The Establishment of the Poor Law System

The Royal Commission recommended an enlightened system of poor relief. The proposed scheme was to be administered by local boards, that would supervise improvement projects funded by state loans and local rates. A Poor Law commission would supervise the local boards. The Government of the time, did not accept these recommendations since they would cost too much and were out of line with the laissez faire economic thinking of the day. Instead an English Poor Law commissioner, George Nicholls, was sent to Ireland to make alternative recommendations. Nicholls suggested a severely limited system of poor relief under which, unlike England, the poor in Ireland would have no legal right to relief.

Such relief as was provided was to be given in specially constructed workhouses with no 'outdoor' relief. The government accepted most of Nicholls' suggestions and in 1838 the English Poor Law system was extended to Ireland by the Poor Relief (Ireland Act) (1&2 Vict., c. 56).

The Evolution of the Scheme

The basic structure set up by the 1838 Act survived into the twentieth century with only minor modifications. Initially the system was to be supervised by the English Poor Law Commissioners. Nicholls spent four years in Ireland setting up the system and thereafter two assistant Commissioners based in Dublin managed the system. In 1845 one of the English Commissioners was sent permanently to Ireland but in 1847 a separate Poor Law Commission was created for Ireland. Inevitably the Famine of the late 1840s tested the system to its limits and necessitated modifications.

Outdoor relief was allowed in 1847 but at the same time the terms on which people could be admitted to the workhouse were tightened. In the half century after the Famine the system of poor relief was somewhat relaxed over what had been envisaged in the 1830s.

Additional functions were assigned to the Poor Law over its lifetime. In the later 1830s attempts were made to create a system of medical relief based on the network of workhouses. This had only limited success and it was not until the Medical Charities (Ireland) Act of 1851 (14&15 Vict., c. 68) was passed that any real medical system based on the Poor Law was put in place. This allowed Guardians to divide Unions into dispensary districts which would each maintain a dispensary and provide a medical doctor for the poor. Those functions were extended by the Public Heath Act of 1866 (29&30 Vict., c. 90), which gave the dispensaries some public heath functions. These provisions were much expanded by the Public Health (Ireland) Act of 1878 (41&42 Vict., c. 52). In the Irish Free State the Poor Law system was formally abolished in 1925 when boards of Guardians were replaced by county boards of health and public assistance. In Northern Ireland the Poor Law remained in operation until the establishment of the National Health Service in 1946.

Pdf Dáil Éireann's response to the proposed meeting to amalgamate the County Donegal Boards of Guardians
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