'It was Christmas day in the workhouse..'

The guardians and their ladies: a visit to the workhouse on Christmas Day.

The guardians and their ladies: a visit to the workhouse on Christmas Day.

Many people will be familiar with the first line of this famous Victorian dramatic monologue, written by the English journalist George R Sims in 1879.

The workhouse system in Ireland was based on the English model, paid for by a tax levied on local landlords; but probably passed on to their tenants.

When in Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol Scrooge is asked to make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, he refuses asking 'Are there no prisons?'

'Plenty of prisons,' said the gentleman. 'And the Union Workhouses? Demanded Scrooge, 'Are they still in operation?

'They are. Still.’ replied the gentleman, 'I wish I could say they were not.'

However well intentioned the workhouse was initially, it became a hated institution, the very last resort of a destitute people who had to beg for relief, and endure being a burden on the 'parish'.

Victorian morality often insisted that poverty was the fault of the poor; and that charity only prolonged indolence.

Life inside was very strict, and food was poor. But during the Great Famine, such was the demand for admittance, that the whole system broke down. Landlords refused to continue to pay the soaring costs; there were riots, disease, and anarchy. Soup kitchens relieved the situation somewhat.

But after the famine the workhouse was revived still only for the 'destitute poor'. If a small tenant farmer had a bad year, and his smallholding could not feed his family, he could only seek assistance from the 'parish' by relinquishing his tenancy. Once inside there was no turning back. It was either emigration or a life on the roads.

Pat Finnegan's moving book (The case of the Craughwell prisoners- during the Land War in Co Galway 1879-85 ) about his grandfather's appalling treatment when he was wrongfully accused of being part of a murder squad, was a reminder of the brave struggle of the small tenant farmers of east and south Galway who effectively campaigned against the villainous Lord Clanricard. His agents treated their tenants contemptuously.

I think the poem is still worth reading. Apart from its melodrama, it conveys the desperation of the poor, and the terror of not getting help when in desperation, and the sheer anger at the failure of the system.

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