Was your ancestor an inmate, guardian, staff or supplier for the workhouses in County Clare in the west of Ireland? The Irish workhouses were institutions created in 1838, to provide a place of relief for the poor, sick, elderly and orphaned across Ireland; however, they were used as a final measure. They were designed to be cold, intimidating and uninviting. As poverty, starvation and disease spread across the country from 1846 onwards, the workhouses became overcrowded and desperate. The Board of Guardians were responsible for the management of the workhouses. They met on a weekly basis and recorded the discussion of their meetings in these minute books.
Both a transcript and an image are available with each record. The details given will vary depending on the nature of the record. The information you might find in the transcript includes:
Date of entry
Place – any place in relation to the individual; a residence, birth place, etc.
Folio and page
The images are pages of the Guardians’ meetings minutes book. The books are excellently captured and the handwriting is very clear. The reason your ancestor was included in the minutes can vary depending on the circumstances. Some of the reasons your ancestor is mentioned in the minutes includes:
A member of staff or a guardian
Received outdoor relief for work such as breaking stones
Paid or collected the poor rates
A request for assistance with emigration
Marriage announcements of inmates
Orphaned or deserted child
An inmate of the workhouse with special circumstances
The records include all the surviving Board of Guardians minute books from the Corofin (1850-1922), Ennis (1849-1877 with many gaps, 1883-1922), Ennistymon (1839-1924) and Kilrush (1848-1923) unions, four of eight poor law unions located in County Clare. The Board of Guardians were charged with the task of distributing relief to the completely destitute in each Union. They operated workhouses which were built to hold 600-800 inmates, but were overwhelmed with thousands coming to their doors seeking salvation from disease and starvation. The minute books contain weekly reports of how many men and women were housed in the workhouse, how many were discharged or died, the number of births, and they dealt with individual cases in some detail. They also recorded the workhouse expenditures like food supplies or salaries and the number of inmates receiving medical treatments. Few workhouse registers survive in Ireland, and in their absence the Board of Guardian minute books are often the only record of who was housed there.
Kilrush is a coastal town in County Clare. In July 1842, the Kilrush Union Workshouse admitted its first inmate. Few places in Ireland suffered more from the misery of the famine than Kilrush union. Large numbers of people died, thousands were evicted and many more emigrated. In 1849, The Illustrated London News created a seven part series on the new Poor Law in Ireland. The series focused on the conditions of Kilrush. Many of the illustrations created are iconic representations of the famine in Ireland. One particular image is of Captain Kennedy’s daughter giving out food to the starving. Captain (later Sir) Arthur Edward Kennedy took over the position of Poor Law Inspector in Kilrush in 1847 for three years. During his time he made powerful enemies, especially of the landowner, Crofton Moore Vandeleur, who he challenged to a duel.
From 1847, thousands were being evicted. They were left deprived and sought temporary shelter in bogs and ditches. Eventually, many made their way to the overcrowded workhouse, but hundreds died before they could reach it. In June 1849, the Dublin Evening Post reported that a letter from Captain Kennedy was read to the House of Commons regarding the evictions. He wrote that there have been 15,000 evictions in the last year and the homes of 20,000 were to be levelled. The House of Commons debated whether to interfere with the evictions, most of which were lawful. In 1850, the average number of deaths within the workhouse was 40 a week. The fever hospital was overcrowded and hundreds were receiving medical treatment.
The workhouse of Ennistymon (sometimes spelt Ennistimon) Union, in North West Clare, was built to house 600 inmates and admitted its first inmate on 5 September 1845. By 1846, the workhouse was operating at full capacity. The admission books have not survived. During the years of the famine, the union lost almost 23 percent of its population. The causes of death included fever, dysentery, diarrhoea, dropsy, smallpox and measles. The death rates were so high that a parliamentary inquiry was called. In 1848, the board of guardians was dissolved because of their mismanagement of the workhouse and not providing adequate accommodation. Non-elected vice guardians took control of the site and conditions slowly improved. As disease spread in the county, medical officers continued to warn guardians against taking any inmates with illness. Most of the workhouses were not large enough to have sufficient infirmaries and the sick were spread throughout the buildings. In the mid-1840s a fever hospital was built. In 1852 parts of Ennistymon became part of the new Ballyvaughan and Corofin Unions.
This workhouse was built in 1850 as part of the second wave of Irish workhouses, and was designed to hold 500 inmates.
The Ennis workhouse was the largest in the county holding 800 inmates (officially) and admitted its first in 1841.