Tales From The Workhouse – Episode 4
Ian Russell, Archaeologist and Photographer of popular Facebook Page Forgotten Lives, demonstrates the power of Imagery in this assessment of his Work in relation to the Irish Workhouse System.
An Archaeologist and Photographer, Ian has been documenting the abandoned places of Ireland for quite a few years now, and that’s just in his “Down-time” – As part of his day job he’s often to be found “digging skellies” (skeletons) in random locations around Ireland and the world. Through his popular Facebook Page, he is offering us a glimpse into the past and what it may have looked like.
The banner image here was taken by Ian on a dig at the Waterford City Workhouse. As you will see, buildings have sprung up like mushrooms around the old site and life moves on. The aerial view will give you an impression of the enormous size of this building.
Ian is an Author and exhibiting Photographic Artist with a particular talent for telling a story through poignant and emotive imagery. Ian supplied me with a heartrending image of what he suspects a common Workhouse scene would have been. This striking image was subsequently published on his rapidly growing Facebook Page – Forgotten Lives.
As you can imagine, it has gone viral through the International Community within its first couple of days online. In this instance, a picture really does paint a thousand words. We at www.birthsdeathsmarriages.ie were delighted to see his recent boost in support, very well deserved indeed!
It’s hardly any wonder that the history of the Workhouses is of special significance to Ian. The buildings remain a source of study and fascination for Historians, Archaeologists and anyone with a shred of Social Conscience. They have almost a macabre lure about them. Imposing stone structures which loom ominously out of the ground on the edge of several Irish towns.
A mecca for the Ghost Hunter brigade and I must say, that’s hardly surprising! Although they are the most unsafe of Irish buildings and visitors are not encouraged for safety reasons. Please contact your local Workhouse committee for guidance on visiting these sites.
When I asked Ian to sum up the importance of these architectural relics, he relied:
“The Workhouses are long forgotten and ignored in Ireland today due to their painful association with the famine & poverty. These abandoned monuments, in mind and form, need to be recognized, preserved and recorded in order to ensure the archaeological and historical record of their function and sociological past is preserved.”
Workhouse digs often provide some real evidence as to the culture of the times, everything from small bones to spoons and old rags feature in the things uncovered. These digs help to paint the picture of life in the Workhouse, the skeletons providing evidence of the diseases which were commonplace in that era. Altogether, this is how we piece the past together, evidence of our sad history being substantiated by science and investigation. Ian takes a two pronged approach to the Workhouses, one scientific and one purely for beautiful light, colour and texture. The artist hand in hand with the inquisitor.
Ian’s popular Facebook Page Forgotten Lives has a lovely array of the most touching images of times gone by. This episode will detail the crumbling state of the remaining abandoned Workhouses and show the efforts being made to uncover a long buried history.
In cases where the Workhouses have fallen or been demolished, their footprint still shows the layout of different buildings which separated men from women, children from parents and brothers from sisters.
Ian has a sympathetic but analytical mind and presents a whole story in just one image. Exceptionally well composed photographs that draw the viewer into the scene, placing you in it as if you were physically there. In taking this approach, Ian Russell ensures the truly haunting nature of his imagery. The picture he paints with these images speaks a thousand words. I cannot help but be moved.
A Workhouse Visit With Ian Russell of Forgotten Lives
The decaying joists overhead rattle with indignation and as I look up, the falling dust catches in shafts of light that blaze through the broken windows.
The dust particles are like tiny fireflies dancing in the light. It crosses my mind that they could very well be orbs, spirit manifestations from a time where one of the greatest tragedies in Irelands past can still be felt. Like spiritual evidence of lives long snuffed out.
Ian is just above my head, balancing precariously on a beam on which a floor once lay. The room was the Governors private bedroom when this Workhouse teemed with life and desperation.
I urge him to climb back down the stairway which is hanging together by rusty old nails, the remaining roof slates rattle and vibrate through the old wooden rafters, he tells me that a small black cast iron fireplace is still attached to the wall.
The Governor did not go without either food or warmth and had the luxury of his own private parlour and bed chamber. Food and warmth could always be found for the ruling classes. The boys dormitory beyond the Governors chamber had no fireplace, no heat source. Hardly surprising really.
The icy wind blasts straight through the building adding to the sense of danger and foreboding, making the hair stand on the back of my neck. My heartbeat picks up and I begin to worry that the fearless Ian will come crashing through the rotting timbers.
Beginning to panic, I urge him down and his response? “You want to see what’s up here don’t you? I’m taking photographs, it’s bad!” I could only laugh, with no fear for his own safety, I was glad to be on the lower level. The floor joists were so badly decayed, that they barely clung to the wall, like a spongy magic carpet.
Walking slowly towards the exit with Ian a short time later, the crumbling walls and the worn stone floors imprint themselves in my mind. I know I will not forget. Years of footfall on bare stone polished it to a shine, making me wonder just how many people walked those floors through the years of its use.
A determination to capture a true documentary of its crumbling state evident in his attitude. I wonder what kind of impact such sad buildings have on a person after a while.
It’s thanks to Photographers like this that we see the true extent of the Workhouse buildings as they are now. These images will be viewed long into the future. They will grace the walls of museums and galleries, private homes and educational institutions many many years from now.
This type of documentary is vital in the sense that without images, the story seems somewhat surreal. Facing the evidence of the Workhouse era and asking the questions in relation to how the “Famine” came about will serve us all well.
I’d like to think that we have outgrown the fables and now look deeper. Looking without the benefit of rose coloured glasses – at the awful reality. These images are needed for future generations, they are a learning tool for scholars, historians and the public.
These buildings are a testament to human neglect, to mass starvation. To the vulnerabilities of the poorest of the poor. It would break the coldest of hearts.
Mass graves, mostly unmarked, where hundreds, if not thousands, were dumped. The stretchers which were used to carry them dead from the dormitories in the morning lie idle on the cold stone floor.
It’s quite hard to imagine what generations of my own family went through in those years. Lucky to have survived, thanks to their resilience I can write about this catastrophic event in our history. The evidence of it stares me in the face and tears spring to my eyes. When the Workhouse is your last remaining hope for survival, things are desperate indeed.
As the massive wooden door creaks and bangs closed behind us, I turn back for one last look at the place, an overwhelming sense of sadness and injustice engulfs me.
To walk in the footsteps of those who endured a living hell such as this has made me literally heart-sore. It has also inspired me to dig deeper, to ask the uncomfortable questions, the have answers and truth for my Children, my Grandchildren. They deserve the truth.
Don’t we all!
Many thanks go to Ian Russell for his assistance and for the use of his images. Please do drop on by and support him with a Like to his Facebook Page Forgotten Lives which can be found here: