Of all the old ruined or abandoned buildings that dot the countryside of Ireland, one type has the distinction of being the most hated – the workhouse. Many have disappeared: most of the West Cork workhouses have been pulled down or completely rebuilt as community hospitals. A few hints remain – a wall here, a shed there. The workhouse in Schull, although in a ruinous state, has managed to maintain enough of a presence to remind us of its former role in the community. Surrounded by a high stone wall, you can still see parts of the administration building where inmates were admitted, remains of the dormitories and the hospital.
We wander around a lot of ruins here in West Cork, but this one is different. No good feelings emanate from these walls. Instead, an aura of decay and sadness lies thick upon the site. We found ourselves exploring in silence, contemplating the misery that was the inevitable condition of those who entered.
Workhouses were built throughout the nineteenth century in Ireland. The philosophy of charity prevailing at the time dictated that the workhouse must represent the absolute last resort of the desperate – those who could no longer feed, clothe or house their families or themselves. Once admitted, families were separated and might never see each other again. All inmates were assigned hard labour, although some rudimentary schooling was provided for children. There was no comfort, little sanitation, crowded conditions and meagre allowances of food.
The Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna has an excellent website if you want to learn more about the Irish context, but the site that dwarfs all others in the sheer amount of information is The Workhouse: The Story of an Institution, created and maintained by Peter Higginbotham. He makes the point that not all was bad about workhouses, that many workhouses in Britain provided inmates with sanctuary, life-saving treatment and skills. This is not their reputation in Ireland, however, where their memory evokes dread and abhorrence. Part of this is rooted in their response to the Great Famine of 1845-49. Established to provide Inside Relief many of them initially turned away those who came to the gates asking not to be admitted but to be fed. For those inside, conditions at this time were appalling. As an example, the Durrus History Blog records the report of a Dr Stephens on a visit to the Bantry Workhouse in 1847.
The workhouse in Schull was not built until 1851, in the aftermath of the Famine. It was burned down in 1921 during the War of Independence (there’s an account here), as were many workhouses, to prevent it being used as a barracks by the British army. When the Irish Free State was established, one of the first acts of the new government was to abolish the despised workhouse system and transfer its responsibilities to a new Ministry of Health.
Because all Irish workhouses were designed by the same man, to one plan, you can get a better idea of how the Schull workhouse might have looked on Tarquin Blake’s brilliant Abandoned Ireland website. An exception to this sameness was the Durrus Grainstore, pressed into service as an auxiliary workhouse at the height of the hunger for a couple of years.