Photo: Royal Historical Tours

The Irish Poor Laws were a series of Acts of Parliament intended to address social instability due to widespread and persistent poverty in Ireland. The Poor Law system was introduced into Ireland in 1838. The same system as existed in England was introduced to Ireland although they had different economies. Meath was divided up into five Poor Law Unions and a workhouse for the relief of the poor was to be erected in each union. The ratepayers elected a board of guardians who erected and controlled the workhouse. The Dunshaughlin Board of Guardians met weekly usually on a Monday or Tuesday . The board was elected annually but there were few changes over the first ten years. At the meeting reports were received from the treasurer, the Master and the medical officer. The first task of the Board was to erect a workhouse.

The Dunshaughlin Workhouse was erected in 1840-41 on a five acre site on the Dublin road south of the village. Designed by George Wilkinson the building was based on one of his standard plans to accommodate 400 inmates and cost nearly six thousand pounds including fittings.  The workhouse received its first admissions, ‘two destitute persons, a man and a woman,’ on 17 May 1841.

Workhouses were made as uncomfortable as possible to deter people from entering them. The aged, sick, disabled and children were regarded as the deserving poor but the able-bodied were regarded as deserving of punishment. On arrival families were divided and men, women and children were housed in separate living quarters. Anyone who wished to enter the workhouse had to go through a means test and give up all their lands.  Three rate payers and a Parish Warden had to sign the ticket before the person could be admitted to the workhouse. Many people preferred to survive on starvation diet outside the workhouse rather than suffer the humiliation and social stigma of entering the poorhouse. The work house was a dreaded institution, people would rather die than enter the workhouse.

The first inmates were fed on bread and milk until meal and potatoes were procured. Adults got two meals a day each accompanied by a pint of buttermilk. For breakfast adults received seven ounces of oatmeal and for dinner four pounds of potatoes. Children were given half the quantity of adults but were also given a supper. There was no variety in the diet – it was the same day after day. Clothes and shoes were supplied to inmates.  Waistcoats were only supplied to ‘aged and infirm paupers.’ Inmates could not smoke or drink. They had to be up each morning at six and in bed at eight in the evening. A catholic chaplain was employed to tender to the needs of the inmates. A Protestant Chaplain was also appointed at a third of the salary of the catholic chaplain. There were very few Protestant inmates.

In 1843 a woman pauper complained that another woman beat her black and blue. As it could not be decided who was the aggressor both were expelled from the workhouse.  In June 1846 a warrant was issued for Bridget Kelly who had left the workhouse and not returned. The reason she had left the workhouse ‘ having got leave to go bury her child but not returned.’

The first Master Mister Ball was criticised by the Board of Guardians and removed from office.  About 1841 the Master was censored for his neglect in not telling the Board about the ‘improper conduct which had gone on in the house’ – a porter had formed a relationship with a nurse in the infirmary. In 1847 a nursetender was dismissed because she was intoxicated and unable to attend to her work. In November 1842 secret meetings between the schoolmaster and schoolmistress were discouraged. In 1847 the inmates refused to clean the toilets and the Master was forced to employ an outsider to do the job.

The onset of the Famine saw a huge increase in those seeking relief from starvation. The workhouse was able to cope until the winter of 1846. When admissions began to exceed the In 1847 as a result of demand for entry to the workhouse additional accommodation was leased from Sir William Dillon of Lismullen. A fever hospital to cater for sixty inmates was erected to the north of the workhouse and then sleeping galleries erected to cater for an additional one hundred people. By the end of the 1840s  more than 900 people were being cared for by the workhouse, more than twice the number originally planned for. Many were also being offered outdoor relief, outside the workhouse. The poor diet and cramped conditions led to disease spreading quickly. Typhus and cholera epidemics swept through the workhouse.  A special cholera doctor was employed in late 1849. A graveyard was developed at the rear of the workhouse. Approximately half the inmates in the workhouse system in Meath were children and one fifth were orphans.

In 1848 the Board acquired ten acres to teach young men the work of an agricultural labourer. Emigration to Australia was subsidised by the Workhouse. The Workhouse Guardians appear to have worked hard within the system to provide for the people in their care.

Following the Famine the numbers in the workhouse declined and at the start of the twentieth century there were rarely more than twenty residents. In the early part of the twentieth century the building served as a maternity hospital for the locality. During the First World War the building was used to accommodate Belgian refugees, some of whom died and were buried in the workhouse graveyard. In 1920-21 the workhouse was used as a barracks for the Black and Tans. With the foundation of the new state the workhouse system was abolished. A new vocational school opened in the workhouse in the 1933 and served the community until 1951. The workhouse subsequently became a courthouse where the infamous Nurse Cadden case was mentioned and following World War II a factory. Today the front part of the workhouse is a private residence.

Oliver Coogan and Rachel Barrett have written about the Dunshaughlin Workhouse in various books and journals.