The Boards of Guardians administered poor relief (1838-1948), and each Poor Law Union had a Workhouse. Union boundaries can be found in Brian Mitchell’s A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland (2002).
The Workhouse regiment was so grueling that only those who had no other choice went there. Workhouses provided a haven for unmarried pregnant girls, deserted women, orphan children, sick, handicapped, the elderly and poor. If a family entered together, they were separated by category.
Funds for emigration purposes were used heavily during the Potato Famine (1845-51). Due to the overcrowding of the Workhouses the Outdoor Relief programs began in 1847. Under this program, people could remain in their homes, and work for food.
The records are housed in several repositories such as the County Library system, The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland and the National Archives of Ireland. Many are on microfilm at the Family History Library. This is such a heart wrenching subject, and many research papers and even Workhouse records have been placed online.
The detail provided in these records is amazing. Notation such as marital status (single, married, deserted), the status of a child (orphaned, deserted, bastard), the condition arrived (physically dirty, has clothes, physical and emotional condition), religion, date
arrived and date died or discharged. The “Minute Books” document assistance given to emigrate. The majority of the information on the residents will be in the “Indoor Relief Registers.”
If the Workhouse is the last place you document your ancestors prior to their emigration, then the date they were discharged from the Workhouse will be the closest record to a departure. When it is compared with the U.S. passenger or Canadian arrival list, a clearer picture will emerge and you will be able to create a time line.