'Who of us care to be seen assisting an old woman?'
: The institutional care of Ireland's elderly women, 1845 - 1908

  • Sarah McHugh

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis explores the institutional care of Irish women, aged fifty years or more, from 1845 to the introduction of the Old Age Pension in 1908. Moving beyond the experiences of the adolescent and young women, which have been explored by historians in recent years, this study introduces the aged grandmother, elderly widow and old spinster to the historical record. This exploration serves to deepen not only our understanding of the life course in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but also what it truly meant to be a woman in the past. Archival sources were used to compile thirty distinct databases, containing 12,925 entries. These represent 7,112 elderly women who resided in Irish workhouses, charitable homes, lunatic asylums, prisons and infirmaries as some point between 1845 and 1908.

This ambitious study focuses primarily on gender differences, comparing and contrasting the institutional experiences of older women and men. However, it also addresses issues of class, religion and family. The impact of late life poverty is explored, alongside experiences of those from middle-class families, assessing the standard of care for older women of diverse social status. It considers the role of religion in gaining access to institutions established by religious orders, highlighting the treatment of women who adhered to different faiths. Lastly, by exploring the movement of women through these institutions, this thesis provides an insight into the changing demographic of Ireland, showing how family structure was altered by the Great Famine of 1845-53. In doing so, it reveals the extent to which family members adopted the responsibility of caring for their older relatives. In addressing these key themes, this thesis serves to further our understanding of family dynamics and relationships, societal attitudes and responses towards old age and the importance of poor relief and welfare for aged women in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Ireland.

Thesis embargoed until 31 July 2025.
Date of AwardJul 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership
SupervisorElaine Farrell (Supervisor) & Diane Urquhart (Supervisor)


  • Old age
  • elderly
  • old women
  • aged women
  • widow
  • institutional care
  • workhouse
  • poor laws
  • workhouse infirmary
  • lunatic asylum
  • prison
  • charity
  • philanthropy
  • old age pension

Cite this