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

Public Works: Willingly Working for Nothing

In an attempt to make the Irish work for the money and food relief the Whig government was giving them, Trevelyan devised a new system in August of 1846 that would “avoid the inefficiency, waste, and extravagance which in the official view had characterized earlier operations” (Donnelly 70). Public Works would give the Irish a minimal amount of money for physically draining labor. What the Irish had previously received for free, they now had to work for. Through this plan there would be less strain on the British resources, and the Whigs could keep their desire to not interfere. As the public works began, it was evident that there needed to be some sort of control over how many wages needed to be paid out to the people. Therefore the main concern became “to restrict the numbers employed on the public work [and] to introduce more control over the rate of wages” (Kinealy, This Great Calamity 92). Restricting the employees was possible through detailed lists from the clergy or other officials in order to make sure that the system was not too expensive.

The Board of Works had been established in 1831 to look after the conditions of bridges, roads, and harbors, and was even into the famine years paid by local taxation. A popular principle summarized the public works system by stating that: “Irish property should support Irish poverty” (Nally, Human Encumbrances 138). This principle showed that the Whig government embraced the idea that any disaster of the Irish was their own fault. However, this system slowed down the relief procedures by stripping the rate-payers of Ireland of the control over relief expenditures. As more Irishmen signed up for the working system, there were 5,000 works that were reported upon by 12,000 subordinate officers. It grew bigger and bigger, even though the conditions did not improve.

Especially in the winter, the work available in the Public Works scheme “compelled a semistarved population to toil for ten hours per day for a meager relief wage” (Nally, “That Coming Storm” 729). These ten hours were too long for the already starved out Irish, and forced them to work harder and harder. A large part of the Irish population depended on the money made from this work; therefore, they had no choice but to accept the cruel conditions in order to put food on their table. Many Irish spent the winters inside and were therefore not used to spending all those hours exposed to the vicious cold. But despite these horrible conditions, the number of workers increased from 26,000 in the first week of October, to 441,000 in the end of December 1846 (Donnelly 72). They were forced by the Whig government to seek this kind of relief, and there was nothing they could do about it.

Looking back, it seems as though the public works was the most successful famine policy, since “at its peak [it] employed nearly 715,000 men and thus supported 3.5 million people” (Nally, Human Encumbrances 142). Even though the conditions were horrible, it was the means to an end for the Irish people. According to Cormac O’Grada, more than £4 million were given as wages for the Public Works system. However, it had originally been considered as a loan to the Irish nation (77). However, it was not paid back due to the financial situation of the famine. By the end of March 1847, the public works system started to gradually dismiss workers. Seven months later, Westminster abandoned the Irish to their own devices, and the public works system died out.

Works Cited
Donnelly, James S. The Great Irish Potato Famine. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 2001. Print.

Kinealy, Christine. This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-1852. Ireland: Gill & McMillian, 2011. 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.

O’Grada, Cormac. Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. Print.
Researcher/Writer: Ellen-Marie Pedersen
‚ÄčTechnical Designers: Derek Rachel and Amanda Lundeen

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