Poor Law Union archives—one of the biggest untapped resources for Irish family history

Published in Editorial, Issue 5 (September/October 2015), Volume 23

In the decade after the passing of the Poor Relief (Ireland) Act of 1838, the workhouse system was rolled out across Ireland. Irish workhouses were created to house the destitute poor. In the second half of the nineteenth century their remit extended to public health. The surviving Irish Poor Law Union (PLU) records describe not only the inmates and staff in the workhouses from c. the 1840s to 1923–5 but also the wider community in which they were based. Few, if any, PLUs have a complete survival of all records series. The archives are mainly held at county level, although some originals are in the NLI, the NAI and the PRONI in Belfast.

Board of Guardian Minute Books
This is the largest series of PLU archives that survives. Described by archivists and historians as ‘of less interest to genealogists’, ignore them at your peril! From the first opening of the workhouses in 1841/2 the Minutes contain the names of all staff applicants, from the master and matron to teachers, tailors and shoemakers. The Minutes also contain the names, addresses and identifying information of local suppliers, including farmers and small businesses that tendered to provide goods, services and provisions to the workhouses. Between the 1840s and 1860s the Minutes include the names of all workhouse inmates who applied for assisted emigration programmes. There were many more applicants than were sent, and the identifying information can be quite detailed. The Minutes contain evidence of any unusual circumstances concerning inmates, including notices of intention to marry and discipline. And, until the 1890s, any decision to place a child ‘at nurse’ was made at Board level.

Below: ‘Bird’s Eye View Shewing the General Arrangement for a Building to Contain 800 persons. 5th Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners [1839].’

Indoor Relief records
These are the main admission/discharge registers of the workhouse. Where they survive, they contain the full name of the individual together with identifying details, including sex, age, trade or calling, marital status, religion, spouse’s name, the number of children, the electoral division of residence before entering the workhouse, the date of admission and the date of death or of leaving the workhouse. Unfortunately, the survival of this series is poor. The perception is of targeted destruction of these records. We know of many instances in 1921–2 where the IRA destroyed workhouse registers in military operations.

Outdoor Relief registers
The workhouses were established to house the destitute poor. By 1847 the unfolding crisis of the Famine persuaded the authorities to extend assistance to the poor who remained in their own homes, subject to the Gregory clause. Outdoor Relief registers contain similar personal details and the date on which the individual received assistance. From the 1890s, separate registers of Nursed or Boarded-out Children were kept as part of the Outdoor Relief series. Unfortunately there is a poor survival of this series.

Health records
From the time the workhouses first opened, each union had an infirmary and fever hospital for inmates. From 1862 these were opened to the wider public and became County Hospitals. Where they survive, records date from the 1860s. As the role of PLUs extended to public health, other records were kept, including vaccination (smallpox) registers.

An enormous resource
In 2015 Findmypast indexed and digitised the Board of Guardian Minute Books and Workhouse Registers for the four Dublin Unions and found c. 2.5 million names between 1840 and 1920. If this is replicated across the remaining Unions, the PLU archives will comprise a truly enormous resource.

Fiona Fitzsimons is a director of Eneclann, a Trinity College campus company, and of findmypast Ireland.

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