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The Workhouses of Ireland. The Fate of Ireland’s Poor by John O’Connor

Writing.ie | Non Fiction

By Orla McAlinden

A stunning, readable, approach to a devastating topic.

The proposal by the British Government in the early 1830s to introduce a system of workhouses into Ireland, in keeping with the system in Britain, provided one of the few opportunity for Irish Nationalists and Irish Unionists to agree upon something. Both sides instinctively knew that a workhouse system would spell disaster and tragedy for the already desperate Irish peasantry. Lord Castlereagh and Daniel O’Connell found themselves astonished to be arguing, almost for the only time ever, on the same side of a proposal. Their exhortations were ignored and the system of Workhouses was imposed upon the Irish population, to the horror of rate-paying ascendency and destitute peasant alike.

O’Connor’s book has made me view the social and built heritage of Ireland more critically; when you know how to spot them, the workhouses still dot the landscape, including Armagh community hospital, a few miles from my home of origin, and in Kilmacthomas, a few miles from my husband’s home of origin.

The book is written in a calm and dispassionate manner, the shocking, horrible facts speak for themselves and require no embroidering by the author. The book is well-researched but never dry and academic in tone, it reads like a novel and is hard to put down.

Being Irish, the topic is not new to me, but the devil is very definitely in the detail when it comes to reading by-laws, rules, architectural details, food-surveys etc. A book that any Irish reader would benefit from and a fantastic place to start for a person with little or no knowledge of the politics and social structure of Ireland in the years prior to and encompassing the great Irish Famine. of enormous benefit are the extensive bibliography, notes and eighteen appendices included at the end, which allow O’Connor to write fluently and accessibly, whilst still providing chapter and verse for his assertions.

Readers will find themselves poring over floor-plans, menus, kitchen garden inventories and will come away from the book with a sense of learning far in excess of what such an easy-to-read book might promise. The occasional illustrations really add hugely to the enjoyment of the topic, and my only quibble is that I would have liked more.
Highly recommended.

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