To the Poorhouse

 

Ireland 2018 – Part 3

 

I don’t suppose many of you readers will believe me when I say that I really did try to take a break from American politics while on vacation this year. I limited my news inputs to scrolling through headlines, reading a few breaking news alerts and watching one or two MSNBC videos a day. But seeing as how this trip to Ireland included more political content and history lessons than the last one, it was sometimes difficult not to note the occasional parallel or be reminded of current atrocities while learning about past ones.

One of those moments came when we took up my sister’s suggestion to tour the Portumna Workhouse Center. As an added enticement, the center also had an exhibit of works by the Irish sculptor Kieran Touhy,  who uses peat bog oak as his medium.  This is wood that is found underground in the bogs and can be 1000s of years old. The show was called “Dark Shadows” and poignantly conveyed the same themes as the workhouse tour. I’ve scattered some of his works throughout this post.

For my fellow historically-challenged people, I’ll start with a little background information on the workhouse (aka “poorhouse”) system in Ireland . . .

Even before the Potato Famine years (1846-51), Ireland’s problems with poverty, hunger and homelessness were severe and getting worse. Eventually, the government had no option but to find ways of dealing with the problem. Unfortunately, they did not see it as a problem of an inequitable economic system in which increasing numbers of people could not maintain a viable existence no matter how hard they worked. No, those in power and the position to “do something” saw the problem as one of “surplus people”. How do we rid the countryside of them?

One way was to assist emigration to Australia or North America. Another policy led to the construction of “workhouses” throughout the country. People facing starvation who had run out of options could enter these places and work for food and a place to sleep. Unlike those people in English workhouses, this was not stopover on the way to somewhere else – an interim after which they could leave and find work outside again. No, in Ireland, these houses were essentially the end of the road.

After this system was ended in the 1920s, many of these buildings were torn down or re-purposed; the one in Portumna remained abandoned, but largely intact. Now it is slowing being restored and turned into a sort of museum/education center. While touring it, out guide delicately pointed out some misconceptions about the system – making it clear to us why this was the most feared and hated institution ever established in Ireland”  as well as the general situation in the country at that time. One of the most significant points was that even though the potato crop failed, the farms were producing plenty of other crops – but much of that food ended up being sold and shipped off to England while the home population continued to starve.

 

Here, now, are some of pictures from the inside of the workhouse:

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The layout of the place was basically three rows of buildings around two courtyards. There were separate tracts for boys, girls, men, women, and nursing women with kids under 2 years old. The daily routines of the groups ensured that their paths didn’t cross in the courtyards or dining hall. The high windows ensured that they could not see the others when they were outside. The doors were locked in the evenings by the workhouse “managers”. So parents and kids could spend years just 50 or 100 yards apart from one another and never meet up.

At the end of the tour we ended up where we started and I looked again at the first display sign I had read on coming through the front door:

I asked our guide if the people who came here were all at the very end of their rope – desperate and with no more options. She answered yes.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”  I said. She nodded.

“When you hear about what is going on at the southern border of the US right now – about families being separated – does it remind you of this place?” I gestured toward the sign.

“Well, I guess it does . . . although you always want to think that we learn from history and won’t repeat things like this . . .” Her voice trailed off and she looked off into the distance.

 

– – – – – – – –

Back in the car and our way to Dublin, I scrolled through the days breaking news headlines.

“Trump administration falls short on reunifications before deadline”

“Gov’t: 650 children are ‘ineligible” for reunification”

Today, two weeks later, as I write this, there are still hundreds of state-created orphans in the US whose future is up in the air. And the government has just announced plans to put new limits on legal immigration as the second prong in their plan to decrease the surplus population. To rid the country of riffraff.

 

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