Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The last resort

The workhouse was the last resort. Designed as an unholy marriage between welfare and punishment, it was preferable only to total starvation. Famously described as 'the most hated and feared institution ever established in Ireland', but nevertheless full to overflowing during the Famine years of the mid-nineteenth century, you couldn't be provided with relief unless you entered. And the whole family had to go in together. It casts a shadow still. A shame, a stigma, a shiver. Make the sign of the cross.

I only discovered recently that some of my ancestors - and there may be others I don't yet know about - were admitted to the workhouse at Lowtherstown, now Irvinestown.

The surviving records, fragmented as they are, tell a piteous story.

In Fermanagh, the summer of 1848 began with high hopes for a successful harvest. But in June the weather changed, the crops were destroyed, the potato blight spread further and animal feed couldn't be dried. Many of the men had already died after labouring through the previous winter on the government road-building scheme. Tenants in arrears were evicted, their small houses tumbled. They took to the roads and ditches. 

On Wednesday 22 November 1848, 73 paupers were taken in to Lowtherstown Workhouse, including the widowed Margaret Elliott and her four children, James (11, my great-great-grandfather), Catherine (7), Thomas and Irvine (5), from nearby Drumduff. They are described as healthy, with a poor appearance. 'Healthy' may be overstating it, and the age gap between James and Catherine makes me wonder if one or more other children had already been lost.

In March 1849, James and Catherine were admitted again (there's no record of their previous discharge; perhaps they absconded). There's a note saying 'Mother in, poor appearance'.

James and Catherine left again, officially, six weeks later.

By early June they had returned to the workhouse, along with Irvine. They're described now as 'deserted, thinly clothed'.

James left for good on the 15th of June, Catherine on the 20th of July and Irvine on the 25th of August. Thomas isn't mentioned after the first record. I assume that he died in the workhouse. Margaret's fate is also unclear - did she die there too? Did she leave with her children and succumb to illness? Did she actually 'desert' them?

James and Catherine, determined, hardworking and fortunate, made lives for themselves, James in his business in Portaferry, Catherine with her husband William Ardill in Cork. Irvine never married and was always referred to as 'poor Irvine' by the family at large.

By the standards of Famine times, the Elliott children spent a short time in the workhouse. But that time left its mark and saw the break-up of the little family unit.

The Irish workhouses were built so well that many of them are still standing and in use. They're also all essentially the same, so when I visited Bawnboy Workhouse this week, it was personal. I was seeing my own family within these memory-haunted rooms.

The separation must have been the hardest thing to bear. After taking a de-lousing bath and putting on the hated workhouse uniforms, Margaret went to the women's wing and Catherine, alone, to the girls' dormitory. James took his two little brothers up to join the other boys. 

After that, they would have seen each other only from a distance, in church. All the windows are placed deliberately high, so that the only thing you see is sky. Seven-foot walls partition the different areas, for the men, the women, the boys, the girls. Perhaps they called out to each other - but you could be locked in the refractory, the blackhole, for breaking the rule of silence. There's a dent worn on the stone bed there where the desperate and disobedient laid their heads. 

The children lay in rows in their dark dormitories, on straw pallets, under rough, shared rags, with a large, overflowing tub for a toilet. The workhouse, built for 400, held 796 by the start of 1848. Diseases spread like fire: black fever, yellow fever, dysentery, cholera.

Food was watery 'stirabout', thin soup, some bread or potatoes, and occasionally rancid butter. They ate in silence from tin plates.

In the best of times and the best of workhouses, children were schooled and learned trades. In Lowtherstown, the boys were trained for a while under a master tailor and shoemaker, and the girls were taken to Archibald Graham's in Pound Street to make shifts and petticoats with Miss Kane. But the teacher, previously a gardener, admitted himself that he was "no great hand at writing", and the hungry children were listless except when they fought to sit nearest to the fire.

Discipline was strict. Punishments were issued for breaking silence, bad language, insulting or threatening fellow paupers, neglecting cleanliness, not working hard enough, pretending to be ill, playing cards, smuggling in drink or tobacco, disturbing prayers, attempting to enter another ward, disobeying orders, inciting insubordination or attempting to leave.

With illness rife and overcrowding constant, death became a way of life. Many people were close to the end, starved and fever-ridden, by the time they begged for admission. Conditions were appalling and there were few staff with any medical skills. Inmates died every day. 

At Lowtherstown, burials began in the workhouse grounds in January 1847. The Elliott children would have seen the grim removals, but they would have been spared the sight of their little brother's burial in the paupers' plot, dropped through the hinged base of a reusable coffin.

James and Irvine knew Tommy had gone. But Margaret and Catherine, behind their walls, didn't until, eventually, the priest read out the names of the dead.

I walk the buildings at Bawnboy with a small group of women. We range in age from teens to seventies. We chat at first, but grow gradually quieter. Our guide is knowledgeable, presenting the facts clearly and pragmatically. Sometimes it takes a moment for what she's said to sink in, for the horror to dawn on our faces. It's not that long ago.

I find myself making image after image of windows, doors, locks and keyholes - the things that offered hope and connection but ultimately separated and imprisoned.

I imagine the members of my family and their separate trials. Isolation, loneliness, despair, too much responsibility. I think too of Thomas Elliott the elder, Margaret's husband, lost to the winter, having tried his hardest to keep his family from this fate. They're six from amongst over a million, but for me they're the real faces of the bigger tragedy.

I've brought with me six tiny silver hearts - I carved one in wax and cast the set. As I walk round a second time, I look for a place to lay them to rest. I find it by the chapel, at the boys' side of the workhouse. It's a high window ledge, out of easy sight. The afternoon is dark, but just as I approach, a rare beam of sunshine lights it. I put the hearts gently in the corner and say a prayer for the six people they represent.

Many thanks to Dymphna Headen and the team at Bawnboy Workhouse for the warm welcome this week. If you're interested in learning more about Irish workhouses, John O'Connor's book, The Workhouses of Ireland, is fantastic, full of facts and compassion. Breege McCusker's short book, Lowtherstown Workhouse, is excellent for details specific to Lowtherstown.


  1. I just read this blog, Judith, and you have captured the scene so eloquently. It is so sad. And the photos express the sadness perfectly. Thank you for sharing it.

    1. Thank you, Norah. It was a moving experience - I knew it would be sad, but it made it all so much more real to visit this place.