workhouse life forever.


About a hundred years ago workhouses were springing up in many parts of Ireland. It is only when looking up old records that we realise how numerous they were. In many places, where now all memory of them is lost were buildings styled 'auxillary workhouses'. To those auxillary workhouses in town and village, flocked the famine stricken, who could find no accomadation, in the principal house of misery.

'They carved the date above the gate,

'Eighteen Forty-Nine,'

When they built the workhouse on the hill,

Of limestone tall and fine.

A plague-wind blew across the land,

Fever was in the air,

Fields were black, that once were green,

And was everywhere.'


Tens of thousands of Irish speakers died in the workhouses in the second half of the last century. It is told how John O'Donovan, the great antiquarian and scholar, once met the husband of Queen Victoria. 'Where, he asked the Prince Consort, 'is the best Irish spoken?'

And that noble son of a small farmer from Kilkenny, drawing himself to his full height, looked his questioner straight in the face and replied:-

'The best Irish is spoken in the workhouses, sir.' Aye, indeed:- wealth of lore and history and legend must have died within those walls. Broken hearts must have throbbed beneath those roofs, where the starving Gael, driven from his own fair fields, pined and perished.


Only one writer that I know of found comedy in a workhouse. She was Lady Gregory of the Abbey. Her play 'The workhouse ward' is a lively piece of drama. Two old bachelors find themselves at the end of their days -– as all bachelors should –- in the ward of a local workhouse. In the days before their retirement from active life they had more than a few verbal differences. From constant practice they had added to their respective vocabularies many, many not too flattering and even offensive words and epithets. Whenever a little disagreement arose between the pair they drew on these words and phrases and hurled them at each other with a will. 'The workhouse ward' contains the climax to one of those conflicts. It is certainly a very popular play especially with rural amateur dramatic societies, because it is easily staged, needs no elaborate settings, and calls forth fifty laughs a second.


It was only as a last resort, and when all hope was dead, that the people came to the workhouse. Many of them were too proud to beg and starved. It was hard to blame them. The old workhouse or poorhouse, system was one intended to degrade. The one who availed himself of it always bore a stigma. Whatever you got there was not given with Christian charity. The whole system seemed fitted to hurt, to destroy all decency and independence, and to make the poor realize that, they were infinitely inferior to those who provided the workhouses. Families were torn apart, and in those famine days the workhouse held a very important place in the lives of what appeared to be a doomed and disappearing race.

'The people came to drink the soup

Ladled from greasy bowls,

They died in whitewashed wards that held,

A thousand Irish souls.'


The face of Ireland has changed much since the workhouses were built. Many of them now stand windowless and roofless monuments to a people's triumph and endurance. In each county one of them survives, renovated and renewed, and labeled the County Home. I have already quoted from Mr. J. MacManus's poem '1849' and now in conclusion I give the last two verses of the poem.

'And still the workhouse looks to heaven,

The hill's high-windowed dome,

The same for all its name is changed

To-day to County Home,

For the chiseled date stands bold and clear,

'Eighteen Forty-Nine,'

To all who pass the Poorhouse road,

A memory and a sign.'

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