It’s funny what you come across when off the beaten track.
And sometimes it really is not.
We’re visiting a (officially named) Community Resource, Training and Heritage Centre for a tour which is not likely to be jolly.
We are about to be guided around a former, partially renovated Workhouse. Workhouses appear to be places which are muttered about quietly, but about which we know very little (except for small mentions in novels by, for example, Dickens’ and Thomas Hardy.) It should be enlightening.
The enormity of The Workhouse is the first shock. The massive building, a short distance from the centre of Carrickmacross, just over an hour’s scenic drive north from Dublin, we learn, is only one third of what once stood there. Three storeys high at the highest, one hundred metres long, the original complex - for that is what it was - has been partially restored from dereliction, turned into a community support Centre and opened for tours for those brave enough to learn a bit more about one of the most sorrowful part of Ireland’s history. There are plans to restore the second, larger, derelict building that looms behind. The third building was demolished for its stones after the Workhouse closed between the Wars.
130 workhouses were built in Ireland in the early 1840s to help alleviate the distress of destitution suffered by one third of the country’s population of 9 million. It was a time when England ruled and owned Ireland. They were there just in time for the Famine that ravaged the country, killing a million citizens and forcing a mass emigration.
I’m braced for a bout of Brit-bashing, for it is well known that Britain did little, if anything, to alleviate the famine, preferring instead to export the produce that could have fed the populace. But our guide carefully steers around apportioning blame, instead concentrating on the workings of the establishment.
The Hotel California it ain’t: you couldn’t even check in anytime you liked. You certainly couldn’t leave freely.
There were strict rules about when you could leave : everyone who entered as a group, had to leave as a group - that must have restricted an inmate’s (for that is how they were titled) ability to find work or betterment.
The genuinely dispossessed, having renounced all claims to land and possessions, were admitted for assessment and eligibility. If accepted, personal clothes were removed and a standard outfit was issued. Then men and women, boys and girls were separated. Children were housed in the renovated building, adults in the second, which sported a watchtower. The third was the Fever House, which included the death house.
The “work” part of the system meant, among other civil projects, building roads (you can still drive down Famine Roads today) and the women learned to make lace to sell to the affluent: Carrickmacross Lace is still highly valued to this day.
Our first port of call is a look at the adult building, it’s sightless windows and forbidding, gaunt skeleton serve as a reminder of all the souls who must have gazed out, trapped inside beneath a watchtower.
A small pile of rubble and indent in the long grass at the back of the complex marks the site of the Fever House. Beyond that, in the corners of the paddock crosses stand tall. They mark the mass graves where countless unknown people were buried in pits after succumbing to the famine or its related diseases..
Our tour took us to the girls’ accommodation, on the third floor. It is sparse: bare boards, bare walls, sombre windows. The girls, locked in at night, had no access to toilets: the floor was sloped and channelled to deal with the obvious results. The whitewashed walls and smooth boards belie the sheer misery and filth in which the inmates must have lived.
A small pile of boxes, the top one opened to display its contents, a yellowing sheet of paper detailing its contents, sits below a plaque with 38 names on it. These are the names of the girls who were sent from the Workhouse to colonies, like Australia, where settlers needed more females to settle the men and help populate the regions.
The box contained finery with which the girls were issued to help them get a decent start after initial housing in a camp in Sydney. One box belongs to Rose Sherry. It was understood that once overseas, these girls were never coming back to any family that remained.
Downstairs we look at the huge cauldron from which the sustenance would have been ladled to the queuing children. An artwork “The Last Resort" by Orlagh Meegan-Gallagher evokes poignantly the misery that prospective inmates must have felt upon reaching this point of last resort. An example of girls’ and boys’ issue outfit hangs dejectedly on a wall. But a colourful tapestry “The Land of Plenty” also by Orlagh Meegan-Gallagher draws us in. The accompanying fact sheet about the produce available, but never released is stunning, the figures shocking:
During the Famine years 3 million live animals were exported, together with tons of vegetables and dairy produce (more than 800,000 gallons of butter to Liverpool and Bristol alone). Well over 800,000 gallons of Porter, 250,000 gallons of Guiness and 175,000 gallons of whiskey were exported - all made from grain. And troops were brought in to protect the produce from the starving.
Just as we leave, still pondering the callous injustice and counterproductive rules brought in by those who had power over the hungry and dispossessed, it is mentioned almost as an aside, how Sting of the band The Police, dropped by for a private visit early lat year while on tour. He had come to pay his respects to his third great grandmother Mary Murphy from Inniskeen, who had been admitted and died in that Workhouse in 1881.
You never know what you may find when you leave the beaten track.