On Saturday, we took ourselves down to Portumna, south Co. Galway, to the Irish Workhouse Centre. We have been looking at this building for years every time we passed, as huge restoration work was being done there (and we love nothing better than historic old buildings, oh yeah! )
As always, because this, in my children’s eyes could be deemed as “education” (on a Saturday!! Is no day sacred?!), I was slightly apprehensive that they would be flouncing around like “Kevin the teenager” snorting at the interesting facts and limestone flagstones while their parents oohed and ahhed and pointed out the original sash windows.
But thankfully, they all engaged with the (lovely, interesting) tour guide and enjoyed the tour immensely. It has provoked fantastic conversation in our house about that era in history, the potato famine, Home Rule in Ireland, and the part that workhouses played in it all.
The building itself was beautiful- and I didn’t expect it to be, nor did I expect to be astounded at the the incredible quality of light (white-washed walls, huge windows) and details (the most beautiful cantilevered stairs made from limestone; the ventilation system, laundry building…)
(The pot which heated the water in the laundry)
(these cups were what they ate “Stirabout” from- a kind of gruel)
Our children were very taken with the fact that when families entered the workhouse (and whole families had to go in together so the landowners could clear the land of its inhabitants and put it to more profitable use) that the families were split up: men into one section, women, girls and boys into their own sections. Once in, they would never see each other so long as they were in there. Owing to the fact that they were so impoverished, the chances were, they would never leave. Babies could stay with their mothers until they were two, then they were taken away.
(the dormitories- straw mattresses were put on the platforms, and the fire at the far end was the only source of heating for these two enormous rooms!)
Our little almost-eight-year-old boy has been dispensing the most loving of hugs on me since we came home, telling me how glad he was that we will never have to go into a workhouse,and how sad he is for all those children and their parents. It is one of those things, isn’t it: history can be (and often is) brutal and sad. It is one of the blessing of homeschooling: that we talk these things through until they are resolved in little heads, made sense of, there and then when it is pertinent (usually first thing in the morning while squidgied up in a warm bed with a half naked baby climbing over our heads or while at the clothesline and the questioner is hanging upside down by his knees in the shed saying: “If we were in the workhouse now, we wouldn’t get a chance to play when we needed to, would we?” ! ) Needless to say, despite the sad tone of the field trip, our children were fascinated and loved every second of it, and we are really looking forward to returning over the next few years as they restore it back to what it was.
For more details about the workhouse, check out the website here.
All photographs were taken by the exceedingly lovely and very talented Mr. Ryan (mwah!)