Workhouses In Ireland

If your ancestors experienced poverty in 19th or early 20th century Ireland, they may have had to enter a Workhouse.

The Workhouses were introduced in Ireland in response to the Potato Famine of 1845. This article will give you an overview of these institutions.

Why Were Workhouses Introduced In Ireland?

The early decades of the 1800s in Ireland saw mass poverty and people eking a living in very difficult conditions. The Government of the day introduced the Irish Poor Law Act in 1838.

This divided the island into Poor Unions to govern the administration of relief. A Poor Union was an area based on the existing Electoral Divisions. You’ll see both Poor Unions and EDs (Electoral Divisions) in genealogy records.

There were 130 Unions established by the Act. Each was to have its own Workhouse. The first Workhouse in Ireland was built in 1840. The costs were funded by rates levied by the local Union.

What Were The Workhouses?

The Workhouses were established to provide relief to the poor. They were also known as Poorhouses.

They had a dreadful reputation for the conditions inside the walls, but people entered for many reasons:

  • the elderly or infirm who couldn’t work
  • tenant farmers evicted from the land that gave them food and income
  • people with a mental illness or disability
  • unmarried mothers whose family would not support them
  • children without their parents

With evictions, entire families could end up in the Workhouse.

Why Were Conditions So Bad In The Workhouses?

There was nothing inherently wrong with setting up residential institutions for people in extremely dire circumstances.

The problem was was that many of those circumstances came about through poor government during the natural disaster of crop failures that beset Ireland in the mid-1840s.

You can read more in our article on the Irish Famine.

The conditions in the Workhouses were already poor. The famine from the winter of 1845 made them much worse due to severe overcrowding.

With tenant farmers having no protection from landlords, the crop failures saw mass evictions of entire families from their homes and holdings. Many had nowhere to go except into the Workhouse, even though it was a place of last resort.

The Government introduced another new law which meant that any small farmer with more than a quarter acre of land had to give it up in order to enter the Workhouse. This left the people who did so with nothing to return to outside.

The Workhouses were now full past capacity. The cramped conditions saw disease such as typhus run rife amongst the residents.

Inadequate funding

The way that the Government insisted that the Workhouses were funded just made matters worse. The Poor Unions were supposed to collect enough taxes from local ratepayers to fund the poor relief.

But the landholders weren’t getting rent from the tenant farmers whose crops had failed. Many estates went bankrupt. The Unions simply couldn’t collect enough local funds to perform their role.

The Government of the day tinkered with legal changes to force more solvent Unions to support the others. Meanwhile, conditions for the residents continued to deteriorate.

Children in the Workhouse

Some parents left their children in the Workhouse to ensure their survival.

The spread of typhus and dysentery led to rising death rates amongst the residents. This also many children without parents, and a large number of children ended up alone in the Workhouse.

In some cases, parents emigrated without their children to North America. They would leave children behind in a Workhouse until they had secured work and accommodation in a new country.

Eventually, some (but not all) would arrange for the child to travel to join them.

This can be seen in records of meetings of the Board Of Governors of Poor Unions. The meetings note when they receive funds to arrange for the passage by ship of one or more children across the Atlantic.

Researching Workhouse Records

Are you researching family you believe may have spent some time in a Workhouse in Ireland?

The Workhouse registration books are large ledgers with details about the people who entered. They record names, age, residence before entry, and other details.

There are also archives of the meetings held by the Board Of Governors of the Poor Union. The business of the day often mentions specific residents.

The physical archives are held at the National Archives of Ireland in Dublin. They have been digitized onto microfilm and can be browsed at the building.

The digitized images have also been turned into searchable online collections. The biggest collection is available with a subscription to genealogy site Find My Past.