Sources for children in institutional care in Ireland, 1840s–1990s

Published in Features, Issue 5 (September/October), Volume 22

Records of the Poor Law Unions, 1840s–1924

The tea room of the Sean Ross Abbey mother-and-baby home, Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, c. 1960s. (Brian Lockier/Adoption Rights Alliance)

The tea room of the Sean Ross Abbey mother-and-baby home, Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, c. 1960s. (Brian Lockier/Adoption Rights Alliance)

From the early 1840s until 1924, approximately half of all destitute children in Ireland were accommodated in the workhouse system. Unfortunately, there is a huge variation in the rate of survival of Indoor Relief registers that record admissions, for all Poor Law Unions. The late Dr Chris O’Mahony showed that in 1921–2 in Munster the IRA were known on occasion to have deliberately destroyed workhouse records.

Children orphaned or otherwise separated from their parents were ‘fostered’ out to private homes. Between the 1840s and 1899 all decisions to foster workhouse children were made at board level and are recorded in the minute books of the relevant Poor Law Union’s board of guardians. There’s a surprisingly good survival rate for the minute books, usually held in the local collections of the relevant county library.

Between 1899 and 1924 responsibility for the care of fostered children passed to the county council of the child’s county of birth. As a general rule of thumb, these records can also be found in the relevant county library or archive.

Records of reformatories and industrial schools
In nineteenth-century Ireland the number of destitute children was so great that the workhouse system by itself was inadequate. In 1858 reformatories were brought in, and industrial schools in 1868. Existing schools or institutions could apply for a capitation grant paid for by the government, and after 1899 by the local authority of the child’s place of origin. Many of the religious orders already involved in education adapted to the new framework and became involved in the development of industrial schools.

The majority were run by Catholic orders, and registers of the individual schools usually remain with the orders. The Directory of Irish archives contains further details on specific institutions, including registers and time-frames covered.

The Ryan Report indicates that there were nine Protestant industrial schools in Ireland, of which five were in the 26 counties. They were independently run by private organisations and their records are not centralised. PACT, the adoption tracing service, can help with enquiries.

In 1924 W.T. Cosgrave’s government established the Department of Local Government and Public Health. It was the first step towards dismantling the hated Poor Law Union system in the Irish Free State, except in Dublin city and county. In 1925 responsibility for the care of fostered children was transferred to the County Boards of Health and Public Assistance. The County Assistance Boards kept annual registers of all children in care, and most of these records have been transferred to the relevant county library or archives, where they are held under restricted access.

Unusually for any research, there are short cuts. The AIRR (Access to Institutional and Related Records) project is a central index to records of children raised in care in Ireland between the 1930s and the 1990s. These records are accessible in the Department of Health and Children.

The Health Service Executive operates a tracing service that has greater coverage of the records of infant hospitals, mother-and-baby homes, adoption societies, and a large number of registers of private nursing homes.

Access to the records
Knowledge of personal identity should be a human right, yet access to personal records is often still restricted under the Data Protection Act, sometimes interpreted as a blanket ‘100-year rule’. This rule is the interpretation of the legislation (Data Protection Act 1988, Amendment 2003) by the Data Protection Commissioner. In 2011 a supreme court ruling set limits to how the Freedom of Information Act could be applied in tracing cases. The ruling was very subjective: it allowed all institutions that hold records to make the judgement call on access, and extended the time-limit indefinitely. Clearly this ruling goes against the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act and the right of access to personal information.

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


AIRR: +353 (0)1 6354190/6353030.
HSE tracing service: +353 (0)1 8976858.
PACT: +353 (0)1 2962200.
S. Helferty & R. Refaussé, Directory of Irish archives (Dublin, 2011).


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