Running the Union

While the Poor Law Guardians were legally responsible for the management of the workhouse and the collection and expenditure of money, the day-to-day running of the workhouse was carried out by a number of salaried officials. The clerk and treasurer of the Union operated the administrative system of the Poor Law.

In terms of management of the workhouse, the most important figure was the Master. His duties were set out in some detail but essentially he was responsible for the overall running of the workhouse. He enforced order, said prayers daily, inspected the paupers and ensured that the able bodied worked. He was also responsible for keeping records, such as the Master's journal, required by the Commissioners. The Master's wife usually acted as matron and ran the female part of the workhouse or a separate matron was employed. Under the Master within the workhouse there were a range of staff. If the workhouse had a school there was a schoolmaster and/or a mistress and there was a cook and porters.

Although the workhouse was to be non-denominational chaplains were appointed to the workhouse on a part time basis from among the local clergy. They conducted Sunday worship and administered to the spiritual needs of the paupers. In the 1850s and 1860s there were often disputes about conversions in some workhouses, although proselytising was strictly forbidden. Outside the workhouse there were two main classes of employees. The dispensary doctor ran the dispensary system, usually on a part time basis. Outdoor relief was managed by the relieving officer who provided money outside the workhouse on the instructions of the Guardians.


The system, which the Boards of Guardians and their officers had to administer, was intended to be a very basic one. In the 1830s the government wished to discourage reliance on the state for relief from poverty. Moreover, since local Guardians who were themselves ratepayers ran the system, there was an incentive to keep expenditure to a minimum.

In the late nineteenth century some Boards of Guardians preferred to subsidise the emigration of paupers as an alternative to maintaining them in the workhouse on a long-term basis. In practice, the workhouse was a forbidding place, which people were discouraged from entering. Husbands and wives, for instance, were separated. Food, though adequate, was very basic. As a result of this, admission to the workhouse was seen as a stigma not easily removed.

However the workhouse was used by the poor to meet their own needs. Women, for instance, might use the workhouse for part of the year while their husbands were working as part of the seasonal labour force which moved across Ireland or into Scotland in the nineteenth century. Over time the worst conditions of the workhouses were ameliorated. In the 1890s Boards of Guardians were authorised to allow snuff and tobacco to elderly paupers and to allow elderly husbands and wives to share a compartment in the workhouse instead of being separated.

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Master and Matron of the Workhouse Image

Minutes of a meeting of the board of guardians where it was resolved that a married couple would be preferred for the offices of master and matron of the workhouse, and that a notice be placed in the newspaper requesting applications for the positions.

Copyright of Donegal County Archives Service. No reproduction without permission

Master and Matron of the Workhouse Image - Copyright of Donegal County Archives Service. No reproduction without permission

Dunshaughlin Poor Law Union - 29.11.1841- Co-clergy

The majority of paupers in the house were Roman Catholics and had a chaplain to look after their spiritual welfare. There were only two Protestants, not from the Union, in the house. The salary of a Protestant chaplain for only two people was considered an unnecessary expense. The Guardians suggested sending the two to religious services in Dunshaughlin. The Commissioners rejected this suggestion and instructed the Guardians to employ the chaplain until there was no Protestant inmate remaining in the house.

Dunshaughlin Poor Law Union - 29.11.1841- Co-clergy -

Dunshaughlin Poor Law Union - 16.12.1848 - Training for Inmates

Mr Markey, one of the Gaurdians, proposed a motion for debate on the feasibility of training young men in agricultural practices. He notes that a "want of knowledge from a want of training" was preventing young people from earning a living and was thus forcing them onto dependency on the workhouse and therefore onto the rate payers of the Union. Two weeks later the motion to take six acres of land to employ and train the able-bodied inmates was passed.

Dunshaughlin Poor Law Union - 16.12.1848 - Training for Inmates -

Dunshaughlin Poor Law Union - 10.02.1849 - Emigrant

The Colonial Land Emigration Office in Westminster granted free passage to families of people who had been transported to New South Wales. Bridget Smith from Dunshaughlin was offered this passage and the clothing she was required to have is listed here. The Guardians applied for permission to provide this outfit from Union funds. The following week they received permission to provide Mrs Smith and her children with the necessary clothing.

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Dunshaughlin Poor Law Union - 10.02.1849 - Emigrant - Copyright managed by the Library Council�
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