The Irish workhouse system was designed to cater for the worst cases of destitution in Ireland, 100,000 people according to the Poor Law Commissioners. This figure grossly underestimates the extent of Irish poverty. It is generally agreed now that the figure was closer to 2,400,00. With the outbreak of famine, thousands of destitute people flocked to the workhouses causing an accommodation crisis.
Overcrowding begins in Ennistymon workhouse in the latter months of 1846. In October of that year we read in the minutes that:
"Previous to 16th (October) the house contained 477. In consequence to the delay given by the Board of Works to the execution of works presented for this district.... The almost total decay of the potato crop, the unreasonable price of meal and all other breadstuffs and the consequent destitution of 9/10 of the population, 191 persons were on this day admitted being 68 above the regular number, to which 28 admitted during the week...making a gross excess of 96."
By the 5th of November 1847 650 had become the regular number in a house which was built for 600 and the guardians requested the Commissioners to allow the number to be increased to 700. Sheds were erected and the stables and later the schoolroom were converted into dormitories.
In 1847 the Outdoor Relief Act was passed. However, the Commissioners made it abundantly clear that it was only a temporary arrangement. The propertied classes were also determined that outdoor relief should only be a temporary expedient. To ensure that outdoor relief should not become a permanent feature the Boards of Guardians set about renting disused stores, mansion houses and other large buildings as auxiliary workhouses. In these, large numbers of destitute persons were accommodated who would otherwise have to be supported at home.
Many of the auxiliary workhouses were used for children. Lahinch Auxiliary Workhouse was taken to accommodate 400 children. In June 1848 the Ennistymon Board of Guardians record that "In consequence of the order for giving out-door relief not having been extended the vice guardians availed themselves of the extra room obtained by removing the girls to the auxiliary house in Lahinch". From 1848 onwards boys were mainly accommodated in Miltown Malbay, women in Ballykeale and single mothers and their children in Sandfield. But even with this extra accommodation overcrowding was extreme. The aged and infirm had to be discharged and put on outdoor relief so that the able-bodied might submit to the workhouse test.
Finally, new unions were set up. At the outbreak of the Famine there were 123 unions in the country. By 1850 there were 163. The new unions were created predominantly in the south and west, areas badly hit by the Famine. Ballyvaughan and Corofin Unions were created in 1850 thereby reducing the extent of the Ennistymon Union.