The Irish Poor Law Act of 1838 attempted to provide an answer to the growing number of poor and destitute people. The country was divided into 130 Unions - 33 more were added during the Famine years. Workhouses were built to offer somewhere for people to go if they could not support themselves. 163 were built in Ireland. Life for those within the workhouse was designed to be harsh, a last resort and somewhere you wouldn't want to linger. Families were split up and people were expected to work in exchange for food. There were many rules, poor food and little to do. Children were meant to be schooled but in reality this was often impractical. During the Famine years conditions were appalling with severe over-crowding, untrained staff, fever and lack of food.
Schull Poor Law Union was formed in 1849 during the height of the Famine. It was one of 16 unions in County Cork. Designed by George Wilkinson and built at a cost of £6000, plus an additional £1115 for fittings, Schull workhouse opened its doors on the 19th January 1852. It was intended to house up to 600 people and facilities included a Master's House, chapel, mortuary, laundry, refectory, kitchens and a school. There were two wards, one for men and one for women with a separate section for children. There was also a maternity unit. Women were expected to work in the laundry and men on the land. There were also six weaving looms. The whole 11 acre site was walled with what must originally have been an impressive entrance gateway. In 1914, according to Guy's Directory, there was a Master (James Corbett), a Matron (Miss Helena Hegarty), two nurses and two relieving officers. The workhouse was eventually burned down by the IRA on the 24th June 1921 who were afraid it may be used by the British Army as a barracks. Not many people were sad to see it go.
Sheltering under Mount Gabriel, and close to the main road from Schull to Ballydehob the sturdy stone walls of this large site invites curiosity and exploration. The remains of entrance pillars and rusty yet ornate gates lure you in. Although many of the original buildings have disappeared there is enough remaining to get an overall impression of this forbidding and extensive site. The entrance and administrative block is still there, now roofless and covered in ivy. Remains of what may
once have been the school can also be found.
The large rectangular block, now spouting a roof of ivy looks like it was possibly the kitchens and the refectory for there is evidence of large fireplaces. The feeling in here is grim. The corridors are small and crammed and the skeleton of the building lofty and jostling with emotions. Green mould and damp line the walls with occasional fragments of the original peachy orange paintwork still clinging to the plaster; bricks lie scattered on the floor and rusty corrugated iron flap in the windows. It is not a place to linger. Jackdaws were nesting high up in a disused chimney when I first visited. Their squawking gave me a fright. The burial ground with its many stumps of un-named markers is a sad and sombre sight.