By Jonathan A. Smyth
Recently, I was in Dublin on a wet wintry day. Waiting on the return bus to Cavan, I stood drenched on Nassau Street. Realising there would be another forty-minute wait for the bus, it seemed reasonable to head down Kildare Street to the warmth of the National Library.
Five minutes later, I entered the library reading room and, on a whim, requested to see a microfilmed newspaper from 1914.The reel rolled forward on the new machine that had just been installed that day. My eye suddenly caught the word ‘Cootehill’.
Reversing the reel a few pages back, there it was, a report with three pictures of Cootehill Workhouse. It goes without saying that workhouses were not the most hospitable of places. That aside, they were, if somewhat primitive, an early welfare system intended to take care of the destitute poor.
From 1838, the Irish Poor Law Act permitted the English government to build workhouses across Ireland. Already, in England and Wales, the English and Welsh had built functioning workhouses as early 1777. In Ireland, they were not a suitable solution and the system was intensely disliked.
Terms such as ‘pauper’ and ‘inmate’ were hated. In the beginning the workhouse probably seemed like a good solution, offering refuge to people in need. In reality, it made men, women and children into prisoners, sentenced for no other crime but that they were poor.
The expense of running a workhouse was to be borne by the people of the district, or union, as it was then called. The Cootehill Union had been formed in August 1839 and covered an area of one hundred and sixty square miles and included up to twelve electoral divisions.
In 1840, a six-acre site in the townland of Lisnasaran, Cootehill was bought on which to build the workhouse. George Wilkinson’s architectural designs for a standard workhouse was the one used at Lisnasaran.