Using Poor Law Records to Find Your Irish Ancestors
Those of us with Irish ancestors know that many of them left Ireland because of the crushing poverty caused by the high rents imposed by absentee landlords, the Great Famine, and a high birth rate among a predominantly Roman Catholic population. While we can’t help but feel sorrow for their circumstances, the very reason those ancestors left Ireland can help us learn more about their lives before their immigration. Two sets of Dublin-based records – Deserted Children Dublin and Dublin Workhouses Admission & Discharge Registers 1840-1919 – and a third document set for the western counties of Ireland – Ireland, Poverty Relief Loans 1821-1874 – can provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of our Irish ancestors.
A sad result of the poverty of Ireland was that many children were simply abandoned on the streets of Dublin. Some parents were too ill to care for their children (or had died), other parents were in prison, and some even abandoned their sons and daughters while the adults left to make a better life for themselves in the United States. Deserted Children Dublin is based on the information contained in a report of the children picked up by the Dublin Metropolitan Police for the years 1850 through 1854.
Using this record set we found the brother and sister pair of eight-year-old Thomas and 14-year-old Catherine Conway who were picked up by the police on Bridgefoot Street in October of 1851. They were handed over to the South Union Workhouse in Dublin where we learned much more about their family situation.
Workhouses, created to be a shelter of last resort for the poor, aged, and infirm, were intentionally designed to be unwelcoming and undesirable. Everyone who entered, including children, was expected to work to earn their keep. A register, one of many from the Dublin Workhouses and Admissions & Discharge Registers 1840-1919, listed the names and dates of admission for each person who entered the workhouse, including Thomas and Catherine.
In the October register for the South Union Workhouse, the registrar reported that the children had been deserted by their parents. They had no regular occupation and they were dressed in old clothes. The register also noted that they were released on 21 August 1852. However, a closer examination of the registers revealed that this was not the first time that Catherine and Thomas were sent to the workhouse.
Twice before, on the 27th of February in 1851 and again in May of that year, the children were enrolled in the workhouse. In February the registrar reported that they had been deserted by their parents and then were released less than three weeks later on the 17th of March. About six weeks later, on the 2nd of May, the Conway children were re-admitted to the workhouse, this time with the notation that their father was in prison and their mother was in the hospital. They were released on the 17th of June and it is likely that they simply lived on the streets until the police picked them up that October.
If your Irish ancestors hail from the west coast of Ireland between 1821 and 1874, the Poverty Relief Loans can provide you with some insight into the economic struggles of your ancestors. A micro-credit system of loans starting at £1, these loans were guaranteed by two individuals who stood surety for the borrower and were usually repaid either weekly or monthly. No interest was charged, but there was a penalty for being late, usually a fine of one additional payment amount.
In August of 1841, Michael James of County Sligo borrowed four pounds, which is the equivalent of about $1300 today. He began repaying the loan the following week, making weekly payments of four shillings ($65) over the next 20 weeks. Michael missed the payment due on the 4th of November and he paid the overdue four shillings plus the four shillings that were due on the 11th, in addition to an eight shilling fine. This system encouraged borrowers to take only as much as they needed and allowed them about five months to repay the loans. Borrowers were permitted to take out a new loan after the previous one had been repaid.
Not everyone repaid their loans and sometimes the loans were made improperly, as was the case for Terrance McGowan who borrowed nine pounds on the 7th of August 1841. However, only one man signed as the guarantor of the loan. The loan was not repaid. An 1853 investigation of unpaid loans in County Sligo revealed that Terrance was “a farmer in good circumstances.” The man who stood as surety for the loan had immigrated to the United States in the intervening years.
Although it is never pleasant to discover that our ancestors were poor, abandoned, or forced to borrow smalls sums of money to be able to survive, using Deserted Children Dublin, Dublin Workhouses Admission & Discharge Registers 1840-1919, and Ireland, Poverty Relief Loans 1821-1874 can provide insight into the difficulties our Irish ancestors endured.
Whether your family still resides in Ireland, or if your ancestors emigrated as so many others did, our experts are ready to help you learn more about your Irish heritage. Contact us for a free consultation.