Chronicles Insight - From Workhouse to Other Worlds

Thursday, 11 June, 2020
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Since launching our Workhouses project on IrelandXO, we have seen a great number of you connecting Ancestors with the Workhouses of Ireland. All 163 Union Workhouses are now on our website, and you can link your ancestor directly to the relevant building. It has been wonderful for us to see the human stories of these feared institutions being brought to light at last. Here are just a few of the incredible stories that you have been sharing with us.

Chronicles Insight - From Workhouse to Other Worlds

Bridget Kirby - Kilmacthomas Workhouse

Bridget Kirby was born in Knockmahon, County Waterford in 1856. When she was a child, Bridget’s father migrated to America, leaving his wife and three children in the Kilmacthomas Union Workhouse. In 1868 he sent home money for Bridget’s mother and brother to join him in America. Bridget, then aged 12, and her younger brother stayed in the Workhouse for another year until the family could save enough money to reunite in the United States. 

When she was 16 years old, Bridget eloped with James Earls with whom she lived in Nevada. James worked in mining and the couple had 10 children, though 2 did not survive until adulthood. After moving around for a number of years the family finally settled in Salt Lake City, Utah. This was where they were living when Bridget died of pneumonia in 1925 just a month short of turning 69.

Eliza Dooley - Birr Workhouse

Eliza Dooley was born in Kilcolman, County Offaly in 1832. After the death of her father in 1847, Eliza found herself in the Birr Union Workhouse. She was not alone, her sister Catherine was also in there with her. In 1852 the two Dooley sisters made their way to Australia on board the Tippoo Saib. Their voyage was funded as part of the Earl Grey Scheme, a system that was devised to take young orphan girls from the Workhouses in England and Ireland, and send them to the colonies in Australia where there was a shortage of women. The Earl Grey Girls were orphans aged between 14 and 18, though many girls lied about their age or their parentage in order to be considered for the scheme. For example, Eliza and Catherine’s ages at the time of their migration were listed as 17 and 15 respectively, though other records have shown different ages for them.

When she arrived in Australia, Eliza found work as a Nursemaid. She lived in Urulla, New South Wales and married a, English man named John Blanch with whom she had 13 children and owned an inn. Eliza lived to the age of 80.

Catherine Williams - Rathdown Workhouse

Catherine was born in 1838 in Killiney, County Dublin. In 1848, at the age of 10, she was admitted to the Rathdown Union Workhouse, one of four Workhouses in County Dublin. Her father, James and brother John also entered the Workhouse. Due to the gender and age segregation within the Workhouse system, the day they arrived at the Rathdown Workhouse may very well have been the last time that they saw one another. 

Ten years later, in 1858 Catherine migrated to Australia. She settled in Adelaide, where, in 1865 she married Andes Peter Johnson. Due to her young age at the time of her migration, it is likely that she, like Eliza and Catherine Dooley, was part of the Earl Grey Scheme. Catherine died in Port Adelaide in 1928 at the age of 70. 

These three women are just a small sample of the many souls which passed through the Union Workhouses of Ireland between the years of the early 1840’s to the early 1920’s. Inmates, staff, suppliers, infirmary patients, and even children born in the lying-in hospitals make up the wide array of Irish ancestors with a connection to the Workhouses. If you have a Workhouse story in your family history then we would love to hear it so that these people who endured unthinkable hardships can be remembered and documented for future generations. 

Though these buildings were often a source of fear for the people of Ireland, particularly during the years of devastating hunger in the mid 1840s, it must also be noted that this period in Irish history, though undoubtedly tragic, has helped to shape the face of the world, creating our wonderful global diaspora. The women discussed here all lived much longer than could have been expected had they remained in the Workhouse system. The Earl Grey Scheme discussed here is just one of a number of assisted migration schemes that saw entire communities relocate to Canada, The United States, South America, Australia, and New Zealand. The migration of these Irish men, women and children, whether by choice or coercion, gave them a second chance at life. The extensive emigration which occurred during this era has given us a global community which stretches out from our small island to all corners of the earth. 


Click on the images to learn more about the entries that inspired this Chronicles Insight.

Bridget Kirby 1856

Bridget Kirby 1856

Kilmacthomas Workhouse

Kilmacthomas Workhouse


Eliza Dooley

Eliza Dooley 1832

Birr Workhouse

Birr Workhouse


Catherine Williams 1838

Catherine Williams 1838

Rathdown Workhouse

Rathdown Workhouse


Have you an ancestor who was an inmate or had other associations with an Irish Workhouse? Did you know you can link their profile directly to that building on the XO Chronicles? Follow our step-by-step video to learn how.


If you haven't already added your ancestor, do so today and connect with people in their Civil Parish of origin and also those descended from the same place living all over the world today!