This path was created by Amanda Lundeen.  The last update was by Dawn Duncan.

Star of the Sea : A Postcolonial/Postmodern Voyage into the Irish Famine

Irish Poor Law and Its Failure to Measure Up

England had for a long time operated the Poor Law system in their own country, providing workhouses and food-based payment in exchange for physical labour. In 1838, they passed an Irish Poor Law that enabled “the setting-up of workhouses under the care of Boards of Guardians” (Keneally, Three Famines 229). Even before the famine started, the English wanted to transfer the mostly successful British system to the allegedly lazy Irish. These guardians would supervise the established unions through the Poor Law under units called baronies. When the famine hit Ireland with full force, the British divided the island into 130 unions that “did not conform to any previous administrative boundaries” (Kinealy, “The Operation” 89). The British government needed to change the previous system in order to attempt to control the catastrophic situation in their colony.

One of the many problems of the unions was that they were “financed by rates that were to be levied locally, in effect a Poor Law tax” (Nally, “That Coming Storm” 724). The already poor Ireland needed to give even more money to pay the taxes in order to keep the British system afloat. When the famine spread across Ireland, the crop failures and shortages further damaged the Poor Law unions as they were unable to pay. According to Christine Kinealy, “the combined debts of the 130 unions [was] £250,000” and this shows how this tax was affecting the Irish (“The Operation” 92). There are multiple concerns about this number, mainly that this debt damaged the situation in each union, and also put more financial strain on the population.

The new Poor Law was different than previous laws and systems, mostly because it did not focus on the laboring poor. Instead, it focused on the pauper class. A pauper is essentially “a second-class citizen who was to be cared for—and, crucially, corrected—by the state” (Nally, Human Encumbrances 104). These people were below the lower class, and were more subjected to the mistreatment of the colonial government. Paupers were the ones who needed famine relief the most; however, the government gave no attention to the basic necessities like clothes, soap, or fuel. Food was the only relief given to the victims of the famine, which was one of the necessities. But covering just one of these basic needs was not enough to keep the population afloat under the new Poor Law.

Under the new Poor Law during the famine, the British government hired commissioners, replacing the previous guardians. These individuals focused more on the situation in the union itself than remaining loyal to the people, as the guardians had done before. However, these people were sometimes sympathetic to the unions and acted like a balanced medium between the government and the guardians. They realized “what hardships had to be endured for such a large amount of rates to be collected” and “pointed out that many unions would be unable to continue to pay such high rates” (Kinealy, This Great Calamity 193). These concerns were brought to Prime Minister Russell and the Treasury, but it was ultimately rejected since it would be a sign of weakness on their part to relinquish their demand for taxes.

Charles Trevelyan, the famine administrator, desired with these changes to provide a system that “could be run entirely by Ireland, from Irish resources” (Litton 72). He was a huge supporter of non-interference, and the system he attempted to create would enable England to draw back and save their own resources. However, he did not take into account the poor state of the remaining resources in Ireland. Another way he and the British government attempted to limit relief was to establish the Amendment Act of 1847, commonly referred to as the Quarter Acre Clause or the Gregory Act. This Act stated: “any occupier of more than a quarter of an acre of land could not be deemed destitute and therefore was ineligible to receive relief aid” (Kinealy, This Great Calamity 181). Amending the Poor Law with such a law saved plenty of resources from the British side. However, this did not take into account the situation Ireland was in, and how likely it was that the Irish situation would decline over the course of the famine.

In the same year as the Gregory Act, the British government established an extension of the Poor Law that could allow “poor law boards to grant outdoor relief to the sick and disabled, and to widows with two or more legitimate children” (Crossman). Thereby, the outdoor relief could provide assistance to the ones that were unable to work or pay taxes. Towards the end of 1847 it was apparent to the British that the expenditures of the Poor Law had cost them £1,700,000. This was due to the low number of people actually being able to work or pay the famine tax. For the money value of the time, this is a large amount of money that was either taken from England or from taxes in Ireland.

Due to the large expenditures and the functionality of the Poor Law system in Ireland, several newspapers criticized the poorly created relief system: “The constant endavour [sic.] […] is to make it [relief] as little as possible; and, by the defects in the details of management, that little is given in the worst manner—the process of receiving a relief is in itself almost a punishment” (De Nie 30). The Poor Law was a desperate attempt to give relief to the Irish as the British extended and amended the system that had been productive in their own country. However, it seems as though they failed to recognize the devastating situation in their own colony and how the system could not have transferred over.
Works Cited
Crossman, Virginia. “The Poor Law in Ireland, 1838-1948.” History in Focus. Web.

De Nie, Michael. “The Famine, Irish Identity, and the British Press.” Irish Studies Review 6.1 (1998): 27-35. Web.

Keneally, Thomas. Three Famines: Starvation and Politics. New York: The Serpentine Publishing, 2011. Print.

Kinealy, Christine. “The Operation of the Poor Law During the Famine". Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Ed. John Crowley, William J. Smyth, and Mike Murphy. New York: New York University Press, 2012. Print.

--------------------------. This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-1852. Ireland: Gill & MacMillian, 2011. Print.

Litton, Helen. The Irish Famine: An Illustrated History. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1994. Print.

Nally, David P. Human Encumbrances: Political Violence and the Great Irish Famine. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011. Print.

----------------------. “That Coming Storm: The Irish Poor Law, Colonial Biopolitics, and the Great Famine.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 98.3 (2008): 714-740. Web.
Researcher/Writer: Ellen-Marie Pedersen
‚ÄčTechnical Designers: Derek Rachel and Amanda Lundeen

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