The Irish in America

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Irish Workhouse Centre

Wondering what’s been happening at the Irish Workhouse CentreClick here for the very latest on the Portumna, County Galway, Ireland workhouse restoration and redevelopment.

I first learned about the Irish Workhouse Centre on Loretto Leary’s fantastic website, Breise! Breise! Loretto has written several articles on the project, as well as conducted interviews with the folks involved – see it all here.

The inaugural newsletter of the Irish Workhouse Centre is full of great information, including an article on the Female Orphan Scheme which sent orphaned girls from the workhouse to Australia.

As an introduction to Irish workhouses, the following historical tidbit appears in the newsletter:

Did you know that 163 workhouses were built in
total in Ireland? 112 were built from 1839 to
1842. It must have been a strange sight at the
time to witness all these huge, foreboding
buildings springing up in the main towns.
All the workhouses were designed by George
Wilkinson. The workhouses were built by private
contract and would have taken about two years to

Psst…if you haven’t read it yet, the September issue of Irish Lives Remembered Genealogy Magazine is available (and free!) online. Click here to view and be sure to check out the article on page 26.



Interested in County Cork? Check out CCCA!

Bells of Shandon, Cork City (photo by R. McCormack)

The Cork City and County Archives (CCCA) is home to an impressive collection of manuscripts, government records, business archives, and family papers pertaining to Cork City and county. If you trace your Irish ancestry to County Cork and are interested in learning more about the place from which your family came, a visit to the CCCA website is definitely in order.

Warning: Once you begin browsing the collections you might not be able to stop!

The Online Exhibitions page is a great place to start your tour of the CCCA collections, with a sampling of images of documents spanning over four-hundred years. On the right side of the home page you will find a Document Spotlight section, click on it and a description of the document and its collection is provided.

The Collections page is well-organized, making it easy to search the collections either alphabetically or by archive category. I was interested in looking up the Hurley Family Emigrant Letters, a collection my sister had told me about. The letters were written by brothers Denis and Michael Hurley to their family in Tawnies, Cork. Michael and Denis emigrated in 1870, settling in Nevada.

I easily located a description of the letters through the alphabetical list. The descriptive list of the Hurley Letters provides all the information you would want to see – biographical history, scope and content of the collection, how it is arranged, and detailed descriptions of the 122 letters from the brothers, as well as a few other items included in the collection. (Note that the descriptive lists for each collection are PDFs which can be easily downloaded or printed by the researcher.)

Fascinating collection of letters, shedding light on the experiences of Irish immigrants in the Western United States. Too often when people think about the Irish in America, they focus only on New York City and Boston, forgetting that Irish immigrants were among the pioneer settlers of the American West during the nineteenth century.

More great items in the CCCA collections are the Poor Law Union, Board of Guardians records. You will find detailed descriptions of the records for fourteen Poor Law Unions in County Cork under the Local Government Archives section. A couple of my maternal great-great-grandfathers emigrated from Kilmichael Parish, Cork in the Dumanway Poor Law Union. A click of the mouse brings me to the descriptive list of the Board of Guardians minute books for Dumanway, allowing me a glimpse at life in my ancestor’s home place at the time they were born.

Kilmichael Parish, County Cork (photo by R. McCormack)

The Genealogy page presents guidance and resources for family historians and genealogists interested in using the archive, pointing to the Digital Archive for those unable to make the trip to Cork.

Take a look around the Cork City and County Archives – terrific website and fabulous collections. But don’t say I didn’t warn you…you might be there a while!

Cobh, County Cork (photo by R. McCormack)


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 Reaching Out, Portumna Workhouse, and a Family Reunion

Journalist Loretto Leary has written several articles, as well as conducted interviews, about the Portuma workhouse in South East Galway and posted them on her website Breise! Breise! (Extra! Extra!).  We have heard quite a bit about the South East Galway region recently for its participation in the Week of Welcomes, the pilot program of Ireland Reaching Out.  Local Portumna historian John Joe Conwell ties the workhouse, emigration, and the Ireland Reaching Out initiative together very nicely in Part 2 of the Irish Workhouse Center video (which appears midway down the page.)

Ursula Marmion is the project head of the Irish Workhouse Centre in Portumna.  It is an exciting and ambitious project to conserve the buildings, establish a visitor’s center, and tackle future redevelopment.  Ms. Marmion shares her thoughts in Part 1 and Part 2 of Irish Workhouse Center.  Videos and articles can be found on Loretto Leary’s site.  When you are finished with the Irish Workhouse information, take a spin around the rest of her insightful blog.  Thanks to Noreen Bowden (@noreenbowden) who introduced me to Loretto’s blog via a tweet yesterday.  Click here for a few photos of the Portumna workhouse.

More than simply a family reunion, the Irish Times calls the meeting of over 300 members of the McNamara clan in Loughrea, Galway the McNamara Festival!  This ambitious endeavor was inspired by the Ireland Reaching Out program, now perhaps it will inspire you to plan your own family reunion.  I am more than happy to help spread the word and help track down American relatives.  Leave a comment if you have ever considered organizing an Irish family reunion.