Economic conditions were such in the Ireland of the 1840's, that a large section of the peasant-labouring classes, with tiny unviable plots of land, were reduced to pauperism.
In unindustrialised Ireland, the vast majority of the native population
depended on agriculture for survival, many of them on a single agriculture crop: the
potato. Robert Kee, in his book Ireland - A History describes the situation as
"He (The poorest peasant) lived off a tiny piece of land for which he paid such a high rent that almost all - and sometimes all - the cereal crops he grew on it had to be sold to pay the rent. He and his family subsisted on a plot of potatoes."
This class of peasant would be all too familiar with hunger for temporary periods during the 'slow' months, i.e., May, June and July when the old crop of potatoes was used up and the new crop not yet ready to eat.
In addition to the poor economic conditions of the time, the 1840's saw
the culmination of a vast population explosion in Ireland. Robert Kee describes the
effects as follows:
"The pressure of this vast increase in numbers on the land became desperate, and land became subdivided into smaller and smaller plots on which more and more people subsisted mainly on potatoes. The poorest of all simply hired out their labour in return not for a wage, but for a small plot on which to grow them".
When the potato crop failed, 2½ million of these labouring-peasant classes were destitute and so swelled the ranks of the Irish Pauper Class, created with the introduction of the Irish Poor Law Act, 1838.
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