Nick Wilson, "Political Ecology and the Irish Potato Famine"


transition to Russell's government and the further entrenchment of Sir Charles Trevelyan in the ministry of the exchequer, "rather than continue the practice under which the treasury paid half the cost of projects controlled by the Board of Works, it was ordained that in the future all charges should ultimately be met out of local taxation."35  However, their plans were not feasible, because in the fall of 1846 it became apparent that the entire potato crop, not just the thirty percent of the previous season, had failed.

As previously stated, Russell and Trevelyan hoped to forward the cost of the Public Works back onto the local county governments in Ireland. As part of their scheme to help reduce the "indolence" of the Irish worker, they transitioned the public works system from one in which the workers were paid a daily wage regardless of the amount of work they completed to a "task system" in which the worker was paid according to how much he or she produced. This system did not wipe out indolence but rather resulted in disastrously low wages for workers; people already weak from semi-starvation were asked to perform heavy construction labor without appropriate tools or training. Workers were unable to achieve more than a starvation wage, and overseers of the public works recognized a physical deterioration of the laborers as the works progressed.36  Despite all of these massive inadequacies with the system of public works, at their peak-in mid-1847-they employed over 700,000 workers.

The third and fourth parts of the British relief response to the famine were linked by a recognition both of the inability of Public Works to effectively cope with the famine and of its enormous expense. Beginning in early 1847, the government, again acting with the help of the Commissariat Department, began to establish a series of soup kitchens to provide direct and free food to the population while at the same time attempting to scale back and ultimately terminate the system of Public Works. By June 1847 nearly the entire system of Public Works had been shut down.

35. Donnelly, 70.
36. Donnelly, 72-77.
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