THE OFFICIAL opening of the new-look Enniskillen Workhouse was seen as a hugely important moment for the community last week.
The doors opened up following a £2.3million investment from the National Lottery to restore the building into a museum showcasing the history and works of the building over the years dating back from when it first opened in 1841.
This is the only workhouse in the North that tells the story of its inmates, the famine period, and the lives of those within it up to its closure.
The dedicated heritage space includes stories of some of the people who lived and died in the Workhouse. These former residents have now been given a voice to tell their stories through a mixed-use exhibition, reminiscence, display area and a dedicated heritage trail.
In addition, and looking to a positive sustainable future, part of the Workhouse has been transformed into a modern business innovation and enterprise hub.
Development Officer of Museum Services, Catherine Scott, stated that the re-opening was a pivotal moment for Fermanagh and the North.
She said: “In terms for the local community – and even beyond – it’s hugely important. For well over a hundred years, this building – whether it was functioning as a workhouse or in later years as a hospital – has so many local people with an affinity and a relationship with it.
“For such a long time, it was a crucial part of the landscape of Enniskillen. We have been ‘informally-opened’ since December and I have been extremely busy with school groups and other people coming in to see the building.
“My greatest hope that this is, in many ways, just the starting point for other workhouses in Fermanagh, Tyrone and beyond to follow suit and give voice to those people who lived and died in a workhouse that nobody has ever remembered.”
The Workhouse had a baptism of fire when it open as a few years later, the Great Famine hit both the County and Ireland causing more than a million deaths nationwide.
Catherine added: “If we look at the Famine period, 10,000 people entered the Workhouse and over 2000 of them died.
“There are stories associated with unmarried mothers who came here and their child is maybe taken from them. They may have spent their entire lives in the Workhouse.
“We are going through the admission records at the minute and the descriptions of ‘the pauper’ when they arrive is heartbreaking and beyond words.
“The Poor Law system is introduced in 1838. Before the Famine, less than one per cent of the Irish population are in the Workhouse system across Ireland.
“The Workhouse is designed to deal with known-crisis poverty. However, Ireland has for years been teetering on the brink of a Malthusian apocalypse and then it comes.
“The Potato Blight arrives with the first total failure of the crop being in Co. Fermanagh which creates this huge abyss. So this Workhouse opens and receives a ‘baptism of fire’ in the form of the Famine.
“People were critical of the Workhouse system – and it’s easy to be critical as it was being paid for by ratepayers who didn’t want to pay. But it was never meant to deal with the sheer scale of poverty, destitution, starvation and disease that was brought upon Ireland.”
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