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

The Temporary Use of Soup Kitchens

Ireland was severely struggling under the lack of food, and even the British government understood that. They were also getting pressure from other parts of the world that were frustrated at the lack of interference. Therefore, Russell was convinced that “the pressing matter at present is to keep the people alive" and that “soup kitchens appear the most immediate relief” (qtd. in Gray, The Irish Famine 58). Russell’s administration was scrambling to put a short-term fix on the situation, and therefore decided to build soup kitchens in all the Poor Law unions. In February 1847, they gave up on public works and passed the Soup Kitchen Act, which was formally named “Act for the Temporary Relief of Destitute Persons in Ireland” (Litton 59). The important word in this law is "temporary", because that was all it was. However, it did provide a food that the Irish desperately needed, if only for a little while.

In some Poor Law unions, guardians and public officials had already started to feed people soup, which was financed by discreet donations from the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin. However, “Westminster ordered that this be stopped, because it was outdoor relief” (Keneally, Three Famines 238). They did not want them to give outdoor relief until the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. Up until the Soup Kitchen Act, outdoor relief was strictly prohibited since it would involve the British government even further. But it was passed in order to provide temporary assistance to the starving Irish. According to Cormac O’Grada, the aim was “the seeking out of every distressed individual” (72). They put soup kitchens in all Poor Law unions; partly because they wanted to put the relief into the hands of the Irish, and partly to reach the most amount of people in the shortest amount of time.

Soon after the Act, the new Relief Commission was established, consisting of Major-General Sir John Burgoyne, Sir Randolph Routh, representatives from Dublin Castle, the police, and Poor Law Commissioners. In addition, they set up finance committees in every Poor Law Union district (Litton 60). These committees would take the financial pressure off the British and control the finances of each union respectively. However, the pressure on these people had only just begun as they were kept busy with the “preparation, printing, and distribution of the forms and documents considered necessary---over 10,000 account books, 80,000 sheets, and 3,000,000 ration tickets” (Donnelly 82). The British government put all this work on the commission and committees and could therefore continue their non-interference policy as the responsibility was placed on the Poor Law unions. When looking back, it is evident that this idea did not even come from the government, as they were only following the example of the Quaker soup kitchens that had started popping up all over Ireland.

There were many difficulties when starting these soup kitchens, but after they were fully operational it was evident it was a success. They had issued “three million daily rations by July [1847], to over 90 % of the population of some western unions” (Gray, “British Relief Measures” 83). This number shows that the British government had succeeded in curbing the mortality, if even just for a little while. However, there quickly came rumors of souperism. Souperism was a term that referred to “that people were only allowed the soup if they gave up the Catholic faith and turned Protestant” (Litton 65). It was common in many places, but mostly only in the privately-owned soup kitchens in the regions of Connemara and West Kerry. Such soup kitchens could refuse soup to the Irish unless they recited the Scripture or came to Protestant Bible class. According to Christine Kinealy, “famine missionaries, such as the evangelicals Reyd Hyacinth Talbot D’Arcy and Revd Edward Nangle, tried to win converts this way” (“The Widow’s Mite”). When this happened, the Irish would be ostracized or even beaten for abandoning their Catholic faith. Therefore, there was a fear among the Irish to go to these soup kitchens, as they did not know what was more important: their faith or food in their bellies.

In the soup kitchens around Ireland, there were plenty of different ways of making the soup, and it varied from soup kitchen to soup kitchen. Some of them made their soup more nutritional than others, but according to regulation the rations were supposed to be “one bowl of soup and one pound of biscuit, flour, grain or meal […] If the soup had already been thick, only one quarter of the biscuit etc. was to be given” (Keneally, Three Famines 233). These rations were supposed to be nutritious, but they barely gave enough for the Irish to function properly. Occasionally, the soup kitchens would give less if the supplies were low. However, there was a large drawback on these rations. According to Cormac O’Grada, a drawback of the soup was the "nutritional content of the stirabout mixture […] the Board of Health linked the rising incidence of ‘sea scurvy’ to the lack of fresh vegetables in the soup” (73). Scurvy was spreading throughout Ireland and onto the coffin ships; therefore, there was another reason for the Irish population not to go to the soup kitchens. It was demeaning for the family to stand in long lines, violating their sense of dignity for just soup that would do little to fight their starvation.

Soup kitchens quickly became greatly criticized, though mostly because of the uselessness of it. W. S. Trench, land agent and author, stated that it was given to those “who often expend, by coming miles for it, more strength than the soup restores, it is very inefficient for sustaining life” (Nally, Human Encumbrances 146). The small rations did not have enough nutrition to help them get back to their homes. Trench was a very famous public figure, and he was not alone in his criticisms. Due to such criticisms and the government’s intention that it was only temporary, the official soup kitchens were closed in early August of 1847. At its highest point, “over three million people were receiving free rations of soup and bread” (Kinealy, “The Operation of the Poor Law” 91). It had served its purpose and temporarily saved people from death by starvation. While it had not contained the nutritional purposes of making the Irish better, it had made people in some regions better off and waiting for the next relief measure.

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

Gray, Peter. “British Relief Measures.” Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Ed. John Crowley, William J. Smyth, and Mike Murphy. New York: New York University Press, 2012. Print.

----------------. The Irish Famine. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. Publishers, 1995. 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.

-----------------------. “The Widow’s Mite: Private Relief During the Great Famine.” The History Place 16.2. Web.

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: Notre Dame University Press, 2011. Print.

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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