The news that the Mayo County Library is to place workhouse records online coincides with the centenary of the closure of these feared and hated institutions. The workhouse, the last resort of the starving and destitute in Famine days, had outlived its usefulness by 1921, its forbidding high walls a harrowing reminder of an era best forgotten.
By the time of their closure, there were seven workhouses in Mayo – Castlebar, Ballina, Swinford, Belmullet, Westport, Claremorris and Ballinrobe. Apart from their neglected condition, they were as discredited as they were uneconomic. Their capacity was over 5,000, but the number of inmates was but a tenth of that. There were 173 officials employed, meaning one official to every three patients; their cost of operation came to £37,000.
The newly installed Dáil Éireann wasted no time in directing County Councils to set about closing or amalgamating these moribund reminders of the past. In October of 1920, Mayo County Council convened a meeting of the seven Boards of Guardians (the bodies responsible for workhouses) to devise a suitable scheme.
By the following August, an amalgamation plan was ready. All seven workhouses were to close by the end of September, and all inmates would be transferred to what would be called the County Home in Castlebar. The hospitals attached to the institutions in Ballinrobe, Claremorris and Westport would be closed, but a district hospital would remain in Ballina and Swinford, and a fever hospital would be retained in Belmullet.
Several aspects of the plan met with initial resistance. Some felt that it was illogical to locate a fever hospital in remote Belmullet. The Westport councillors were critical of the decision to close the hospital the facilities of which, it was claimed, were superior to Castlebar. But the argument was won on economic grounds, with the Inspector pointing out that, of the 374 inmates due for transfer, at least half would opt for discharge, meaning less than 200 would need rehousing in Castlebar.
But most startling of all, in retrospect, and perhaps a sign of the times, was that Dáil Éireann’s attitude to the poor and marginalised was little different from that of its Imperial predecessor. The tone and tenor of the directive issued to Mayo County Council by central Government, approving of the new arrangements, reveal a stony indifference and a hard heartedness that today we would find shocking.
Among the issues addressed in the directive was that of the transfer of unmarried mothers – ‘fallen women’ as one contributor said – from the workhouses to the central home in Castlebar.
“Unmarried expectant mothers and unmarried mothers present the most difficult problem in any scheme of transfer. A separate department will have to be set aside for this class.
“It needs hardly be pointed out that the presence of this particular class will be a stigma on the status of the new Central Home.”
Having laid out its attitude to unmarried mothers, the directive then goes on to offer some practical advice to the County Council Committee charged with the implementation of the new arrangements.
“The Committee should consider transferring these undesirables to some provincial or national institution where their maintenance can be paid for by their own labour – laundry work, basket making, sewing, knitting and so on.
“Alternatively, the Committee could utilise the existing Magdalene Asylums, when the previous option is not practicable.
“Or the Committee could allow a small pension for their maintenance in their own or a friend’s home during their period of incapacity.”
There is no record of criticism or objection to the language used in the Government decree.