Contemporary Eye-Witness Account of
Ennistymon Workhouse

We saw the patients at Ennistymon – dozens, scores of them – lying on clean comfortable beds, in rooms coloured green, with green window-curtains, their skins wholesome-looking, and the hair of the young people bright and glossy, but all alike suffering under that painful-looking disease, the consequence of over-crowding, and other predisposing disadvantages.

The aspect of the other parts of Ennistymon house is anything but depressing. The greatest number receiving relief from its doors at the worst time was 20,000. The house being built to hold 500, of course the chief was outdoor, of which there is now none. An incident of the time which happened here explains something of the horror with which the people regarded the workhouse. In order to prevent the sale of the meal given in relief it was wetted by order of the guardians. Much of it became as hard as mortar; and most of it turned sour and caused illness in the already enfeebled people. Popular reports of wholesale poisoning have often arisen from a less cause. Now, however, it is found that the meal and other food agree well with the inmates, whose average of health is high, exclusive of the prevalent ophthalmia. The resident officers spoke cheerfully of the change since last year. During the fever season last year there were deaths daily to the amount of from twenty to twenty-five in that crowded house, whereas there are now only about three in a week. The breakfast is porridge with milk; and the dinner, soup made of meal, with various vegetables; and an allowance of bread, which suffices also for supper. The people are hoping now to be allowed potatoes twice a week; and great is the pleasure with which they look forward to this treat. There is no regular agricultural instructor of the boys at Ennistymon, but some are promising weavers, under the teaching of a zealous Yorkshireman. The woman spin and knit, and the sewing of the household is done by the girls, who are also taught fine work, by which they may take money hereafter.

From a letter of Harriet Martineau, dated September 22nd, 1852. Published in The English traveller in Ireland, Harrington, John (ed.), Dublin, Wolfhound Press, 1991.

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