How those in an Irish workhouse during the Great Hunger spent Christmas Day.

The year 1847 is known in Irish history as Black ’47. It was, possibly, the worst year of the Great Irish Famine. As the people of Ireland battled starvation, disease, and increasing evictions, the island’s 130 workhouses became the last refuge for many.

Workhouses were bleak institutions that offered the most meager of rations to the destitute, but by December 1847, they were heavily overcrowded. The worst workhouses tended to be found in the west of Ireland where communities were too impoverished to fund their upkeep. 

Unsurprisingly, as 1847 wound down and Christmas approached, workhouse inmates had little to look forward to. In Clifden in the far west of Co Galway at the edge of Connemara, Christmas Day, 1847, was just another day of misery, disease, and death.

This eyewitness account of the workhouse, written by John Deane, a Poor Law inspector on the day, speaks for itself:

“The inmates of the house are crowded together in a day-room breathing a tainted atmosphere. There is an insufficient supply of bedding and clothing. The rain pours down through the ventilating turrets into the rooms and the paupers are thus subjected to increased liability of infection.

On visiting the house a few days ago I was disgusted at learning that the dormitories (particularly those for children) are not supplied with night buckets [used as toilets]. I forbear to describe the abominations consequent to this.

I regret to state that doctor Bodkin’s brother who accompanied him to the workhouse hospital about a week since, for the purpose of assisting him in his medical duties, died today of malignant typhus fever.

Within the last week the weather has been most inclement and has brought with it a vast increase of disease and misery”.

- John Deane, Clifden Workhouse, Christmas Day 1847

*Fin Dwyer is a historian, author, and creator of the Irish History Podcast. While creating free podcasts that make Irish history accessible to new audiences, he has covered diverse topics from the Middle Ages to modern history. With millions of individual downloads, the show is one of Ireland's most popular podcasts. You can find his podcast on iTunes.

*Originally published in December 2017. Updated in December 2023.