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Debate about the adequacy of public action during the Great Irish Famine is hampered by a lack of detailed information on its impact at local level. This study addresses the question of local agency with a case study of the North Dublin Union, which was responsible for administering the Irish poor law in the northern half of Dublin city. We use workhouse records to study the Union’s functioning during the famine. High mortality of workhouse inmates mainly reflected the crisis outside its walls: the guardians and the managers did reasonably well in preserving human life in difficult circumstances.