Galway Workhouse

The ‘Night of The Big Wind’ on the night of January 6/7, 1839, deprived thousands of people in the Galway area of their homes. Their situation in the depths of winter was more than local charities could cope with. On May 8, the Galway Union was proclaimed to include the city and surrounding townlands to a radius of roughly 10 miles plus the Aran Islands, all of which would be served by a single workhouse in Galway. The first meeting of the Galway Board of Guardians was held in the Courthouse on July 3 of that year.

The workhouse opened on March 3, 1842. It included an infirmary intended for sick paupers but which, in practice, became the hospital for the city poor. The first person admitted was an old and infirm man who sadly died two weeks later. The building was originally designed to hold 800 residents. By mid-1846, the number had reached 460, and the following January it was 1,143. On census night, 1851, there were 2,099 in the main workhouse plus 1,919 in the auxiliary workhouses in Galway, equal to 6.5 per cent of the population of the Galway Union. In July of that year, the numbers were even higher. In 1843, the daily cost of maintaining a resident was 2d. In 1847, the number of deaths every week averaged 25 to 30.

The Mercy Sisters took over nursing in the hospital section in 1865, and took charge of the main part of the workhouse in 1884. It closed in 1921 when the remaining 68 residents were transferred to the new County Home in Loughrea. The workhouse section was then taken over by the British army, which handed it over to the Irish Army in January 1922. The county council completely refurbished and renovated the building over the next two years and converted it into the Central Hospital. The new Regional Hospital was built behind the Central from 1949 to 1956, and the Central was demolished in 1957.

Our photograph was taken c1890 at the corner of Newcastle Road and Cosán an Aifrinn. In the foreground are a group of UCG students preparing for Rag Week. There were no traffic problems at this junction then. Notice the elegant gaslight at the corner, and how narrow Newcastle Road was.

The building in the centre with the tall chimneys was the cut stone entrance lodge to the workhouse. It contained a boardroom, clerks’ offices, porter’s room, waiting areas, and probationary wards for paupers, males on one side, females on the other. Between this building and the main block were two separate yards, one for boys and one for girls. The roof and large chimney you can see just over the wall to the right of picture was the main pauper section of the workhouse, which was a large H shaped building of three storeys. The old and infirm were accommodated on the ground floor, with dormitories for active adults in the upper floors. To the rear of each wing were kitchen, wash-house, and privies. The small parallel wing of two storeys to the rear contained the infirmary, lying-in ward, and wards for idiots and lunatics. There were recreation yards and the eight acres of ground were surrounded by high stone walls.

The building we see further down Newcastle Road was the City Dispensary which in 1923 was converted into a maternity hospital. After 1942 it became the eye, ear, nose, and throat department of the Central Hospital.

Most of today’s information came from Dr Jim Murray’s wonderful book Galway, a Medico-Social History. If you would like to know more about the poor law system that sparked the major change in the social organisation of poverty in Ireland, we can recommend Helen Burke’s book entitled The People and the Poor Law, published by Arlen House.

Finally, a call to all Salerno past pupils. The jubilee of the school takes place in 2012/13, and the staff are anxious to compile a database of all past pupils from the 1960s through to 2000. If you are a graduate, they are looking for your name, the year you left, an email address or postal address, and if possible, a phone number. Please contact June Smith at the school at (091 ) 529 500 or by email [email protected]

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