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Building of the Month - August 2011

Portumna Union Workhouse, PORTUMNA Td., Portumna, County Galway

Portumna Union Workhouse 01 - Aerial View 

Figure 1: An aerial view of the workhouse clearly illustrates the symmetrical arrangement of the complex allowing for the segregation of inmates according to age and gender.  The workhouse at Portumna has been compared to Castlecomer (1850-3), County Kilkenny, and Clonakilty (1852-3), County Cork, both of which were also completed as part of the second wave of workhouse building following the Great Famine (1845-9)

George Wilkinson (1814-90) was the architect responsible for the workhouses in Ireland.  Born in Oxfordshire, into a family of builder-architects, he was appointed by the Irish Poor Law Commissioners to design and supervise an ambitious programme of workhouse construction.  He arrived in Ireland, aged twenty-four, in 1839/40.  By 1843, one hundred and twelve workhouses had been built and by 1847 a total of one hundred and thirty were completed.

The Portumna Poor Law Union was formally declared on the 22nd of February 1850.  It was one of thirty-three new unions formed following the Great Famine (1845-9).  The Portumna Union Workhouse was built for six hundred inmates on 8 acres, 2 roods and 39 perches of land for a total cost, including fittings, of £7,785.  The workhouse received its first inmates in 1852 (fig. 1).

A report for the Poor Law Commissioners in 1839 stated that: "The style of the building is intended to be of the cheapest description compatible with durability; and effect is aimed at by harmony of proportion and simplicity of arrangement, all mere decoration being studiously excluded."

Portumna Union Workhouse 02 - Entrance Gateway 

Figure 2: An extract from George Wilkinson's drawings for the proposed Portumna Union Workhouse illustrates the canopied Entrance Gateway, one of the few features not to have survived the deterioration of the complex in the later twentieth century

Wilkinson quickly formulated a standard prototype.  The first one hundred and thirty were built to a generic design largely from locally-sourced materials.  In the later phase – comprising thirty-three workhouses and during which Portumna was built – Wilkinson altered the design somewhat.  Also, in response to criticism of damp penetration, the façades were finished with lime rendered.  Timber windows, which would achieve better sealing, also took the place of the cast-iron fittings used in earlier workhouses (fig. 2).

Portumna Union Workhouse 03 

Figure 3: A view of the complex from the north-east exercise yard showing the two-storey boys' and girls' wards on the left and the three-storey adult male and female wards on the right centred on a single-storey dining hall

The Portumna complex was built on a north west-south east axis and was enclosed by a high stone wall.  It is similar in size and layout to the workhouses at Castlecomer (1850-3; extant) and Urlingford (1851-2; demolished), County Kilkenny, and Clonakilty (1852-3; extant) and Mitchelstown (1850-2; demolished), County Cork, all of which were built at the same time.  The complex at Portumna and its surrounding land survive largely intact unlike many that have only survived in part or where the land attached has been used for other purposes.  The buildings are set out on a H-shaped plan, around four courtyards, with the laundry and infirmary situated to the side.  All of the seven principal buildings survive.  These comprise the boys' and girls' wards, the chapel and kitchen, the men's and women's wards, the laundry and the infirmary (fig. 3).

Many interior features are preserved and include door fittings with ironmongery, floors, sleeping platforms and stone staircases (figs. 4-5).  However, little evidence of the smaller outbuildings survives: they are shown in a set of fourteen drawings held by the Irish Architectural Archive.

Portumna Union Workhouse 04 - Interior Portumna Union Workhouse 05 - Interior

Figures 4-5: Two views of the dormitories show a stark design aesthetic.  A limewashed surface finish was intended to prevent the spread of cholera between inmates while the open roof structure overhead was intended to improve air circulation.

Unfortunately, the workhouse has lately fallen into a state of dereliction.  A conservation statement commissioned by the Western Health Board (HSE), the owners of the property, found that while the buildings were in a very vulnerable state, they were not beyond repair or reuse.  That report was completed in 2001.  It also recommended that the removal of ivy growth and the restoration of the roofs be carried out as a matter of urgency.

A local development company, South East Galway Integrated Rural Development Ltd., founded by members of the community in 1997, was interested in conserving the buildings and finding new uses for the complex.  The HSE agreed to lease the complex to them and a master plan was prepared.  Thus far a bat survey has been carried out; all the ivy growth has been removed; three roofs have been restored with one more currently in progress; and a number of the windows have also been conserved.  This work has been assisted by Galway County Council, the Heritage Council, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Galway Rural Development Ltd., and the local community.  Part of the complex is now being used to tell the story of the Irish Workhouse.  Visitors are welcome and can also enjoy seeing a conservation and redevelopment work in progress.

For opening times or for further information see www.irishworkhousecentre.ie or call +353 (0) 90 975 92 00.

Ursula Marmion, Project Coordinator

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