Children and the Workhouse


Even before the famine a large proportion of the workhouse inmates were children. In 1844, 22,585 were provided for by the unions throughout Ireland. As the Famine developed, their numbers rapidly increased. At the end of February 1847 there were 116,000 persons receiving aid in the workhouses. 63,000 of these were children. In 1846 it was reported to the Parliamentary Committee that the burden of children was increasing in every workhouse in Ireland. Fever was to claim the middle aged and elderly rather than children, due to the enormous strain it placed on the heart. By 1849 there were 90,298 workhouse children.

While many of the children were unaccompanied when entering the workhouse, not all were orphans. Large numbers had been abandoned. The abandonment of children was often a question of necessity and in many cases only temporary. Leaving children was often part of a planned emigration strategy, though contrary to strict Poor Law rules. Once parents had established themselves abroad and saved a portion of the children’s fare, the guardians usually payed the remainder thus ridding the union of the cost of maintaining them. This seems to have been the reason for the abandonment of the O’Brien and Doherty children present in the Ennistymon workhouse in 1850. On the 20th of September of that year: the guardians voted £1 each to four Doherty children and two O’Brien children to help them join their parents in America.

Unmarried mothers or deserted wives were often forced to abandon their children to the workhouse in order to survive themselves. The separation lasted only for as long as it took for the women to eke out a livelihood and provide for them.

In Ennistymon in 1851 a most rigorous campaign was carried out to discharge children whose parents were living outside and at work within the boundaries of the union. Over 50 children registered as orphans were found to have parents living and working in the area. These parents were not necessarily callous and uncaring. Abandoning their children may have been the only way of coping with the appalling conditions prevalent throughout the country in the immediate aftermath of the Famine. Weakened by hunger and disease, these parents were faced with the daunting task of providing food and shelter for themselves and their families. Children were not simply an added burden, they were still at grave risk of starvation or disease. In the Ireland of the 1850s the workhouse was better than the grave, especially if it could be used as a temporary expedient. Furthermore for the able-bodied, the quarter-acre clause enforced people to surrender holdings of more than a quarter-acre in order to receive relief in the workhouse. Many would rightly have seen this as the road towards permanent pauperism not only for themselves but their children also. So they opted for the strategy of temporarily abandoning their children to the workhouse and got on with the difficult task of providing some sort of security for the family outside the workhouse. When circumstances improved the children would be reclaimed.

While many of the orphans may in actual fact had parents, the fact remains that the workhouse during the famine became the permanent home of the most destitute and unwanted children of Ireland. Orphans and deserted children were accepted at the workhouse unaccompanied. Other children, officially at least, were not admitted without their parents. On admission children were classified into three different categories:

    1. Males between 2 and 15
    2. Females between 2 and 15
    3. Children under 2

Children under 2 were allowed to stay with their mother. The others had to remain in that section set aside for them.

Children’s clothes: Boys wore a jacket and trousers of fustian i.e. a coarse twilled fabric, a shirt and woolen cap. Girls wore a cotton frock and linsey–woolsey petticoat and a cap.

Disciplinary measures for children Like all other inmates, the children had to rise, go to bed, and attend for meals at the times laid down by the guardians and signified by the ringing of a bell. Corporal Punishment could only be inflicted on boys. No corporal punishment was to be inflicted on girls. Children over 12 could be confined for 24 hours in darkness. All children over two who were regarded as refractory could be confined in a separate room, have their food withdrawn or, be brought before a justice of the peace and sentenced to be flogged or sent to prison.