The Widow’s and Dependent pension files allow us reconstruct elements of the lives of working class 19th century families in unparalleled detail. In some cases, these individuals had never even set foot in the United States. Such is the case with Ellen Niland. Born in Dublin’s Liberties in 1841, Ellen spent her entire life living in and around the city centre. Yet due to her husband’s Hugh’s wartime service thousands of miles away, we are offered a window into her existence, one that was filled with moments of joy, with desperate poverty, and with extensive hardship.

On 9th April 1896, illiterate Dubliner Ellen Niland departed her tenement home at 62 Upper Dominick Street to make the journey to the offices of Arthur Donn Piatt, the Deputy Consul of the United States in Dublin. The purpose of the 55-year-old’s visit was to attempt to secure an American pension. Yet Ellen had almost certainly never been outside of Ireland before; indeed, she may never have been beyond Dublin. Sitting down in front of Piatt, she explained the reason she felt entitled to the monthly payments that offered the potential to transform her life. Piatt recorded what Ellen said, transmitting her words to the Bureau of Pensions in Washington D.C.:

My husband Hugh Niland went from Dublin to Toronto, Canada, in August 1862 and in November 1862 I got my first letter from him. This letter, which I did not preserve, was from Toronto, and in it he said he was thinking of joining the American Navy. I next heard from him about ten months later and he then said he was in the American Navy. He had never been out of Ireland to my knowledge before 1862 when he went to Toronto. I do not know of anyone who can swear whether he joined the Navy before 1863 and Hugh Niland’s papers were lost. I have no property of any kind but I am not able to get a certificate from the tax collector as when I applied to him he said that such certificates were never issued. This affidavit was written for me from my oral statements by Arthur Donn Piatt and I have not been in any way prompted or assisted other than by my memory.

Ellen’s mark at the end of the affidavit she gave to Arthur Donn Piatt, an indication of her illiteracy (NARA)

Ellen’s journey that morning had been prompted by events of four months earlier. On 11th December 1893 Hugh had passed away in the North Dublin Union Workhouse hospital. He had lain in the infirmary for 27 days before eventually succumbing to cancer of the tongue and throat at the reported age of 74 (he may have been some years younger). The former American sailor, who had spent the majority of his life as a cooper, was subsequently laid to rest in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Hugh’s death certificate, supplied to the American authorities (NARA)

Ellen Hawkins had been baptised at St. Catherine’s Church on Dublin’s Meath Street in 1841. Her life with Hugh had begun on 5th August 1860, when the couple had wed in the Pro-Cathedral on Dublin’s Marlborough Street. They celebrated the birth of their first child, Mary, on 10th May the following year. The young family had not been together long by the time Hugh left. It seems he may have had work on a vessel plying the transatlantic trade; coopers were often in demand for such trips. When the Civil War broke out, many Irish crewmen arriving in American and Canadian ports were tempted away from their ships and into the Union navy. The pay, and most significantly the potential prize money, were enticing prospects. Hugh was also accustomed to a military life– in 1854 he had enlisted in the 2nd Bombay Regiment of European Infantry, spending the next five years in India. Despite his changed circumstances this time round, Hugh again decided to don military uniform. For her part, Ellen was far from the only Irish woman left unconsulted as their husbands made snap decisions to sign on as Jack Tars. As she outlined in her affidavit, the first she knew of Hugh’s entry into United States service was when she received a letter (which would have been read aloud to her by an intermediary) many months after his departure. Whatever the precise background that dictated his choice, on 10th November 1862 Hugh Niland became one of the many thousands of Irishmen who took to the high seas dressed in Union blue.

Copy of the marriage certificate of Hugh Niland and Ellen Hawkins supplied to the Pension Bureau. Ellen had to explain why the surname was incorrect, having been recorded as Haughton at the time (NARA)

Hugh signed on for twelve months as a Landsman, and was sent to the receiving ship USS North Carolina in New York Navy Yard to undergo training. A few days later he was assigned to the first crew of the USS Commodore Morris, an armed side-wheel ferryboat. For the next year Hugh and his crewmates operated around Virginia’s rivers, patrolling and transporting military personnel and supplies. The Commodore Morris took part in a joint army-navy operation on the Pamunkey River in January 1863 that targeted Confederate infrastructure, and in the months that followed took a number of prizes. In November 1863 Hugh was discharged at Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, no doubt encouraged by the financial return he could expect following his term of service.

An image of either the USS Commodore Morris or USS Morse during the Civil War (Naval History & Heritage Command NH55307)

Despite having been away from Ellen for so long, Hugh decided not to return to Dublin. Instead he went back to New York, and within the month had signed on for another year. He was quickly back on the USS North Carolina, but this time at the rank of Coal Heaver. He spent a few weeks aboard the receiving ship before joining the first crew of the steamer USS Proteus in March 1864. She steamed for Florida in April, and was soon deployed to waters around Cuba and the Bahamas to hunt Confederate blockade runners. Hugh and his shipmates took the runners R.S. Hood on 9th June, Jupiter on 27th June, and Ann Louisa in September. Each would have landed the Dubliner additional prize money. He eventually ended his American naval career aboard the United States Naval Academy instruction frigate USS Savannah, and was discharged at Brooklyn Navy Yard in November 1864.

The USS Savannah, the vessel on which Hugh Niland ended his American naval career (Old Naval Days)

Hugh finally decided to draw a line under his navy career and return to Ellen and Mary in Dublin, whom he had not seen in well over two years. With his return to Ireland the couple’s life returned to normal, and their family began to grow. They included John who arrived in January 1867, Hugh Junior in March 1869, Ellen (who passed away while still a baby in the early 1870s) and Joseph in September 1871.

The years that followed proved extremely difficult for the Niland family, and were blighted by desperate poverty. The registers of the North Dublin Union Workhouse bear testament to their hardships. The entire family were admitted to the institution from their home in Nerneys Court on 24th February 1879. At the time John was twelve, Hugh Junior was seven, and Joseph only five. Hugh Senior left the Workhouse two months later, but was readmitted on 1st May from “G.G. Prison”, presumably Grangegorman (Richmond Penitentiary). He was released four days afterwards. John left in the care of his older sister Mary on 21st June, and Ellen, Hugh Junior and Joseph finally followed a few days later.

Whether the family’s problems extended beyond the purely monetary is difficult to know, but these experiences must have left an indelible mark on their lives. Unfortunately, their June 1879 respite was brutally shortlived. The entire family was readmitted to the workhouse from Dignams Court on 5th September, their condition being described as “bad”. Ellen was discharged on 24th November 1879 and Hugh on 10th February 1880, though he was back inside the following day, staying until April. The couple’s three young boys had to remain there until June. Though this seems to have brought to an end Ellen and the children’s experience of Workhouse life, Hugh would once again rely on it in his final years, likely in part a result of his medical issues. He was admitted for a few weeks from 6 North King Street in 1892, for two months from 84 Church Street in 1893, and for a day from 21 Stafford Street in early 1894. The Workhouse hospital is where he breathed his last later that year.

Workhouse children in the 1890s. An experience all three of the Nilands boys had to endure during their childhood (Manchester Archives)

Ellen’s April 1896 visit to Arthur Donn Piatt in search of a pension was far from her first. After Hugh’s death she had moved almost immediately to try and obtain the financial support she regarded as vital for herself and her family. She had been living in 215 Great Britain Street when she started the process. As she sought to prove her entitlement, Ellen was able to call on a small army of fellow Dubliners to provide affidavits on her behalf, an indication of the community network of which this working-class woman was a part. One was 60-year-old Jane O’Brien of 13 Upper Abbey Street, who declared:

I have known Ellen Niland…since 1853 and continuously since that date…I know Ellen Niland intimately and if she had remarried I would have known it.

Another was Margaret Flynn, an illiterate 60-year-old woman living at 9 Bolton Street:

I was present at the marriage of Ellen Hawkins and Hugh Niland on the fifth day of August 1860 at Marlborough Street Cathedral in Dublin and know the above named Ellen Niland to be the same individual as I have known her since 1852 [44 years]. I was one of the witnesses to the marriage my maiden name being Margaret Dolan.

69-year-old Patrick Cassidy of 27 Eugene Street had known Hugh Niland since before he had gone to America. He recounted that he had been friends with the Union sailor:

for 40 years or more. I knew him before his marriage to Ellen Niland…I was journeyman in James Mathew’s Cooper Shop in Bowe St when Hugh Niland was an apprentice and I knew him well from that time to his marriage.

Yet another was 43-year-old James Nolan, a neighbour of Ellen’s in the 62 Upper Dominick Street tenement she called home. James had also known Hugh and Ellen for years:

I knew Hugh Niland for 27 years and was a member with him in St. Michael’s Burial Society and I was intimately acquainted with him, and he never had another wife in my knowledge.

The affidavit of Margaret Flynn in support of Ellen Niland’s claim. Margaret was illiterate as demonstrated by her mark (NARA)

All these affidavits were aimed at proving Hugh had no other living wife, and that Ellen had not remarried (both of which would have disqualified her claim). Among the others who gave their time on Ellen’s behalf were 69-year-old John Byrne of 14 Gloucester Street and 60-year-old William Mooney of 57 North King Street. The efforts of her friends and acquaintances in the community ultimately helped Ellen to secure the pension, and to enjoy a modicum of security as she approached her 60s. Given the hardships life had thrown at her, she most certainly deserved it.

Despite the payments, life wasn’t easy, a factor borne out by Ellen’s living conditions. The 1901 Census found the 63-year-old still at Upper Dominick Street. There she shared a five-room section of the tenement with 17 people, which included her son Hugh Junior and his family. Ellen passed away in 1903. As a consequence of her husband’s military service on the other side of the Atlantic, elements of this working-class Dublin woman’s life have been preserved, stored in perpetuity within a file held at Washington D.C.’s National Archives.

I first came across Ellen’s story in 2013, when I was contacted by Hugh and Ellen’s descendant John Niland. John was keen to learn if there may be surviving records relating to Hugh’s service, and I subsequently identified and passed on the file to him. John added further detail to the story, revealing that Hugh is buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Glasnevin Cemetery. He also informed me of the fate of Hugh and Ellen’s youngest son, Joseph, who had endured life in the Workhouse when only five-years-old. Joseph ultimately became a cooper, just as his father had been, and went on to work at Guinness. When the First World War came he enlisted, and became a Sapper in the 179th Field Company of the Royal Engineers. On 28th March 1917 German shells landed on his section during pay parade, killing him and a number of his comrades (you can see photos of Joseph uploaded by Johnny Doyle here). Today the American Civil War veteran’s youngest son is buried at Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery in Arras, France.

If you have enjoyed this and other posts and resources on the website, please consider supporting my work on Patreon. You can do so for as little as $1 per month, and gain access to exclusive content. You can find out more by clicking here or visiting

The grave of Joseph Niland, Hugh and Ellen Niland’s son, at
Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery in France (Image: Pearlady via Find A Grave)

* None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online. A team of archivists from NARA supported by volunteers have enabled access to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.

** Special thanks to Hugh and Ellen’s descendants Johnny Doyle and John Niland for providing additional information on the family. You can see some of Johnny’s work here.


Ellen Niland Widow’s Pension

Dublin Workhouse Admission and Discharge Registers

Irish Catholic Parish Registers

Irish 1901 Census

Find A Grave Memorial for Joseph Niland

Find A Grave Memorial for Hugh Niland

Find A Grave Memorial for Hugh Niland