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Workhouses and the Destitute

Historical Material


Suzanne Day, The Amazing Philanthropists (1916). A copy of this text will be made availalbe to everyone.

Extracts from the North Dublin Union and the Cork Union Minute Books

The ‘Precedent Book’

The secondary reading is to enable you to get to grips with each topic as it has been written about by historians. In these sessions (weeks 2 and 3) we will explore Day’s ‘The Amazing Philanthropists’ as an historical document. You will need background material, such as that by Crossman to be able to put this novel in historical context. The other primary documents here, the extracts from the precedent book and the Union [workshouse] Minute books will give you some indication of the concerns of the poor law authorities at certain periods of time.

In reading the novel keep the following questions in mind and remember that Day herself was a poor law guardian.

Is fiction of any value to the historian?

Is Day’s book useful in any way in helping us understand the workings of the poor law system in early twentieth-century Ireland.

What do you think are the main concerns Day has with the poor law system?

Why is it written as a series of letters?

How are issues of class, gender and race dealt with in this novel?

What attitudes are expressed towards the poor?

Are there different kinds of poor people?

Why did Day publish this book?

Secondary Reading

You don’t have to read every one of the following secondary sources but those marked with an ** will be very useful in helping you to gain an understanding of the subject.

**Felix Driver, Power and Pauperism: The Workhouse System, 1834-1884 (Cambridge, 1993, reprinted 2004), chapter 6. In box

**Joseph Robins, The Lost Children: A Study of Charity Children in Ireland 1700-1900 (Dublin, 1980), chapter 12. In box

Lynn Hollen Lees, The Solidarities of Strangers: The English Poor Laws and the People, 1700-1948 (Cambridge, 1998), chapter 4. In box

**Helen Burke, The People and the Poor Law in 19th Century Ireland (Dublin, 1987), chapters 3 and 7. In box.

**Anna Clark, ‘Wild workhouse girls and the liberal imperial state in mid-nineteenth century Ireland’, Journal of Social History, 39, 2 (Winter 2005), 389-409. Available online.

Virginia Crossman, ‘The New Ross workhouse riot of 1887: nationalism, class and the Irish poor laws’, Past and Present (May 2003), 135-58. Available online.

**Virginia Crossman, The Poor Law in Ireland, 1838-1948 (Dundalk, 2006). This is the best introduction to the history of the poor law in `Ireland and the library has a number of copies. It is a pamphlet and runs to about 70 pages, so do read this.

Virginia Crossman, 'Cribbed, Contained, and Confined?: The Care of Children Under the Irish Poor Law, 1850-1920', Eire / Ireland, 44, 1 & 2 (Spring /Summer 2009), 37-90.

Literature and Film

Rosa Mulholland, Nanno: Daughter of the State (1899)

Maura Laverty, Alone We Embark (1943)

Lady Gregory, The Workhouse Ward (1908)

Sean O’Faolain, ‘The End of the Record’ (1949)

In week 3, we will look at extracts from Rosa Mulholland’s Nanno: Daughter of the State (1899) and Maura Laverty’s Alone We Embark (1943).

Think about the following questions while you are reading in preparation for the discussion:


Think about the discourse that Mulholland employs. What kind of language does she use? How far is it coloured by moral or ideological considerations?

[Think about Nanno’s refusal to marry Sean, and Father Tom’s endorsement of this decision in this respect – how are we encouraged to view the decision?]

What kind of gap emerges between the “maxim” and the “practice” (10) of those who run the workhouse in Nanno?

Look again at the first chapter having read the whole story. Is Nanno’s fate determined by her birth and upbringing? How far is escape possible, in Mulholland’s representation?

Alone We Embark

Think about the role of the two men in authority, Mr Bergin, Mary’s employer, and Dr Mangan in her decision to put her mother in the workhouse (78-81)

What does Mary find off-putting about the workhouse? How far is class implicated in her aversion?

Alone We Embark was banned by the Irish Censorship Board for ten years. There is no documentation detailing why this was so: what aspects of the novel might have been deemed unacceptable?

Secondary Reading


Excerpt from James H. Murphy, Catholic Fiction and Social Reality in Ireland [scanned]

**Caitriona Clear, ‘‘I Can Talk About It, Can’t I?’: The Ireland Maura Laverty Desired, 1942-46’, Women’s Studies 30 (2001), 819-835 [scanned]

**Anthony Roche, ‘Reworking The Workhouse Ward: McDonagh, Beckett and Gregory’, Irish University Review, 24 (2004), 171-184 [scanned]