Trip Through Time

Remembering the Dundalk Workhouse dead from the Great Famine

Dundalk History

Peter Kavanagh


Peter Kavanagh


Remembering the Dundalk Workhouse dead from the Great Famine

The local Workhouse on Ballybarrack Hill

During the past few years there has been a lot of work done by very many local people to commemorate the thousands of people, both old and young at the time of their deaths, who passed away during the Famine period of the 'Hungry Forties' in the nineteenth century.

Much of this soul-searching in these parts related to those who passed away as a result of conditions in the local Workhouse on Ballybarrack Hill. So much so that there is an impression abroad that this old Workhouse, demolished in 1987, was built specifically to deal with the effects of Great Famine which began in 1846.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth as this institution was erected at the time when Ireland was relatively prosperous and the population was exploding to a record level. The Workhouses of Ireland were put there under the Poor Law Act of 1839 to try to remove the many beggars and destitute persons who were roaming the towns and countryside of Ireland at the time.

Eventually a total of 163 Workhouses were erected throughout Ireland to a design created by English architect George Wilkinson and the Dundalk Workhouse was one of them. They served the purpose of housing destitute people for over eighty years until their running was taken over by the County Councils in 1924 and the local Workhouse became the District Hospital. They were also intended to provide useful work for inmates, but many of them were in no fit state, or were too young, to do this hard work!

The cure for the poverty in Ireland of the early nineteenth century proved worse than the problem and it has been truly said that Workhouses rapidly became the most 'hated and feared institutions in Ireland' where poor people suffered and died for over a century. Even turning them into District Hospitals did not do much good for the conditions that prevailed in them and the were still known as 'Workhouses' by young people of my own generation. I can recall that my own father had a great fear of 'ending up in the Workhouse' as a result of falling in debt. I am sure that many Dundalk families suffered from the same phobias.

Many good people laboured for years to try to improve the conditions in the Workhouses and I am aware that the second Editor of the Democrat, Thomas Roe, served for years of the Board of the local Poor Law Guardians and it was his writings in the early editions of his newspaper that did much to improve the conditions there in the late nineteenth century. I am sure that there were a great many other worthy people who did much to help those 'caught in the Workhouse Trap'. People of the present day are inclined to be scornful of the work of politicians but I can recall many local representatives, across the political spectrum, who were unceasing in their efforts to improve the lot of poor people who were unfortunate enough to find themselves in such institutions. That, at time, where local councillors were paid no more than meagre travelling allowances for their time and efforts!

The above thoughts about the old Workhouse on Ballybarrack Hill, where the site is now just a wilderness, were inspired by something I read in Padraic us Dubhthaighh's 'Book of Dundalk'. In it he writes ---

'The Workhouse buildings at Ballybarrack were formally opened on 29th September, 1850. The probability is that they had been used , before completion, for the relief of the distress caused by the Famine.'

Earlier he had stated --- 'Inmates were first admitted to Dundalk Workhouse on 14th March, 1842; the first Poor Rate had been struck on 11th October of the previous year. The Workhouse was designed to admit 800 persons, with "annex" accommodation for fever patients. In 1847 the number admitted was 2,592 and the number 'discharged or dead' was 2,375.'

These figures starkly illustrate the difference the onset of the Great Famine brought about and these two reports made me wonder what happened over the more than eight years between March 1842 and September 1850. Why the 'formal opening' on September 29, 1850? The Book of Dundalk states 'The probability is that they (the buildings) had been used, before completion, for the relief of the distress caused by the Famine', which seems to indicate that the buildings were not completed until 1850!

There is much more I could write about the old Dundalk Workhouse and, maybe I will return to the subject in future notes. While much research has been done, by many people, into the social history of the Workhouse, there is clearly much more that could be undertaken.

One of the things that has been mentioned to me by Noel Sharkey, who has himself written much about the conditions of the Workhouse, is that he and others feel that a more permanent memorial should erected on a public site in or near Dundalk, to remind people of the many thousands who suffered and died at the old institution. This would, indeed, be a very worthy objective for the 170th Anniversary of the 'formal opening' in 2020.