Feast of food in Famine’s workhouse of last resort

Siobhán Avrillier of Labouche Restaurant with Steve Dolan of Portumna Workhouse at the Taste of Portumna Food & Biodiversity Festival held at the Portumna Workhouse. Photos: Hany Marzouk.
Siobhán Avrillier of Labouche Restaurant with Steve Dolan of Portumna Workhouse at the Taste of Portumna Food & Biodiversity Festival held at the Portumna Workhouse. Photos: Hany Marzouk.

Lifestyle – Judy Murphy visited Taste of Portumna where the array of food on view was in stark contrast to the area’s sad history

The array of food and drink on display within the walls of The Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna last Friday would have been beyond the wildest dreams of those poor souls who flocked there when it first opened in 1852, just a few short years after the Great Famine.

The workhouse was a place of last resort for local people, a place where families were torn apart. Men went to one side of the vast building, women to another. Boys and girls were also kept in separate areas – only those children under the age of two were allowed to stay with their mothers.

Food consisted mostly of stir-about, milk and potatoes. Adults had two meals a day and children had three. These were eaten in silence, off tin plates or timber table tops.

However, there was no such silence on Friday as the place rang with the sounds of laughter and music – the latter courtesy of young members from the Portumna branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.

They were performing as part of a Taste of Portumna, a free event in which artisan producers from the surrounding area were showcasing their produce to local people.

And what a range there was; curries, cheese, meats, chocolates, wildflower liqueur and everything in between.

Goats cheese from the immediate area came courtesy of Killeen Farmhouse, while cheese from Aran Islands could be found on the stand that also showcased Sliabh Aughty Honey.

This honey from bees in Noel Leahy’s farm, outside Loughrea, was selling like hot cakes and customers were enjoying sweet talk as well as sweet produce, with non-stop banter from beekeeper, Noel.

But behind the banter was the more serious message that eating local honey helps our immune system and that a healthy honeybee population is crucial to the pollination of the fruit and veg we eat every day.

Various by-products were also on sale, including lip balms and beard salves, all made from beeswax from the Sliabh Aughty farm.

Bees, too, were responsible for the artisan honey and variety of beautifully packaged beeswax candles on sale at the stand of Brookfield Farm in Tipperary. That farm, located at the other side of Lough Derg, operates a ‘sharehive scheme’ where people can buy a share in the hives and visit the farm.

Located on the shores of Lough Derg, Portumna is a town surrounded by agricultural riches on all sides – Galway, Offaly and Tipperary – and A Taste of Portumna, which was organised by the Irish Workhouse Centre in partnership with Galway County Council, had drawn from all these areas.