1800-1859 | Famine | Ireland



Irish famine victims in County Cork – 1847.
James Mahony – 1847 – via Wikimedia

[ 8 June 1847 ]

On 8 June 1847, parliament passed the Poor Law Extension Act which saddled the entire cost of food relief for Irish famine victims on Irish property owners, thereby washing British hands of all financial responsibility.  The Act also stipulated that any assistance could only be offered inside workhouses. These imposed harsh conditions on inmates and due to their limited capacity and resources, could only open their doors to a tiny proportion of the destitute and starving.  The legislation also aggravated the situation in the hardest hit areas along the west coast of Ireland, where the ‘unions’ ( as the combinations of arbitrarily amalgamated parishes were called )  were too impoverished by the potato blight to be able to afford anything like the relief effort needed to prevent a catastrophic increase in mortality.1

Charles Trevelyan, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury who oversaw the implementation of famine relief, ensured that prior to leaving on his summer holiday to France, he issued orders closing down the soup kitchens and preventing government food depots selling food at below market prices. According to classical free market economics dogma, even this inadequate emergency humanitarian relief was deemed damaging to the long term health of Ireland’s economy.2  However, as the Irish nationalist MP Daniel O’Connell pointed out, long before the long term was ever reached hundreds of thousands of Irish peasants would die.


  1. Tim Pat Coogan, The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2012, pp. 39-40 and pp. 163 -164.
  2. Ibid., p. 165.

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