While history tells us much about how things were, and stories we should all learn from, including tales of happiness and prosperity, history also tells of toil and destitution.

For George Elliott, from Lisnaskea, who has a keen interest in history and particularly in Fermanagh, his knowledge and passion helps breathe life back into a well-known landmark associated with grinding hardship – Lisnaskea Workhouse.

George grew up in the shadow of the building, and while he has no experience of what it was like while in operation, he certainly got a feel for it when growing up.

The workhouse was built in the 1840s as a consequence of the Poor Law act of 1838. It was designed by George Wilkinson, like the Enniskillen Workhouse, and was meant to be a place for people to go to who could not provide for themselves.

It was a tough place to live with those there, on a poor diet, taking part in long hours of laborious work. However, through George’s eyes, readers can see it in a different way.


“It was a massive building; grey, imposing and Gothic-like, taking up the whole skyline,” said George.

“But our gang from Castlebalfour never really saw it as a scary place, but rather, one of endless possibilities.

“There was also the walled graveyard which divided my estate from Lakeview. Some say it [the graveyard] reached under those houses.”

For George as a lad, the area was an open-air playground of cowboys and ‘injuns’, of football with jumpers, torch tig, kerbie and anything else before George and his friends got the dreaded call to come home.

But as they entered the unused workhouse, the mood changed. “When you ventured into this Victorian building, a silence descended. It seemed to be an unwritten rule, maybe reverence for the past.

“I remember climbing broken and creaking stairs up to the top level, and the cooing of pigeons that literally ruled the roost.

“At night the whole area became a haven for bats as they ventured out from the park building to the lights which surrounded it.

“You almost expected to bump into Vincent Price or Peter Cushing from the Hammer Horror films at the time.”

George remembers the gang scaling the large slab concrete wall which took them into the building’s garden and ‘borrowing’ fruits from the branches therein – and yes, it was always harder to get out than to get in.

“I also remember doing my first archaeological dig with my bucket and spade and unearthing all manner of things including three clay bottles, made in Bristol, which still sit on my fireplace today.

“There were also two massive pots which sat in an enclosed entrance beside the old Watts and Stones factory.

“At first, I could not believe that the fish which swam in the waters were goldfish, as they were massive, only to find out later that goldfish grow depending on their environment.”

Now, George refers to this area as the ‘Historic Quarter’ of Lisnaskea, including “the workhouse, the graveyard, the castle and as you travel up Livingstone’s Lane – Lisdoo Fort – and then on towards Aghalurcher”, adding “but back then, our gang knew nothing of history”.

While there are many happy memories from George’s childhood in the workhouse’s environs, there is today a sense of sadness about the current state of the workhouse.


As the saying goes, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” – something that George sees in today’s society.

“The building today slowly slides into decay, sold into private hands. The ivy covers the walls, the garden is overgrown, the stone crumbles under broken windows.

“[The building is] let down by our local politicians and those public bodies who purport to stand for our local heritage.

“When we see in our modern society people increasingly using food banks and struggling to make ends meet, we surely must recognise the failure of where we are today.

“And for this reason alone, surely this building must stand as a testament of a bygone era and darker time? It may not.”

Blighted Lives by Robert Elliott

A single headstone for those below

A mass grave for the lowly souls

A rusted gate that sees less use

An information stand that tells us facts but not the truth

Fate watched with tears in her eyes

As she saw those who emerged from birth

Only to starve in life and under this earth

This sad plot, this bitter soil

Seem to serve the trees

Thirteen Yews

The Twelve Apostles and the Messiah unseen

Themselves a memorial that grows with time

Guarding over the end to the blighted lives.

A building of misery that has since been split.

Abandoned, reused and abused

Serving gaunt bodies dressed in wool and tweed

Saved from starvation but not disease.

A council estate grows yet does not enclose

Thanks to the walls that bit crumble yet stand

As the children of Lakeview play hopscotch on the path

That cuts through the tragic land.