Remembering the Longford people buried in mass grave
Did you know that there is a mass grave on the site of the old workhouse in Longford town?
Well, there is, and last Saturday marked the 176th anniversary of the opening of the workhouse in the county town.
A special Mass was held at the site which occupies one of the highest points in the town and according to Cllr Joe Flaherty, the building played a huge and troubling part in the county’s history.
He says that by 1848 there were as many as 2,300 residents in the workhouse, many of whom died.
“Most of the remains were buried in unmarked graves at the rear of the building in an area of ground that became known as 'Bully's Acre’,” he added, before pointing out that there was little in the way of happiness for anybody associated with the workhouse.
“Famous poet Padraic Colum lived there briefly with his family but they were forced to leave in 1888 owing to his father's debts.”
Colum later penned a poem about his experiences at the workhouse in Longford town.
But prior to this, and back in 1839, Longford Poor Law Union was formed and covered an area of 326 square miles.
Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, representing the 19 electoral divisions including Agharra, Ardagh, Ballymahon (2), Ballinamuck (2), Cashel (2) Drumlish (3), Edgeworthstown (2), Forgney, Kilcommack, Kilglass, Killashee, Longford (4), Mohill, Moydow, Newtownforbes (2), Rathcline, Taghshenood, Taghshinny.
The population falling within the Union at the 1831 Census had been 85,152 with divisions ranging in size from Taghshinny (2,447) to Longford town (10,344).
Longford archivist, Martin Morris has done some research into the workhouse and the site on which it sat.
He says that when the Famine hit, Longford suffered greatly during the years 1845-1850.
“The workhouse was greatly overcrowded with over 2,300 inmates at the end of 1848,” he adds, before pointing out that disease - particularly Typhus Fever - was rife and a 64 bed fever hospital was subsequently built at the south of the workhouse to deal with all the illness.
As a result, too, The Board of Guardians moved their meetings from the boardroom in the front block of the workhouse and met in other places around the town including Longford Courthouse.
“The graveyard became known as Bully’s Acre,” added Mr Morris, before pointing out that it is widely accepted that during that time across the entire country, general starvation and disease were responsible for more than one million deaths - most of them attributable to fever, dysentery and smallpox.
Researchers also say these three highly contagious diseases swept the country epidemically and with great malignity during those years.
Their destructiveness was intensified by the presence of other epidemic infections, especially tuberculosis, bronchitis, influenza, pneumonia, diarrhoea and measles and the arrival of Asiatic cholera as a pandemic in 1848-49 exacerbated the situation.
This fearsome disease added to the physical and mental suffering of the beleaguered population and increased the overall mortality.
Then, with Independence in 1921 the workhouse was renamed the County Home and later in 1952 it became St Joseph's Hospital.
Meanwhile, in the 1990s and in the build-up to the 150th commemoration of the Famine a lot of work was done locally to reclaim the 'Bully's Acre' plot.
It was landscaped and a commemorative monument to the victims' memory was erected.
And, this year, just like previous Easter Sunday mornings, there was a large gathering in the Bully's Acre cemetery for the Dawn Mass, which focused on remembering the thousands of unknown names buried there.
Mr Morris says that in the years of the Great Famine in the late 1840s, the workhouse and its auxiliaries were inundated and that at times it accommodated more than 3,000.
“In such extreme circumstances, additional accommodation was sourced around the town,” he added.
Research indicates too that the workhouse followed a standard design and included male and female sections.
In the late 1840s, it had facilities for baking, carpentry, sewing, shoe-making and tailoring.
“There was an infirmary and a separate fever hospital, which was built in 1844,” continued Mr Morris.
“The fever hospital, known as Mount Carmel, stands on the high ground behind the other buildings and is the only surviving part of the original complex; the workhouse also had a school, a church and a graveyard.”
It is a well-known fact that life was hard for the inhabitants of the Longford’s workhouse, but after independence in 1922, it was renamed Longford County Home.
“It then provided care for older people unable to live independently and others including single pregnant women,” the County archivist explained, before pointing out that the old buildings, with the exception of Mount Carmel, were demolished in the 1960s and replaced by modern buildings, constructed in phases.
“On the roadway into St Joseph’s, you will see a memorial to the writer Padraic Colum, who was born in the workhouse in December 1881, as his father was serving as its master.”
Evidence shows that the workhouse building was a detached seven-bay two-storey built on a H-shaped plan with projecting gabled end bays at either end of the front and rear elevations.
Researchers believe that it was originally built as the infectious diseases hospital/infirmary of the Longford Town Union Workhouse complex.
“Workhouses are historically linked with the Great Famine (1845-1849) and are an important physical reminder of this traumatic period in Irish history,” continued Mr Morris.
“The site here in Longford forms a pair of related structures with the former workhouse graveyard to the west and it represents an important element of the built heritage of Longford town.
“The rubble stone boundary wall to the east completes the setting and adds to this composition.”
Mr Morris says it is also interesting to note that the building was partially built on the site of a ringfort which adds archaeological significance.
“Longford Union Workhouse was opened on March 24, 1842 and cost £8,580 to build and fit out; it was originally designed to accommodate 1,000 people.
Meanwhile, at the 1901 Census, the population of the Union was 22,312 with 17 officials and 208 inmates in the workhouse.
Despite the poor conditions and harsh regimes for those living there, the local workhouse was also paradoxically a part of the locality in which it was situated.
It provided business to local suppliers, some employment and medical care to the general population.
“Originally, the workhouse infirmary or hospital was just for the sick residents, but from the 1860s, qualified nursing sisters began to make their way into the workhouses,” Mr Morris continued. “Care of the sick subsequently improved and the workhouse hospital was opened to non residents.”
He also points out that when the system was abolished in the early 1920s, many of the workhouses became county homes as was the case in Longford and Mount Carmel continued to be used as the fever hospital for some years afterwards.
“However, for generations that followed, people had a terrible fear of spending their final years in the County Home - I think partly because it was the former workhouse.”