Saturday 16 May 2015

Saturday's Genealogy Story: Our Family in Crisis

My great-great-grandfather, John Donovan, spent the last eleven days of his life in the North Dublin Union Workhouse, possibly in the infirmary, before dying of tuberculosis on 20 August 1875. When first discovered, this was the single saddest revelation of my genealogy research and really drove home just how hard life was for our ancestors.  But, the predicament the Donovan family found themselves in, in 1875, was even worse than I had imagined then. This was truly a family in crisis.

According to his death register, Thomas Donovan, the man I suspect was John’s father, also died in the North Dublin Union Workhouse, just a few months after John. But, unlike John, I found no trace of Thomas in the workhouse admission register, when I searched it on microfilms at the National Archives. And, one day last year, I searched for Thomas until my head hurt, watching the pages whiz across the screen, trying in vain to find any mention of his name.

Now, these registers have been digitised and made available online and the admittance record for Thomas was instantly apparent.  Aged eighty-five years on 20 March 1875, Thomas Donovan, a widower, was admitted to the workhouse, where he was to die of ‘debility’, some months later, on 13 October 1875. His admittance set in motion a chain of events that had devastating consequences for his family.

Thomas entered the workhouse just one month before John Donovan was convicted of larceny. John was then sentenced to serve six months hard labour in the Richmond (Bridewell) Penitentiary. The date Thomas entered the workhouse provides a likely explanation as to why my great-great-grandfather was tempted to commit such a crime. It is not hard to imagine him being desperate to provide for his aged father in the final months of his life and maybe feeling he had no alternatives, especially as it turns out John himself was terminally ill.

As it now transpires, Thomas was not the only member of the Donovan family to suffer when John was imprisoned. John’s wife died of tuberculosis two years previously, but the newly indexed records revealed an Alice Donovan entered the workhouse on 28 April 1875, the week after John’s arrest. Alice was a spinster and worked as a servant, though her clothes were described as ‘bad’ when she entered the workhouse.

Alice was of the right age to have been John’s sister. He was forty-nine years old at the time, while she was said to have been fifty. Maybe they were not siblings, but they were likely closely related, for they lived together in the same house. Alice was living at ‘121 L[ower] Gloucester Street’ at the time she was admitted to the workhouse, and John’s address was given as ‘121 L Gloster Street’ when he was arrested, both spelling variations for the same place.

This was seemingly the Donovan family home around this time. John’s daughter, Mary Agnes Donovan, lived at 121 Gloucester St L when she married my great-grandfather, Charles O'Neill, in April 1874. Thomas lived at number 95 L Gloucester Street when he entered the workhouse. Three days after his admittance, Mary Agnes gave birth to her first son at number 116, just a few doors down. It’s hard to believe the similarity of all their addresses was pure chance.

Alice presumably lost her home when John was arrested and had nowhere else to go. I don't know if she was sick at the time, but she never did get out of the place. The poor woman lived in the awful conditions of the workhouse for a year and ten months before her death, on 22 January 1877.  Although, John's prison sentence was reduced, by order of the Lord Lieutenant, he died in the month following his release and never got a chance to re-establish his household.

From a map of Dublin City, 1885* 

Source: Thomas Donovan, 1875 and Alice Donovan, 1875, Poor law records of North Dublin Poor Law Union, 1840-1918, workhouse admission and discharge records, Book 29 (18 January 1871) Book 32 (10 May 1875), item 4, FindMyPast (subscription site),  citing 'Register of admission and discharge of the North Dublin Union Workhouse', NAI/BG/78/, National Archives of Ireland.

* Excerpt from the Map of Dublin City, 1885, courtesy of

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© 2015 Black Raven Genealogy


    1. Dara, an excellent post illustrating an incredibly sad situation, as Thomas Donovan’s admittance to the workhouse set off a disastrous chain of events for his family.

      In my own research in the autumn of 2011, after acquiring the death registration for my great-grandfather Francis Ball, which named his place of death as the SDU workhouse, I consulted the registers of the South Dublin Union workhouse at the National Archives.

      Francis Ball, one in a line of four generations of successful carpenters, was married with five children, two of whom were apprenticed to him. They had a relatively good life. Then the hand of fate tipped against him. Committed to the workhouse infirmary on three separate occasions, for ‘nervous disorders’, he finally died there in the summer of 1909.

    2. Thank you Jennifer, your comments are much appreciated.

      The initial shock I experienced at finding my ancestors in the workhouse is intriguing, especially as I actually knew very little about the history of Irish Poor Law at the time. It’s quite fascinating how a collective memory of dread survives in Irish culture, obviously still being passed from one generation to the next.

      The inescapable reality is the old, the young and the sick had nowhere else to go, when their families were no longer able to care for them, but it’s especially sad now, knowing they were deliberately designed to be intolerable.

    3. What a tragic story Dara, those poor people trapped in circumstances beyond their control; and surprisingly you will find that same collective memory of dread on this side of the ocean in Irish families, I've certainly seen it in mine.

    4. I'm not surprised, Ellie, if it endures for generations, what are a few miles.


    I'd love to hear your thoughts on this!