Artifact: South Dublin Union Workhouse

Category: Urban Growth and Infrastructure 

The Rise of the Infamous South Dublin Workhouse

The entrance to the South Dublin Workhouse 
Source: RTE Century Ireland

Workhouses in Ireland were formally known as Houses of Industry and it is estimated that there were a total of 163 workhouses throughout Ireland. The first House of Industry was established in Dublin by an act of Irish Parliament in 1703, and it was built south of the River Liffey and St. James’s Street. Irish Parliament established this workhouse in hopes that the institution would provide relief and employment to the thousands of adult Irish citizens who were experiencing high levels of poverty because of the Great Famine. In addition to caring for the poor, the workhouse also punished beggars and vagrants who were accused of infesting the streets of Ireland or who refused to work. Then in 1772, the workhouse was reformed and split into three sections: the workhouse where the poor were located, a hospital for the mentally ill, and a foundling hospital reserved for children. This change in infrastructure was made to accommodate the new groups of people that the workhouse was now beginning to admit, including children, orphans, the old, and the infirm. Afterwards in 1838, the House of Industry on James’s Street was renamed the South Dublin Union Workhouse. The workhouse was renamed because the Irish Poor Law Act of 1838 divided Ireland into different geographical territories and it required each workhouse to be named after the town it was located in. As time progressed, the South Dublin Workhouse became the largest workhouse in Ireland regarding size and number of inhabitants. But despite its good intentions it became the most feared institution in nineteenth century Dublin because the reality in this workhouse was far worse than the outside world. 

Life inside the South Dublin Workhouse was brutal by design to ensure that only the neediest enrolled, but the economic downfall brought by the Great Famine pushed thousands into a workhouse that was designed to house only hundreds at a time. As a result, up to 100 men and 60 women were crammed into poorly maintained cellar rooms where they shared dormitory bunk beds. Although the workhouse housed men and women at the same time, any interaction between them was frowned upon and in some cases resulted in punishment. Inhabitants of the South Dublin Workhouse were also segregated by religion given that the workhouse had different infirmaries for Catholic and Protestant patients. Despite its goals, the workhouse failed to alleviate fully the economic poverty many Irish people were suffering. Instead, the South Dublin Workhouse became a nightmare for those who enrolled willingly and for those who were forced in. In the following sections we will gain insight into the demographics that comprised the South Dublin Workhouse and what the daily routine was like. The living and working conditions will then help us understand the hatred many Irish felt toward the workhouse, and how this workhouse paved the path for social reform in Ireland. 

Daily Routine and Living Conditions of the Workhouse Inhabitants

Inside look at a Dublin workhouse 
Source: Irish Central

Workhouse conditions were not designed to be comfortable by any means. At best, the harsh conditions were an attempt to divert people from having to depend on the government; but at worst, the harsh conditions were used to ensure the inhabitants stayed for the shortest period of time possible. The South Dublin Union was supposed to be the “model workhouse” at the time because it was the largest, but the workhouse was grossly overpopulated and woefully understaffed. Systematic cramming allowed the workhouse to hold more than three thousand inmates at a time and those inmates included the sick, healthy, disabled, mentally incapacitated, young, and old. In Pre-Famine times the days followed a rigid schedule, with bells ushering transitions and mandatory periods of silence. With 6 a.m. risings, the workers would head to the dining halls to begin prayer, take roll, and undergo inspection for cleanliness, and afterwards the inmates were allowed to get breakfast. Able-bodied men would go to work grinding stones in the yard and bones in the kitchen or complete other manual labor. Women on the other hand would make/mend clothes, care for the sick, spin wool, repair shoes, and the like; while children would be in school. At around 2 p.m. it was time for dinner, usually potatoes and milk. Visitors were allowed only if the Matron or Master was present and that is about as far as their liberties would go. By 9 p.m. prayers and rules were read, doors were locked, and everyone was sent to bed. Structure and routine were key elements of the South Dublin Workhouse prior to the Famine.

But during the Famine disorder and chaos fell upon the workhouse. Sick, poor, and starving people flooded the workhouse and maintenance fell by the wayside. Sewage pooled in the yards, bathrooms were unkempt, and there was barely any room to stand in the sleeping areas. A point of contention among many philanthropists of the time was whether children should be allowed in the workhouses and be able to see their mothers. The concern was that the children were too young to see the atrocities occurring, and their impressionable minds would be ruined. Regardless, there were roughly eight thousand children in the workhouse, many of whom were separated from their mothers and ended up in the hospital wing. The rest of the population were mostly women and the elderly, as able-bodied men were rarely allowed access because they were urged to get jobs anywhere else they could. The wards had roughly one thousand people per one trained staff member to care for, creating over-reliance on the untrained poor inmates. If the South Dublin Union was supposed to be the “model workhouse”, one could fear to imagine what other workhouses were like.

The Social Aftermath of the Workhouse on the Irish

The Irish Famine: People at the gates of a workhouse 
Source: FindMyPast

The dismal conditions of the South Dublin Workhouse have left a sour taste in the mouths of the Irish people, and the associations to the institution are almost always negative. Indeed, even as the physical conditions took their toll, families found themselves split apart and their individual belongings confiscated from the very moment they stepped foot in the workhouse. Certain days involved rigorous schedules, while other days resulted in long periods of inactivity and boredom, and all of these factors combined left a long-lasting memory of oppression in the minds of the Irish. More practically, however, the workhouse did provide a certain amount of both short and long-term relief to the inmates. For people constantly on the move, such as travelers and beggars, as well as people suffering from extreme poverty, the workhouse provided a place for them to temporarily relieve their struggles. They provided a long-term place of shelter and food for inmates who had nowhere else to turn and they gave orphaned children places to be housed and raised. As the inmates resided in the workhouse, they were also able to decide if and when they wanted to go back out into the world, which allowed them the freedom to get information about outside jobs and make plans for themselves – some of which included plans to emigrate out of Ireland.

When it came to social and political reform, the workhouses, including the South Dublin Workhouse, were instituted to create jobs and eliminate poverty. However, they received a lot of backlash and experienced a lot of opposition, especially from women. Due to a very narrow job market available to them, young girls made up the vast majority of the workhouses’ population and were often cruelly mistreated. This led to violent riots and much discussion over female rights within the workhouses. The riots gave the Catholic Church a way to take moral leadership, especially when it came to “reforming” how young girls were brought up in the workhouses. Female philanthropists set out to create alternative institutions that would train girls in housework and servant duties without subjecting them to the conditions of the workhouses. These girls became known as “The South Dublin girls,” and their aggressive protests against their circumstances led to a surge in the power of the Catholic Church, as it ended up running a large majority of social service institutions under the argument that it had the ability to tame the behavior of the girls. In this way, the workhouses opened the door for a shift in social power. All in all, though poorly run and often detrimental to inmate health and wellbeing, the workhouses prompted much discussion and action in the direction of social reform, though not without a price often paid by the inmates themselves.


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  1. This was super in depth and interesting! I cannot imagine how horrible lives in the workhouse were, especially with families split apart and young children on their own. I really liked the final note on how it led to the path for social reform; it reminds us that change is never without a price. I definitely learned a lot, great job!!

  2. Your annotation is really interesting! It was difficult to hear about the sad reality of this aspect of Irish history. Yet, this was still super informative. Really good work!

  3. Very well written and clear to read! It is interesting that workhouses as an institution would exist in England so much later than they did in Ireland, under Queen Victoria’s reign. It makes me realize that their later negative connotation in England as a place where immoral women worked to give back to society, means that the public did come to understand their poor conditions and viewed them as a form of punishment- despite their branding as a positive force. Your topic also reminds me of the group who covered the Cholera Epidemic, as they mentioned too that in times of crisis the English often manipulated Irish poverty to their advantage. In this case for labour, or for high soap taxes during the cholera pandemic.

  4. You annotation is very well put together wth full on interesting information. It shows a part of the Irish history that was bitter, but at the end something good was able to come out. Getting to know how something was build on the foundation to help and restore lost its mission is cruel, but shapes a nation to begetter for its citizens. It was wonderful to include how women decided to act and fight for their rights out out these houses that limited them.

  5. Wow, this makes me really grateful that I did not grow up in Ireland during the Great Famine years. I mean, I was already glad that I did not, but this really reinforced that gratitude. Still, a very good read, and very informative. I was already familiar with the fact that Ireland had workhouses during that time, but I was unaware of the terrible conditions and rules enforced inside. I liked that the daily schedule was included in the piece, and it was interesting to read about who was living inside. Also interesting was the fact that the pushback against these institutions strengthened the Catholic Church—I wouldn’t have guessed that on my own. Great job!

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