Irish Potato Famine - The Great Hunger - THE POOR LAWS

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The Irish countryside is dotted with abandoned homes which once provided shelter for tenant-farmers and their families (before they were forcibly ejected from their rented houses during the potato famine). This image depicts abandoned property in County Cork, near Skibbereen, an area especially devastated by "The Great Hunger." It is online via Ireland Roadways.


Contemporary journalists and English people visiting Ireland, during the time of "The Great Hunger," blamed laws passed by the British Parliament (intended to help the poor) as part of the problem.

"The dole" (as Frank McCourt describes the government’s welfare system in Angela’s Ashes) was not the only source of help for the Irish poor. "Property" (that is, landowners) were also responsible to aid those in need. Some of the landowners actually carried-out their responsibilities.

But if a landowner had no tenants on his land, what responsibility would he have to provide for anything? How could "property" be called upon to care for the poor if the "property" had no poor to care for? Thus, a way around the Poor Laws was eviction of the people who had worked the land before the potatoes rotted.

A letter dated August 11, 1849—to the editor of the Illustrated London News—makes the point:

By the recent establishment of the Poor-Law, relief was established to the destitute; but, instead of this law benefitting the poor, it is, in reality, desolating the land. Any poor-law, if enacted among a poverty-stricken people, who have no surplus food for themselves, only aggravates the evil. Seizures take place every day for poor-rates. The poor farmer, by this process, is unable to live himself; his land is thrown up, and he, too, is plunged into the vortex of poverty - the poorhouse.

The writer concludes the letter by pleading with Robert Peel (then the British Prime Minister) and the British Parliament to do something to alleviate the anguish. If nothing is done, he predicts

...a fearful day of reckoning is at hand

Months after that prediction, with the Poor Laws still in effect, the Illustrated London News (ILN) reported:

The system intended to relieve the poor, by making the landlord responsible for their welfare, has at once made it the interest, and therefore the duty, of the landlords to get rid of them.  (December 22, 1849 issue of The Illustrated London News, at page 405.)

Not only did landlords "get rid of them," numerous landlords destroyed the very houses they owned to make sure the former home-dwellers could not return.

One way to keep tenant-farmers out was to strip dwellings of their thatched roofs. In its December 15, 1849 issue—at page 393—the ILN reveals homes with missing roofs in the village of Tullig (located in County Clare).

As the December 22nd issue of the News also points out, potato crops had failed and evictions had occurred before. What made this time such a calamity?

It wasn’t just the Poor Laws. Follow-up government policies like "An Act for the Protection and Relief of the Destitute Poor Evicted from their Dwellings" had serious side effects:

Under such stimuli and such auspices, the clearing process has gone on in an accelerated ratio, with Ireland...now dotted with ruined villages, and filled with a starving population...

And what "a starving population" it was!

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jan 01, 2002

Updated Last Revision: May 13, 2015

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"THE POOR LAWS" AwesomeStories.com. Jan 01, 2002. Jan 21, 2020.
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