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Kilrush, Co. Clare

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Kilrush Poor Law Union was formally declared on the 1st August 1838 and covered an area of 180 square miles. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 29 in number, representing its 13 electoral divisions as listed below (figures in brackets indicate numbers of Guardians if more than one):

Co. Clare: Kilballyoan, Kildysert (2), Kilfidduan (2), Kilkee (3), Killard (2), Killiner, Killofin (2), Kilmacdooaun (2), Kilmihil, Kilmurry (4), Kilrush (5), Knock, Moyarta (3).

The Board also included 9 ex-officio Guardians, making a total of 38.

The population falling within the Union at the 1831 census had been 70,676 with divisions ranging in size from Kilballyoan (population 3,695) to Kilrush itself (9,850).

The new Kilrush Union workhouse was erected in 1840-41 on a six-acre site at the north of Kilrush. Designed by the Poor Law Commissioners' architect George Wilkinson, the buildings were planned to accommodate 800 inmates. Its construction cost £6,800 plus £1,350 for fittings etc. The workhouse was declared fit for the reception of paupers on 15th December 1841, and received its first admissions on 9th July 1842.

The workhouse location and layout are shown on the 1920 map below.

Kilrush workhouse site, 1920.

A distant view of Kilrush (left) from the early 1900s
Courtesy of Patrick Cusack

The buildings followed Wilkinson's typical layout. An entrance and administrative block at the south-west of the site contained a porter's room and waiting room at the centre with the Guardians' board room on the first floor above.

The main accommodation block had the Master's quarters at the centre, with male and female wings to each side which included boys' and girls' schoolrooms.

At the rear, a range of single-storey utility rooms such as bakehouse and washhouse connected to a central spine containing the chapel and dining-hall. A block at the rear contained the original hospital and idiots' wards. A separate infirmary and fever hospital were subsequently erected on the opposite side of the road, with the original infirmary being used as lunatic wards. A dispensary was located near the workhouse entrance gate.

Kilrush infirmary and fever hospital from the west, 2002
© Peter Higginbotham.

Kilrush request to tender notice, 1876

Kilrush request to tender notice, 1876

The map above shows a long range of buildings along the northern boundary of the site. These were probably single-storey sheds erected as emergency additional accommodation during the Great Famine in around 1847.

In February 1850, at the end of the famine years, social campaigner Dr Richard Robert Madden wrote a vivid report on conditions that still existed at the Kilrush workhouse. Here is an extract:

There were a considerable number of low-backed cars from which the horses had been unyoked ranged along the wall in front of the entrance. On these cars applicants for admission were lying stretched on straw, chiefly aged people of both sexes, and children, even infants. On some cars there were as many as four or five pallid, listless, emaciated, ragged children; on others, famished creatures, far gone in fever, this entry, and dropsy, unable to walk, stand, or even to sit upright, and these sick and famishing creatures were bought there, as I was informed, by neighbours who had lent cars to convey them to the Poorhouse, and a great number of them, to use their own language, "for a coffin." On surprise being expressed at hearing this reason given for the removal of these people and the question being repeated, one of these moribund applicants for admission in order to get a shell and a grave — a man more like a skeleton than a living man, yet not much more above 40 years of age, — said in a low, hollow tone of voice — "yes, to get a coffin, your honour."

You can read the full text of Madden's account kindly contributed by Ian Beard, whose Great-grandmother was an inmate of the workhouse at the time.

In 1852, the eastern part of the Kilrush Union went to form part of the new Kildysart Union.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, nursing at the workhouse was performed by nuns from the Sisters of Mercy order. In 1903, a total of four were employed.

In 1895, Kilrush was visited by a "commission" from the British Medical Journal investigating conditions in Irish workhouse infirmaries. Their report suggested a number of improvements: the construction of a new fever hospital, with the existing one being used to expand the capacity of the infirmary; improvements in the nurseries and the provision of running water and better sanitation throughout the buildings. Further details are available in the full report.

After the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, the workhouse infirmary and fever hospital were redesignated as the Kilrush District Hospital. All operations carried out in the district were performed at the hospital, despite patients having to be taken out of doors to reach the operation room. In 1927, the fever hospital still had no water supply and no bathing or sanitary accommodation. The main workhouse site became an Auxiliary Home for unmarried mothers and infant children, run the Sisters of Mercy but within the control of the Board of Health. In 1927, it was reported that the Home was still lit by lamps and had no proper kitchen or refectory or bathing and sanitary arrangements. At the same date, there were 51 women in residence (37 described as "first offenders") and 105 children (of whom 57 were aged two or over). The women were generally "retained" in the home for two years and were employed in doing laundry work for the adjacent District Hospital. Efforts were made to find them employment when leaving the home.

The main workhouse buildings no longer exist, with a school and housing now occupying the site. The former District Hospital site is still in use as as day hospital.

Kilrush main former workhouse site from the south-east, 2002
© Peter Higginbotham.

Records

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Bibliography

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