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The famine era in north Kildare
recalled by Celbridge author
There are few more enduring images in modern Irish history than the image of the Workhouse. It conjures up impressions of famine, of suffering and of the harsher face of English rule.  The very mention of the word ‘workhouse’ engendered feelings of humiliation and of desperation in bygone generations. Entry to the ‘workhouse’ was a point of no return for many – while escaping the immediate devastation of famine the workhouse inmates were subject to a routine which was harsh and made precious few concessions to humanity.
That said, there were some redeeming features of the concept. It marked the first time that a government at national level took responsibility for the welfare of citizens. It also marked an important step in the building blocks of a local government system with the workhouses overseen by elected Poor Law Guardians. And finally the workhouses themselves were buildings of some substance which even to the present day form the basis of a number of district and general hospitals.
In Co. Kildare there were three workhouses – at Athy, Naas and Celbridge, all of which exist in one form or another to the present day. The workhouses in turn were the centres of a district, about ten miles in radius, which was known as the Poor Law district. A key feature of the workhouse system was that a rate was levied on the occupiers of land and premises in each poor law district to fund the costs of the workhouse. This rate, termed the Poor Law rate, formed the basis for a valuation and rating system which exists to a degree in modern times.
The story of the Celbridge workhouse has been documented by Seamus Cummins in a booklet coinciding with the opening of the fine memorial park on the site of the old workhouse cemetery at the Maynooth Road. Although very few records have survived the author gives a comprehensive account of the origin, operation and modern uses of the Celbridge workhouse building. The workhouse in Celbridge was built to a plan which was virtually identical to other workhouses throughout Ireland – more than 100 were built with a workhouse in every market town. However there was a degree of formality accorded to the beginning of construction on the Celbridge workhouse which was unusual given the general sense of austerity which surrounded the operation of the system. Seamus Cummins records the account from the Leinster Express newspaper of 10 August 1839 which described the ceremonial of laying the foundation stone. A type of time capsule was inserted in the foundation stone containing coins and inscriptions and covered with a plate inscribed 1839. Among those present at the opening ceremony were Richard Maunsell of Oakley Park, Arthur Henly of Lodge Park, J.D. Nesbett of Leixlip House, Dr. Ferguson, Dr. Madden and William Brown of Ballygoran.
The workhouse opened in June 1841 and soon was receiving the destitute – a trend which was to accelerate in numbers as the Great Famine loomed in 1847. Celbridge workhouse might have been built to a uniform pattern as with workhouses nationally but its pattern of admissions was to be quite different. In as expert a distinction as to be found in any writing on the period, Seamus Cummins points out that the devastation of the famine was at its must acute in other parts of the country where the conacre system applied – this occurred where farm labourers were not paid in cash but were given a plot of ground to grow potatoes in return for giving their labour to the landlord. North Kildare was not in this category as the main landowners such as the Connollys of Castletown and the Fitzgeralds of Carton had developed pasture economies centred around cattle-rearing. In such cases there was less labour involved and the farm labourers tended to be paid in cash. The north Kildare towns too had a level of small industry in the form of mills, ironworks and distilleries which provided a further source of income. Maynooth College was a large employer and the railway and canal trade also helped maintain a level of a service economy which deflected the full impact of the famine from the district. Nonetheless there was call on the workhouse, upwards of 800 people were admitted during 1847 and inevitably some perished. The workhouse authorities provided a cemetery which became the resting place of an unknown number of inmates with children and the elderly being particularly prone to the pestilences of the age. In modern times the memory of the unknown souls – there are no records surviving of interments – has been honoured in the most appropriate way by the creation of the memorial park by the civic-minded community of Celbridge.
Reference: A Brief History of Celbridge Poor Law Union by Seamus Cummins, published by Celbridge Tidy Towns Association. Thank you to Tony Maher of Celbridge Tidy Towns for his assistance.

In 'Nothing New Under the Sun,' Liam Kenny explores the history of the Celbridge Poor Law Union from a recent publication by Seamus Cummins

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