Saturday, 24 May 2014

Ending up in the Workhouse!

John Donovan died in the workhouse. My great-great-grandfather was stated as being just forty-nine years old when he passed away, on 20 August 1875, in the North Dublin Union Workhouse.  He died of chronic phthisis, or tuberculosis, having being ill for ‘some time’ and was buried in a pauper’s grave in the Garden section of Glasnevin Cemetery.Isn’t that just really sad? 

The ‘Register of Admission and Discharge’ for this workhouse is held on microfilm in the National Archives of Ireland and on a visit to the archives, I found John’s record. He had spent only his last eleven days there, just going in to die.2  The workhouse register shows the following information:

Pauper number:
Pauper’s name and surname:
Donovan, John
Religious denomination:
Condition of pauper when admitted:       
Clothes, middling
Electoral division and townland in which resident:
Dublin, 5 M. Gard’r St., S City.
Date admitted:
9 Aug’t 1875
Date discharged:
20 Aug’t 1875, Died.

Transcription of the North Dublin Union Workhouse,
Register of admission and discharge, John Donovan, 1875

Workhouses in Ireland were known, and are still remembered, as places of last resort. In Dublin city, conditions were designed to be even worse than those in its infamous tenement houses, as the government wanted to discourage anyone from merely seeking a free-ride. The Irish Poor Inquiry of 1836 had recommended against this English ‘determent’ system, advising that it was not appropriate in Ireland, but it prevailed nevertheless.3 By the 1870s, Dublin had some alternatives to the workhouse, including the Night Asylum on Bow Street. This was preferred by the poor. In 1874, the year before John died, the Night Asylum catered for 62,611 people, compared to only 6,548 admittances in the North Dublin workhouse.4

However, by enabling the admittance of the sick poor, legislation in 1862 had basically led to the conversion of workhouse infirmaries into ‘general hospitals’. Thus, workhouses began catering for people who became too ill to remain in the care of their families.5 Possibly, John Donovan was there seeking medical attention,  not poor relief.

So, why was his death in the workhouse so disconcerting?  Perhaps, I experienced the very dread that my ancestors felt on John’s entry to the workhouse, a feeling so acute it somehow got passed down through the generations and is still remembered today.

1 Copy death register, John Donovan, 1875, General Register Office; Burial register, grave V 72.5 Garden, Glasnevin Trust (subscription).
2 Register of admission and discharge of the North Dublin Union Workhouse, National Archives of Ireland, NAI/BG/78.
3 Third report of the commissioners for inquiring into the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland, H.C. 1836 (43).
4 Georgina Laragy, ‘Poor relief in the south of Ireland, 1850-1921’ in Virginia Crossman and Peter Gray, eds, Poverty and welfare in Ireland 1838-1948 (Dublin, 2011), p. 60. 
5 The Poor Relief (Ireland) Act, 1862, accessed 19 May 2014.

© 2014 Black Raven Genealogy


  1. Dara, while I'm just now struggling with the unexplained disappearance of some of my motherless Irish immigrant Stevens ancestors, I often wonder if they met up with a fate such as this. Those who were destitute, with no place to turn, had precious few options, whether on your side of the Atlantic or mine.

    I can easily believe you when you mention that sense of dread, passed down through the generations. Our family had one member who endured "transportation" to the Australian penal colony well over one hundred years ago, yet I can still remember seeing an older uncle--three generations removed from this "convict"--still hang his head in shame over the thought of a family member being a "criminal." Values and traditions were so different back then. It is a real eye opener to the hardships our Irish ancestors faced.

  2. Thanks Jacqi, you’re right, times were very different. It is sometimes hard to imagine what people in the past must have thought and felt. Best of luck finding your Steven’s immigrants.


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