Naas Workhouse Cemetery, Co. Kildare, Ireland

Stone with a plaque that reads: Naas Workhouse Cemetery opened January 1849. Remember me today and tomorrow, for all the days I hungered and there was no one, when they threw me under your feet, nobody to pray or shed a tear, remember, remember, remember. Moe Leonard

With an hour to myself between appointments, I went walking around the hospital and stumbled across this tiny cemetery, a piece of history.

At the entrance, on what was once known as Poorhouse Road, is a boulder on which the following verse by local poet Mae Leonard is inscribed:

Remember me today and tomorrow, for all the days I hungered and there was no one, when they threw me under your feet, nobody to pray or shed a tear, remember, remember, remember.

In February 1839, as a result of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834  the Naas Poor Law Union was declared. Covering 23 parishes in Kildare, Dublin, and Wicklow counties, some 30 guardians decided the fate of those too poor to fend for themselves.

The practice of sending poor people who fell on hard times to the area of their birth by Poor Law Unions (PLU) was quite common. Each PLU had its own workhouse and each union was named after the town in which the workhouse was located. They were financed by a poor rate extracted by local poor law valuations (ratings of rate payers). The idea was that the local PLU would look after the relief of their own paupers, but many Irish who had spent their whole working lives in Britain, were deported to Ireland as soon as they became chargeable on the rates.

In 1840-1841 the workhouse was built to house some 550 paupers. Later, with the famine of the mid-1840s, another house would be rented and stables converted to house 150 more. The total cost back then was £6500 (some £845k in today’s money).

The minutes of the workhouse are a treasure of national history, offering insight into life at the time.

It was a time when political correctness was not to the fore and perhaps the saddest entry is for what was labelled ‘Return of Sick and Lunatics’ – sixty-seven inmates were in the Workhouse Hospital and a further four in the Fever Hospital – while sixteen unfortunate inmates were in wards termed ‘Lunatics and Idiots.’ It would be another sixty years before the Mental Treatment Act changed the legal term to ‘person of unsound mind’.

Back in 2011, American actor and talk show host, Rosie O’Donnell, traced her ancestors back to Naas workhouse. They were the lucky ones – the ones who got away.

The Naas Poor Law Union became actively involved in emigration in 1849 and continued their work until at least 1854. Emigrants were sent to Canada and Australia, while young boys were also apprenticed to the Merchant Sea Service or assisted to enter the Royal Navy. In July 1849 the first large group of pauper emigrants were sent to Quebec, Canada, followed by a further 136 in July 1852, and approximately 130 in April-May 1853. Beginning in 1853 there were several assisted emigrations of individual pauper families and smaller groups.

There’s not much left. An engraved stone marks the (mass?) grave where those unfortunates are buried.

Square granite marker in a half circle of boulders on a green in front of a stand of trees behind which is a modern two-storey flat-roofed building

Stone plaque : In memory of the people of Naas workhouse and this area who are laid to rest here. Pray for their souls.

Workhouses like this ran their course until 1920 when they finally closed their doors. Today, the old workhouse building is part of Naas General Hospital, what’s known as the Old Hospital, which now houses the physiotherapy unit and the Liffey wards. And, although the building is the same, the wards are bright and airy, the corridors newly renovated; a far cry from what they might have been back in the day.

View of a stone building through trees

Before the graveyard opened, paupers were buried in nearby Tipper cemetery. I read in a post on Facebook that the notables there weren’t too keen on having the nameless poor buried in the midst.

All funerals must take place before seven o’clock in the morning and that no more than twelve paupers be permitted to go with the funeral to Tipper churchyard. In cases when friends of the paupers wish to have their remains conveyed to their own burial ground, no paupers shall be allowed to accompany the funeral.

Talk about keeping up appearances! Nearly 200 years ago and how much has really changed? The poor are still stigmatised.


@ 2024 Mary Murphy