The Irish Poor Law Act

The Class of Pauper

Prior to 1839, Ireland had no poor law system of any kind, and with the increasing pressure of population the need for some such provision had become more and more obvious. In 1833, when the reform of the English Poor-law system was being considered, the Government appointed a Commission under the Chairmanship of Richard Whatley, Archbishop of Dublin, to enquire into the need for a system of poor-relief in Ireland. The Commissioners instituted a vigorous and exhaustive investigation and concluded that the deterrent English workhouse system, whose fundamental aim was to force the poor to find work, was totally unsuited to Ireland, as the root cause of Irish poverty was lack of employment. The Commission's proposals were hardly even considered, clashing as they did with government policy.

A new enquiry was entrusted to George Nicholls who conducted a hasty tour of the country in barely nine weeks and reported in favour of extending the English workhouse system to Ireland. His recommendation was accepted and "An Act for the more Effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland" was passed in April 1838.

The main provisions of the act were as follows:

The Board of Guardians of the Ennistymon Union met weekly in the workhouse. The minutes of these meetings exist in 147 hand written volumes and are held by Clare County Library. This information is based primarily on the first nine of those minute books, covering the period 1839 to 1850. They show the establishment and early development of the Poor Law system in North Clare and its response to the Famine. They provide detailed information on the conditions obtaining in the Workhouse and in the Union at large. They are also an important source material for study on the Poor Law in general.