Westmeath workhouses to be remembered at conference

Westmeath’s three former workhouses will be among those being discussed at an upcoming conference on workhouses to take place on May 17 and 18 in Portumna, Co Galway. The event is the first national conference on the workhouses in Ireland. Of the 163 workhouses built in Ireland, there were three in Westmeath, located in Athlone, Mullingar, and Delvin. The country was divided into 163 unions, each with a workhouse or poorhouse. Workhouses in Ireland operated for a period of 80 years, from the early 1840s to the early 1920s when the system was abolished. The workhouse or poorhouse was the last resort of the destitute poor, and a place for people that society did not want. People who entered did work in return for food. Athlone Poor Law Union was formed in 1839, covering an area of 311 square miles. A workhouse was built to accommodate 900 inmates. In common with other unions in Ireland, Athlone suffered greatly during the famine years 1845-50. The workhouse was greatly overcrowded, food was short, sanitation was poor, and diseases such as typhus fever and dysentery were widespread. In the second half of the 19th century, the hospital facilities gradually expanded with the creation of what became St Vincent’s Hospital. By 1915, the majority of the workhouse’s 200 inmates were actually hospital patients. Following the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, Athlone workhouse became a district hospital with its inmates being transferred to the County Home at the former Mullingar workhouse. In more recent times, the original entrance block of the workhouse was used by a local college. The main accommodation block has been used by the local fire service and various small businesses. Mullingar Poor Law Union was formed on November 1, 1839. Its workhouse was built to accommodate 800 inmates. In 1936, following the opening of a new County Hospital, the St Anne’s block was used for the treatment of TB patients until its closure in 1962. In 1998, demolition work began on the block in order to provide stone for the construction in Flanders of a commemorative tower to the Irish First World War dead. The other former workhouse buildings are occupied by St Mary’s geriatric hospital. The third workhouse in Co Westmeath was located in Delvin, then referred to as Castletowndelvin. This workhouse was built after the famine years and was formed from parts of the existing Mullingar, Oldcastle, and Kells Unions. The workhouse buildings were damaged during the early 1920s. The site is now occupied by housing. The first national conference on the workhouses in Ireland takes place on May 17 and 18 in Portumna. The conference programme is available on www.irishworkhousecentre.ie, or for more information call (090 ) 9759200. The closing date for bookings is Wednesday May 14.

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