Workhouse Project brings history and community projects to life

Workhouse Project brings history and community projects to life

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Irish Workhouse Centre, Portumna. Image c/o Mathieu & Mitchell Ltd
Irish Workhouse Centre, Portumna. Image c/o Mathieu & Mitchell Ltd

The Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna is currently hosting three exhibitions.

The Shorelines Arts Festival Art Exhibition, which is free and runs until the 26th September, showcases the work of local artists, as well as exhibits from invited professionals.

A new exhibition will open on Friday, 18th September. “Losing the Head” by Christy Cunniffe is based on the medieval carved heads found throughout County Galway and photographed by John Walsh. This exhibition will run until 31st October, along with the permanent exhibition on Birr Workhouse and the Female Orphan Emigration Scheme.

The Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna opened its doors to the public in 2011. The centre is located in the former workhouse complex. With all seven original workhouse buildings intact, it is one of the best preserved workhouses in the country. The primary aim of the centre is to tell the story of the workhouse, an institution that operated in Ireland for a period of 80 years.

The project is headed up by South East Galway IRD, a community based local development company.
Work on the derelict complex began in 2004. It opened to the public in 2011, as a work in progress and won the overall County Heritage Award that year. The project seeks to demistify conservation and restoration and thus promote the appropriate reuse of old stone buildings. Project manager, Ursula Marmion points out that the principles of conservation and restoration are the same, whether one is working on a castle, a workhouse, an old cottage or a farmhouse. Much of the basic conservation work on site is being carried out by participants on the Rural Social Scheme and TÚS programme. Grant aid received under the National Rural Development Plan in 2013 permitted the comprehensive re-development of one of the buildings. This work demonstrated that high standards of conservation could be applied, whilst achieving better energy efficiency and universal accessibility.

In 2014, the workhouse took part in a pilot programme, the Traditional Building Skills Training Scheme (TBSTS), which was run by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in conjunction with Galway County Council. This was one of four pilots held nationally, the broad aim of the scheme being to enhance skillsets in built heritage conservation within and around the pilot local authority area by making trainees or qualified construction workers more capable of carrying out conservation and restoration projects and therefore improve their prospects of employment. Under this part-time scheme, ten tradespeople took part in hands-on, work based training, whilst also learning in a practical way about the theory of conservation. The use of lime based renders in restoration formed the basis of the training programme in Portumna, Trainees learnt how to repair old lime render, how to do new lime render and how to work with stone and lime. The emphasis on the need for lime sought to highlight one of the biggest mistakes made when working on stone buildings today namely the use of cement based renders, which cause dampness.

Following on from this scheme, the steering group made two key recommendations in its report to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Firstly, “the absence of in depth training in the use of lime in conservation and possible in new build is an issue needing attention. This could perhaps be easily solved if the existing plastering apprenticeship was adapted to include such training. This apprenticeship comes with the scope of the Statutory Apprenticeship system organised by SOLAS.”
Secondly, “capital grants are usually allocated annually to various conservation projects throughout the country. If for instance one project per county had a training element, this could result in significant numbers of people receiving short-term training in conservation and repair, probably at no additional cost to doing the capital conservation works without a training element. The issue of accreditation for such short term training needs to be addressed.”

The steering group for the training scheme in Portumna was made up of representatives from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the Conservation Office, Galway County Council, the Galway & Roscommon Educational Training Board and the Office of Public Works. As a result of this collaboration, a further training scheme is now taking place at the Irish Workhouse Centre. This training programme in Traditional Stonewalling is a 25 week, full-time course certified to FETAC Level 4. It is funded by the Galway and Roscommon Educational Training Board and delivered by Muintearas, an education and community development company.

The former Portumna Workhouse, once an overgrown, derelict site is now an asset to the community. The centre is open to the public, 7 days a week until 31st October this year. Guided tours give visitors an insight into the sad part of our heritage that was workhouse life.

www.irishworkhousecentre.ie tel: 090-9759200

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