The Role of the Athlone Workhouse During the Irish Great Famine 1841-1849

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The Role of the Athlone Workhouse During the Great Famine 1841-1849

While the 19th Century was a time of great industrial change throughout much of the United Kingdom, Ireland was widely regarded as a poor, destitute country with many people already suffering from extreme poverty even before the famine. The economy in Ireland was weak and almost totally dependant on agricultural production with 66% of all families in pre-famine Ireland making their living from the land. Consequently, just one poor harvest could lead to arrears of rent, the threat of the bailiff and even eviction. This already difficult situation was to get much worse when in October 1845 the first signs of the potato blight or ‘phytophthora infestans’ was detected in Athlone. The purpose of this essay is to discuss the role of the Athlone workhouse in dealing with distress during the great famine. The objective is to demonstrate how hard and difficult life could be in the workhouse, but also to show how the workhouse saved lives during this crisis period. In 1838 the Irish Poor Law was introduced into Ireland by George Nicholls. This legislation implemented a system of relief for the poor which would be administered solely within workhouses which were to be built all over the country. Initially 130 Poor Law Unions which were to be comprised of electoral districts were formed and in 1839 by a local landlord John Hancock, who was given the task of forming the union for Athlone. The Athlone Union was officially formed on Saturday 6th April 1839. By May of the same year a local Board of Guardians had been selected to govern the workhouse and a clerk and treasurer were also appointed. An area known as the ‘Abbey Fields’ was chosen as the site for the construction of this workhouse which opened for the first time on the 22nd November 1841.

Although the first year of the workhouse would appear to be quite successful it was not without its problems and there were reports of...
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