Poor Law Unions and their Records

Poor Law Unions and their Records by Dr. Raymond Gillespie outlines the events leading to the creation of workhouses in Ireland, describes the running of daily life in the workhouse and the records of this which still survive today.

Before the nineteenth century, local government in Ireland was carried on by two main institutions. Each county had a Grand Jury which was responsible for the maintenance of roads

Taylor and Skinner road map (Mayo Co.)

Detail from map of Castlebar-Ballinrobe road from "Maps of the Roads of Ireland" by George Taylor and Andrew Skinner, first published 1778.

  and bridges and the provision of county hospitals. It did this by raising a local tax called the county cess, the calculation of which was different in each county.

At a more local level the parishes of the Established Church (also known as civil parishes) were the basis of other aspects of local administration. Parishes were responsible for poor relief, graveyards, education, sanitation and the enforcement of law and order.

In a few places, such as Belfast, where the Church of Ireland was weak, voluntary societies such as the Belfast Charitable Society provided local facilities such as the poor house, graveyards and water supply. In other large cities such as Dublin the corporation provided some local poor relief services.


At the beginning of the nineteenth century the London government instituted a series of reforms in the government of Ireland. One key strategy was to take responsibility for local administration out of the hands of local gentry and the church, and to establish Boards of Commissioners to run such services. Most significant in this context was the reorganisation of the Board of Works in 1831 and the establishment of the Commissioners for National Education in the same year.

A range of government-sponsored inquiries were also undertaken in the 1830s into various aspects of Irish life, including that on Municipal Corporations. On 25 September 1833 a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the condition of the poor in Ireland. The extensive report (generally known as the Poor Enquiry), with a large number of detailed appendices, setting out the evidence that had been collected, was presented to parliament and debated in May 1836. The report contains a great deal of local data for all parts of Ireland and is probably the single most important historical source for social conditions in Ireland before the Famine.

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