From Workhouse to Modern Hospital, Co. Tipperary

The story of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Clonmel and its progression from workhouse to modern hospital, through 150 years of the history of South Tipperary, is told by Eamonn Lonergan in his recent book – St. Joseph’s Hospital, Clonmel: An Historical and Social Portrait.

This book is the third in a trilogy on the history of institutions in South Tipperary. In 1985, Eamonn Lonergan published St. Luke’s Hospital, Clonmel, 1834-1984. This was followed in 1992 by A Workhouse Story: A History of St. Patrick’s Hospital, Cashel, 1842-1992, and his last study, on St. Joseph’s Hospital, was recently published.

Together, and separately, these books constitute an invaluable study on the social history of South Tipperary, and especially on the establishment of the institutions.

The 19th century saw the acceptance by the State, albeit within well-defined boundaries, of its social obligations towards its citizens. That acceptance did not come a moment too soon. The Industral Revolution, the consequent rapid increase in populations and urbanisation, together with crop failures and economic policies, contributed to many problems in society: homelessness, hunger and extreme poverty. Nowhere was this more evident than in Ireland.

It was in this climate that St. Joseph’s Hospital in Clonmel had its origins, in the House of Industry in Irishtown, first established in 1811 by the Religious Society of Friends (The Quakers). They had long become convinced that they had a duty towards the alleviation of social problems, which involved the principle of the re-distribution of their wealth. There was nothing wrong in the making of money, they believed, but it should then be shared. (Modern capitalists, please note!).

This House of Industry was taken over by the Government in 1841 as Clonmel’s first Workhouse. The original description of the House’s function is quoted by Eamonn Lonergan: “A common receptacle for all descriptions of malfortunes, serving at the same time as a place of confinement for vagrants and lunatics as well as an asylum for the poor and helpless.” The modern mind boggles.

The necessity for setting up workhouses in Ireland had been under investigation since the enactment of the Poor Law Act of 1838. As Eamonn Lonergan states, the criteria for the establishment of such institutions was that the relief given in them “should in all respects be worse than that available on the outside.” The study on Ireland states that “the standard of the Irish mode of living is so low that the establishment of one lower is difficult.”

However, as the Great Famine sent out its initial warnings in the partial failure of the potato crop in the early 1840s, the luxury for debate and commissions had receded. The matter was urgent. The history of St. Joseph’s tells us about those early years in Clonmel’s workhouse, in which in 1842 there were 506 inmates, classified as “paupers,” whose diet consisted of oatmeal, skimmed milk and potatoes. As the Famine loomed and potatoes became scarce, breat was sutstituted, and later Indian Meal (Maize) was added to the diet.

By February 1847, 1,365 men, women and children were in the Clonmel Workhouse, where overcrowding had become such that Auxiliary Workhouses had to be established, one on the Quay and another in the Northgate Brewery. This latter building was demolished just a few years ago in the re-development of Morton Street, and little now remains of the original building in Irishtown except, it seems to me, the boundary walls.

Eamon Lonergan looks at the operation and management of Clonmel’s Workhouse, with its policy of segregation, and where families were parted. This parting would seem to be the single most awful prospect faced by people who finally sought refuge in the Workhouse. Hunger and homelessness, and even disease, were as naught in comparison to separation from children.

Overall management and policy was in the hands of the Board of Guardians. Since these institutions had to be supported from local revenue (the rates), these Guardians were appointed from amongst the county’s largest ratepayers, the property and landowners.

The Workhouse Master and Matron took charge of the day-to-day management, and Eamonn Lonergan tells us about many of these people, some decent and kind, others “disreputable and incompetent.” The rules were strict and infringements punished. In 1847 “Biddy O’Meara was caught climbing the wall and ordered to be confined for twenty-four hours and have her hair cut;” “five boys who refused to work on the farm were given twelve lashes each.”

By November 1849, with increasing and indeed intolerable pressures on the institution and its inmates, consideration was given to the construction of a new Workhouse. Following studies by sub-committees and inspection of prospective sites, “five fields contiguous to each other adjoining the Model School,” were purchased.

This land was servicd by the newly-constructed Western Road, then known as Jones’s Road, after the engineer who designed it. By 10th October 1853, the first inmates were admitted to his new building, a building which was ultimately to become St. Joseph’s Hospital. It was then, and continues to be so today, the one building which in size and bulk dominates the skyline of the town, as viewed from the hills.

Eamonn Lonergan outlines the financing of the building, the issuing of bonds, the appointment of contractors: William Doolin of Dublin. There was, amongst older Clonmel citizens, the story that the said William Doolin became the Workhouse’s first inmate because he lost so much money on the job. This was not so, but the Board of Guardians’ dispute with him, which ultimately ended up in the courts, makes fascinating reading.

As indeed does much of the minutiae of this book: the fate of the foundlings consigned to the Workhouse, for instance. These abandoned babies were usually given the name of the person who found them, except one infant who was discovered in Heywood Road, and who forever bore the name John Heywood. Then there was the emigration from the Workhouse, where young girls, some aged only fifteen or sixteen, were shipped to Quebec and later to Australia. Malcolmsons in Portlaw took some girls to work in the cotton mills, where they were given clean and well-ventilated accommodation and “good bedding.” Some did well and prospered; two ran away and one died.

In 1883 the Sisters of Mercy started to work in the Infirmary attached to the Workhouse, and approval was given for the training of probationer nurses there in 1897. This was the next phase in the evolution of Clonmel Workhouse into what was eventually to become St. Joseph’s Hospital.

As the political climate changed in 1920, there was a riot at a meeting of the Board of Guardians when it was decided that British ex-servicemen, in need of medical attention, would not be admitted to the Infirmary. The decision was reversed, but on reading through the period, the problems of parity of esteem with which Northern Ireland is now challenged becomes very apparent.

In 1924, the new Irish Government decided to end the old Workhouse system, which had left such a legacy of fear and desperation on the Irish psyche. The “official’journey from Workhouse to hospital was now complete. Clonmel was designated as the site for the new County Hospital, but between that decision and its ultimate achievement, there lay a vista of bitter wrangling between the towns of Clonmel and Cashel, lasting nearly eighty years. The current work on the extension of St. Joseph’s, incorporating yet another wing of the old Workshouse, is the final fulfilment of that decision taken in 1924.

It seems to me, however, that the old Workshouse ethos did not so much go out with a bang as with a lingering whimper. I remember as a child in the mid-1930s accompanying my mother on a visit to a young girl from our street who was dying in what Clonmel then called “the Consumptive Ward.” She lay pale and emaciated with huge blue eyes and a mop of auburn hair in a bed in a dark, dimly-lit, very large ward. I remember a tall woman (or so she seemed to me at the time) dressed all in white, and to whom my mother was obviously deferential – and this surprised me. She was Sister Magdalen, the Matron, from the old Infirmary regime.

Even before we were allowed to enter the hospital grounds, my mother had to explain to Mr Moore, the gatekeeper and old Workhouse retainer, the name of the person whom we were visiting, and our relationship with that person. “A neighbour and friend,” my mother meekly said. The balance between the status of the institution and the rights of the institutionalised was still tentative.

But the gates were removed when the hospital was renovated and extended in the 1950s, and when St. Joseph’s was designated as County Medical and Maternity Hospital and Dr. Tom Prendiville took up duty as county physician. The modern era had begun.

Eamonn Lonergan’s book will be studied by people with an interest in local history. It will be recommended reading for students of social change, and for anybody who still has any illusion about “the good old times,” it should be compulsory reading.

St. Joseph’s Hospital, Clonmel – An Historical and Social Portrait, by Eamonn Lonergan, is available at Easons and other local bookshops in Clonmel, or direct from Eamonn Lonergan, 4 Shamrock Hill, Clonmel.

Written by Margaret Rossiter.