A series of official and unofficial enquiries in the first decades of the 19th century presented a picture of widespread and severe deprivation. It has been claimed that the conditions in Ireland were the worst in Europe, although this is disputed. There is evidence of higher nutritional standards and well-being , but poorer housing and clothing than in other countries.
Prior to 1838, no governmental system of poor relief existed. The Irish parliament had provided enabling legislation for county infirmaries and houses of industries. The major cities in Ireland had a variety of institutions set up on either private or local municipal initiative. There were general and specialist hospitals, orphanages, asylums, dispensaries, and a number of houses of industry or workhouses.
The countryside was less well covered. It has been suggested that a poor law of sorts operated through the Church of Ireland vestries, which channelled charitable efforts in very hard years. This would appear to be ,largely limited to the north and east.
In the early years of 19th-century, mendicity societies funded by voluntary contributions from wealthy persons provided various types of assistance from money or food to shelter and employment. The largest institutions were in Dublin and Belfast.
The Irish poor depended on their own resources and those of relatives and neighbours outside of the limited state and voluntary assistance. Self-help organisations, saving clubs, poor shops and friendly societies existed to help the purchase of basic necessities by savings. Medical charities provided benefits to the sick poor. To some extent, this was motivated by concern as the spread of disease in the population.
Contemporary ideas distinguished between the deserving or impotent poor including the young, very old, sick and permanently disabled and those capable of supporting themselves. The catholic clergy operated in some cases as distributors of relief, channelling assistance between persons who could afford to donate and the poor.
During the famine years of 1816 to 1817, and 1822 to 1823, public work schemes and loan funds were established to advance money for works to provide employment for labourers.
The Board of Works established in 1831 took over governmental responsibility in this area. In the same era, the grand juries were empowered to build district fever hospitals. A national board of health was established in 1820 to advise on public health issues.
The new English Poor Law in 1834 replaced the older system of parish based outdoor relief. There was a centrally directed locally administered system based on the workhouse. The ideas behind the English Poor Law were critical in shaping the structure and nature of the Irish Poor Law Act.
A Royal Commission was established to investigate the position of the poor in Ireland, chaired by the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin. A report which ran to a half million words, interviewed over 1,500 people. It found 30 percent of the population of Ireland to be in stress for at least part of the year.
It recommended a program of economic development including assisted emigration. It concluded that organized relief other than for impotent poor would be impractical and expensive
The report was largely ignored, and the government wanted to a system that could be implemented quickly and cheaply. The English Poor Law was largely followed.
The Poor Law (Ireland) Act was passed the UK Parliament in 1838. It introduced a national system of poor relief based on the workhouse and financed by the local rate. It remained in force in the Irish Free State until the 1920s and until after World War II in Northern Ireland.
The system involved the construction of 80 workhouses through the country. They were supported by local rates and administered by boards of guardians. They were under the control of national Poor Law Commissioners.
The Poor Law failed to deal with the causes of poverty or provide adequate relief system. This was exposed when the famine struck within two years of the system’s commencement. The system was a harsher system than applied in England which was thought by the government to be necessary to accommodate the different circumstances in Ireland.
The requirement to enter the workhouse was not mandatory in England. In Ireland all applicants were required to enter the workhouse. Once the workhouse was full, there was no obligation to provide further relief.
The Board of Guardians who administered the workhouse were elected by ratepayers. It also comprise local magistrates, who comprised half the board and were unelected.
The English Poor Law Commissioners were responsible for the ultimate administration and uniformity of the Irish Poor Law systems. There was a resident commissioner in Dublin assisted by eight assistant commissioners. The Poor Law Commissioners had regulatory powers over the local board. If the local boards failed to discharge their functions, the Commissioners could discharge the board and place administration of the Poor Law union in the hands of paid officers.
The Poor Law was associated with and dominated by the workhouse. It was designed to be bleak, dissuasive, disciplinarian and oppressive. After the famine, the system changed and evolved to some extent. It ceased to be method of deterrence catering for extreme destitution to a broader welfare system encompassing medical care, social housing, sanitation and poor relief. By that stage it also acted a refuge for elderly, infirm and sick people.
Relief was available. only in the workhouse. Only a person driven to destitution and outright essentially would submit themselves to the regime there. The entry into the workhouse was a last resort, but nonetheless large numbers entered out of necessities
By 1842, the country was divided into a 130 unions and workhouses. Workhouses accommodated between 500 and 900 persons. Most unions built workhouse rapidly which contrasted to the position in certain parts of England.
Life in the workhouse was regulated. The intention was to promote obedient industry and self-control. Person admitted were cleansed and clothed in a uniform and classified. Women and children were separated. Children were separated from adults and the sick from the able body. The diet was frugal and monotonous. The Poor Law Commissioners prescribed minimum food allowances.
All persons were required to work unless sick or disabled. Work was generally tedious and repetitive. Children attended school in the workhouse or the national schools for few hours a day while the rest of the time was devoted to physical work.
There was harsh system of discipline designed to maintain order. There were systems for punishment of persons within the workhouse by detention or for reference of a local magistrate.
There was no religious membership of the poor law boards. Chaplains limited themselves to members of their faith although some allegations of proselytism were made.