The Irish workhouse has had a troubled history, attracting mostly negative commentary from the inception of the national poor law system after 1838 to the final abolition of the poor law in Northern Ireland in 1948. The popular historian of the institution opens his account with the bald statement that ‘the workhouse was the most feared and hated institution ever established in Ireland’. While one might quibble with this (the penitentiaries and asylums of the nineteenth century were surely as much feared, and perhaps with more reason; the record of the industrial schools and Magdalene asylums has more recently attracted the appalled attention of Irish society), the statement contains a kernel of truth. Designed with the deterrent principle of ‘less eligibility’ to the forefront, and irrevocably associated with the horrors of mass mortality during the Great Famine, the workhouses became in Irish popular memory (and in the bulk of historical commentary) associated with the suffering and degradation of their inmates. Nevertheless, the early history of the poor law and its associated workhouses is more complex than this suggests and deserves closer attention.
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