In the mid 1830s the British Parliament established an enquiry into the plight of Ireland’s poor. By 1838 the Poor Law Act was passed, establishing a new system of state welfare in Ireland, based on Poor Law Unions. Each Union had a Workhouse, which was financed by the payment of rates or taxes on the property owners or landlords in that area. Administration of the Union and the Workhouse was carried out by the Union’s Board of Guardians. Guardians were confined to ratepayers, which tended to represent the landlord class.
Weekly meetings were held by the Board of Guardians, at which all matters relating to the union were discussed, including finances, hiring of staff, procurement of provisions from local traders and farmers, management of workhouse inmates and correspondence with the Poor Law Commissioners. The minutes contain valuable information for local and social history, but are limited as a source for genealogy, as the Workhouse Reports they contain were mainly statistical and provide very little information on individual inmates. Unfortunately, Poor Law Union records, such as Workhouse admission and discharge registers, did not survive for Laois.
Laois Local Studies holds copies of the surviving minute books for Mountmellick, Abbeyleix and Donaghmore Poor Law Unions. It should be noted that union boundaries did not follow county lines and at times many Laois people were part of Poor Law Unions based in other counties, such as Athy (Ballyadams, Dysertenos, Killabin, Stradbally, Moyanna & Tullamoy), Roscrea (Borris-in-Ossory, Rathdowney, Donaghmore, Eirke & Kyle) and Carlow (Arles, Graigue & Shrule).