In general, the survival of the records of the poor law unions themselves are – with some exceptions – fairly poor outside the Dublin area and usually are confined to minute books. In Dublin, the old poor law administration was less radically modified in the early 20th century and the survival of records is therefore much greater.
The records of the North and South Dublin Unions (BG 78 and BG 79) which relate to Dublin city and the records of Rathdown Union (BG 137) which cover south County Dublin and north County Wicklow, include very complete runs of indoor registers giving details of persons entering the workhouse, as well as other operational records. The North and South Dublin Unions were amalgamated in 1918 into the Dublin Union and minutes of this successor body until 1943 and its indoor registers until 1938 are held in the NAI. All the indoor registers are available for consultation but application must be made to the Director of the NAI to consult the minutes for the period 1918–1943.
The NAI also holds some records of St Kevin’s Hospital, the successor to the Dublin Union, including a fairly complete run of diagnostic registers for the period 1938–1953. The records of Rathdown Union (BG 137) constitute the largest and most representative collection of poor law records to survive in the country. The minute books run from 1839–1843, the indoor relief registers from 1841–1955 and there is a wide range of 19th and 20th century records relating to finance and relief. The collection also includes rural district council records which were responsible for sanitation and housing within their respective areas between 1899 and 1925.
Smaller collections of poor law records of medical interest include the Lismore Poor Law Union (BG 111) containing indoor registers (1906–1922) and an incomplete run of master’s journals (1848–1916); Dromore West Poor Law Union (Sligo 8) which includes minute books on microfilm for the period 1916–1920; Castlecomer Poor Law Union (BG 57) which includes a register of births (1850–1859); Kilkenny Poor Law Union (BG 101) which includes a register of births (1899–1919) and a register of successful vaccinations against smallpox for Kilkenny no. 1 dispensary district (1880–1894) and Urlingford Union (BG 159) which includes vaccination registers for Johnstown district (1864–1899) and Baleen district (1898–September 1926).
Initially transferred from the Crown and Peace offices in the 19th century and more recently from the county registrars offices, coroners’ records are a useful source of medical information. Many of the earlier records were destroyed when the Public Record Office was blown up in 1922 but some 19th century coroners’ records dating mainly from the 1880s are held in the NAI as are the Official Papers which include summary coroners’ returns, giving name of deceased, date of inquest and cause of death etc. Such data survives for most Irish counties between 1835 and 1837 and for the years 1857, 1873, 1875, 1876 and 1878 with less extensive returns from 1858 to 1863.
Twentieth-century coroners’ records also survive, with some counties being better represented than others. The most complete set of coroners’ records survive for Dublin city, namely the morgue registers for the period 1871–1933. These provide details of bodies brought to the morgue and subsequent inquests on them, in addition to registers of coroners’ inquiries and coroners’ registers from the 1890s. The former relate to cases – later called natural causes cases – where there was some initial enquiry into a death but it was later decided that an inquest was not necessary. The coroners’ registers relate to deaths for which inquests were held and files on deaths survive from the 1930s. Many of the files contain postmortem reports on the deceased and all provide a unique insight into the circumstances of an individual’s death, generally through a police report and depositions of witnesses. These records are available to the public.
Records of government departments
The records of various government departments held in the NAI contain much of medical and hospital interest. The Dáil Éireann Local Government files (DELG) cover the period 1919–1923, a turbulent and violent period of great financial crisis. Much of the material concerns the implementation of the union amalgamation schemes which radically overhauled the old poor law system – particularly in rural areas – and involved the wholesale closure of workhouses, fever hospitals and county infirmaries and the opening of county homes and county hospitals.
The files of the Department of the Taoiseach are particularly valuable in relation to health legislation and policy. There is a series of correspondence registers relating to the Department of Health and Local Government covering the period 1920–1947 and these registers summarise incoming correspondence from bodies such as county councils, boards of health and public assistance, urban district councils and mental hospital committees and relate to a wide range of health issues. When the Department of Health was set up in 1947, the health-related files of the old Department of Local Government and Health were transferred to it and were subsequently divided into seven main series. These are now in the NAI and run from the 1920s to c.1960. Each of the series is generally arranged alphabetically by county and also by subject.
The A series relates to the provision of institutional health care and includes files relating to hospitals – including voluntary hospitals – dispensaries and children’s homes etc. The B series concerns food and drugs administration and relates to such topics as the control of infectious diseases – whooping cough, smallpox, polio, enteric fever, measles, diphtheria, venereal disease etc – pest control measures, disinfestation schemes and monthly reports of county medical officers etc. The D series concerns the treatment of tuberculosis and includes such subjects as tuberculosis hospitals, dental schemes, returns of patients and hospital staffing etc.
The H series concerns the construction of health premises such as hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and dispensaries. The L series relates to psychiatric care and includes files regarding reports, legislation and mental handicap etc. The M series concerns the school medical service general scheme and includes reports on school premises, dispensary surveys, outdoor nursing and domiciliary midwifery services, child welfare services and infant mortality statistics etc. The S series concerns Department of Health personnel and includes such subjects as personnel recruitment for hospitals, rules of conduct, salaries, conditions of service and qualification requirements etc.
The NAI also holds substantial records relating to the Department of the Environment, one of the successor departments of the old Department of Local Government and Health. While many of these files are currently unavailable for research purposes as they are not fully listed, they relate to areas of medical and health interest including water and sewerage schemes, housing schemes, control of nuisances and closure of graveyards etc.
The records of the Office of Public Works include letter books relating to the construction of lunatic asylums between the years 1835–1849, as well as plans and drawings relating to many of these institutions.
In general, records in the NAI containing medical information about individuals after 1900 are closed. Some collections such as those of the Rotunda Hospital or St Columba’s Mental Hospital in Sligo, are completely closed unless authorisation has been obtained from the institutions concerned. A form of undertaking regarding confidentiality may also have to be signed before access to the material can be granted. Coroners’ files are generally available. Any queries regarding the availability of medical records should be addressed to the Surveyor of Business Records, National Archives, Bishop Street, Dublin 8.
This article is an online version of the article Hospital records in the National Archives of Ireland by Brian Donnelly. The complete printed version appears in Irish Archives, the Journal of the Irish Society for Archives, Winter 2008.