by Janet Martin
(Skerries Historical Society Meeting – September 2015)
Even today the word ‘workhouse’ conjures up dark images of ranks of desperate, defeated people wearing hideous, uncomfortable uniforms which drained them of all individuality and leached them of hope. A generation or two ago the workhouse was used, like the bogeyman, to frighten small children into behaving themselves. How did it come by its fearsome reputation?
In the September talk for Skerries Historical Society, ‘Dealing with Destitution’, Janet Martin explained with an in depth look at the Balrothery Workhouse – where the poor of Skerries, amongst others, might find themselves when all other options were exhausted.
The government had a dread that they would end up supporting freeloaders and decreed that conditions in a workhouse must be worse than a labourer could expect to provide for himself and his family by hard work. And a labourer’s lot was not a happy one at the best of times so conditions in the workhouse were grim.
The people did get fed – stirabout (porridge) with a half pint of milk in the morning and potatoes and a pint of milk in the evening – but it was only when the Famine hit that people became desperate enough to endure the other privations of life in the workhouse. Families were ruthlessly separated – men and teenage boys lived in one part, women and teenage girls in a different part separated by a high wall, then boys aged between five and twelve had a separate ward with a similar ward for girls of the same age.
Then there was the work – like those imprisoned on Robben Island a century later, the unluckiest amongst the men had to break rocks while the women picked oakum – which meant painstakingly teasing apart the fibres from old ships’ ropes and picking off the tar so they could be reused.
There were those who tried to make a difference – local member of parliament, George Hamilton of Balbriggan, pleaded with the government not to raise taxes on small farmers which would drive more people into destitution and the workhouse. The government wouldn’t listen so, together with other wealthy locals such as the Woods of Milverton and the Cobbes of Newbridge House in Donabate, he contributed money to a job creation scheme. George Woods also set up a soup kitchen to help those in need – as did the Taylors of Ardgillan.
Even so, at the height of the Famine in 1849, Balrothery Workhouse was so full that it had twice the number of inmates it was designed for. Having been built to house 400 people, it held 800 and there were another 900 people dependent on ‘outdoor relief’. A few years later, and with the worst of the Famine over, numbers in the workhouse declined.
Report by Oona Roycroft