Birr Historical Society
Birr Workhouse


Some pictures of Birr Workhouse

Aerial view of Birr Workhouse

Front block


Brief on Birr Workhouse

An intact example of the original pre-famine Irish workhouses designed by George Wilkinson, Birr Workhouse was relatively unaltered, being used mostly for light industry after it was closed in 1921. However, deterioration is setting in and a plan is urgently needed.

Opened 1842 as Parsonstown Union Workhouse, closed 1921.

One of only 9 Irish Poor Law Unions whose records were analysed for the National Famine Research Project in the 1990s.

Educational potential is immense. Myths abound about workhouses and should be challenged with experience and facts.

Potential to interpret aspects of politics, local government, poverty, welfare, medicine, education, emigration, administration, 1842 to 1921.

Of national importance: Irish architecture, history, heritage, social, culture, poverty, medical, emigration, etc.

In the UK, Southwell Workhouse was restored for about £4.5 million which included a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund of £2.25m.

Medical Officer, Dr Woods submitted articles to a medical journal. In pre-antibiotic days, his treatments there included blisters to the temple, bleeding, bichloride of mercury, nitrate of silver, lotions of acetate of lead, etc. for sore eyes – standard medical practice of the 19th century - and some still in use.

Human interest stories: opening up in 1842, ordering equipment, famine problems, medical problems, building problems, orphan girl emigrants, a missing little boy, political disputes, closure during the War of Independence in 1921, occupation during the Civil War ... other stories from newspapers printed in the town.

A workhouse museum would substantially supplement Birr’s tourist attractions: beautiful Georgian town, Birr Castle Demesne, monastic heritage at Birr Library, proximity to the Shannon River, wetlands, boglands and to the Slieve Bloom mountains.

A workhouse museum would be an interesting, indeed an emotional destination, for the many descendants of impoverished emigrants from Ireland during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Front door

Stairs to girls' dormitory

Stairs - another view

Girls' dormitory in the attic

Birr Workhouse

For several years this building was the main source of social welfare for an area from Clonmacnoise to near Borrisokane, from the Shannon to the Slieve Bloom.

Ireland was still part of the UK when the Poor Law (Ireland) Act of 1838 led to the setting up of 130 workhouses in Ireland. A further
33 were built in a plainer style in the 1850s.

The workhouse was funded by rates levied on local property
whose owners elected Poor Law Guardians. It was the first
exercise in local democracy in Ireland.

A meeting of the Board of Guardians was held every Saturday upstairs in the front building.

The workhouse staff comprised a clerk, master, matron,
teachers, nurse and porter with part time chaplains and a doctor.

Detailed and very interesting statistical records survive of admissions, discharges, births, deaths, as well as accounts and details of petty cash transactions.

Very few names survive and the records have minimal value for tracing family history.

The names and addresses of 65 orphan teenage girls aged 14-18 who were granted free passage to Australia in 1848-50 do survive in shipping registers and some of their descendants have visited Birr.

See for comprehensive general information on workhouses in Ireland, England, Scotland and

Birr Historical Society held a conference on Birr Workhouse on 6 & 7 September 2013

The conference was opened by President Irene Morrow and an excellent and varied selection of lectures followed.


Professor William J. Smyth gave an illustrated lecture on 'The creation and functioning of the workhouse system.
He is Professor Emeritus of Geography at UCC. He was co-editor of the celebrated Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (2112) and a leading contributor. He represented UCC on the Royal Irish Academy and the Heritage Council. He has published and lectured widely on Ireland’s social and cultural geography. At the Anvil: Essays in honour of Professor William J. Smyth is an important collection of academic essays recently published in his honour.

John Joe Conwell gave an illustrated lecture on Lord Clanricarde and Lord Rosse during the Great Famine. John Joe researches, writes and lectures on the history of Portumna and East Galway. His NUIM postgraduate thesis, A Galway landlord during the Great Famine: Ulick John de Burgh, first marquis of Clanricarde was published in the Maynooth Studies in Local History Series in 2003. He is President of SE Galway Archaeological & Historical Society and Parish Liaison Officer for Ireland Reaching Out (Ireland XO).

Margaret Hogan gave an illustrated lecture on The Female Orphan Emigration Scheme to Australia 1848-51. Margaret lives in Birr. She researches, writes and lectures on the history of Birr. She edited the 1990 reprint of Cooke’s History of Birr and wrote The Gospel Book of Macregol of Birr (2007). She created the Birr Historical Society website and was director and principal writer of the schools history programme Discovering Women in Irish History.

Professor Mary E. Daly delivered a lecture on video on the topic of The final years of the workhouse and its dissolution. Her career is a distinguished one, as Professor of History at UCD, Vice President of the Royal Irish Academy, Member of the National Archives Advisory Council and author of many books and articles on Irish history including The Famine in Ireland (1986). She directed the research on records of Birr Workhouse for the National Famine Commemoration Project during the 1990s.

Dr Perry McIntyre spoke on the Australian Monument to the Great Irish Famine at Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney and on the fate of the Irish Female Orphans who emigrated to Australia in 1848-51.

Thoughts and memories connected with Birr Workhouse

Paddy Heaney shared his grandfather's significant memories of the famine, transmitted to Paddy by his father.

Sr Anne Hannan outlined the contribution made by the Sisters of Mercy who nursed in the workhouse from 1881 until it closed in 1921.

Tommy Lyndon shared amusing reminiscencences of growing up in one of the buildings of the workhouse when his father was owner-manager of a boot and shoe industry there.

Bridget Sullivan spoke about the fate of Ellen Dooley, an orphan emigrant who left her mother and uncle in the workhouse to go to Australia. Bridget displayed a replica of the box and the outfit provided for each orphan girl emigrant.

Rob Revill spoke about the creative photographic project and exhibition on the topic of Birr Workhouse.

Jack Ryan read a poem which poignantly evoked the workhouse cemetery where over 4,000 persons lie buried.

More later ...

Original George Wilkinson plan for an Irish workhouse

Workhouse building

Front building. Recommended inmates were admitted by the porter They might be washed, deloused, fumigated, given workhouse clothes and admitted to the main building. They could reclaim their own clothes when leaving.

Main building. The master and matron's quarters were in the centre. Separate quarters for females and males and for adults and children.
Males to the right of the building, females to the left.

Living quarters and school rooms on the ground floor.
Women did laundry work and sewing.
Men worked in the kitchen and men’s yard.
Other work might be organised: embroidery, stonebreaking,
gardening, milling, drainage schemes, etc

Sleeping quarters for adults on first floor & for children in the attic. Channelled passageway down the centre of each dormitory for
supervision, hygiene and to keep rows of mattresses/beds apart.

Connecting block: dining room which doubled as a chapel on Sundays.

Rear block: infirmary for males on the right and for females on the left.

Small building at rear: mortuary - called the 'dead house' on the plans.

Cemetery behind the workhouse. Over 3,000 people were buried in the cemetery at Birr.

Entering & leaving

Relieving officers gave tickets for entry to the workhouse.

The whole family had to enter together—especially the father.

Clothes were taken, washed, fumigated and parcelled.

Candidates washed, deloused and given ‘workhouse garb’.

Males, females & children had separate accommodation.

People could leave if they gave notice . It was not a prison.

They reclaimed their own clothes— most described as rags.

The vast majority of inmates left Birr Workhouse alive .

Female Orphan Emigration Scheme

The Female Orphan Emigration Scheme was designed during the Famine to send orphan girls from Irish workhouses to Australia.

The experiences of 4,175 Irish girls who took part in the scheme are interpreted at Hyde Park Barracks Museum in Sydney and commemorated by a monument there.

65 orphan girls left Birr (then Parsonstown) Workhouse during the scheme which lasted from October 1848 to August 1850.

During the Famine there were more than twice as many able-bodied females as males in Irish workhouses. These girls had very limited employment and marriage prospects and local ratepayers who supported the workhouse foresaw years of expensive payments for their support and those of the children they might produce.

In Australia, on the other hand, white males outnumbered white females by at least two to one and by eight to one in some districts. The British government devised a scheme under which girls aged 14 to 18 would volunteer to emigrate to Australia on an organised and supervised scheme.

Lieutenant John Henry attended at the workhouses, inspected the girls who volunteered and selected those he considered healthy-looking and well-behaved. The Poor Law Union had to supply each chosen girl with a large box containing a generous set of requirements for the long voyage.

The girls, with their new possessions, set off under supervision in horse transport for the nearest Irish port from where they sailed to Plymouth on the south coast of England, and thence to Sydney - a voyage of several weeks by sailing ship.

At Sydney, they were brought to Hyde Park Barracks (restored as a museum in 1998) where the Sydney Orphan Committee supervised them, investigated prospective employers and dealt with subsequent problems. The girls were soon recruited as domestic servants and snapped up as wives. They married at nineteen years on average, most had large familes and now have many descendants who have traced them through genealogical programmes and reunions, exchanging details and photographs of those who survived into the early twentieth century.

Part of Birr Workhouse order list
for orphans' outfit
Courtesy Offaly County Library

Select statistics for Birr Workhouse

Week ending




1845. 18 Oct.
1847. 12 June
1849. 5 May
1850. 16 Nov.
1881. 28 May

*A cholera epidemic swept Ireland in 1849 when vast
numbers were weakened by starvation. Of the 59 who
died that week in Birr Workhouse, 48 were children.
Old people and children were the most vulnerable.