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Rathkeale, Co. Limerick

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Covering an area of 169 square miles, Rathkeale Poor Law Union was formally declared on the 27th December 1838, making it only the third union to be formed in Ireland. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 30 in number, representing its 19 electoral divisions as listed below (figures in brackets indicate numbers of Guardians if more than one):

Co. Limerick: North Adare, South Adare (2), Ardcanny, Askeaton (3), Croagh (2), Croom (3), Dunmoylan, Iverus, Kilcornan, Kildimo, Kilfenny, Kilfergus (2), Kilmoylan, Kilscannel, Lismakeery, Loughill, Nantenan, Rathkeale (4), Shanagolden (2).

The Board also included 10 ex-officio Guardians, making a total of 40. The Guardians met each week on Wednesday.

The population falling within the Union at the 1831 census had been 67,373 with divisions ranging in size from North Adare (population 1,474) to Rathkeale itself (8,972).

The new Rathkeale Union workhouse was erected in 1839-40 on a six-acre site at the north-west of Rathkeale. Designed by the Poor Law Commissioners' architect George Wilkinson, the buildings were planned to accommodate 660 inmates. Its construction cost £6,680 plus £920 for fittings etc. The workhouse was declared fit for the reception of paupers on 18th February 1841, and received its first admissions on 26th July. The workhouse location and layout are shown on the 1841 map below.

Rathkeale workhouse site, 1841

An entrance and administrative block at the south 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. At the rear, a range of single-storey utility rooms such as bakehouse and washhouse connected to the infirmary and idiots' wards at the rear via a central spine containing the chapel and dining-hall.

During the famine in the mid-1840s, additional buildings and sleeping galleries were erected to accommodate an additional 247 inmates and house was hired for fever patients. A fever hospital was subsequently erected at the north of the workhouse as shown on the 1899 map below.

Rathkeale workhouse site, 1899

In 1852, the western part of the union went to form the new Glin Poor Law Union, and the eastern part was taken by the new Croom Union. In 1891, the adjacent Glin union was dissolved, with part of its area then being amalgamated with the Rathkeale union.

In 1895, Rathkeale was visited by a "commission" from the British Medical Journal investigating conditions in Irish workhouse infirmaries. Although their report found Rathkeale to be one of the better establishments amongst those investigated, a number of improvements were suggested. For the elderly these included the provision of armchairs, wider beds, and better sanitary facilities such as a hot water supply and baths. Better supervision of the infants' ward was also recommended. Further details are available in the full report.

The former workhouse site is now (2002) occupied by a meat-processing factory. The main accommodation block appears to be the principal surviving structure.

Rathkeale site from the south, 2002
© Peter Higginbotham.

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