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!


Author: Aine

I live in Saint Paul, Minnesota. My heritage pretty much covers the map of Ireland: great-great-grandparents from Cork (Crowley, Foley, Regan), a great-great-grandmother from Clare (Quinn), a great-great-grandfather from Fermanagh (McMahon) and his wife's parents from Mayo (McAndrew), a great-grandmother from Connemara (Hannon) married to my great-grandfather from Laois (McCormack), great-grandparents from Sligo (Flannery), and a great-grandmother from Kildare (Hill). All of those people ended up in Minnesota, where my four grandparents were born. Three and four generations after my people left Ireland for America, I retain all Irish heritage. So much for the melting pot...

2 thoughts on “The Killarney Workhouse: Through the Eyes of the Guardians

  1. Great post Aine. It is easy for us to forget the horror the British orchestrated in the adempted genocide of the Irish People. There is an outstanding documentary by Radharc Films titled “When Ireland Starved” An Gorta Mor. It is available at Amazon:

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