Government Policy


The dominant economic theory in mid 19th century Britain was Laissez Faire (meaning let be).  According to this it was not the governments job to provide help for its citizens or to interfere with the free market of goods and trade.

People were expected to be self-sufficient and the attitude of the state was that to give the people charity would make them more dependant.  The most that was provided was The Poor Law Act (1838); this provided accommodation for the destitute in workhouses.  A board of guardians ran them.  A lot of the relief work during the famine years was to fall back on these.  There were 123 Poor Law Unions in Ireland.

Meath had five main Poor Law unions-Kells, Navan, Trim, Oldcastle and Dunshaughlin.  Small parts of the county were also catered for by Ardee,Edendery and Drogheda. 

The British government took the view that the landlords should look after their tenants instead of leaving it to the state. That put more pressure back on local areas. The workhouses were greatly over crowded.  Kells, built for 600 in 1842 had over 950 in 1851(according to the 1851 census).

The conservative Prime Minister, Robert Peel at the beginning of the famine, brought in some short-term relief.  He introduced Indian corn to feed the hungry. This was known as ‘Peels Brimstone’ as it was difficult to mill, difficult to digest and it did not suit the Irish who had lived on the potato.  He also set up a relief commission to organise aid and investigate the blight. Peel said that the Irish had a habit of exaggerating distress when the famine struck

In September 1847, however, Russell, the Liberal Prime minister who succeeded him ended what little relief had been provided and demanded that the Poor Law be collected and stuck firmly to the Laissez Faire policy.  He wanted less government intervention and more involvement from local landlords. This put the cost of relief back onto the locals who were already poor and unable to finance relief. 

Charles Trevelyan, the assistant secretary to the treasury had little sympathy.  He closed pubic works in July 1846. He later approved some aid but there were always strings attached. He was afraid that would be a drain on Britain.

He also believed that the famine was ‘a punishment from god for an idle, ungrateful and rebellious country’ 

The government policy of laissez fairre contributed to the hardship and hunger, which accompanied the potato blight, a serious famine this led to the deaths of one million people during the great famine.  A contemporary comment was that ‘God sent the blight, but the English made the famine’ and to some extent this was true because both peel’ and Russell’s government did little to help the Irish. Most of the rural lived in abject poverty.


Julian Hand 

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