History In Focus logo and homepage link

History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 14: Welfare •


Map of the provinces of Ireland

Map showing the four provinces of Ireland

The Poor Law in Ireland, 1838-1948

Virginia Crossman (Oxford Brookes University) (1)

During the 19th and early 20th centuries a considerable number of Irish people were vulnerable to want. How to respond to poverty in Ireland and to the social problems associated with it, exercised the minds of economists, politicians and philanthropists throughout this period. After more than three decades of inquiry and debate over the desirability and feasibility of introducing a statutory system of poor relief, the Irish poor law was passed by the Westminster parliament in 1838. Modelled on the new English poor law of 1834, this act introduced a nationwide system of poor relief based on the workhouse and financed by a local property tax. The poor law remained the primary form of poor relief in Ireland until the 1920s, and in Northern Ireland until after the Second World War.

The popular view of the Irish poor law is dominated by the image of the workhouse. Built according to a standard plan, Irish workhouses were forbidding structures that became a significant architectural feature of the Irish countryside. The workhouse reformer, Laura Stephens, observed that a visitor to an Irish town would have no difficulty in recognising the workhouse 'for the great gloomy pile of grey stone buildings, surrounded with high walls is unmistakable'. (2) Prior to the Great Famine (1845-50), relief was only available within the workhouse. Under the pressure of mass starvation and with many workhouses full to overflowing, the system was extended in 1847 to allow poor law boards to grant outdoor relief to the sick and disabled, and to widows with two or more legitimate children. Outdoor relief could only be granted to the able-bodied if the workhouse was full, or a site of infection. Anyone occupying more than one quarter of an acre of land, however, was excluded from receiving relief. The effect of this provision, when combined with falling rent rolls, and the liability of landlords to pay the poor rates on holdings worth less than £4 per annum, was to encourage landlords to evict their smallest tenants. Workhouse occupancy rose from around 417,000 in 1847, to around 932,000 by the end of 1849. (3)

The experience of the Famine was crucial to the development and perception of the Irish poor law, not least because the association in the public mind between workhouses and famine deaths intensified popular aversion to the system. Moreover, the rate-in-aid scheme by which loans to distressed unions were repaid by means of a levy on more prosperous unions represented a departure from one of the fundamental principles of the poor law, that poor relief should be a local charge. And by making relief a national but not imperial charge the government missed the opportunity to make the political union of 1800 a practical reality, a fact that Irish nationalists were quick to exploit. The Famine became a central component of nationalist ideology in the second half of the 19th century, providing compelling evidence of the failure of the British government and the Irish landed elite to act in the interests of the Irish people.

Once the demands imposed by large-scale distress had eased, most Irish boards of guardians sought to minimise outdoor relief, accepting the official view that this form of relief was expensive and demoralising. As the century continued, however, the number of people receiving outdoor relief began to creep up, although levels of outdoor relief remained low in comparison with Britain. At the same time total expenditure on poor relief also rose. Inmates of Irish workhouses were drawn predominantly from the most vulnerable groups in society, the elderly, the disabled, the sick, the homeless and children. For those on the fringes of society the workhouse was a central element of the mixed economy of makeshifts. However, large sections of the population and especially the prominent class of agricultural labourers and small farmers had little if any experience of indoor or outdoor relief in the post-Famine years. This was to alter in the closing decades of the 19th century, when acute economic distress once again acted as a catalyst to change. After a period of relative economic prosperity, Ireland underwent an economic crisis in the years 1879-81. With the threat of famine once again hanging over the country, restrictions on the granting of outdoor relief were relaxed in distressed districts so that all destitute people, including the able-bodied and land-holders, could receive relief outside the workhouse. The lifting of these restrictions meant the temporary abandonment of the workhouse test in distressed areas. Government-sanctioned use of outdoor relief to assist people during times of economic crisis encouraged, and by implication legitimated, its use more generally.

By the mid-1880s, recipients of outdoor relief made up 56 per cent of the average daily total receiving relief compared with just over 10 per cent in the early 1860s. This was the reverse of the situation in England where levels of outdoor relief declined in many areas in the period from the 1870s to the 1890s. Increases in Ireland were particularly marked in the provinces of Munster and Connacht (see map). Between 1878 and 1894, the per centage of the daily total receiving outdoor as opposed to indoor relief increased from 40 per cent to 65 per cent in Munster and from 37 per cent to 60 per cent in Connacht. (4) In Westport Union in County Mayo, the total number of people granted outdoor relief in any one year had not exceeded 50 in the decades prior to 1881. After this date, total numbers returned were in the hundreds in normal years and in the thousands in bad years. In most Ulster unions by contrast, outdoor recipients remained a minority of both daily and yearly totals. There were both economic and political reasons for this. Rateable land values in Munster and Connacht were generally lower than in Ulster indicating lower agricultural incomes and greater vulnerability to economic downturns. And at a time when many boards of guardians in Munster and Connacht were coming under the control of locally elected, tenant guardians, those in Ulster remained largely landlord-dominated. Landlord-controlled boards across the country adhered more closely to the workhouse test than those controlled by tenants, the latter being more responsive to local sentiment in favour of outdoor relief which was popularly regarded as being both more economical and more acceptable to the respectable, deserving poor. (5)

The concept of the deserving and undeserving poor was central to welfare provision throughout this period. Generally associated with middle-class values and perceptions, and often assumed to be an English importation to Ireland, the concept nevertheless became deeply rooted in Irish popular culture. The respectable poor, those who had fallen on hard times through no fault of their own, such as the elderly and disabled, were regarded as deserving of sympathy and relief while those lacking respectability such as vagrants and prostitutes were felt to deserve not assistance but punishment. One of the main criticisms of the poor law system in Ireland was that it failed to discriminate adequately between the respectable and the non-respectable since all destitute people were eligible for relief within the workhouse. Speaking at a public meeting in Granard, County Longford, in 1885, a local Catholic priest asserted that the workhouse system had 'failed miserably. The old and the young, the sane and the crazy, the impure and the virtuous were all huddled into the one institution'. (6)

Irish nationalists seized on the popular view of the workhouse system as an alien imposition unsuited to Irish culture and society to argue that there would be no need for workhouses in a home rule Ireland. Put an end to evictions and increase employment through industrial development, the nationalist activist and land campaigner, Michael Davitt argued, and 'the workhouse will disappear from the social life of Ireland', to be replaced by a system that did not degrade, but would provide succour 'for the helpless and deserving poor against the inevitable misfortune of life'. (7) As the struggle for independence intensified, the British came to be held responsible not just for the workhouse system but for the social evils associated with it. Vagrancy, like prostitution, was linked to the presence of the British army in Ireland. A free and independent Ireland would see a radical reduction in the ranks of the undeserving poor as well as more equitable treatment of the deserving poor. Even Unionists who supported the link with Britain, criticised the workhouse system as wasteful and inefficient. Poor law guardians in Ulster were in the forefront of a campaign in the 1870s and 1880s to amalgamate union workhouses on the grounds that the majority of them were under-utilised and excessively costly to maintain.

The rising levels of expenditure on poor relief in the post-Famine period, together with the increasing use of the workhouse as a refuge for the elderly and the sick, paralleled developments in England. On the first Saturday in January 1900, 73 per cent of the inmates of Irish workhouses were classified as elderly, infirm or sick. (8) But in Ireland poor law boards became involved in wider range of functions than was the case in England. Their responsibilities encompassed the administration of a dispensary medical service and the provision of social housing as well as the implementation of public health legislation. Poor relief became one element of a general system of health and welfare administration. The character and evolution of this system reflected the particular circumstances of Ireland as well as the efforts of British governments to counter the appeal of Irish nationalism through the promotion of social and economic development. In England the growth in state spending in the late 19th and early 20th centuries reflected a developing consensus around the benefits of centrally-sponsored welfare initiatives. In Ireland state spending was associated with waste and inefficiency and widely regarded as a tardy and inadequate response to centuries of neglect and misgovernment. Despite general agreement on the evils of the workhouse system, there was little public debate on the kind of welfare system that should replace it, or how this should be financed.

Workhouses were formally abolished in independent Ireland in 1925 when boards of guardians were replaced by boards of health and public assistance, financed by a county rate and empowered to grant outdoor relief to all needy persons. Workhouse buildings were mostly converted into hospitals or county homes for the elderly and infirm. But if the poor no longer lived in fear of the workhouse, it is questionable whether in terms of the relief available to them they benefited significantly from the transition. In Northern Ireland the poor law survived until 1948 although there was a significant reduction in the numbers receiving indoor relief in the inter-war period. Amalgamation allowed for the conversion of a number of workhouses into district hospitals and by 1948 only a handful of workhouses were still operating. The poor law system was finally swept away in the reorganisation of local government administration and health services that took place between 1946 and 1948 when Northern Ireland followed Britain in the establishment of a comprehensive welfare state with universal benefits and free to all health services.

  1. This article draws on research generated by the ESRC project 'Welfare regimes under the Irish poor law 1850-1921'. Back to (1)
  2. L. Stephens, 'An Irish Workhouse', The New Ireland Review, 13 (May 1900), 129. Back to (2)
  3. M. Daly, The Famine in Ireland (Dundalk, 1986), p. 94. Back to (3)
  4. V. Crossman, The Poor Law in Ireland 1838-1948 (Dundalk, 2006), p. 50. Back to (4)
  5. W. L. Feingold, The Revolt of the Tenantry: The Transformation of Local Government in Ireland 1872-1886 (Boston, Mass., 1984); V. Crossman, Politics, Pauperism and Power in late 19th-century Ireland (Manchester, 2006). Back to (5)
  6. Freeman's Journal, 22 Sept. 1885. Back to (6)
  7. Munster News, 19 Nov. 1887. Back to (7)
  8. Return of the Number of Inmates in Workhouses on the 1st Saturday in the Year, Annual Report of the Local Government Board for Ireland, House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, 1900 [Cd. 338], xxxv, 18. Back to (8)

Articles index | Back to top