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The end of the Irish Poor Law?

Welfare and healthcare reform in revolutionary and independent Ireland
Donnacha Lucey
Manchester University Press
The end of the Irish Poor Law?


From the Introduction

This book examines the poor law and attempts at its reform during the Irish revolution (1918-23) and in the initial decades of Irish independ­ence. This period represented one of the most formative and crucial eras in Irish politics and society, with ideas of culture, nation, state and iden­tity widely contested. Historical analysis of the history of welfare and the poor law during this seminal period remains limited, and this book's appraisal of the relief of poverty addresses a previously underdeveloped aspect of the first decades of twentieth-century Ireland. The work pro­vides a study of the intersection between welfare and politics during the revolutionary and the Irish Free State years. It examines the attitudes of advanced nationalists during the war of independence towards the poor and poverty, and the welfare policies enacted by Free State reformers. The transformation of public assistance regimes in independent Ireland is investigated. In particular, the establishment of county, district and cottage hospitals from what were formerly workhouses is examined. A key research question is whether the terms of entitlement to poor and medical assistance, based on poverty and destitution under the poor law, were actually transformed in the Free State? The book's focus is not limited to national developments, and it analyses poor relief prac­tices at a local and regional level. It contextualises the development of the Irish Poor Law system, and its subsequent transformation under the Irish Free State, within the wider reforms of welfare regimes that con­currently occurred throughout inter-war Britain and Europe. In doing so the book engages with the burgeoning international historiography which examines poor relief, welfare and healthcare in the first half of the twentieth century. Laissez-faire socio-economic thought influenced the development of nineteenth-century poor relief practices, and as a result principles of deterrence permeated many of the new welfare systems including the English New Poor Law, which was introduced in 1834. From the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and particularly during the early twentieth century, insurance-based welfare reform was introduced.

In Ireland and Britain the Old Age Pension Act of 1908 and National Insurance Act of 1911 signalled the establishment of social security and represented the need for the state to provide more substantial assistance than provided under deterrent relief systems. These reforms were mostly targeted at the labouring and deserving classes. Generally speaking, these groups were increasingly politicised through the labour movement and viewed as central to the economic health of nations during an era of imperial expansion from the latter nineteenth century.1 By the early dec­ades of the twentieth century, developing notions of citizenship, brought about by franchise reform, led to governments further bestowing rights on their citizens and expansion in welfare systems. However, those who were considered as failing to live up to social ideals, and whose poverty was viewed as emanating from personal failings, were chastised as immoral and subject to harsh policies, which were often influenced by eugenic concerns over population quality in many inter-war western societies. Such ideas resonated with the debates regarding the deserv­ing and undeserving poor which permeated the mid-nineteenth-century poor law. This book analyses poor relief and poor law reform in Ireland within such contexts.

Understandings of the Irish Poor Law and local authority welfare and healthcare during revolutionary and early independent Ireland remain limited. The reform of the poor law in independent Ireland is largely viewed as a failure. The 1919 Democratic Programme - the Irish repub­lican declaration of social and economic objectives read out at the revo­lutionary First Dail - claimed that the 'Irish Republic' would abolish the 'odious, degrading and foreign' poor law system: J. J. Lee, the Irish historian, sardonically notes that Irish independence merely succeeded in bringing about a 'degrading and native system'.2 The Democratic Programme subscribed to traditional nationalist interpretations which denigrated the poor law as a cruel and British system. However, recent historical research has demonstrated that the poor law had a far more complex place in Irish society than these viewpoints allowed. Workhouses were multifunctional welfare and healthcare institutions that provided mostly for the sick, elderly, infirm and young. Traditional depictions of families being forced into workhouses and placed in sepa­rate wards did not ring true for most of the post-Famine years. The poor law was not synonymous with the workhouse and large numbers of the destitute and sick poor were relieved in their own homes with outdoor relief and through the dispensary system. The multifaceted poor law could be harsh, stigmatising and marked by class and gender prejudices. These traits, however, were juxtaposed with developing notions of care, changing terms of entitlement and the gradual dilution of the principles of deterrence that underpinned the introduction of the Irish Poor Law in 1838. From the 1880s nationalists gained control of many boards of guardians and the 1898 Local Government Act democratised these bodies. In effect, as the historian Virginia Crossman has argued, the welfare policies of the post-Famine Irish Poor Law reflected the attitudes inherent in Irish society.3 The development and reform of the poor law from 1918 must be understood from this viewpoint and not through the traditional nationalist perspectives, which depict Irish independence as heralding the closure of the workhouse and the repelling of the hated British Poor Law.

This book addresses a number of significant gaps in Irish historiog­raphy. The Free State's Cumann na nGaedheal government (1923-32) is largely seen as adopting harsh welfare policies which viewed poverty as a result of the poor's personal and moral failings.4 The early Free State reductions in the old age pension and rejection of extended social insurance in 1925 have been well documented. The 1924 Dail Eireann (Irish Parliament) comments by the Minister of Industry and Commerce, Patrick McGilligan, which warned that due to fiscal constraints people 'may have to die from starvation' was the nadir of Free State social policy.5 A number of survey works on the Irish welfare state in the twentieth century have been completed. Sophia Carey's Social Security in Ireland 1939-52 adopts a schematic framework and implements a range of political and welfare theories to explain the development of the Irish welfare system during the critical stage of the establishment of social security.6 Contextualised within modern theoretical perspectives on social policy, Carey argues that independent Ireland was shaped by both a colonial legacy and the influence of the Catholic Church, which resulted in a unique welfare state compared to other European countries. Mel Cousins' work examines the development of Irish gov­ernment welfare policy between the years 1922 and 1952. It highlights that social conservatism and fiscal liberalism were the prevailing influ­ences on the Cumann na nGaedheal government. Cousins also exam­ines the emergence of the Fianna Fail-led government in 1932 and the following period of welfare expansion which witnessed a range of new social policies including reforms of the old age pension, new unem­ployment schemes and benefits, unified health insurance, a Workmen's Compensation Act and the introduction of a widows' and orphans' pen­sions scheme.7