Donaghmore Workhouse and Agricultural Museum

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, Issue 6 (November/December 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

Rathdowney, Co. Laois

By Tony Canavan

Above: This complex of buildings has survived almost intact since the mid-nineteenth century despite undergoing a number of changes of use.

Situated between the M7 and M8, near the town of Rathdowney, the Donaghmore Workhouse and Agricultural Museum is worth leaving the motorway for if you want to break your journey. This complex of buildings has survived almost intact since the mid-nineteenth century despite undergoing a number of changes of use. The museum itself takes up three of these buildings (the others are being used by Glanbia, the agricultural co-operative) and is divided between the workhouse story and agricultural history.

In the reception area are information panels and other artefacts relating to the history of the workhouse, andyour tour begins here.My guide was Charlotte, a local woman, who was informative and entertaining. Although the workhouse only opened in 1853, the museum concentrates on the Great Famine. An introductory video explains the failure of the potato crop and how that catastrophe affected County Laois. For hundreds the local workhouse was the last place of refuge,but its strict regime did not make life easy inside its forbidding walls.

We learned more about the regime as we walked through the buildings. The video was shown in what was the boys’ schoolroom, a large bare room with little material comfort. In keeping with the Victorian morality of the day, although separated from their parents and sisters, the boys received a rudimentary education so that they would be useful to society when they left the workhouse. One feature to note is the height of the windows. On one wall the windows are high up so that the boys could not see the outside world, while on the other side the windows are at the normal height but look out only on the workhouse’s inner courtyard. This pattern was repeated throughout the complex.

Above: There is not much in the way of artefacts or information panels in the rooms of the workhouse but their starkness speaks for itself.

Upstairs was where the boys slept, under supervision and on frugal mattresses on wooden platforms. When the workhouse was full theywere packed tightly together with no personal space, let alone privacy. Beyond this was the punishment room, where boys were sent for offencesencuba ranging from bad language to hitting another boy. The offenders were locked in this windowless room on a diet of bread and water until they learned their lesson. There was a similar regime for the other inmates. Punishment escalated for repeat offenders and ultimately an inmate could be brought before a magistrate.

There is not much in the way of artefacts or information panels in these rooms but their starkness speaks for itself, evoking the misery that was the lot of the poor forced to seek refuge here; my guide, Charlotte, provided the detail and gave stories of individual inmates and what they endured. The accommodation of the staff, such as the master and the matron, was Spartan but offered more comfort by way of insulation, an open fire and a good bed.

Briefly, during the War of Independence, the workhouse was converted into a barracks. There seems to be some confusion as to whether the regular army or the Black and Tans were billeted here. In one of the rooms used by the garrison, however, the graffiti scratched into the wall indicate that regular soldiers were sent to Donaghmore. As well as listing names and regimental designations, there are rough sketches of military life, First World War dogfights and other things of interest to the men stationed here.

After a visit to the dining hall and finding out how the kitchens operated and what kind of food was served, the tour took us to the third building, which is dedicated to agricultural history. Here there are two floors full of an eclectic collection of rural tools and machines that would have been used in the field, barn and kitchen. The museum relies on local community support and every single one of the hundreds of artefacts was donated by local people.

Above: ‘Hearson’s Patent Champion [egg] Incubator’—one of the hundreds of agricultural artefacts on display donated by local people.

When it ceased to be a workhouse and after the British army left, the buildings were taken over by the Donaghmore Co-operative Society. It became a major centre for agricultural activity with a large creamery, employing hundreds of people over decades. All this is reflected in this section of the museum, with churns, skimmers, butter pats, boxes and so on relating to the creamery’s activities. Look out for the cardboard box labelled ‘Irish Free State butter’. There is also a box for posting eggs, which before the Second World War were regularly sent to Britain via the post office. There is a lot on display here and the interested visitor could spend an hour or two browsing the display cabinets and examining the many pieces of machinery crowding the floor. Incidentally, the local co-op survived for years before eventually being absorbed into what became Glanbia, still a major employer in the area.

The Donaghmore Workhouse and Agricultural Museum is an example of community enterprise and pride in local heritage. It is clearly underfunded but does the best that it can. With no hi-tech wizardry, it highlights the legacy of the buildings themselves and the artefacts on display. Add to this a guide with local knowledge and you have a rewarding visit.

Tony Canavan is editor of Books Ireland.


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