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Workhouse. It’s a word that conjures up horror in Irish stories, a place of no escape, of utter destitution. The Irish are a proud people and the thought that your ancestors, your people, had been forced to accept the deprivation and tyranny of the workhouse was too much. During Ireland’s War of Independence, squads of rebels would burst into the old workhouse buildings to torch the records, so that any evidence of their families past shame were destroyed. Long after they were closed down the memory of the workhouse lingered on as a bogeyman to keep the kids quiet. They were grim places, there’s no doubt about that.

The oldest and the youngest found their way into Dublin’s workhouses because there was nowhere else to go. They came to those forbidding buildings because they had no one to look after them. Some of them were in need of medical attention, others just needed a roof over their heads, food in their stomachs. These were the people who the workhouses were built for. There were a lot of poor in 19th century Ireland and Dublin was where many of them came to. You can find their stories exclusively on Findmypast in the records of four Dublin workhouses. With over 1,500,000 admission and discharge records and 900,000 records from the meetings of the Boards of Guardians you will be able to uncover details of some of the poorest, most vulnerable people in the country over an 80 year period. These are the people who tend to leave no traces in recorded history, the forgotten members of society, the silent.

Life in the workhouse was intentionally hard for the inmates. Families were separated and food was only marginally better than the starvation rations they had eaten on the outside. Days rocked between gruelling work and endless boredom where anger and spite could become sport. Even in these conditions love sometimes flourished. The Board of Guardian minute books sometimes record the marriage banns of couples who had managed to come together despite rigid separation. Couples like William Field and Maria Leech or James Whelan and Mary Manning found love in 1850 in the South Dublin union workhouse.

These are just some of the stories that you can find in the Dublin Workhouse Admission and Discharge books and the Dublin Board of Guardians minute books now available to search on Findmypast. Given how precarious life could be in the 19th century, who will you find in there?

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