Workhouse in living Memory

Notes compiled mainly from conversations (1990) between the author John McCullagh and Mrs Nancy Ferrier, former employee of Newry Workhouse.

Newry Workhouse in Living Memory

Behind reception and the office block there was a large building which by the mid twentieth century was serving as the town hospital. Some of my (author’s) elder siblings were born there and I used to tease them that they were ‘workhouse children’. 

Of course it was the ordinary Town Hospital where my mum gave birth to her first children and everyone used it. By the time I came along my mother was an expert at childbirth and I was delivered at home with the aid of a midwife. As I was just one year old when the Workhouse finally closed, I have no memory of it. Up to and after the war years, as Daisy Hill Hospital went about its normal business, the last few inmates in the buildings behind it remained well hidden from the public view.

There was a terrible stigma attached to the Workhouse which lives on in folk memory. I can recall as a primary school child being stopped by a homeless man on Monaghan Street.  He was looking for directions to the ‘Workhouse’. Even at that age I knew it hadn’t functioned as such for a decade and I wondered what the man was seeking. Perhaps he thought some ‘outdoor relief’ might still be had at its former location – perhaps it was. 

Behind the town hospital was the workhouse proper. It enclosed a large quadrangle. The dining hall looked out on two yards, one for males and one for females. The nun Sister M de Sales had personal experience there and testified of inmates distributing food by walking along a row of beds and throwing one potato on to each bed. This demonstrates the nuns’ involvement with the Workhouse, as well as the contempt with which inmates were still treated.

Living quarters were behind and sleeping quarters upstairs. There was also a laundry staffed by inmates.  Ghana House, the old fever hospital was at the rear, where now outpatients are treated and up to recent decades was the male medical block. It was the fever hospital before that, right up to the 1960s. People would suffer any degree of poverty or destitution rather than enter the workhouse.

By the early twentieth century outdoor relief was the norm. Only those homeless and destitute who had no one to care for them – orphans, the mentally ill or pregnant single women cast out by their family – resorted to the Workhouse. The Good Shepherd nuns later provided sanctuary for young unmarried mothers. I remember as a lad in the fifties feeling sorry for girls who endured such banishment from their families and considering this convent as a place of punishment. With the benefit of hindsight I can accept that the nuns served a useful purpose in an age of a different moral climate. 

It was surely preferable to the workhouse! I am told the girls and their babies were treated with kindness by them. I cannot attest to this, nor have I ever known any one who was their guest under such circumstances. Little wonder! The older generation still defends the mores of their parents and grand-parents. 

It is rare to find anyone willing to confess that any family member was ever confined for any reason to the Good Shepherd Convent or within the workhouse walls. Yet there are hundreds, if not thousands of Irish people today some of whose forebears through no fault of their own suffered this misfortune. At the worst periods of that century (approximate) 1841-1948, up to 5% of the town’s residents were inmates. Thankfully only a tiny percentage died within the workhouse.  


I know of one man, who admits to former residence there and who has given permission for his name to be printed here.  Des McGennity has been the backbone of the Newry & District Pool League for decades, and a lynchpin of the Derrybeg community and a valued member of its Community Association over many decades.  He is also a highly popular personality in town.  Amazingly he lived afterwards in that folly ‘castle’ remains above the ‘rocks’ on Chapel Street [which we referred to as Chucky Ned’s Castle]- from the Workhouse to The Castle, in one move!  Beat that, if you can!



Newry Workhouse finally closed its doors to the poor and homeless in 1948. It is not easy today to find someone who can speak with authority about workhouse conditions in those final years. Nancy Ferrier can.

A Jonesborough woman born and bred, Nancy left school in 1939 at the age of 16 and immediately started work in the office of the Clerk of Newry Union, Mr T J Greenan of Caufield Terrace. (He had succeeded W R Bell.) She was a junior office clerk. Her responsibilities included dietary requisitions and certification of births and deaths.

 ‘To the end there was strict segregation of males from females. The nurses’ home was in front. Then there was the reception area and the offices, with the Clerk’s office (Mr Greenan’s) above. Homeless people (we had no hesitation in referring to them as tramps) who sought a night’s lodging were confined in a separate room at a remote end of the building. Workers there recall the stench of it in the morning when they left.

Nobody was admitted after – a bell would toll a warning over the town.

I am informed by Ben Hughes of High Street that there were a number of doss houses in the
North Street/Castle Street area where tramps who failed to gain access to the Workhouse could stay overnight. Mary Murphy’s was one. Where there was no floor space they draped themselves over a rope slung across the room. I am assured that this is the truth.’     –   Author.


Workhouse in Living Memory 2 is here

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.