The Irish Poor Laws (1838)

The Irish Poor Law of 1838 represented a culmination of the pressures of poverty in Ireland and increasing British autonomy over Ireland. Poverty was a major issue in Ireland leading up to the 1830s but it was largely dealt with through private charity. The poverty in Ireland was due to cycles of crop failures and shortages and less economic development than their neighbor, Britain. The Act of Union, which united Ireland and Great Britain in 1800, led to increasing British control over Ireland with decreasing autonomy within Ireland.  In the 1830s, the British government sent George Nicholls, a Commissioner of the English Poor Law, to Ireland to assess the situation and decide on future plans in addressing poverty in Ireland. Nicholls proposed a system similar to that of the English Poor Law in which workhouses would provide relief for the state of destitution. However, as opposed to in England, outdoor relief was not permitted in the Law, meaning that all relief would be provided through workhouses. Despite opposition from Irish government members, the British government passed the new Poor Law in 1838. The ultimate goal of the Irish Poor Law was to stimulate economic development by pressuring Irish landlords to consolidate their holdings, leading to an investment of capital in Ireland. Not only that, but the Irish Poor Laws sought to keep as many people out of the workhouses as possible through deterrence and limited access. British officials also sought to prevent an influx of Irish into Britain during periods of food or labor shortages by removing Irish from workhouses in England and returning them to Ireland.



Kinealy, Christine. “The Rags and Wretched Cabins of Ireland 1845”. This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine. Roberts Rinehart Publishers: 1995. (18-27)

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