Photos and recordings, © Adrian Mallon Multimedia, 2003
(Located in Armagh City, Irish Map grid reference H883455.)
Over countless centuries whether town or country the poor and destitute have always been a part of society. In an area where industrial development was of secondary importance to agricultural life the economy was often precariously poised. If environmental variables such as the weather were not kind the lives of those who cultivated a living from the land could be difficult. Added to this the size of families, limited mobility and the lack of education placed a strain on the economic resources of the family. It was not uncommon for people to roam the countryside in search of employment.
The first attempt to combat the social and economic evils of poverty and vagrancy came in the sixteenth century. Rather than addressing the root of the problem the act merely ordered that vagabonds were to be punished.
In 1629 Charles I issued a proclamation regarding Ireland's poor, "For the speedy sending away of the Irish beggars out of this kingdom unto their own country, and for the suppression and ordering of the English rogues and vagabonds according to the laws".
The first move towards removing vagrancy from the countryside came with the establishment of a 'House of Industry' in Belfast in the first years of the nineteenth century.
The government of the day decided on a workhouse system holding to the belief that the poor were generally lazy and could only find a way out of poverty if they were forced to work. In 1833 a Royal Commission set up to look into the prospect estimated that 30.7% of the country's population were living in poverty and approximately 2,385,000 to be in "great need of food".
In July 1838 a poor law divided the country into Poor Law Unions, each to be under the direction of a Board of Guardians. Each union was to have a workhouse to provide shelter and relief for the poor of the district. The workhouse at Armagh serviced the district around Markethill.
At the first meeting of the Armagh Board of Guardians the representatives for the area were:
Clady -- William Leeper, Ballylear, Markethill;
Hamiltonsbawn -- Alexander Green, Hamiltonsbawn, Markethill;
Lisnadill -- John McClure, Seagahan, Armagh;
Markethill -- Reford Woodhouse, Markethill and William Gillis, Markethill.
Six acres of land between the Church of St.Mark's and the river were set aside for the construction of the workhouse. The plans were drawn up by George Wilkinson who designed the workhouse at Armagh to hold 1,000 inmates. As would be expected the workhouse was often substantially in excess of this number. Conditions were deliberately rough in an attempt to discourage people, especially the ne'er-do-wells, from remaining within the workhouse.
In the accompanying audio recording, Billy Pielow talks about working as a nurse in Armagh Workhouse, Tower Hill, from 1947 to 1950.
Use the audio controller to listen to this talk, given in 2003.
The master of the workhouse at Armagh was in receipt of the sum of £40 per annum and also received weekly rations. The medical officer was in receipt of £50 per annum, and the schoolmaster and schoolmistress £20 and £15 per annum respectively.
Famine throughout the nineteenth century and especially following the great famine of 1845/6 led to the Armagh workhouse becoming considerably oversubscribed. Overcrowding and poor hygiene led almost inevitably to the spread of disease and fever. To alleviate the situation a temporary fever hospitals were established in the city of Armagh and the towns of Keady, Loughgall, Middleton and Markethill. Despite this 598 inmates died between October 1846 and March 1847.
Towards the close of the nineteenth century county councils provided more relief within the countryside and this enabled people to stay outside of the workhouse system. Local dispensaries gave much needed medical assistance in the community helping to halt the spread of infectious diseases such as typhoid and tuberculosis.
By the beginning of the twentieth century the workhouse in Armagh had outlived its original purpose. Instead of aided people to work themselves out of crippling poverty the workhouse had become little more than a refuge for children and infirm people.
A Vice Regal commission of 1906 advocated the abolition of the workhouse system but in any case the system was seriously undermined by the inception of Old Age Pensions and the adoption of Unemployment Benefit. The 1906 report had demonstrated that the population had almost halved and the corresponding number of poor and vagrants had also fallen dramatically. By that time the number living in severe poverty was estimated as low as 30,000.
The workhouse system was formally abandoned in 1948 and the workhouse at Armagh became the Tower Hill Hospital. Although the building has been much altered to suit its present purpose the attics of the building still provide a glimpse into the era of the workhouse.
McCourt, E., The Poor Law and the Workhouse in Armagh (1981)
Murphy, D., "Knights of the Road in Before I forget..." , Journal of the Poyntzpass Historical Society (No. 8, October 2000)