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Building of the Month - May 2013

The Union Workhouses of County Meath

Introduced in Ireland in 1838 by the 'Act for the More Effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland', the workhouse system was designed to provide relief, in the form of food, accommodation and daily occupation, which could only be obtained upon entry to a workhouse, to the destitute poor of that union.  One of the main provisions of the 1838 Act included the division of the country into 130 Poor Law Unions based on Irish electoral divisions [1] and the formation of a Board of Guardians for each union to administer the poor law and to build, furnish and maintain a workhouse in each union.

To ensure the system was implemented with as little expense as possible, the principle of 'less eligibility' was enforced – the idea that dependency on poor relief should be less attractive and materially less comfortable than the life of even the poorest labourer [2].  Conditions within the workhouse, therefore, were deliberately designed to be poorer, more laborious – 'less eligible' – than that which could be obtained through the lowest wage-paying occupations.  Although austere and strictly regimented, the workhouse provided all of life's fundamental requirements to those admitted.

Meath Union Workhouses 01 - Poor Law Unions

Figure 1: A map showing, in red, the five Poor Law Unions in County Meath and, in blue, five unions incorporating neighbouring counties.  Dunshaughlin Poor Law Union was formally declared on the 1st of April 1839 and covered an area of 170 square miles; Trim Poor Law Union followed on the 22nd of May 1839 and covered 177 square miles; Navan Poor Law Union was declared on the 25th of June 1839 and covered 145 square miles; Kells Poor Law Union was formed on the 8th of July 1839 and covered 178 square miles; and, finally, Oldcastle Poor Law Union was formally declared on the 6th of January 1840 and covered an area of 169 square miles

Upon the division of the country into 130 Poor Law Unions, as required by the 1838 Act, County Meath contained five unions – Dunshaughlin; Kells, Navan, Oldcastle and Trim, with parts of five other unions from neighbouring counties also incorporated (fig. 1).  It was intended that each Poor Law Union would contain a workhouse where the poor would receive relief.  Dunshaughlin, which was the first of the five union workhouses declared fit for the reception of paupers, opened on the 17th of May 1841, with accommodation for 400 people.  Trim was next, opening on the 11th of October, with accommodation for 600.  Navan followed, opening on the 4th of May 1842, with accommodation for 500 people and, in rapid succession, came Kells, opening on the 23rd of May, and finally Oldcastle, opening on the 12th of August, both with accommodation for 600.

Meath Union Workhouses 02 - Birds Eye View

Figure 2: A drawing titled "Birds Eye View Shewing [sic] The General Arrangement For A Building To Contain From 400 To 600 Persons"

The Poor Law Commissioners requested that the style of the building adopted for the workhouse was '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', conforming with the objective that the standard of living in the workhouse did not encourage those who were not entitled to poor relief to apply for admission [3].  Building plans for three types of workhouses, to accommodate 400, 800 and 1,200 paupers, were submitted by architect George Wilkinson (1814-90), each of similar design (fig. 2).

Meath Union Workhouses 03 - Dunshaughlin "Front Block" Drawing Meath Union Workhouses 04 - Dunshaughlin "Front Block" Photograph

Figures 3-4: A detail from the Workhouse Drawings Collection showing the "Elevation of Entrance Front" proposed (1839) by George Wilkinson (1814-90), Architect to the Poor Law Commissioners in Ireland (appointed 1839: retired 1855).  A standard prototype, the scheme brings to mind surviving "Front Blocks" in Ballinrobe (1840-2), County Mayo; Carrick-on-Shannon (1840-2), County Leitrim; and Limerick (1839-41).  A photograph from 2004 shows the "Front Block" following its adaptation as a private residence.  Courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive Workhouse Drawings Collection (85/138)

Each workhouse, no matter the capacity, featured three separate blocks for three distinct purposes.  The two-storey "Front Block", known as the administrative block, was the place where paupers were received on the ground floor and where the weekly meetings were held in a board room on the first floor (figs. 3-4).  Directly behind this block was a larger two-storey accommodation block which contained the sleeping quarters of the master and the matron; separate dormitories and schoolrooms for boys and girls; a nursery for infants; and separate accommodation for 'aged' men and women.  Dayrooms, kitchens, the dining hall, washhouses and a chapel, situated behind the accommodation block, were linked by a central row of rooms to the third block situated at the very rear of the site.  This third block contained the infirmary and "idiot wards".  Yards were sectioned off between each block for separate use by the various classes of inmates – boys; girls; men; and women.  Workhouses were usually well sited covering an area of approximately twelve acres, and were bounded by high stone wall which enforced the prison-like atmosphere attributed to them.  The grounds, though spacious, were only tended and planted as could be afforded.  All workhouses in Ireland generally conformed to this layout with several additions and alterations carried out, as required, to increase capacity, thus giving an impression of individuality to each (fig. 5).

Meath Union Workhouses 05 - Dunshaughlin "Front Block" Wing

Figure 5: Another photograph from 2004 shows the wing added to the "Front Block" in the later nineteenth century, one of the small variants that distinguishes Dunshaughlin Union Workhouse from its contemporaries

A report by James Pennethorne, architect and commissioner appointed to enquire into construction of workhouses in Ireland, described the style of the workhouse buildings:

These houses have almost invariably been built of limestone of the country…  The window jambs and heads, and the chimney shafts are frequently of brick.  These houses, when built entirely of stone and with stone-capped gables, have a very good appearance but the brick arches and jambs of windows destroy their good effect.  The architecture of the exterior is very plain and does not claim to rank with any style, but is frequently called 'Elizabethan' or 'Gothic'.  These terms however are inappropriate; they convey an idea of large windows, rich workmanship, and much decoration, whereas the design of these workhouses is of the plainest possible description; the windows have small plain cottage casements; the wing buildings are simply finished with double gables sometimes coped with stones and sometimes having barge-boards…  It was desirable to give the buildings a more cheerful aspect than the prisons…  Their effect is usually simple and good; and there has not been, in my opinion, any expense incurred unnecessarily for decoration… [4]

Meath Union Workhouses 06 - Dunshaughlin Accommodation Block

Figure 6: While the "Front Block" at Dunshaughlin has been successfully repurposed, thereby safeguarding its future, the accommodation blocks have fallen into disrepair.  Of the other four Union Workhouses in County Meath only Navan and Trim survive intact; the workhouses at Oldcastle and Kells were demolished in the 1950s and 1960s respectively

The fact that many workhouses survive in the landscape today is testimony not only to the quality of workmanship in their construction but above all to Wilkinson's ability to design durable, yet relatively inexpensive, buildings.  Their classic architectural style and standard layout makes the upstanding remains of the workhouses easily recognisable throughout the country.  The five workhouses in County Meath are perfect examples of how the workhouses of Ireland have fared since their construction, covering all aspects of their current status.  Navan and Trim are in use today as a hospital and nursing home respectively; a section of the Dunshaughlin workhouse was adapted as a guesthouse but the remaining two blocks, under different ownership, have been left to the elements and are now a shadow of their former architectural magnificence (fig. 6); and, finally, the workhouses in Kells and Oldcastle have long since been demolished.

Rachel Barrett B.A. & M. Litt. History, TCD; M. Litt. Archives & Records Management University of Dundee

1          Initially 130 Poor Law Unions were forms based upon 2,049 electoral divisions but between 1848 and 1850 an additional 33 Poor Law Unions were formed by subdividing and reorganising the boundaries of existing unions

2          Kinealy, Christine, A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland (Chicago 1997), p.38

3          Nicholls, George, A History of the Irish Poor Law (New York 1967), pp.243-4

4          Report of the Commissioners for Inquiring into Contracts for Certain Union Workhouses in Ireland (1844), p.387

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