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


The soup kitchens were to model the system that had already been implemented by the Society of Friends in administering private relief in Ireland.37  As the system of public works was shut down, relief from the soup kitchens exploded until in June 1847 it is estimated that a total of 3.16 million people were being served daily.38  Donnelly calls the system of soup kitchens "by far the most effective of all the methods adopted by the government to deal with starvation and disease between late 1846 and 1851…while it lasted…starvation was generally averted and disease was considerably lessened."39  Woodham-Smith, however, criticizes the British government for using the success of the soup kitchen program as an excuse for ending their meaningful involvement in supporting the starving Irish.40 

Indeed, the success of the soup kitchens prompted Parliament to initiate the fourth and final turn in their famine policy. Out of rage at the perceived inaction of the Irish landholding class, as well as a philosophy that stipulated that the rich of Ireland should provide for the poor, the British introduced and passed the Irish Poor Law Extension Bill, which ceded control over the financial support for public relief from the department of the treasury to local Irish government. Essentially, the local governments were now expected to finance all relief through taxation of landlords within their boundaries. The inconvenient fact that many of the landlords in Ireland at the time did not have adequate funds available and were saddled with enormous debt loads that prevented them from paying the taxes was ignored.41

37. Donnelly, 81.
38. Donnelly, 85.
39. Donnelly, 91.
40. Woodham-Smith, 296-297.
41. Christine Kinealy, "The Role of the Poor Law During the Famine," in Poirteir, 116.
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