Sir Robert Peel's Conservative government was replaced in July 1846 by a Whig minority government under Sir John Russell. His premiership was marked by political weakness and a divided government and coincided with a sustained and crippling recession in Britain. After 1847, therefore, financial and political concerns and the preoccupation with long-term 'improvement' over immediate aid, informed relief policy for Ireland.
The new government disbanded Peel's Central Relief Commission in August 1846 and imposed stricter more direct treasury control of relief measures. Public works were continued but labourers were now subject to a 'piece work' payments system which meant that the weakest and most malnourished workers earned less than was required to feed their families.
This did not stem the flood of starving poor who clamoured for work in late 1846 and, as autumn turned to winter, thousands died of starvation and famine fever on the freezing work sites. The escalating costs, demoralising mortality rates and the force of British popular opinion led to the government's decision in the early months of 1847 to turn to the Poor Law as the primary vehicle for famine relief.
The Irish Poor Law of 1838 was modelled on the English equivalent but with some notable differences. Policy makers believed that Irish poverty derived from the innate moral failings in the Irish character and that any new relief mechanism should contribute to social improvement and encourage self-reliance.
Therefore, unlike the destitute in England who had a statutory right to relief, only the inmates of the intentionally inhospitable Irish workhouses could benefit from the provisions of the Poor Law. One of these institutions was built in each of the 130 newly designated Poor Law Unions financed by a system of local taxation.
Locally-elected Poor Law guardians were responsible for collecting poor rates from landowners based on the value of their property. Ireland's self-financing workhouse system was not designed to deal with the heavy demands of a widespread subsistence crisis but was nonetheless placed at the front line of famine relief during the peak of the Great Famine.
By the third year of famine, the voting British public was tired of the financial demands of the Irish crisis. Not only had the Treasury advanced millions of pounds in relief, but increasing levels of eviction in Ireland fed the swelling tide of impoverished and often diseased Irish immigrants arriving in Britain.
Charity fatigue was fuelled by the influential Times newspaper, closely allied to the Whig administration and consistently critical of the financial burdens forced on British workers for the sake of the starving Irish.
On 26 January 1847, in an article entitled 'The Cost of Relief' the newspaper predicted yet another year of 'misery, trouble, animosity, expense, mismanagement, and ingratitude'. The verdict was clear: negligent Irish landlords who were to blame for creating the circumstances that led to the Famine should shoulder the burden of providing relief. According to the popular nostrum of the time: 'Irish property should pay for Irish poverty'.
Sir John Russell introduced a set of proposals in early 1847 that ultimately aimed to transfer the cost of famine relief to the Irish rate payers. The first step in this direction was the Temporary Relief Act of February 1847 which provided for a network of state-sponsored soup kitchens, which would distribute food while the public works were wound down.
Lengthy bureaucratic delays in setting up the system meant that the workhouses strained under the weight of new admissions. When the soup kitchens finally came into full operation by the summer of 1847, some three million people a day were surviving, according to the Times, 'upon rations supplied by public bounty!'
Nonetheless, the relatively successful scheme was abandoned in late August to make way for the provisions of the amended Poor Law.
The Poor Law Extension Act
Enacted in June 1847, the Poor Law Extension Act empowered boards of guardians to relieve all those classed as 'destitute' without necessarily obliging them to become inmates of a workhouse. In a significant departure from the original legislation, 'outdoor relief' was now available to certain categories of 'paupers' - namely the aged, infirm, the sick and widows with two or more children.
The act also sanctioned outdoor relief in the form of meagre rations for the 'able-bodied' poor but only on a short-term basis and when the workhouses were full.
Distribution of both the original poor law unions and newly formed poor law unions.
The original 130 Poor Law unions covered more extensive areas than their English equivalents. Unions such as Ballina, Westport, Galway and Tralee were responsible for serving far too great a population.
In the middle of the Famine, a Government committee was established to recommend the creation of a number of new unions.
This committee did not report until 1850 and the majority of these new union workhouses were not open to the poor until 1851 or 1852. This map shows the distribution of these new unions, with arrows showing the areas of greatest need during the Famine years.
A widescale humanitarian crisis
As a concession to landlords, the Gregory clause denied assistance to those occupying more than a quarter of an acre of land. Further legislation was enacted in July to create a separate Poor Law Board in Ireland headed by Irish Chief Commissioner Edward Twistleton.
A Vagrancy Act imposing severe punishments for public begging completed the package of measures which facilitated the government's withdrawal from financial responsibility for famine relief.
The philosophy underpinning the act was that it would mark the beginning of a long-term process of social and economic regeneration. In the interim, however, it ushered in a widescale humanitarian crisis.
Landlords felt the impact of the new legislation immediately, particularly in the distressed areas of the west and south west. Their incomes were already reduced due to the high numbers of poor tenants paying little or no rent, and they were liable for the entire poor rate for holdings valued at £4 or less.
Anticipating a surge in taxation to finance the amended poor law, many landlords chose to clear their estates of the smallest rate-bearing holdings. The notorious Gregory clause proved highly effective in facilitating these clearances. Many landlords refused partial surrender, demanding the return of the entire holding in order to consolidate their estates.
More frequently, tenants who surrendered all but the required quarter acre to qualify for relief, returned from the workhouse to find that their dwellings had been demolished in their absence. Railing against the 'damnable' Quarter-Acre Act on 16 February 1848, the Cork Examiner maintained that
'no other word could so well describe the misery and wretchedness, and death that are daily and hourly the results of its operation in this land of sorrows'.
The rate of evictions rose sharply after 1847, placing even more pressure on the guardians and rate payers, thus completing the vicious circle. The widescale Famine clearances left an indelible scar on the collective memory of many Irish rural communities, that would be inflamed again during the Land League agitation of the 1880s.
Filling the workhouses
While the blight did not reappear in the autumn of 1847, the harvest was small because so few potatoes had been planted. The grain depots were closed, the public works abandoned and the soup kitchens systematically shut down from the late summer.
With no other option, the destitute poor clamoured for entry to the workhouses. By the end of August 1847, the country's workhouses were full and several unions were on the verge of bankruptcy. With autumn came reports of crowds of starving people gathering outside the workhouses to appeal to the guardians who were powerless in the face of legislative restrictions.
They could not provide outdoor relief without the sanction of the Poor Law Commissioners. The law was flouted in some areas where the levels of distress were almost unbearable, but the result was strict censure from Dublin Castle.
Newly appointed Poor Law Inspectors advised guardians about eligibility for relief and, imbued with the belief that the Irish poor were fundamentally dishonest, mechanisms for weeding out fraudulent applications for outdoor relief.
The workhouse test was the most cynical and effective of these devices. If a recipient of outdoor relief refused the offer of a place in the dreaded 'poorhouse', with all its connotations of degradation and shame, they were considered to be feigning destitution and would be deprived of all relief.
For many it was an impossible choice. By accepting, they ran the risk of contracting fevers or having their dwellings razed in their absence, but refusal meant total abandonment by the Poor Law.
Any illusion that the crisis was over in early 1848 was shattered by the return of the blight in the autumn. It destroyed more than half of the already small potato crop and Poor Law officials were overwhelmed by the sheer extent of destitution.
The number of people receiving relief exceeded one million, over fifty unions were financially insolvent, and the government was adamant that that there would be no more aid from the Treasury. Instead, Russell's government introduced the unpopular Rate-in-Aid Act of March 1849 which imposed a levy on the more well-off unions in Ireland to be redistributed to the most impoverished unions.
Edward Twistleton resigned in protest at an exclusively Irish tax which went against the principle of combined responsibility under the Act of Union.
Pressure on the Poor Law began to abate with the return of better harvests after 1850 but the numbers in the workhouses remained higher than they had been prior to 1845.
There were over a million excess deaths in Ireland under Russell's administration, victims of laissez-faire economic policy, a conviction that the Irish should help themselves, and a preoccupation, articulated by Charles Trevelyan in 1848, with creating 'a permanent good out of transient evil'.
This piece is part of the Great Irish Famine project coordinated by UCC and based on the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.