The Irish in America


The Killarney Workhouse: Through the Eyes of the Guardians

I am always on the look-out for interesting resources for researching the Irish in America. This week I learned of a fantastic collection of art and literature devoted to Ireland’s Great Hunger – An Gorta Mór.

The Quinnipiac University collection contains over 700 rare volumes (both Famine-era accounts and present-day scholarship) as well as archival records and visual arts. Check out the this introductory video to learn more about the collection.

The most interesting feature of the collection is available to view online: the minute books of the Killarney Union Workhouse have been scanned and transcribed, providing a glimpse into the operation of an Irish workhouse during the Famine. Included are four years (1845-48) of the weekly meetings of the Board of Guardians.

A scanned image of the meeting minutes (PDF) is accompanied by an abstract of the business conducted. In some ways, the minutes read like those of any other organization. The abstracts typically contain:

  • How many individuals applied for entrance and how many were rejected in the previous week.
  • Estimated rations required for upcoming week.
  • Open positions, offers, salaries, etc.
  • Building projects, financing, and budget issues.

But then you read the discussion of setting a boundary to the workhouse land nine feet beyond the “dead house” and about the “violent and disruptive conduct of a pauper named Ellen Connell, who tore the clothing issued to her, and who, it was feared, would corrupt the female paupers with whom she would have contact” (July 9, 1845) and you are reminded of the grim realities of life in the workhouse. Ellen’s fate is contemplated by the Board in subsequent weeks and at one point she is placed in the Idiot Ward.

There is much information to be found in these minutes. You can see how the British government addressed the Famine through the letters from the Commissioners which are read at the meetings. These letters give instructions to the Guardians on how to operate their Workhouse in accordance with the Relief Laws of the time.

These minutes are valuable to the genealogist or family historian since many names are mentioned in the minutes – inmates, Guardians, local craftsmen, and Workhouse employees. If your ancestors came from the Killarney Union, perhaps you will come across a familiar name? Some examples:

  • November 4, 1847: Workhouse apothecary is Mr. David O’Sullivan
  • December 6, 1847: Storekeeper Michael Hogan and pauper Thomas Howard are involved in an escape
  • 1848 Board of Guardians include: N.A. Herbert, N. Leahy, F. Bland, D.S. Lawlor, M. Brennan, D.J. Moynihan, J.S. Lawlor
  • And let’s not forget the violent inmate Ellen Connell (plus many more names appear throughout the minutes)

When the Killarney workhouse opened in the Autumn of 1845, it was months before the first inmate was admitted. By April 19, 1847 there were 900 paupers at the workhouse and the Board held a special meeting to proclaim that no more would be admitted that day. By April 15, 1848, there were 1243 inmates at the Killarney workhouse, occupying the dormitories, makeshift infirmaries, and converted sheds and outbuildings.

Please visit Peter Higginbotham’s Workhouse website for more information on the Killarney workhouse. Included are several photographs of the present-day (2002) Workhouse buildings.

Interested in a workhouse in your ancestor’s part of the Ireland? Click here to find a comprehensive list of workhouses located in Ireland during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Special thanks to Regan for telling me about the An Gorta Mór collection at Quinnipiac University!



Ireland Continues to Reach Out to Diaspora

Henry Ford, Jr. and Bill Clinton have theirs. So does Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly. Do you want one, too?

The Irish Government launched the Certificate of Irish Heritage program this past Autumn. All you need to do is submit your application with proof you have an Irish ancestor and $75 and you will receive your choice of three certificate designs. The certificate is also available in Spanish, English, or Irish.

The Certificate of Irish Heritage website describes the key element of the application as the ancestor document – “a document which identifies the recipient’s ancestor as Irish or as being born in Ireland.”

The documentation should be relatively simple for most people seeking a certificate to obtain (many most likely already have it.) The Irish government will accept birth, marriage, and death certificates or census records, from any country as proof of Irish ancestry.

If you have trouble pinning down an ancestor of Irish origin, the website offers links to professional genealogists who are ready to help you locate the necessary documentation.

Tip: You can save $ if you purchase multiple certificates at the same time. Get your entire family on board and organized and order your certificates together. You will save time by only compiling the appropriate documents and research once. Obtaining the Certificate of Irish Heritage could be part of your next family reunion or holiday get-together.

What do you think of this certificate? Will you apply for one? Please leave a comment…I would love to hear your thoughts!

Are your Irish roots in North Kerry? Yes? Then you are in luck!

I recently became aware of another Reaching Out initiative in Ireland. This time it is North Kerry looking to connect with members of the diaspora back to their region.

They have a great website offering assistance to those tracing their roots to North Kerry and providing local historical and current events information.

The following parishes of North Kerry are participating in the NKRO effort: Listowel, Ballyduff, Lisselton/Ballydonoghue, Ballybunion, Asdee, Ballylongford, Tarbert, Duagh, Lyreacrompane, Lixnaw, Moyvane/ Newtownsandes, Knockanure, Finuge, and Kilflynn.

Any of these places sound familiar? I bet the folks at NKRO would love to hear from you!


This Old Farmhouse

The first time I visited Ireland in 1988, I was struck by the number of derelict farmhouses dotting the countryside. “Why doesn’t someone just tear those old houses down?” I wondered. “That’s what we do in the good ol’ USA…we don’t leave houses to fall down on themselves. If we don’t want or need them, we get rid of them and build something new and better…”

Abandoned house near Ballyedmond, County Laois (all photos by Regan McCormack)

This sentiment came from a teenage girl from the city who spent more time in the countryside during six weeks in Ireland than she had in sixteen years back home – in the “good ol’ USA”. I thought I was so smart…

Fast-forward twenty years and I am closer to home, driving the country roads of Tara Township, crisscrossing its thirty-six square miles in Swift County, Minnesota. My maternal great-great-grandparents were among the pioneer 1870s settlers of this township on the vast prairie of Western Minnesota. This was my first visit to Tara. I had traveled three thousand miles from home on a number of occasions to visit Ireland, my “ancestral homeland”, yet I had never bothered to drive a few hours west to see where my people settled when they came to Minnesota.

Granted, as far as vacation destinations are concerned, Ireland is a bit more attractive than Western Minnesota, but it turns out, the two places have some things in common.

There are the obvious similarities in place names in this part of Minnesota. Bishop John Ireland established several colonies of Irish Catholic settlers with names like Avoca, Kildare, Tara, and Clontarf. Hundreds of Irish families from cities and communities in the Eastern United States seized the opportunity to own land and live in a community with its own church and priest, surrounded by fellow Irish Catholics.

The Depression came early to rural communities and persistent crop failures and changing farming practices combined to make farming unviable for most small farmers. My relatives moved to Minneapolis, as did several other Tara families. Some of the original Irish settlers had left Tara even earlier, moving further West, always in search of better land.

So, I wonder why I was surprised to find this in Tara Township?

Section 22 of Tara Township – the McMahon place

On nearly every section of land in the township stands an abandoned farmhouse, or at least a grove of trees planted by the original settlers to protect a house. And this in the “good ol’ USA” where we tear things down!

Folks in Ireland and Tara Township have the same reaction when I ask them why they don’t simply tear down the abandoned houses. They shrug and say that they are no bother and they can be used for storage. That is the practical response, but I wonder if there is something a bit more sentimental lurking beneath?

The abandoned houses got me thinking…A similar hopelessness that drove millions of Irish to America during the 19th and 20th centuries could be seen in rural Americans who fled the farm for the city in the 1920s. Major difference, of course, is there was not a famine like Ireland experienced, however there was tremendous poverty, crops failed miserably, families were split up, and life changed permanently and dramatically.

I am rather ashamed of my sixteen-year-old self for not being as smart as she thought she was. She should have realized that the same reason this stands today in Ireland…

Near Ballyedmond, County Laois – 2011

might be why this…

Cahir Castle, Tipperary – 2011

and this…

Rock of Dunamase, County Laois – 2011

and this…

Johnstown, County Kildare – 2009

are still here today. I doubt that the farmhouse ruins will have the staying power of the castles and abbeys of centuries gone by, but in the meantime they can remind us from where we came. Whether it is a farmhouse in Ireland or Tara Township, Minnesota.

Now, if I could only get Jimmy to fix up this old house…

Two Jimmy McCormacks at old family house in Ballyedmond – 2009