Kilkenny Almshouses

The Almshouses of Kilkenny city

Edward J Law (Jan 2013)

The Brehon laws laid a duty on territorial rulers in early Ireland to provide for the sick and homeless. Subsequently this system of voluntary care was taken over by the monasteries which provided food and shelter for travellers, and more long-term care for the infirm, and probably for the elderly poor. When the monasteries were dissolved in 1541 no provision was made for continuation of the charitable care they had provided. It was left to the goodwill of the country at large.
Within forty years an alms house had ben established in Kilkenny city for the support of six male and six female paupers. Known as the Hospital of Jesus of Kilkenny, it was erected by Sir Richard Shee and his wife. Standing in Rose Inn Street it was, and is, popularly known as the Shee Alms House.
Prior to 1614 the Earl of Ormonde made arrangements for the establishment of the Ormonde Poor House under the formal name of the Hospital of our Blessed Saviour of Kilkenny. Originally the house stood at the end of High Street on what is now part of the site of Allied Irish Bank, but removed about 1839 to Barrack street where the buildings can still be seen.
It is interesting that both the Shees and the Ormondes had benefited from dealing in the lands of the dissolved monasteries: perhaps they felt an obligation to put some of their wealth into charitable works.
By 1673 Bishop Williams had erected eight alms houses in St Canice’s parish for eight widows. The houses, which stood in Church Lane, were in a tottering condition by the early 1800s but were later repaired and enlarged and served to at least 1859.
A poor house on the south side of Walkin Street, associated with the Friary, was endowed in 1699 under the will of Father James Tobin, and was known as Father Tobin’s Poor House. The charity continued to function, on a site adjoining the Friary down to 1963.
Perhaps the best known of the city’s alms houses is St James’s Asylum or Switsir’s. The building of 1803, much refurbished, still stands with a striking sculpture of the founder, James Switsir, watching over the frontage. The charity was established by Act of Parliament which laid down that eight of the inmates were to be Roman Catholic and twelve Protestant. All were to be female, “decent and respectable persons, the widows or daughters of respectable persons resident in the county or city of Kilkenny or county of Carlow for ten years or more.” The question of respectability was further enlarged, none were to be admitted “who ever was a servant, or the widow or daughter or niece of a servant.”
Lees Lane Poor House took its name from its first location, the present Abbey Street, though it was subsequently by St. Mary’s Church, where the buildings still stand. It was closely identified with that church, having been founded by the then curate, Peter Roe, in 1803, the same year as Switzer’s. In 1818 entry was open to “All poor persons, resident in the city of Kilkenny who are desirous to have the Scriptures read for them.” At that time twenty-three people were resident and twelve others received weekly relief.
Joseph Evans, who died in 1818, left a fortune to charity. The asylum, which he established to house ten males and ten females still stands, off John Street. Possibly as a balance to Switsir’s Asylum, where connections of servants were most definitely excluded, Evans’s Asylum was specifically for “decayed servants”.