05 Jul 2022

Visitors return to Laois famine workhouse preserving Ireland's tragic past

Visitors return to Laois famine workhouse preserving Ireland's tragic past

Donaghmore famine workhouse museum in Laois.

The Donaghmore Famine Workhouse Museum in south Laois stands as a living monument to the thousands who died there and all who succumbed to death during the Great Famine.

The workhouse complex has been painstakingly restored to show the devastation wreaked upon poor Irish families during famine times and right through the 19th century.

Now open for visitors and group tours, it is one of only three surviving such buildings in Ireland, with most other workhouses later converted into community hospitals such as at Abbeyleix and Mountmellick. 

Groups of tall stark cold stone buildings still stand, the final refuge for destitute families who were separated at its entrance into men, women and children, never allowed to see each other again. They were also divided into sick or well enough to work.

Those working in the kitchens were spied upon to ensure they took no food, while windows in the dining hall were built high so anyone working inside would never see their loved ones outside.

There was no way to leave once people entered, and a graveyard to the rear is the resting place for possibly thousands of people. 

Manager and custodian Trevor Stanley leads the committee who has overseen restoration of the workhouse and adjoining agricultural museum. 

The workhouse was built to hold 400 people, and operated for 33 years between 1853 and 1886 when it closed with just 100 occupants. Costs were covered by a tax on local landowners and it was run by a board of guardians.

"There was no exit strategy. Emigration was the only method to get out. You had to give up all your rights to tenant holdings to get in. You couldn't put your wife and children in for the winter, the whole family had to come in, they didn't want it to be an improvement on the home," he said.

Trevor compared it to the preserved Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz.

"I visited there. They get 2.5 million visitors a year, we get 2,500. I asked the tour guide there why she did it, they also volunteer. She said she felt it was her duty to tell the story and in once sense that is what happens here too. If we don't tell, and there is no building left to tell, it could be forgotten," he said.

While Donaghmore is open to tours, anybody trying to detect spirits is not welcome.

"We get requests from paranormal groups, but we prefer to leave it to the memory of people who died here rather than sensationalise it," Trevor told the Leinster Express.

He is often the only person on the site but says he has never experienced any supernatural events.

"I was here last night, it was windy and you do notice it getting creaky with bats flying around. But we have them at home on my farm, I personally don't believe in ghosts. 

"Some people do talk about feeling something, but if indeed there are spirits here they should be left in peace. Our local priest does a blessing of the graveyards every year and we are included in that," he said.

In 1919 British soldiers from World War I were billeted there to quell local rebellions, before the Black and Tans arrived.

In 1927 it became a farming co-op, building up over the decades to a depot for Avonmore.  In 1993 some local farmers turned the girls dormitory into an agricultural museum, and in 1996, on its 150th anniversary, the local committee opened the boys dormitory to tell the famine story.

It is again now changing to offer support to the local community in new ways.

A decade ago the dining hall was restored costing €500,000 including support from Laois County Council. It has since been used as a venue for live music including John Spillane and Sean Keane, and for a book launch.

The workhouse is also now a free broadband community hub, offering fast broadband to students and farmers from their vehicles. 

It will shortly feature in a promotion of the national broadband network with architect Dermot Bannon who enjoyed a recent visit to film in Donaghmore.

As Covid restrictions ease, the workhouse is now receiving regular visitors, including many school tours from Laois and surrounding counties. 

"As a board we operate the museum and workhouse on a shoestring. Our staff are on job schemes so we have no staff costs. They touch the same stairs and floorboards that the boys and girls slept on. Most people go away with a good feeling of what it was like," Trevor Stanley said.

With the help of Laois Heritage Officer Catherine Casey they are applying for more grants to upgrade disability access, add signage and update their website. 

On Monday October 18, the first ever meeting of Laois County Council was held in the dining hall. It began with a minute's silence in respect of those who died there. 

Cathaoirleach, Cllr Conor Bergin, said it was a solemn occasion.

"As we gather here as a democratically elected council representing the people of Laois, we remember and honour those Irish men and women who came here when they had nowhere else to go. We also pay tribute to those who fought and gave their lives for our sovereignty.  Like those who we have lost due to Covid-19 we will never forget them and we meet here today humbled and in their memory," he said. 

Below: Trevor Stanley telling the members of Laois County Council about Donaghmore during their meeting in its dining hall. 

The museum uses guided and self-guided tours combined with various exhibits to explain the socio-economic conditions which led to the establishment of this and other Workhouses.

Visitors can also enjoy an agricultural collection made up of a wide range of artefacts donated by local people, ranging from farm implements, household items and hand tools.

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