Stories From the Poorhouse (Part 5) – The Keenan Orphans

In the 19th century for the poor life could change in an instant. Families who were managing fairly well to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies could, in an instant, find themselves at the mercy of the parish. An illness, injury or other change of circumstances could leave a family with no income and no means of support. Wages at the time did not allow for savings and the weekly wage would barely cover rent and food and certainly did not allow for luxuries. It was difficult to plan ahead and one could only hope for the best that they could avoid misfortune and extreme poverty. This is one such story where the fate of a family can change in the shortest period of time.

Michael Keenan was born in Clonallon, County Down in 1841. He was the 9th child of Hugh Keenan, a farmer, and Hannah McCarten. The couple had 10 children born between 1827 and 1846. Michael’s brother Patrick who was born in 1833 was the 5th in the family. Patrick was my great, great grandfather.

Like Patrick, Michael came to live in Scotland where he met and married Maria McLauchlan. The couple were married in Shotts parish on 7 January 1861. In December of the same year they welcomed son John into the world. John was followed by 6 sisters.

  • Hannah Born 1862
  • Sarah Born 1864
  • Mary Born 1867
  • Bridget Born 1869
  • Ann Born 1871
  • Agnes Born 1876

Hannah was just 6 years old when she died in 1868; the first major tragedy to befall the family.

Ten years later the family were going through better times. Michael was working as a coal miner and John was now able to work meaning an extra income in the house. Maria would have enjoyed time at home with toddler, Agnes while the other girls were in school. This may have been the time of greatest prosperity for the Keenans. But the year 1878 was not kind to the family. On the 27 May Maria passed away. The family would have been devastated by this loss and it would have fallen on Sarah to take on the role of mother to the younger children. With her help Michael would have been able to keep his family together. While it may have been difficult to provide the necessary emotional support he could still feed and clothe his children.

That is until November of the same year when he developed bronchitis. Unable to work due to his condition the only income came from John who at just 16 would not have been earning a great wage. Michael’s condition worsened and he died on 10 December 1878. I cannot imagine the shock and despair of the children as they realised that their father and protector had gone. A funeral had to be arranged and with no means of paying the family had to turn to the parish for assistance. Money was provided but this was only a small some to cover the most basic of funerals. Moving forward, what would happen to the children?

Just days after the death of their father the girls were forced to present themselves at Omoa Poorhouse seeking help. It was only a short walk from their home and a building they would have seen every day never imagining that one day they would have to enter its gates. Who arranged for them to go and who accompanied them? It breaks my heart to picture them there. You can read more about Omoa Poorhouse and see images of the buildings by clicking here.

One after another their details were taken in the poorhouse register. As the eldest, Sarah was spoken to first. The record seems very matter of fact about her circumstances. It was noted that she was an orphan and wholly disabled (ie unable to work) through “youth”. The details of her parents deaths are recorded along with the fact that they were both Roman Catholic.

Further down the record we can see that indoor relief (admission to the poorhouse) was not accepted and Sarah went to reside with grandparents. The next record relating to Sarah is the 1881 census where she is indeed residing with her maternal grandmother. By that time she is employed as a brick worker. It would have been more the case that she was looking after her granny rather than the other way round.

At the time of her father’s death Mary was 12. Too young to get a job Mary was a less attractive prospect for family to take care of and her record shows that she entered the poorhouse. The register does not show how long she stayed there but in 1881 she is also employed as a brickworker and living with Sarah and her grandmother.

9 year old Bridget was up next and like Mary there was nobody to take her in so she entered the poorhouse. By the time of the 1881 census she was still there showing as an “ordinary inmate”. During her time there she would have received some education but mainly she would have trained for a life in service when it was time for her to leave. In September 1881 that was the case and she left to become a servant. Details of her employer are not known as the next record we find for Bridget is her marriage in 1895.

Similarly 7 year old Ann had nowhere else to go and was admitted to the poorhouse. Like Bridget she was still there at the time of the census in 1881. She left Omoa Poorhouse on the same day as Bridget. Too young for work she was taken into the care of her brother, John.

Little Agnes must have pulled at the heartstrings of family friends who saved her from the poorhouse by taking her into their care. Sadly Agnes succumbed to the same illness that took her father, dying on 26 March 1880. It was her sister Sarah, who was present at the death, who registered her passing.

My own great great grandfather was living with his family quite close by when his brother died. He had children of a similar age. I wonder if there was any consideration given to helping out Michael’s children. Did he feel guilty when three of his nieces who were so close in age to his own daughters were taken into the poorhouse?

I have no way of knowing if the siblings kept in touch over the years. From a happy family unit they were torn apart under the most awful circumstances. Their story is one of the most upsetting I have found in my family tree and I am genuinely saddened as I try to imagine what that period must have been like. I have found a number of family members forced into the poorhouse but they have been for short periods to help them through a difficult time. For those girls to have spent their childhoods there, well, it is just heartbreaking.

Of course, there is more to their stories and they each went on to live their own lives. They married and had children and must surely have known some great times. Like so many of me predecessors, I have to admire their strength.

10 thoughts on “Stories From the Poorhouse (Part 5) – The Keenan Orphans

  1. So interesting, well researched and interesting. From similar experience of my ancestors, I came to realize they all were so close to the ruinous edge, that while feeling sad, they did not have to wear guilty. In fact, we see kin coming in and out of the poorhouse and joining family as conditions changed.

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  2. Your research continues to throw up events that were indeed tragic Paula. That must have been how things were done back then and the poorhouse being part of that culture. It’s wee kids trying to come to terms with the grief of losing both their mum then dad but instead of being comforted; even cuddled, being thrown in among strangers in a strange place all of whom I’d guess having their own similar type issues. TB was a horrible disease… just what we’re currently experiencing with Covid-19, that mercifully has now been eradicated. Not in time to protect the Keegans though tragically. Great work as ever Paula.

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