The population of Ireland increased remarkably during the century prior to the Great Famine, rising from just over 3 million in 1735 to 8.2 million in 1841. As the population increased social conditions deteriorated and many people became destitute. To add to the widespread wretchedness, there were several periods of dire famine between 1800 and 1833, and frequent fever epidemics.
In England, the Poor Law Amendment Act (commonly referred to as the New Poor Law) was passed in August 1834. This act offered relief to persons with no means of support, only on admission to the workhouse. This was known as the "all-or-nothing principle", because the recipient either got provision for himself and his family in the workhouse or nothing at all. The second principle was known as the principle of "less eligibility". By making conditions of the workhouse "less eligible", or worse, than the conditions of the lowest paid worker outside, a man would be forced to get work rather than commit himself and his family to the harsh conditions of life in the workhouse. The application of these two principles in practice became known as "the workhouse test" and it ensured that people would only enter the workhouse if they were absolutely destitute and desperate.
Prior to 1839, Ireland had no poor law system of any kind, and with the increasing pressure of population the need for some such provision had become more and more obvious. In 1833, when the reform of the English poor-law system was being considered, the government appointed a Commission under the chairmanship of Richard Whatley, archbishop of Dublin, to enquire into the need for a system of poor-relief in Ireland. The Commissioners instituted a vigorous and exhaustive investigation and concluded that the deterrent English workhouse system, whose fundamental aim was to force the poor to find work, was totally unsuited to Ireland, as the root cause of Irish poverty was lack of employment. The Commission's proposals were hardly even considered, clashing as they did with government policy.
A new enquiry was entrusted to George Nicholls who conducted a hasty tour of the country in barely nine weeks and reported in favour of extending the English workhouse system to Ireland. His recommendation was accepted and "An Act for the more Effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland" was passed in April 1838.
The board of guardians of the Ennistymon Union met weekly in the workhouse. The minutes of these meetings exist in 147 hand written volumes and are held in Clare County Councils Archives. Here we present the first nine of those minute books, covering the period 1839 to 1850. They show the establishment and early development of the Poor Law System in North Clare and its response to the Famine. They provide detailed information on the conditions obtaining in the workhouse and in the union at large. They are also an important source material for study on the Poor Law in general.
The minute books are bound volumes measuring 23cm x 34cm. Of the nine we studied, all were in good condition, except for Book 8, which is partially damaged and illegible in sections.
Books 1 to 4 are general purpose books. Books 5 to 9 are specifically designed for minutes of meetings of boards of guardians in which meetings are allotted 10 pages, each having a printed heading or headings with a blank space underneath for the clerk's entry. The business to be considered at meetings is outlined on the title page;
"The Minute Book, in which shall be entered all Letters received from or written to the Poor Law Commissioners, minutes of all monies received and paid, all orders and cheques given, all accounts examined and allowed, all salaries ordered to be paid, as well as all other business, proceedings, and transactions of the Board of Guardians at any of their meetings. Order of the Poor Law Commissioners".
A typical meeting is outlined below. The order of business may vary slightly from book to book. Omissions and abridgements of repetitive material, made in the interest of keeping the finished work a manageable size, are noted. This material will be summarized elsewhere.
Returns of workhouse population and persons receiving outdoor relief (from book 5 onward). The detailed breakdown of workhouse population by sex and age is not reproduced but the totals are given. The total outdoor relief figures are given, but not the breakdown by relief district.
Signatures of guardians attending meeting. Names of the guardians attending each week
are not given at the beginning of each meeting, as in the original.
The workhouse register from No.-- to No.--, authenticated and signed, and likewise, from book 4 onward, the outdoor relief register.
The clerk's report on the execution of orders previously made by the board.
The treasurer's book of receipts and payments, outlining monies received and paid out during the week, the balance on the account, rates collected and outstanding, clerk's petty disbursements, cost of provisions and necessaries received and consumed, average cost of an inmate and expenditure on outdoor relief.
The master's estimate of provisions for the ensuing week has been omitted.
Cheques paid on various accounts, with names of recipients and amounts paid.
The medical officers' report outlining numbers and causes of deaths, frequently with names of sick or deceased, with comments on conditions in infirmary and fever hospitals.
The master's report on the condition of the workhouse(s) with regard to accommodation, physical conditions of buildings, discipline, clothing etc.
Sealed orders of the Poor Law Commissioners pertaining to the administration of the Poor Law.
Letters of the Poor Law Commissioners and others relating to poor law regulations, sanctioning or disapproving the board's resolutions, requesting returns of figures etc.
Resolutions of the board.
Variations in spelling have been retained.
The numbers in parentheses in the left-hand margin refer to the original page numbers on which the text appears. These are erratic in sequence in some books.
Punctuation has been added or omitted only when necessary for clarification.
Back to Introduction to Ennistymon Union Minute Books