A new short series on the history of Athlone Workhouse
Athlone, in common with other Irish towns experienced a great rise in population between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century. Unfortunately we don't have precise population figures until the nineteenth century and even then there were various ways of defining the population - the census of both 1821 and 1831 gave returns of almost 11,000 but this included the population figure for the entire borough of Athlone which amounted to some four and a half thousand acres. By 1841 the figures has dropped to 6,393 but these were contained in the urban area on a mere 440 acres. The Census of 1851 records a population of 6,214 in the urban area but this figure excludes 1,766 inmates in Athlone Workhouse.
So who were these inmates in the Workhouse and what exactly was a Workhouse? Ireland at that time was a largely agricultural economy and the backbone of this economy was the small tenant farmer or cottier who lived on a relatively small holding which he rented from a landlord. He relied heavily on the potato crop to feed his family and pay the rent - his was a very precarious existence.
Nineteenth century Britain had the benefit of the industrial revolution but Ireland, by way of contrast, experienced a century of great depression and poverty which was exacerbated by the visitation of the Great Potato Famine. The Famine was an event of such catastrophic magnitude that it left an indelible mark on the Irish people that remained well into the twentieth century. Ireland was over-populated and under resourced and by the end of the eighteenth century it was estimated that over two million people were living in poverty and destitute for about thirty weeks of the year managing to survive over the summer and autumn months thanks to the annual potato harvest. There were no social welfare systems in place - the plight of the hungry was to beg and to rely on the charity of family, friends and neighbours.
Poverty in Nineteenth Century Ireland
In 1841 66% of all families in Ireland (and remember this included the entire province of Ulster which was highly industrialised) made their living through agricultural activities, many of them on a very small scale. In St. Peter's Parish, Athlone 722 people were engaged in agriculture as against 195 employed in trades. The ratio would be even higher in other parishes as Athlone itself had many local industries (including brewing and distilling) offering non-agricultural employment. The landlord system left a lot to be desired and many tenant-farmers were paying above the odds for leasing land and they had neither the incentive nor the ability to improve their holding. So precarious was their plight that they usually survived with the threat of eviction hanging over their heads. One bad harvest and arrears of rent was enough to bring the bailiff down on you and there were many evictions in the hinterland of Athlone during the nineteenth century.
The Whately Commission
Between the years 1800 and 1840 no fewer that one-hundred and fourteen Royal Commissions and sixty-one Special Commissions of Inquiry were set up to consider the conditions of poverty in Ireland. Of all the inquiries held the most significant was probably the Whately Commission. This Commission was presided over by the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Richard Whately (1787-1863).
Dr Whately was a Theologian and Economist. He was educated at Oxford where he tutored the famous William Nassau Senior whom he later succeeded as the second Drummond Professor of Economics from 1829-31. Dr Whately was not too happy to be appointed to the See of Dublin in 1831 but from 1833-36 he chaired a very fine Commission which carried out very detailed investigations into social conditions in Ireland. He put forward the need not alone to provide social services to the poor but also to implement measures to prevent destitution. Among the recommendations of the Whately Commission were: the reclamation of waste land; the improvement of land through drainage and fencing; the introduction of agricultural instruction for peasants; the buildings of healthy housing to replace the sub-human cabins which littered the countryside; increasing the funding to the Board of Works to enable them to undertake useful public works; the introduction of direct labour for road making and the development of trade, manufacture, fisheries and mining to provide useful employment outside the agricultural sector. Whately also had recommendations to close public houses on Sundays and to outlaw the joint bar and grocery businesses which were becoming very common in Ireland.
The Commission's voluminous reports and appendices were not welcomed by the British Government. Lord John Russell the Leader of the House of Commons felt that Whately and his colleagues has gone beyond their remit which was to investigate the plight of the destitute classes, instead it seemed that he was looking at how British state resources could be used to improve the Irish economy. So instead of implementing any or all of the Commission's recommendations Russell decided instead to send someone with a working knowledge of the Poor Law of England to Ireland to arrive at a practical solution as to the measures that should be introduced to deal with the poor in Ireland.
George Nicholls in Ireland
Lord John Russell selected one of the English poor Law Commissioners Mr George Nicholls to visit Ireland and this he did, arriving in September 1836 and staying for about six weeks. In his whistle-stop tour Nicholls visited Dublin as well as counties Carlow, Tipperary, Kilkenny, Galway, Mayo, Sligo, Sligo, Fermanagh, Armagh and Down. It was on the basis of Nicholls' report that the Government decided to shelve the proposals of the Whately Commission in favour of introducing the Workhouse system in Ireland based on the English system. One of the major problems in Ireland was that the level of poverty was considerably worse than in England with millions of people just about managing to survive.
Today when we look at the fine substantial buildings that housed our Workhouses we lose sight of the reality of just how tough the Workhouse system was. Part of the rationale behind the system was to make the Workhouse the last resort of the pauper, to make their stay as tough as possible and to encourage the inmates to leave the Workhouse as soon as circumstances (or health) improved. Those who administered the Poor Law Unions aimed to keep their inmates at a point where they were no better off than the average labourer in the district - they were badly clothed, their living conditions, food and sanitation facilities were poor and the repetitive and irksome nature of the labour which they were expected to carry out ensured that they developed no great love for the Workhouse. Quite apart from the tough conditions mentioned above the inmates of the Workhouse were little better off than prisoners being confined to the house and exercise yards, subjected to strict codes of discipline and deprived of regular contact with family and friends.
In February 1837 Lord John Russell introduced the Poor Law (Ireland) Bill. It was opposed by many including Daniel O'Connell but welcomed by the majority of the Catholic clergy. Under the terms of the Poor Law Ireland Act the country was divided into 130 Poor Law Unions. Each Union was centred on a market town where a Workhouse was built for the relief of the distressed. It was agreed that no outdoor relief schemes were to be administered by the Union, paupers were to be admitted into the Workhouses and while there were expected to carry out the duties assigned to them.