May 4, 2011

19th Century Poor in Ireland

What do you think of when you think of the poor in Ireland? Chances are it's The Potato Famine, which prompted mass emigration from 1845-1852. But the problem started earlier than the potato blight. The island was overpopulated and a great many people who could not afford to go to America or Canada to seek a new life took the shorter route to England. The indigent there were becoming a problem so the British government decided to bring The Poor Law that already existed in England and Wales to Ireland with the Act for the Effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland in 1838.

Poor Law Unions were created in political districts, which in Ireland were townlands. And a tax brought in money to support the workhouses that were built, although that was hardly enough to support them. The people who ran them were elected from the district. Usually a master ran the house and a mistress was in charge of the women and children. The poor were expected to work and were fed mostly gruel. The buildings were cold and damp. Men were separated from women and the children were separated from their parents.

According to Ask Ireland:

The granting of relief was at the discretion of the Poor Law Guardians. Priority was given to the aged and infirm, children and people resident within the Union concerned. Boards of Guardians were elected annually on the 25th March, and only cess payers could vote. Later in the nineteenth century the Poor Law developed to encompass services such as outdoor relief, medical services for the poor, assisted migration and other social services.

When I read this I was reminded of a scene in Angela's Ashes where the family had to go ask for help and they were given a sheep's head for Christmas dinner.

It's hard to place blame here. Clearly the situation was not handled well. Someone had a good idea to help the poor, to stop the suffering, and if not that than to stop the Irish from becoming a burden to English society (they already had plenty of poor to deal with.) But the poverty continued, even after the potato crop recovered.

The poor became resilient, however. The strong of will and heart survived, and in many cases prospered. The value of having to work hard for what one got was immeasurable. But truly happiness is not measured in wealth anyway. Over and over I hear from people who have worked in third world missions that the people in those countries are happy despite their lack of things. There is joy in family, in song, in fellowship, or craic as the Irish call it. And in living a life of faith. Great lessons, in my opinion. Of course, no one wants to endure poverty or wish it on someone else. But I'm studying it right now--studying the lives of these people and their responses, and I hope to honor their legacies in what I write.

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