The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1847 marked a major shift in British government policy with respect to An Gorta Mór distress in Ireland. Under the new act Irish property owners and tenants would henceforth bear the full burden of fiscal responsibility for relief, which was to be administered solely by the Irish poor-law system.
The main provisions of the act accommodated these changes by allowing the poor-law authorities, for the first time, to extend relief to destitute persons without necessarily obliging them to become inmates of a workhouse. In the case of relief applicants adjudged able-bodied, this outdoor relief was to be made available only under the most stringent conditions, mainly where insufficient accommodation existed within the workhouses. One important qualification of the right to relief, however, was outlined in the Gregory clause of the act, which required that relief applicants surrender all but a quarter acre of their land. Because workhouse accommodation was not remotely sufficient for the huge numbers entitled to relief, and because poor-law administrators refused to sanction outdoor relief on the scale necessary, the act was calamitous for the poor. The workhouse system was engulfed in a tide of destitution, and hunger, disease, and death increased sharply in the hinterland.
In addition to this, the Poor Law Amendment Act itself created new levels of destitution, because fear of incurring a huge new tax liability to fund the amended poor-law propelled landlords into a massive campaign of evictions. As things were, the property tax that paid for the poor-law, the poor-law rate, was levied on each rented holding, and already fell heavily on the landlord; for the smallest holdings his liability was total. Now faced with a hugely increased tax burden at a time when hunger distress was severely affecting rents, many landlords chose to eliminate the rate-bearing holdings altogether by evicting their occupiers and destroying their dwellings. The Gregory clause greatly facilitated these hunger clearances; it forced tenants to part with almost all their land in order to obtain relief, but in practice, landlords often refused to accept surrenders unless the entire holding was yielded, together with the dwelling.
Commonly, tenants starved to death rather than surrender their land, because entitlement to relief was no guarantee of its availability. Even more frequently, tenants who surrendered all but the required quarter acre had their dwellings razed in their absence, often while they were at the workhouse applying for relief. Not surprisingly, the evictions that it facilitated and the abuses to which it led lent the Gregory clause a notoriety unique in the history of British legislation for Ireland.
Image | An Gorta Mór Memorial | Philadephia, PA | Sculpted by Glenna Goodacre