The Poor Law was an attempt to come to terms with some of the problems arising out of widespread poverty in Ireland in the early 19th century by providing institutional relief for the destitute. The Irish Poor Law Act of 1838, heavily influenced by an English Act of 1834, divided the country initially into one hundred and thirty poor law unions each with a workhouse at its centre. Each union was administered by a board of poor law guardians, some of whom were elected and some appointed from the local magistracy. The system was originally designed to accommodate 1% of the population or 80,000 people but, by March 1851, famine had driven almost 4% of the population into the workhouses. As the 19th century progressed the poor law unions were given many additional functions, particularly in relation to health, housing and sanitation.
Under the Local Government Act, 1898, the poor law unions lost some of their housing and sanitation functions to newly established rural district councils, but remained responsible for poor relief. The early 1920s saw the abolition of poor law unions in the south of Ireland (with the exception of Dublin) and the closure of workhouses to reduce costs. Some workhouses were burned during the War of Independence and Civil War while others were converted into county homes or district hospitals.
There was hardly a facet of Irish life at local level upon which the poor law did not impinge and the records are one of the most important primary sources into life in Ireland from the early 19th to the early 20th centuries.
In general, the minute books of poor law unions have a reasonably good survival rate, but it is unusual for other records to survive in quantity. However, some of the poor law collections held by the National Archives are remarkable for the range of records which they contain. The National Archives holds several very complete collections of workhouse records relating to the North Dublin Union, South Dublin Union, and Rathdown Union (part of counties Dublin and Wicklow). As well as minute books, these collections include indoor registers which give the names and personal details of those entering the workhouse, as well as a wide variety of other records.
The National Archives also holds smaller collections relating to Balrothery Union (part of county Dublin), Bawnboy Union (part of county Cavan), Dromore West Union (part of county Sligo; on microfilm only) and Lismore Union (part of county Waterford). The National Archives also holds orders made by Poor Law Commissioners and Local Government Board (1839–1921) and files of the Dail Eireann Department of Local Government (1919–1923).