BY JOHN FITZGERALD
Callan Workhouse opened its doors in March 1842. The building had been erected on a six-acre site at Prologue, on the edge of the town. The site was purchased from Lord Clifden, the notorious absentee Landlord who lived in opulence while the local population starved or struggled to scrape a living.
The Workhouse was built to accommodate 600 inmates: 360 adults and 240 children. Its construction was completed in September 1841. Conditions in the Workhouses were designed to be deliberately degrading to deter all but the most poverty-stricken from entering.
Callan Workhouse was a model of dehumanizing bureaucracy and oppression. The architect, George Wilkinson, had taken into account the Government’s desire to make the building as uncomfortable as possible for inmates:
It had no ceilings, just bare rafters. A narrow stone stairway was installed to tax the strength of elderly or frail people. The eating room was dark and deprived of daylight, to eliminate any hint of well-being from mealtimes.
The inmates were awoken at seven o’ clock, each dressed in their rough jerkins and brogues. They proceeded to the central dining hall where prayers were read, and the roll called. An inspection for cleanliness followed, and a breakfast of stirabout and milk was consumed in strict silence.
In the afternoon, potatoes and bread were laid for them. They slept on rough raised platforms with bed coverings that consisted of rags or straw. There was a shortage of fresh water and poor sanitary facilities. Inadequate ventilation created further discomfort.
Idleness was forbidden. Every inmate had to work or face punishment. The Master imposed discipline for offences, which included the following:
Making noise during meal times when silence was ordered;
Playing cards or drinking alcohol;
Attempting to escape from the Workhouse;
Disobeying any order of any officer of the Workhouse.
Punishments ranged from stopping meals, beatings, or solitary confinement in a room known as the “Black Hole”. A device at the Workhouse called the Capstan Mill claimed the lives of many inmates. It was a large circular corn-grinder, operated by up to 40 paupers at a time. Many workers became entangled in the wheel; others lost limbs while operating it. Any inmate refusing to do his bit at the “wheel” was penalized.
When famine struck, admissions to the Workhouse mushroomed. Diseases thrived in the unhygienic and overcrowded rooms. Over 2,000 people died in the building during the famine while food was being exported daily from Irish ports.
The practice of breaking up families who entered the workhouse was especially harrowing….Husbands were separated from wives, and children from their parents. Some couples were destined not to be together again until the day their bodies were placed side by side in a mass grave at Cherryfield, the “pauper graveyard “ located about a mile and a half outside Callan, and so-called because cherry trees grew there.
The site was deemed suitable for the purpose because it consisted of poor agricultural land. Every day during the famine years, funerals could be seen leaving the Workhouse. Emaciated bodies were piled up on carts that creaked their way to Cherryfield to be tipped into waiting trenches.
Callan Workhouse continued to be used until the early part of the twentieth century. It was occupied by Free State troops in 1922 and, unfortunately, sections of the building were demolished or sold off over the years. But the bulk of the grim edifice remains intact and its preservation now looks assured.
The Workhouse and the famine graveyard are precious to the people of Callan. Their harrowing story is kept alive by people like historian Joe Kennedy, and dedicated researchers such as Marianne Kelly and Paddy Neary of the Kilkenny Heritage Walkers.
Cherryfield still evokes sad memories of the famine. Thousands of people have called to this sad but tranquil place-which has no gravestones or even markers. Irish Americans and returned emigrants are particularly drawn to it.
Some have remarked on the sense of peace they find there. The restoration has not just beautified the site; it has honoured those who died in a special way.