The Workhouse was built in 1841 as one of three planned for County Leitrim – at Carrick-on-Shannon, Manorhamilton and Mohill – by the Poor Law enacted in 1838. This workhouse in Carrick-on-Shannon is the only one that survives. It had a capacity for 800 inmates, which was continually tested in its initial years of operation. It was run by a board of Guardians composed of Justices of the Peace and various local property owners, and handled on a day to day basis by the Master and Matron. Staff members included chaplains, a record clerk, medical officer and school teachers. Families who came to live at the workhouse were forced to dwell in separate quarters, and children met with their parents only on Sundays.
In the period leading up to the Great Famine, several smaller incidents preceded it. For example, in 1845, County Leitrim experienced its first potato blight. Corn was imported from America to feed the people, while public building projects provided work for the needy. Then in 1846, the potato crop failed completely and Carrick-on Shannon became the scene of rampant starvation, illness and death. The workhouse became overcrowded and the situation was desperate, with 12 deaths or more per week. Soup kitchens were established in 1847, alleviating some of the hunger, but disease was more difficult to eradicate.
After the Famine, the workhouse continued to operate until the 1930s, when it was transformed into a geriatric hospital called St. Patrick’s, which has developed a reputation as one of the best in Ireland.
A memorial to those who died during the Famine coexists here, in the rooms of the original whitewashed attic that remain, as well as the graveyard at the rear of the hospital, which has been transformed into a memorial garden
They carved the date above the gate
When they built the workhouse on the hill
of limestone tall and fine.
The people came to drink the soup
Ladled from greasy bowls,
They died in whitewashed wards that held
A thousand Irish souls
So wrote M.J. McManus of the workhouse in Carrick on Shannon where he was born. It was in fact built in 1841 at a cost of over £11,000 and it was unfortunately to play a big part in the life and death of the town in the following years during the Great Famine. It was one of three workhouses built in Co. Leitrim as a result of the passing of the Poor Law Act of 1838. The other two were at Manorhamilton and Mohill. Both these buildings have since been demolished The workhouse was built to accommodate 800 inmates. The Poor Law Union of Carrick administered the following areas. In Co. Leitrim, the parishes of Kiltoghert and Kiltubrid, parts of Annaduff, Drumreilly and Mohill. In Co. Roscommon, the parishes of Aughrim, Kilmore and portions of Ardcarne, Clooncraff, Creeve, Killukin, Killumod and Tumna. The administration was under the control of the Board of Guardians. Half the members of this Board were made up of Justices of the Peace resident in the Union are. The other members were elected by the Union’s rate-payers and property owners. The day to day running was left in the hands of the Master, who received a salary of £50 per annum.
He was assisted by the Matron who received £25 per annum. There was also a porter, a medical officer, two school teachers, a Roman Catholic chaplain, a Church of Ireland chaplain and the Clerk of the Union, who recorded and maintained the records. Only the destitute were meant to avail of the Poor Law system. Conditions were to be as miserable as possible. Families were not allowed to live as a single unit, husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters were all assigned different quarters. Parents were admitted to see their children on Sundays only. Despite some problems, conditions at Carrick’s workhouse in the early years were reasonable, but workhouses and the Poor Law were hopelessly inadequate to deal with the tragedy of the Famine that was just a few years away.
A succession of “small famines” in the early part of the 19th century had led to crop failures and eventually to what became known as the Great Famine. In 1845 blight caused partial failure to the potato crop in Co. Leitrim. There were shortages of food in the workhouse and towards the end of the year the number of deaths rose significantly. The reaction of the government to the food shortages was to repeal the Corn Laws which led to a fall in the price of home workhouse and towards the end of the year the number of deaths rose significantly. The reaction of the government to the food shortages was to repeal the Corn Laws which led to a fall in the price of home grown crops. Indian corn was imported into the country from the United States. Local Committees were set up to identify the worst hit areas and to allocate relief accordingly. Public work schemes were introduced to give employment. Many of the fine cut-stone public buildings and bridges date from these mid 1840 schemes.
In 1846 the blight re-appeared and there was a complete failure of the potato crop. A change in government saw the end of the relief measures introduced by the previous administration under Robert Peel. This was done so as not to interfere with what the new cabinet felt was the right of the suppliers to a “fair profit.” The task of coping with the now worsening situation in the country was in the hands of the Poor Law Unions, local voluntary relief committees and the Society of Friends also known as the Quakers. In November 1846, William Forster of Norwich and James Tuke of York, both Quakers, arrived in Carrick on Shannon. The scenes of poverty and suffering witnessed by them had a profound effect. There were 110 applicants for the workhouse, all destitute for which there were only 30 vacancies. Starvation and disease were everywhere. Forster purchased all the bread available in the town and distributed it. Conditions in the workhouse were deplorable. There was no sanitation and clothing was scarce. Inmates were idle. Suppliers were profiteering. Built to accommodate 800, the workhouse was trying to cope with over one thousand. 170 were in the hospital suffering with typhus and dysentery. Inmates were dying at a rate of 12 per week. There was no bedding and nothing to lie on but straw.