The geographic and social landscapes of nineteenth-century Ireland were significantly altered by the establishment of numerous institutions, largely aimed at confining, relieving and treating the deviant, destitute and sick poor. They ranged from prisons and bridewells, to lunatic asylums and medical hospitals; from houses of industry, mendicity societies and Poor Law union workhouses, to Magdalen asylums, industrial schools and reformatories. While numerous establishments (such as prisons and hospitals) dated from earlier periods, a significant upsurge was witnessed in the nineteenth century, reflecting a wider ‘institutional zeal’ (Cox, 2009) throughout the transatlantic world in this period.
Speaking broadly, these institutions are popularly associated with harsh and cruel regimes, untrained and uncaring staff, approaches to illness (especially mental illness) that lacked compassion, and conditions that bred disease and death. Perceptions of these institutions, and life within them, are generally negative. One question which has always fascinated me is the undeniable fact that in these harsh institutions where the lives of residents (staff and patients / prisoners / inmates) were subject to strict disciplinary regimes, there were moments of fun, laughter and joviality. I seem to recall Holocaust survivor Elia Wiesel’s account, in his Night, of a journey on a train to a concentration camp and his recollection of a young couple having sexual intercourse. Even in the direst of circumstances, aspects of life continue as before. Turning to Irish workhouses, asylums and other institutions, surely there were times when jokes were told, games were played by children, and people engaged in small, private acts of generosity and humanity. Of course, our understanding of the past is shaped by the surviving sources; for most of these institutions, the masses of poor patients / prisoners / inmates left behind few records of their experiences and thoughts. As such, what little understanding we can gain of their lives are filtered through the records, and perspectives, of the managers of these institutions.
In my work, on poverty, begging, and charity in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ireland, I have caught glimpses of this aspect of life for the poor inside institutions. In those instances, the occasion for ‘enjoyment’ was organised by the managing committee / governors – such as a ‘feast’ – rather than a spontaneous experience of frivolity arising from the residents. This is most likely arising from the fact that the sources that provide these all-too-rare glimpses are usually the minutes and reports of the controlling body of the institution: an event was organised and recorded by the managing committee.
Seasonal treats were common in many institutions. In the premises of the Dublin Mendicity Society, a charity founded in 1818 to clear the streets of beggars, paupers were usually treated to a Christmas feast, in one instance being fed ‘roast beef and plum pudding’. The same Dublin charity also organised trips for its pauper children to the Zoological Gardens in the Phoenix Park, for ‘advantages of improvement and recreation’. Significant public events were also the occasions for treating the inmates of such institutions. In June 1838, the coronation of Queen Victoria was marked by Limerick Corporation ordering the first public illumination since Waterloo, as well as providing money to the city’s Mendicity Society and House of Industry ‘to provide the pauper inmates of these places the enjoyment of a comfortable breakfast and dinner, in commemoration of this event’. Two years later, to mark the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert, the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Ebrington, subsidised ‘an abundant dinner of prime ox beef’ for the ‘numerous mendicant poor’ in the Dublin Mendicity Society’s premises. This feast was complemented by the distribution of ‘180 saffron cakes…amongst the children of the [society’s] schools, being the gift of a member of the committee’. The royal marriage was also honoured in Clonmel, where the town’s mendicants ‘were supplied by subscription with 300 loaves of bread and 300lbs. of beef’. In March 1863 the Prince of Wales’s marriage was marked by ‘entertainment’ and ‘great enjoyment’ for 350 patients at the Richmond District Lunatic Asylum (Grangegorman) on Dublin city’s north-side. A rare insight from a patient’s viewpoint comes in a letter of complaint, composed by a patient of the Cork Street Fever Hospital, Dublin in 1816, wherein the patient (William McLoughlin of Wood Street) alleged that other patients bribed the ward nurses for the privilege of staying up late, drinking tea and singing.
Image: An 1830s newspaper notice, recording the visit to the Dublin Zoological Gardens of child paupers from the city’s Mendicity Institution
Contrary to the quip of a colleague who read this article, I am not suggesting that life in workhouses was fun! I believe that to highlight these (admittedly few) recorded instances is not to deny the level of suffering in such institutions, but, rather, to deepen our understanding of the varied experiences of those who lived within their walls, as well as the actions and motivations of those in control of these institutions.
John O’Connor, The workhouses of Ireland : the fate of Ireland’s poor (1995).
Audrey Woods, Dublin outsiders: a history of the Mendicity Institution, 1818-1998 (1998).
For a wider discussion of institutions in this period, see Catherine Cox, ‘Institutionalisation in Irish history and society’ in Mary McAuliffe et al (eds), Palgrave advances in Irish history (2009).