The Parsonstown (Birr) Union collection covers a large range of records from various different institutions, documenting various different local government and institutional functions. The collection has been sub-divided online into specific areas to make the material more accessible, and includes board of guardians minute books, (1839 – 1921), rough minute books, (1851 – 1884), a repayment of relief volume, (1854 – 1911), one rent book, (1888 – 1899), one document relating to the King’s County Directory, (1891), one Kinnitty dispensary residences lease, (1896), workhouse records, (1842 – 1912), two financial minute books, (1910 – 1915), and one dispensary district ledger, (1916 – 1931).
Parsonstown’s Poor Law Union was formed in 1839, and it existed as the main branch of administration for the region. The union covered 234 square miles, and contained twenty nine elected board of guardians for twenty one electoral divisions. The Irish poor law system served as the only form of government created welfare for the care of the poor and destitute, which continued into the start of the twentieth century. The union’s board of guardians were responsible for overseeing several functions of local government, primarily the care of the poor, including the setting up, financing and running of the workhouse, the creation of dispensary districts, assisted migration and outdoor relief. The poor relief provided by the union was funded by the poor rate, and the poor law system became heavily relied upon during the nineteenth century, particularly during the famine years. The minute books, rough minute books and financial minute books included in the collection help to document the various functions of the union, including its responsibilities towards the local workhouse.
The Parsonstown workhouse was constructed half a mile away from Parsonstown, on a seven acre site, and it opened in April of 1842. Its creation was the responsibility of the Poor Law Commissioner’s, and its design was the work of George Wilkinson. Wilkinson served as the architect for the Irish Poor Law Commission, during which time he helped to construct numerous Irish workhouses, after the creation of several English workhouses, and he was also responsible for the construction of a number of Irish railway stations. Parsonstown’s poor law guardians, responsible for overseeing the function of the workhouse, were unusual in that they were the only Leinster guardians who decided against providing outdoor relief after 1847. This decision meant that the workhouse faced significant overcrowding during the height of the famine – there were over 3,000 inmates at the facility in May 1849, in an institution which was originally designed to accommodate 800. This overcrowding led to a high mortality rate, particularly amongst children, which was made worse by the frequent shortages of clothing, staff and beds. Inmates who required medical treatment were taken to the workhouse’s infirmary, where illnesses ranged from cancer, heart disease to fever, and various poisonous or potentially harmful treatments were used to cure them, such as mercury, nitric acid, silver nitrate – oftentimes without success. Interestingly, the workhouse infirmary was a point of contention for the union’s board of guardians, with concerns over spending on food for patients. Issues such as these worsened during times of hardship such as the famine, and details of these are covered in the Parsonstown board of guardians minute book sub-collection. The collection also features registers of admittances and discharges to and from the workhouse between the years of 1842, 1843, 1849, 1850 and 1912, and these help to form a valuable resource for charting the institution’s inmates during the worst years of the famine.
This collection also contains documents from Parsonstown’s dispensary district – these districts were initially created in 1805 by an act of parliament, and were overseen by poor law union board of guardians, providing medicine and medical advice to the poor in each region. Dispensaries were the subject of criticism in some areas, for example, in neighbouring County Meath, the Irish Poor Inquiry of 1835 discovered that the county had nineteen dispensaries – amounting to one for every 9306 people. By 1851, dispensaries included a dispensary medical officer, through the Medical Charities Act, who were responsible for providing medical help to the poor, often covering large areas for low pay. Parsonstown’s dispensary district also witnessed large numbers of patients, regularly providing care for thousands in the area. The collection includes a dispensary district ledger, covering the years 1916 to 1931 – towards the end of the dispensary district system, as well as leases relating to dispensary residences in Kinnitty, from 1896. These particular residences were rented from a prominent local land owner, Captain Caulfield French, (owner of Kinnitty Castle), which demonstrates the role played by Ireland’s landed gentry class in supporting the local poor through philanthropic acts.
Also included is material, taken from old union board of guardians minute books, connected to the creation of the King’s County Directory – this 1890 publication was created to offer a detailed account of County Offaly’s (formerly King’s County) local political organisations, as well as providing historical information about notable local figures and places, lists of ratepayers and municipal voters, and served as one of the most detailed and informative accounts of Offaly history.
Erin Sears, Archivist
Thanks to the Heritage Council for continued support of the IAR