Glenamaddy Union Workhouse

Glenamaddy Union Workhouse was located in the townland of Mountkelly about a kilometre to the east of the town of Glenamaddy, opposite Glenamaddy Turlough and adjacent to Creggs Road Cemetery. It was erected on the Browne estate. The surviving ruins provide a grim reminder of the tragedy that unfolded in Ireland towards the middle of the 19th century when famine and starvation stalked the land. It was designed by the British Poor Law Commissioners’ architect, George Wilkinson, based on his standard plans to accommodate 500 inmates, a number never reached by Glenamaddy Workhouse.

For centuries following the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, the sick and the destitute were looked after by religious Orders and Abbeys. However, the suppression of the monasteries in the 16th century ended that vital community support system. The problem was compounded in the following centuries by conquests, the imposition of draconian laws and a concerted effort to obliterate the native Irish way of life by suppressing customs, traditions, native language and religious beliefs. The majority of people who were Catholic became slaves in their own land with no social welfare safety-net to fall back on when disaster or misfortune struck. There was extreme poverty in Ireland in the early 19th century. This was exacerbated by an unprecedented increase in the national population which was predominantly rural based. It is estimated that the population of Ireland was in the region of 3 million in 1700. By 1821 the first reliable national census conducted in Ireland puts that population at 6.8 million. The 1841 census returns reported that by then it had increased to 8.2 million with over two million at starvation level. The potato had become the staple diet of many and it stood to reason that potato crop failure would expose a large segment of the population to starvation. The successive famine tragedies which unfolded in the middle of the nineteenth century visited untold suffering, dislocation and loss of life on a traumatised population. Evidence exists in British archives which lends credence to the view that there was ample food produced in Ireland  throughout the 19th century in the form of oats, barley, wheat, beef, lamb, pork, poultry, eggs etc to offset the worst effects of the failure of the potato crop but a combination of money-grubbing merchants, many absentee landlords, an indifferent government that failed to proactively intervene in a timely fashion, racial prejudice and religious bigotry, prevented the starving Catholic population from gaining access to it while it was being exported from Irish ports in British ships under military supervision.

The Irish Parliament had been abolished with the Act of Union in 1801 and Members of Parliament elected to represent the people in Ireland transferred to Westminster. Many of them were from a landed gentry background and were out of touch with the worsening living conditions of the Irish peasant population. The various commissions and committees established between 1801 and 1845 to enquire into the state of Ireland concluded that “without exception their findings prophesied disaster; Ireland was on the verge of starvation, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her labourers unemployed, housing conditions appalling and the standard of living unbelievably low”. Shortly before the famine British government surveys reported that poverty was so widespread that one-third of all Irish small holdings could not support their families after paying their rent, except by earnings of seasonal migrant labour in England and Scotland.

Out-of-sight, out-of-touch, high-living members of the gentry underpinned by heartless middlemen who regarded investment in landed estates as an opportunity to generate handsome profits were remarkably unsympathetic to the plight of their distressed tenants who faced eviction at short notice, having no security of tenure. Restrictive trade laws governing imports and shipping, designed to protect British interests, played into the hands of influential, profit-motivated merchants who were able to command artificially high prices for the limited food that was made available thus placing it beyond the reach of an impoverished, starving people. 

The practice of young men travelling to England in search of seasonal farm employment was prevalent in the Glenamaddy area well into the twentieth century. In the early days, some walked to Dublin to catch the cattle boat to Holyhead. Sometimes they carried their own farm implements with them which they used when work was secured on English farms. There were certain familiar houses that they routinely over-nighted in along the way. Many of them posted their wages home in the form of a sovereign or half-sovereign wrapped in newspaper on a regular basis. Those who opted to retain their savings had to face the prospect of being robbed on their return journey and, hence, they travelled in groups to strengthen security. The farm implements they carried also helped to deter would-be highway robbers. This practice supplemented the meager income which their families earned from the land and helped to pay the rent which was demanded relentlessly on a yearly or half-yearly basis.

It wasn’t until the destitute from Ireland began to seek help in England that the British government considered establishing workhouses in Ireland, by which time it was a case of too little, too late.  Workhouses had been part of the safety net for the poor in England for many generations. People needed to be desperate to seek shelter in a workhouse as property rights were forfeited, freedom was severely curtailed, rations were minimal and the regimental lifestyle was something people were not accustomed to. Workhouses were not designed to be welcoming institutions lest they attract too many applications for admission. Ratepayers which included the landlord class had to fund the operational costs and, therefore, they were most anxious to keep expenditure as low as possible. On the basis of he who pays the piper calls the tune, landlords usually made it their business to be elected onto the Board of Guardians where they could influence decision-making. The Irish system differed from that which prevailed in England and Wales, as the civil parish was not used as the basis for the election of guardians. In Ireland electoral divisions were formed by the amalgamation of townlands. The ratio of ex-officio guardians was at least three to one, with an election conducted among the qualified magistrates for ex-officio positions if the number of applicants exceeded available places. When Ireland achieved independence in 1922 Boards of Guardians were abolished and replaced by County Boards of Health.

Paddy Crosby N.T. has the following interesting vignette in his 1973 Folklore submission regarding one Board of Guardians election which took place in Glenamaddy. “The second landlord was Farrell McDonnell. He was called the Rag Picker from Cork. Be that as it may he established himself well as a business man in Dunmore. To get into his shop, either full time or on trial you had to provide evidence of good character. His wages were £10 per year and how delighted those shop boys were. They thought they were millionaires. On one occasion he sought to get appointed to one of the guardianships of the workhouse in Glenamaddy. Now it happened that a man named Molloy and who had a son working for McDonnell sought the same seat.  However, McDonnell lost the seat and showed his temper to the young Molloy. When the boy saw this he tendered his resignation to McDonnell. “What’s this for”, said McDonnell who was frothing at the lips. Molloy explained. “Stay with me and 10 pounds” said McDonnell. I can tell you that Molloy celebrated that night.”

Minutes of Board of Guardian meetings show that local landlords, Browne and McDonnell, were members of the Board of Guardians of Glenamaddy Union Workhouse over a long period. Browne was a Protestant and McDonnell a Catholic and for various reasons they did not always see eye to eye. Wilkinson had been dispatched to Ireland following the Poor Law (Ireland) Act of 1838 to set establish the workhouse system. Glenamaddy Union was created from the southern part of Castlerea Union and covered an area of 157 square miles.  It cost £5,250 to build and an additional £995 to fit out. The design was somewhat different to Wilkinson’s earlier plan and was a similar size and layout to workhouses in Urlingford and Mitchelstown which were built around the same time. The front of the site to the south had an entrance gateway flanked by two two-storey blocks containing school rooms and accommodation for boys and girls. A dispensary was also located at the workhouse entrance. There was a chapel where Mass was celebrated every day. On each side were accommodation wings for men and for women. To the rear, the main building had a T-shaped layout. The central wing running southwards was probably a single-storey block containing the dining-hall and kitchens. A hospital block lay to the north of the site, with a fever hospital and burial ground close by. The Workhouse which overlooked the turlough was surrounded in its entirety by a limestone wall which has collapsed in some places and is crumbling in others. Workhouses were typical institutional, functional buildings with large wards furnished with sleeping platforms that were placed too close together, straw mattresses, stone stairs and open fireplaces. Food was scarce, sanitation facilities very basic, discipline was strict and punishment for infringements were severe.   

The building contractor Andrew Egan, Tuam, was engaged to construct the building, He was responsible for some, or, perhaps all work on Tuam workhouse  and Town Hall in the late 1800’s. In February 1852 Andrew Egan reported that the workhouse was almost ready regardless of the harshness of the winter weather. The stone used, it is locally claimed, was quarried in Scotland, a townland opposite the former St. Benin’s Vocational School, on the Kilkerrin Road.

Very Rev. Walter Conway,P.P., Glenamadd,y 1896-1919 provided the following account of the Workhouse in his booklet entitledHistorical Notes on the Parish of Glenamaddy”.

“Glenamaddy being the centre of a Poor-Law Union, has its workhouse – an institution of hated memories in Ireland. This institution, like all others of its class throughout the country, was built to hold – I cannot say accommodate – ten times the present number of its inmates.  And its revenues, as elsewhere, were spent one half in administering the other half. More than twenty years ago it was doomed to extinction, and its inmates ordered to be scattered among the surrounding workhouses. And, no doubt, it deserved its doom. For, besides its costliness, it was allowed to fall into a state of disrepair, if not dilapidation, and it had become so infested with rats and other vermin as to endanger the health and lives of the unfortunate wretches who were compelled to seek shelter there. By some secret influence its doom was postponed, pending general amalgamation, and, under a more enlightened administration, it was repaired and renovated and made habitable if not comfortable. The good Bon Secours Sisters were placed in charge, and in the capable hands of the Superioress – the good and gentle Sister St. Basil – the whole face of the institution was changed from being a den of filth and misery into a comfortable asylum for the aged, the feeble and the sick poor. While under the skilful, careful and intelligent supervision of the medical officer, Dr. Michael Costello, the hospital has become a model of its kind, and with thirty beds, its skilful medical officer and its staff of devoted religious nurses, it compares very favourably with, if it does not excel, the larger county institutions elsewhere. Notwithstanding all this, the bad memories associated with the Irish Workhouses cling to it, and few disinterested people would regret its extinction or its conversion to some more useful and reproductive purpose. Its continued existence, as well as the existence of hundreds of similar institutions throughout Ireland, is a standing memorial of England’s step-motherly treatment of the unfortunate victims of England’s own artificially created famine”.

As part of a submission to The National Folklore Department in U.C.D. in 1973 Paddy Crosby, former Principal of St. Joseph’s National School, Glenamaddy, refers to the workhouse as follows – “it kept the wolf from the door of many a poor house in this area. There were 10 men of good standing elected to rule over it. They were called guardians and a good job they made of it. They met once a month to see how matters were going on. One of them told me how they brought the Dr. to his knees. He was a very haughty man and if you saluted him whenever you met him that meant a half one for him in the village. The guardians told me he refused to go out in the night to attend a woman in labour. That is why he was subdued. He married an English woman and her daughter married J.A. Costello T.D.. His sons were urged to join the army in the first world war. One of them visited the local school here and with tears in his eyes admitted that he didn’t want to fight. Two months later he was blown in Flanders. As time rolled on some of the inmates escaped over the walls and built little scraw cabins for themselves on the roadside here. Thus they lived and were supported by charity. The last of them died a short time ago. The nuns took over the running of the workhouse in 1916. There was a master, registrar and teacher appointed. The poor children were thought the three r’s in a miserable sort of way by a Mr Garvey. Subsequently he transferred to a thatched house one side of the Ulster Bank. His assistant was Miss Raftery and she was known as a nickname “at, at”. Later, when this building fell in, the children transferred to the top of the old P.O.. It would do your heart good if you saw the attempts at cramming there. I could supply you with an old photograph of the old school if needed anytime. In the year 1900 Fr. Conway built the town school and that put an end to the misery. The children in the workhouse called their home the Union and indeed all credit to the good nuns two big baskets of sliced bread with butter and jam was sent down to the school every day. The only thing I think was uncharitable was they used to wear ugly grey clothes, all the same colour. In 1921 the I.R.A. burned down the Workhouse in case B. and Tans would take it over. Subsequently the inmates were transferred to Tuam and later to Limerick. Some of the children were adopted by the good people here and when the emigrants married and settled down they often pay visits back here and were very kind to their foster parents. In fact, it has to be said, that they loved them more than their own children. Some of the spill-outs of the Workhouse weren’t too nice. There was one called Mickeen Do-Wren. I remember well he came into our house while the good woman was cooking cabbage. He was filthy, lousy. While the good woman took the lid off he skillet to see if the cabbage was boiled he started throwing fistfuls of vermin in the fire over the skillet. A man who was in the house said to him, “get out you dirty swine”. Whereupon he seized his old coat, made for the door, went down on one knee and shouted “May the Lord our God have you damned in hell before this time tomorrow”. As a child I nearly died. I thought it would come true. It was a big farmer named Jones who supplied the Workhouse everyday with milk. It was delivered from Creggs where the farmer lived, by a gig, two milk cans behind and driven by a man named John Noone. Anyone plying that time between Creggs and Glenamaddy was always sure of a lift. The remains of the Workhouse was bought by a man for a trifle. He afterwards sold the parts to Hammmon Lane. It is said he made a fortune. A man who knew the Union pretty well said to me some time ago, “There is a garden of saints over there”. He was referring to the inmates who were buried there. This piece of information was given to me by a John Egan, Ardoslough. I am quoting him almost verbatim.  – I cannot say exactly what year the workhouse was built. At that time it functioned just as a workhouse for tramps. It served mostly as a centre for Tuam and Roscommon. They were only kept for one night. In those days the roads were in a shocking condition, pot-holed and rough. All the stoned for the road were carted into the yard and after breakfast the tramps had to break a certain amount of stones before hitting the road again. Later on a hospital was set up, also a chapel and Mass was said there every Sunday until 1920. Joe Connolly was master during first of this century and its functions were run by a Board of Guardians acting in the same capacity as members of the Co. Council or visiting committees to hospitals or mental institutions. During the flu epidemic of 1918 it served as a local hospital run by the nuns. A horse-drawn van acted as an ambulance in those days. Dr. O’Malley was M.O. at the time and a man named O’Leary was the driver. Many patients died there during the epidemic, quite a number of tramps who contracted the flu died there as well. There is a small graveyard there where they are buried in unmarked graves. At that time there was no ESB or gas so they depended on turf. Many people around the area cut turf for sale. It had to be carted in horse carts at 2/6 a cart. They had a measure of so many cubic feet capacity and any load of turf that was short of four measures was cut in price, so turf cutting was not a lucrative business.”

The principal officers of the Workhouse Administration were the Master, a Matron, a School Teacher and a Porter. The duties of the Master included the admission and registration of inmates, taking note of their religion and allocating work to the able-bodied – hence the name workhouse.  Joe Conneally, the last Master, built an elegant townhouse as a family home in Main Street when the Workhouse ceased operations. It later became the residence of Pádraig Ó Séadhacháin, Principal of Lisín na h-Eilte National School and after that it formed part of Áras Bríde Nursing Home.

The Matron supervised the nurses, checked the linen and beds for cleanliness and deputised for the Master should he be absent on other business.  Schooling had an important role too, children received instruction, were disciplined and advised on morals and industry. Thomas Garvey, Clondoyle, was a teacher in the Workhouse.

The Workhouse porter manned the gate, recorded the name of and business of all officers or other persons entering or leaving. He took charge of the clothes of the inmates and searched anyone whom he may suspect of having spirits. M. Brennan was a porter at Glenamaddy Workhouse in 1913 and James Leary who was a van driver in the same year requested an increase in his salary from £10 to £12.

All workhouses had a chaplain. Their duties involved the celebration of Mass or divine office, visiting the sick and examining the children and recording their progress. Very Re. Walter Conway P.P. 1896-1919 in his book on Glenamaddy despised the workhouse system but accepted the role of chaplain.

In 2014 Martin Keaveny, Esker, who was born in 1920 recalled his primary school memory of children from the Workhouse attending St. Joseph’s Boys’ National School, Ballymoe Road. “About a dozen boys from the workhouse attended Glenamaddy school. They were in Mr O’Dea’s room. They were seated on a long forum along the wall. They were what we now call segregated. They didn’t join in any games with the other children. There was a big fellow called Mathias and he was in charge of the others. He carried a basketful of sandwiches and milk. They were all dressed the same in a grey uniform. They were well looked after. They moved to Tuam in 1927 and were later adopted by local families”. 

The Bon Secours Sisters, a Nursing Congregation from Mount Street, Dublin, came to Glenamaddy Workhouse shortly after 1900. This was the first time Sisters of the Nursing Order were invited to run the Workhouse on behalf of the Board of Guardians. The Hospital Wing was temporarily retained in Glenamaddy for the very ill, and as a home for the orphaned and destitute children of the area. The Sisters brought joy and life to all that remained of the old Workhouse. The children attended the local schools until the planned transfer of the institution to the proposed Children’s Home in Tuam.

Fr. James Fergus served as a curate in Glenamaddy from 1921 until 1924. It was his first appointment in the diocese. He went on to become bishop of Achonry in 1947. He said Mass each week-day in the Workhouse chapel and he got to know the workers and the sisters who worked there well. His time in Glenamaddy coincided with the troubles and it was he who was called out to remove the blessed sacrament and sacred vessels from the Workhouse chapel when the IRA burned part of the Workhouse in 1921 in case it was occupied by the Black and Tans.         

The Bon Secours Sisters who transferred to the Grove in Tuam following the closure of Glenamaddy Workhouse Children’s Home presented Fr. Michael Goaley, P.P. of Glenamaddy from 1989 to 2006, with Fr. Fergus’ written account of his time in Glenamaddy. In it he named the Sisters who worked in Glenamaddy and commented on the excellence of their work. He also mentioned Joe Conneally, Master of the Board of Guardians, Dr. O’Malley, medical officer, father of three Columban priests and some of the lay staff. He recorded the burning of part of the Workhouse by members of the old IRA to prevent the British Army from occupying the building. A copy of Fr. Fergus’s booklet will be filed in the Parochial House in Church Street, Glenamaddy.

A Memorial Plaque in memory of the indeterminate number of men, women and children who died in the Glenamaddy Union Workhouse during the period of its operation and who were interred in a designated burial plot located at the rear of the Workhouse building was unveiled and blessed by Dr. Michael Neary, Archbishop of Tuam in 1995. The plaque, one of two pointed arch windows rescued when Ballinasloe Workhouse Dead House was demolished, was erected by Glenamaddy Arts and Historical Society on the roadside close to the original entrance to the Workhouse. 


Kathleen Hurley who lived in Corlach House, Ballymoe, was a regular contributor to the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1940’s. She recounts an incident which is reputed to have occurred in Glenamaddy Workhouse. The story goes that as a child she met a very old man who in his youth was an inmate in Glenamaddy Workhouse. His name was Patch. It was his duty to carry the remains of any person who had died to the Dead House where bodies were dressed and prepared for burial. The Doctor doing his rounds through the sick ward said to Patch, “Patch, when Séamus dies carry him to the Dead House”. “Yes”, your Honour, replied Patch. When the Doctor had gone, Patch approached the dying man’s bed, caught him by the two wrists and slung him across his shoulders. Poor Seamus shouted, “I am not dead yet”. Patch in a hurry to do his work replied, “Stop you…, the Doctor knows best”

Glenamaddy Workhouse Accounts

An examination of some Workhouse Accounts for 1894 reveals the following payments for Workhouse supplies:

Workhouse Clerk Held in High Regard

In 1916 the Board of Guardians, having regard for the high cost of living, sanctioned a salary increase by £90 a year for James Bruen, Clerk of the Union. Monsignor P. J. Bruen, P.P. Aughrim-Kilconnell, whose father James was the last Union Clerk concelebrated the Famine Memorial Mass in Glenamaddy on Sunday 6th August 1995. James Bruen died in 1964 and is interred with his wife, Norah who died in 1953, in Creggs Road Cemetery, Glenamaddy.

Unsatisfactory Conditions Criticised

Glenamaddy Workhouse was inspected twice annually by the Local Government Board. In a lengthy report on one inspection, Major Ruthledge Fairs remarked on the poor cleanliness and sanitary, the nursing and hospital facilities were not satisfactory, the yards and in general the overall upkeep of the workhouse were neglected. The serious concern was on the agenda of a Board of Guardians meeting in March of the same year that Fr Walter Conway attended. Fear that the amalgamation scheme was near, the improvements outlined by Major Ruthledge Fairs report was not an issue of importance the Board felt. The following dialogue comes from the report of the meeting.

Michael F. Neary: If you amalgamate there is no use incurring large expenditure in repairing the house.

Fr. Conway P.P.: Whether you amalgamate or not something could be done about the hospital. You are here as the guardians of the poor, and so should look after the poor. We, and including myself among the number, cannot surely call ourselves Christian gentlemen, who would allow the poor people coming into this house to roll the clothes around their heads at night to keep away the rats from them. We cannot call ourselves Christian people or guardians of the poor who would allow this state of things to happen.

Michael F. Neary: I never heard that before or knew that such a state of things existed.

Other Guardians: Neither did we.

Towards the end of the meeting, the Board agreed to undertake repairs and engage the services of architect Robert Kirwan.

Dr Joseph McDonnell was medical officer to the Union in 1894-95. He resided, it is locally claimed, in Barna in a single storey modest house long since replaced by the current residence of Thomas McLoughlin. Dr McDonnell’s report on conditions in the workhouse dated 5th January 1895 states that “there are no infectious diseases apparent in the workhouse and the general sanitary conditions continue satisfactory”. He recommended that Martin Jennings get a pair of boots. His recommendation was granted. Fees paid to Dr. McDonnell in early 1895 amounted to £1.18 shillings. It appears from a notice in the Roscommon Journal and Western Reporter that Dr Joseph McDonnell died at the turn of the century. The notice applies to claims against the estate and requests particulars be furnished to a Roscommon address not later than 15th August 1901.

Vote of Sympathy

“That we, the Board of Guardians of the Glenamaddy Union, take this our earliest opportunity of expressing our deepest sympathy with the friends and relatives of the late Mr M. B. Collins, Glenamaddy. The deceased who was a respected merchant was upright and honourable in all his dealings and for a long number of years was contractor for supplies to the Union in which he gave every satisfaction. He endeared himself to all who knew him. His passing will be keenly felt in the District, especially by the poor. We tender to his afflicted widow and his family our deepest sympathy in their sad bereavement.”

Water Supply Problems

The workhouse had at times water supply shortages when the source from wells in the grounds failed to respond thus causing the matter to be discussed at meetings of the Board of Guardians. The winter of 1895 was severe, the workhouse Master reported to the Board that a lead pipe had burst and requested the service of a plumber to carry out repairs. The Master also stated that “he requires a few stones of oats for the jennit as he has this day commenced to change manure with him and the jennit would not be able to work if he did not at least have one feed of oats a day”. In a letter dated 17th April 1913, John Moran, engineer, inspected the pump erected by Messrs Campbell & Sons. He stated that it had failed to raise the supply of water to the cistern and ordered that the contractors be required to either modify or replace the pump within ten days, otherwise legal proceedings would be taken. Responding, Messers Casey & Collins Solicitors for Campbell & Sons stated that “the supply of water to the cistern was a subsequent matter independent of the contract, further, if the water does not reach the cistern, it is solely because of the defective pipe from the pump to the cistern, for which their clients are in no way responsible”. Henry Concannon, Solicitor, Tuam, represented the Board of Guardians. A person was engaged to draw water to the workhouse on contract, and today, it is of interest that there are two pumps remaining in the original workhouse grounds.

Author: Pat Keaveny


  • Glenamaddy Arts and Historical Society Journal. Volume 3, 2001. Millennium Edition.
  • This Great Calamity – The Irish Famine 1845/1852 – Christine Kinealy
  • Historical Notes on the Parish of Glenamaddy – Very Rev. Walter Conway P.P.
  • Folklore Submission: Paddy Crosby N.T. – National Folklore Commission archive
  • Guidance Notes – Canon Michael Goaley
  • Childhood Memories – Martin Keaveny
  • Mo Scéal Féin – An tAthair Peadar Ua Laoghaire