“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
Celbridge in County Kildare, Leinster, Ireland — Mid-East (and Dublin)

A Brief History of Celbridge Poor Law Union

Celbridge Poor Law Union Burial Ground

A Brief History of Celbridge Poor Law Union Marker image. Click for full size.
Photographed By William Fischer, Jr., May 21, 2019
1. A Brief History of Celbridge Poor Law Union Marker

The Irish Poor Law System

The origins of the Irish Workhouse system lie in the Irish Poor Law Act passed by the parliament of the United Kingdom in 1838.
The Act, entitled an Act for the More Effectual Relief of the Poor in Ireland was drafted by one Sir George Nicholls (1781-1865), a poor law reformer and administrator. His leading idea, influenced by the writings of Malthus and Bentham, was to abolish the current system of outdoor relief and replace it with a 'workhouse test' in order to improve the condition of the poor.
The rational[e] for an Irish Poor Law Act was that since such an Act existed in Great Britain there was a danger that large numbers of impoverished Irish would emigrate to Britain to avail of its provisions, at great cost to English ratepayers unless a separate Act was passed for Ireland. As far as Nicholls and the British government were concerned, the property owners of Ireland would have to support their own poor.

The new workhouse system, whether in Ireland or Great Britain, was based on the idea that the condition of an inmate of the workhouse should not be more attractive than

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that of a worker outside the system. The aim was to encourage people to be self reliant in seeking employment.

It would be unfair to claim that the system intended that inmates in workhouses were to exist at a lower level than the poorest independent labourers. However, they were certainly grim places initially, of strict discipline and with no provision of luxuries. It was intended that a range of deterrent conditions would regulate entry so that only the most desperate and destitute would avail of the system.

Inmates were to be employed at repetitive and boring tasks; the routine of the workhouse was monotonous; discipline was strict, with a range of punishments enforced. Inmates were separated into different categories; a workhouse uniform had to be worn; food was to be plain and frugal (but always sufficient) and, on entry, inmates had to surrender all possessions and money.

Thus, the Poor Law system would proceed at minimum cost to the ratepayers who supported it and would encourage people to search for employment, no matter how poorly paid, rather than seek entry. In effect the Poor Law system was designed to be repellent to the poor. Even the very premises were designed to be unwelcoming, grim and prison-like.

From the very beginning entry to the system cast a stigma that never abated, even though the system itself became less harsh as the nineteenth century

A Brief History of Celbridge Poor Law Union Marker image. Click for full size.
Photographed By William Fischer, Jr., May 21, 2019
2. A Brief History of Celbridge Poor Law Union Marker
Located in the workhouse cemetery
progressed. Those who entered the system were looked down on, or at best pitied, by the rest of society in the surrounding areas.

However, the Poor Law system was a first attempt to provide at a national level in Ireland and Great Britain a system of institutional care. It did provide schools for children and rudimentary hospital care for inmates. It enforced standards of basic hygiene and ventilation and provided food and shelter for the destitute. It also catered for the religious practise of the then Established (Anglican) Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Each workhouse provided a separate place of worship and chaplain for the separate denominations.

The Construction of The Celbridge Union Workhouse

Work began on the construction of the Celbridge Union workhouse in August 1839.

The land for the site was donated by Edward Michael Packenham Conolly of Castletown House on what was then Long Lane, now designated for some reason Big Lane (Maynooth Road). Packenham Conolly, originally Packenham, inherited the Conolly estate by family connection on condition that he take the name Conolly. He appears to have been sympathetic to his tenants and urged government intervention in the House of Commons during the course of the famine on behalf of the suffering poor.

The design was uniform for workhouses of its size in Ireland. Irish workhouses

Plan of Celbridge Workhouse image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Unknown, Undated
3. Plan of Celbridge Workhouse
On the A Brief History of Celbridge Poor Law Union Marker
were designed by George Wilkinson who was the architect to the Poor Law Commissioners in Ireland and conformed to a standard pattern. Celbridge Union workhouse was designed to house 519 inmates but with the exception of 1847 does not appear to have ever reached such accommodation levels.

The Leinster Express newspaper of August 10th 1839 carries an account of the laying of the foundation stone.
"Laying the Foundation Stone of the Celbridge Union Workhouse.
It being generally known in the neighbourhood of Celbridge, that on Monday last the first stone of the Union Workhouse was to be laid at 12 o’clock, by His Grace the Duke of Leinster, members of all ranks attended to witness the ceremony.
In attendance Richard Maunsell of Oakley Park, Arthur Henly Park, J.D. Nesbett of Leixlip House, Dr. Ferguson, Dr. Madden, Wm. Brown of Ballygoran"

A chamber had been prepared in the foundation stone wherein was laid a bottle containing contemporary coinage "and the usual inscriptions". The chamber was covered with a plate inscribed 1839.

The building contractor, a Mr. Regan that evening "entertained a few friends at the Hibernian"... the health of Her Majesty Queen Victoria was proposed and drunk".
A range of other toasts followed: ..."His Grace the Duke of Leinster, Col. Conolly, the Lord of the Soil, Mr Maunsell and the Volunteer Committee,

Detail of Ordnance Map of Celbridge image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Unknown, 1872
4. Detail of Ordnance Map of Celbridge
On the A Brief History of Celbridge Poor Law Union Marker
May the Poor Laws prove a Blessing to the Land we Live in, Success to Mr. Regan on his undertaking, Prosperity to Celbridge and her flax mills".

The Celbridge Union Workhouse opened in June 1841.

Boundaries of the Celbridge Union

The term 'union' in relation to a workhouse as in the 'Celbridge Union' referred to the union of districts that made up the area of countryside to be serviced by the facilities offered to the poor of those districts by the workhouse designated for the area. As they were set up under the Poor Law Relief Act 1839 they were often referred to as 'Poor Law Unions'.

The boundaries of each workhouse were so devised that no part of the country should be more than seven or eight miles from its poorhouse. At the same time the boundaries had to be balanced with regard to population and ratepayers of the time so that each workhouse union ideally shared an equal burden in maintaining its workhouse and supporting its poor.

The Celbridge Union was laid out in 1841 and comprised of the following districts - Celbridge, Cloncurry, Clonsilla, Donadea, Hortland, Kilcock, Kilmactalaway (present day Baldonnel/Peamount), Leixlip, Lucan, Lyons, Mainham, Maynooth, Newcastle, Raheen, Rathcoole, Rodanstown, Saggart, Straffan, Tagadoe. The Celbridge Union straddled county boundaries and whilst based mainly in County Kildare also covered parts

Rooflines of Celbridge Workhouse Buildings image. Click for full size.
Photographed By William Fischer, Jr., May 21, 2019
5. Rooflines of Celbridge Workhouse Buildings
Visible beyond the cemetery wall
of counties Meath and Dublin.

In 1841 the population of the Celbridge Union was given as 28,434 with the main centres of population as follows:

Celbridge Town · 1,289
Leixlip Town · 1,086
Lucan Town · 563
Maynooth Town · 2,129

The Graveyard

In keeping with the economy with which a Poor Law workhouse was to be administered and maintained, each workhouse had its own graveyard wherein inmates who died were buried at minimum cost to the ratepayer.

As the nineteenth century progressed the workhouse and Poor Law system developed as a rudimentary welfare system for the destitute and abandoned. Later in the century the majority of the inmates in the Celbridge Workhouse were the aged, poor and infirm who had no home or family support, and unmarried mothers and their children.

The death rate among the aged, often in ill health, and infants prone to sickness was steady. These comprise the majority of the population of the graveyard. No record was kept of their names or families and they lie unknown and forgotten.

The society wherein such a system functioned accepted it as natural. In death as in life society divided on the basis of wealth and class. In death the society of Celbridge reposed among their family headstones in Donacumper cemetery. The indigent poor repose here anonymously. Such was the accepted order.

The records

Celbridge Workhouse Cemetery Memorial Sculpture Detail image. Click for full size.
Photographed By William Fischer, Jr., May 21, 2019
6. Celbridge Workhouse Cemetery Memorial Sculpture Detail
of the Celbridge workhouse are largely no longer extant. The stigma of the workhouse system attached even to its records and they were not considered worth keeping with only fragments remaining. For example, one of the few Minute Books of the Board of Guardians of the Celbridge Union to survive - 1908/09 - allows us to extrapolate the death rate from 10/10/1908 to 23/3/09 as 16 males, 12 females and 5 children for a total of 33.

The majority of the adults were classified as aged - infirm. Of the children, one was aged between 9 and 15 years, two were between 5 and 9 years, one was between 2 and 5 years and one was under 2 years. This gives a monthly average of 6 or 72 per annum. It would be dangerous to take this as a yearly average for the lifetime of the workhouse (1841-1923) but it would not be an unusual rate for the latter part of the lifespan in the late nineteenth century when it fulfilled a rudimentary social welfare and shelter service.

It is probably safe to speculate that the numbers of unknown in the graveyard must be of the order of several thousand. It is possible that burials took place in an area wider than what is now designated the graveyard and bodies may lie under the widened Maynooth road and nearby waste ground.

Celbridge Union and Workhouse during the Great Famine 1845 - 1849

This area of North Kildare did not experience

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the absolute horrors of the Famine that were experienced in other parts of Ireland and which subsequently burned themselves into the consciousness of the Irish people. To that extent the Celbridge Union was spared scenes of degradation and suffering that were commonplace in the West and South and indeed other regions including the South Kildare area.

The essential explanation of this lies in the term 'famine' in relation to Ireland during 1845-1849. There was an abundance of food in the country except for potatoes. Any area which was spared dependence on the conacre system with its related dependence on potatoes as the sole food crop, and had a cash economy instead, could and did escape the worst horrors of the famine.

The conacre system was an Irish rural phenomenon. Most of Irish agriculture during 1845-49 was tillage based which was labour intensive, requiring large amounts of manual labour in a pre-farm machine era. Such labour was paid for by means of the conacre system.

"The potato, not money, was the basic factor by which the value of labour was determined. Farmers and landlords gave their labourers a cabin and a piece of potato ground or permitted them to put up a cabin and allowed them a portion of conacre. Rent in each case was worked off in cheap labour... the real reward being the patch of potato ground. Customarily the only dealing in money was the receipt of a few shillings from the sale of a pig, and this provided such clothes as the family possessed. The poorest labourers could not afford a pig and sums of small value only were involved."

As a result when the potato crop failed during the 1840s in Ireland, those large areas with populations dependant solely on the potato were devastated, with the newly created workhouse and Poor Law system overrun.

It appears that the North Kildare area had a largely cash economy. This does not mean that the local population was well off, but was spared a total dependence on the potato crop, with cash available for the purchase of some food.

The reasons for this are various:
The main landowners, particularly in Carton and Castletown had developed a pasture economy. The care of pasture animals was less labour intensive and was paid in cash.

Many of the local towns (Celbridge, Leixlip, Maynooth and Lucan) had a range of small industries in the form of mills, ironworks and distilleries which provided a cash wage.

The many estates and attendant Great Houses (not only Carton and Castletown) in the area created a service and maintenance wage economy. Similarly Maynooth College, which in the 1840s had a population of 500 students, created another service and wage economy. The construction of the railway system linking Dublin to Mullingar (including stations at Maynooth, Kilcock and Enfield) also during the 1840s, created further wage.

However, from extant statistics in relation to the Celbridge Union and Workhouse it is clear that the famine had an impact on the area with poverty and suffering increasing substantially as a result. They also show that the Workhouse experienced overcrowding in 1847 - generally accepted as the height of the famine (Black '47) - and that a relatively large number of interments took place in the period 1845-49.

Celbridge Union Workhouse and Fever Hospital 1842-50

Year • Reception (Male/Female) • Deaths (Male/Female)
1842 · 104 · 6
1843 · 78 · 4
1844 · 75 · 2
1845 · 83 · 4
1846 · 141 · 13
1847 · 811 · 66
1848 · 295 · 25
1849 · 393 · 39
1850 · 322 · 12

Comparable figures for more affected areas of the country in 1847
Town · Reception (Male/Female) · Deaths (Male/Female)
Ennis · 5462 · 960
Nenagh · 2295 · 264
Clonmel · 4566 · 194

The End of the Celbridge Union

In 1923 the government of the newly formed Saorstate Eireann (Irish Free State) which arose out of the Anglo Irish Treaty of 19[2]2 passed the Local Government (Temporary Provisions) Act 1923.

The heading of the Act was clear and unambiguous. It was the purpose of the Act to 'Remedy the more serious defects in the existing law relating to the relief of the poor and certain other matters of local government'.

This legislation abolished the Poor Law system in Ireland and centralized the administration of the relief of the poor under each county council. The property of each Board of Guardians passed to the relevant county council, but the responsible Minister could sell any surplus property previously belonging to a Board of Guardians and hold the proceeds in trust for any purpose that the property would have been used prior to its disposal.

The Act specified that County Kildare was to be a unit for the purpose of the administration of the duties previously performed by the Boards of Guardians in the County.

The workhouse hospitals in Athy and Celbridge were subsequently abolished and one hospital for the county was established in Naas using the buildings of the Naas Workhouse.

The workhouse had a bit part in the turbulent beginnings of the state. It was taken over by the newly formed Free State Army in 1922 and used as a temporary barracks and recruitment centre. This in turn led to it being attacked by irregular Anti Treaty elements until their dispersal in late 1922. Paddy Mullaney, a forceful and efficient leader of the I.R.A. from 1919 to 1921 and later a leading irregular in the area, recalled years later that the first Free State Army uniforms were worn in Celbridge.

"Celbridge was the first place to have men in uniform... Celbridge was made into a training camp. Mick Collins came out to see the first men put into uniform. 35 of them and we were friendly with them at the time".

The workhouse buildings in Celbridge were eventually sold in accordance with the terms of the Act.

The Ordnance Survey Map of Celbridge for 1939 shows that the buildings were then known as 'The Union Mills Paint Factory'. It is also clear from the map that a section of the workhouse grounds had been allocated to provide a site for the offices of the Garda Siochána.

In 1953 the Union Mills Paint Factory was sold as a going concern to its current occupiers, General Paints, thus continuing its use as a paint factory, unbroken since its disposal by the state.

Its use as a paint factory, while resulting in structural alterations, has also left areas of the building suffering from benign neglect. As a result there are areas almost untouched from its time as a workhouse - original staircases, hearths, doors and windows, as well as long hidden glimpses of original plaster work and paintwork.

Erected by Celebridge Tidy Towns Association, Tesco Ireland Ltd., and Health Service Executive.
Topics. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: Cemeteries & Burial SitesCharity & Public WorkDisastersSettlements & Settlers. A significant historical year for this entry is 1838.
Location. 53° 20.677′ N, 6° 32.525′ W. Marker is in Celbridge, Leinster, in County Kildare. Marker is at the intersection of Maynooth Road (Leinster Route R405) and Shackleton Road, on the left when traveling south on Maynooth Road. Touch for map. Marker is in this post office area: Celbridge, Leinster W23 YK24, Ireland. Touch for directions.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. Celbridge Union Workhouse Cemetery (a few steps from this marker); Celbridge Union Workhouse Cemetery Gate (within shouting distance of this marker); Arthur's Way / Cosán Arthur (approx. half a kilometer away); Welcome to Celbridge (approx. half a kilometer away); Kildrought House (approx. 0.6 kilometers away); Sir Gerald Dease, K.C.V.O. (approx. 0.6 kilometers away); St Patrick's Church, Celbridge (approx. 0.6 kilometers away); Edward Bridgeman (approx. 0.6 kilometers away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Celbridge.
Also see . . .
1. The Workhouse in Celbridge, Co. Kildare. (Submitted on December 4, 2019, by William Fischer, Jr. of Scranton, Pennsylvania.)
2. The famine era in north Kildare. (Submitted on December 4, 2019, by William Fischer, Jr. of Scranton, Pennsylvania.)

Credits. This page was last revised on December 5, 2019. It was originally submitted on December 4, 2019, by William Fischer, Jr. of Scranton, Pennsylvania. This page has been viewed 656 times since then and 53 times this year. Photos:   1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. submitted on December 5, 2019, by William Fischer, Jr. of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

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Apr. 13, 2024