Neglecting History

The background to the appearance of workhouses around Ireland in the 19th century has been discussed here before (see Silent Witness « The Irish Aesthete). In total, 163 such institutions were constructed, one of them on a six-acre site to the immediate south of Tipperary town. Overseen by a Board of Guardians, in November 1839 a Poor Law Union had been established in this part of the country and the workhouse soon followed; built of limestone in a loosely Tudorbethan manner and at a cost of £6,240 plus a further £1,110 for fixtures and fittings, it received the first occupants in July 1841. As was the case with all other such properties, this one was designed by the Poor Laws Commissioners’ architect George Wilkinson and intended to provide places for 700 persons. Inevitably, with the advent of the Great Famine in 1845, that figure was greatly exceeded; by the end of the famine period, there were four times as many occupants, this severe overcrowding leading to many deaths from diseases such as typhus. A graveyard was opened in August 1847 to provide burial sites for those who had died in the workhouse. Subsequently additions were made to the site, with a long, two-storey wing running behind the austere three-storey entrance/admissions block, the former concluding in a chapel, constructed in 1871. 

By the start of the present century, much of the former workhouse in Tipperary had fallen into  disrepair, although part of it had been converted into commercial premises (and this remains the case today). In 2000, the Tipperary hostel project, a community-based project, embarked on the transformation of the building into self-catering accommodation for tourists. The project successfully secured support and finance from a number of agencies, most notably FÁS, a state-funded training agency intended to encourage employment. Upon completion, the facility was expected to operate primarily as a local community-based hostel under community and voluntary management. The income generated from this enterprise was expected to finance further educational and training work in the fields of traditional trades and crafts, not least by hosting residential workshops. However, while the project was supposed to be completed in four or five years, in 2010 it transpired that while almost €4 million had been provided in state funding, the job remained unfinished and further finance had been suspended. Three years later, in December 2013, the Irish Independent reported that a police investigation had been launched into ‘how a derelict pre-famine workhouse, which was to be refurbished into a modern hostel in a Fas-run project, remains rundown despite almost €5m of public funds being spent on the project’, with only room on the site completed. Furthermore, ‘several of the 23 workers who were supposed to be working on the site of the former workhouse ended up working in 62 other locations, including local GAA and tennis clubs as well as community halls and other local amenities. Twenty private dwellings were also renovated.’ Work on the project had already been halted and was not resumed.

Following this debacle, responsibility for the Tipperary workhouse passed to the local authority, which appears to have done nothing to ensure the building’s future or to secure it against incursion: in March 2018 the site suffered a bad arson attack which left large sections of the roof exposed to the elements, but no repairs were undertaken, leading to further deterioration. Meanwhile, most of the windows were broken and also left unrepaired. Then in February 2019 it emerged that the county council was attempting to sell the workhouse, although it seems there were no offers made for the place, or at least none sufficiently satisfactory for the place to change hands. Instead, it was left to fall into the present condition. This is how the workhouse now looks, abandoned and neglected, with little evidence that just over 20 years ago the plan was that it would become an important tourist asset for Tipperary, bringing visitors to the area, providing employment for residents, improving the local economy. Instead, it has become another broken-down building, an eyesore instead of an asset. This isn’t an unusual story in Ireland. Indeed, there’s hardly a town around the country that doesn’t have a substantial property, too often owned by either a national or local authority, or a state body, which has enormous potential but has been allowed to fall into a ruinous condition. Once again, this is how we choose to treat our architectural heritage. 

9 comments on “Neglecting History

  1. Annl lalor says:

    It’s disgraceful. Why doesn’t Tipperary heritage or some in Tipperary do something about it . I wish i could , the government should investigate in all these old buildings and renovate.

  2. If only just one of Irelands now several billionaires, who invest much of their money abroad would see the good they could do by spending just a few million here? They would certainly be better thought of! As for our Local Authorities, what more should we expect, they are riddled by local politics just lacking any vision much of the time.

  3. dayscove says:

    Is Tipperary thriving or failing? No homeless to care for? So many Irish children filling the work force that the County has no need to renovate and fill these buildings with immigrants looking for work or some type of humanitarian care for others? Charity is a calling by God, and He has blessed Ireland. Here is a chance for the authorities to do their job and reciprocate. “To whom much is given, much will be required” – Luke 12:48

  4. Deborah T. Sena says:

    I concur in the above sentiment to the extent that tourism accommodations cannot be the always ‘go to’ answer for redeveloping these historic properties. How many existing restored estate hotels or any other for that matter, are now in financial jeopardy because of the downturn in travel due to COVID? But low-income housing is only relevant when there is employment available for the residents, otherwise you may be creating a new era version of workhouse despair (to say the least). I have to admit I personally would not have any interest in staying in a place with its history. I admit, however, my comments may be taken by some as similar to the rationale behind building the workhouses in the first place.

    • Stephen Barker says:

      I agree with many of the points you make. I expect most visitors would prefer to stay in a converted country house as opposed to the former workhouse. As for converting it into low cost housing, without jobs in the local economy it could easily become a trap for the poorest or a dumping ground for those regarded as social undesirables by the local community.

      As an outsider the decline of so many buildings seems a shame. I do wonder if part of the problem is that they are seen as part of Ireland’s past before Independence which is a period that many would sooner forget about. As for the local and national authorities and the politicians who run them, no doubt they find large new projects more appealing than restoring the part.

      Heritage can make a positive contribution to urban and rural environments but it is rarely the solution to wider societal problems. Even where it is successful it can cause it’s own problems with gentrification and locals being priced out of their own communities.

      What the answer is, I don’t know. We can be sure of one thing if there was a simple solution, politicians despite what we may think of them would have implemented it by now and taken the credit.

  5. Tony Fawcett says:

    As the great-grandson of a girl who aged 17 was sent from the Tipperary workhouse as an “orphan” for a “better life” in Australia in 1849, I am filled with sadness at the appalling state of this structure today. Yes, there are harsh economic realities involved in preserving such a building and, yes, I suspect, many Irish still think Famine days are best forgotten, but surely there is someone with vision to preserve such historic monuments for future generations. I don’t think many appreciate the potential of such buildings for international tourism. My great-grandmother was one of 4,114 Irish girls who as part of the Earl Grey Scheme left or were sent from Irish workhouses for Australia in late-Famine days. Today there are millions of Australians who can trace their ancestry directly back to those poor young Irish girls – and in many cases they are doing, or trying to do, just that. Worldwide there are countless others with Irish workhouse roots. I just hope that in the future there will be something left of this structure for overseas descendants of these workhouse inmates to visit. I have visited the Portumna workhouse centre and seen just a little of what can be achieved. It’s not too late but someone needs to extend their vision.

  6. Derrick HAMBLETON says:

    Once again the point is being made that a tourism venture might be the answer to this particular buildings problems. I don’t know, but we do often see on Nationwide (RTE) or other such programmes where a tourist project, run by local community group works but probably on a smaller scale property that is capable of sustaining some local employment, running a tea rooms or some such museum venture. As to the points made by Tony Fawcett. I was a taxi driver in Galway for 30 years, on several occasions I came across several US and Australian visitors who asked me where they should go to get information about their ancestors. Apart from taking them to the County Council offices or, the Cathedral or the Registrars Office. That was then and now today we have many local Family History Groups in many villages and still these large buildings, which could act as centres for local history groups are neglected by local authorities! As for our government departments – I don’t know where you would start?


      We in America have a sad, shameful history involving the Catholic Church, pedophile priests and the secret cover-up perpetuated by the political tactics of Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, who was subsequently rewarded with a higher position at the Vatican. The priests were simply moved to new storehouses, and the Cardinal did not have to confront his critics, offenders or the tormented faces and stories of the children, mostly boys, whose purity was seized, violated and transformed forever. Law escaped his demons – but not the Supreme Judge – in 2017 when he died in exile in Rome.
      The fog of time rolled in over these unfortunate issues, and the American Catholic Church proceeded to wash and refurbish the church properties, hire new staff, recruit new priests, promising the people of these violated communities that it would never happen again. America has seen many abandoned or unused buildings redesigned for a new purpose or demolished completely. In any case, the prolific abandonment of buildings or neglected edifices takes on an architectural persona of “hobgoblins” or “foul fiends” awaiting their next level of decay, as some of those featured on Aesthete’s pages. These buildings serve as a reminder of intentions gone awry or vision stymied. I refer to almshouses, asylums, workhouses, schools, hospitals and quite recently, convents like the Sean Ross Abbey, that snatched babies from young girls and then sold those babies to childless couples, sometimes abroad, who could afford to pay the fee to the Abbey. The funds were used to keep the Sisters’ lives facilitated and comfortable with all the necessities. While many of these buildings have been refurbished and are now in good use, other ghouls still stand, hovering over the weeds and rubbish of their forgotten grounds. Perhaps the Government of Ireland should start a new campaign which chronicles their history and reconstitutes the purpose of each building with respect for the human beings they were meant to serve. Open them as venues to the public! Whether they open as hotels, apartments, restaurants, businesses, eldercare/daycare facilities, art galleries or museums, mount a campaign to remind the visitors of what happened in that place by erecting plaques, historical photos and museum-sized panels that explain the back stories and give hope to the new ones! For families and friends, like the ones transported in Derrick Hambleton’s taxi, they will return to glean memories and hopefully be lifted by the mea culpa of the very organizations which once filled those spaces.

      • Derrick HAMBLETON says:

        Agree absolutely. My point was not to cover up the buildings from wrongs you allude to but to make them available to carry their history forward. To be useful in making their histories accessible for our own colonial visitors? Never to forget that many Anglo-Irish were involved in support of the religious misdeeds to which you refer!

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