|The Industrial Revolution, which was eventually to sweep the world, began in England
in the late 1700s. Yet despite the proximity to her island neighbour, Ireland generally
did not industrialise. The only exception was the eastern part of the north-east flax
growing area, where industrial processes improved the productivity of the linen industry.
Although Ireland's economy had almost flourished during the last half of the 18th century,
the Napoleonic Wars of 1803 to 1815 plunged the country into a recession. Not only did
agricultural prices fall but wages too. It could be argued that the availability of cheap
labour in Ireland would have encouraged industrialists to set up factories, but this did
not happen. The reasons for the lack of industrialisation in Ireland are not fully
understood, but is probably due to export economics.
The industrialisation in England forced Ireland to move more towards agriculture in order to produce viable export crops to make money. In fact, although economics forced the move, Ireland benefitted by an improvement in her terms of trade. Once English merchants began buying Irish grain in 1806, large flour mills were built, and communication routes and agricultural technology both improved. Cottage industry declined in favour of agriculture. Nevertheless, the poorest classes did not see much of this money because the benefit of higher export prices was cancelled out by the rise in food prices. In some ways, this polarisation towards food production increased the poor's vulnerability to crop failure. As the farmers got poorer they were forced to sell more of their crops (usually oats) for money while eating more potatoes (a crop that couldn't be transported easily).
In the 1830s the government decided to tackle poverty in Ireland. A number of inquiries were carried out, the most famous being the Irish Poor Inquiry which was based largely on the experience of a similar scheme in Britain. The British report determined that public workhouses, rather than charity, were the best solution to the problem of poverty. The Irish report rejected this policy, but was itself rejected due to the radical nature of its recommendations. Instead, the workhouse policy was extended to Ireland. Other policies introduced included free primary education and subsidised emigration, usually to Britain or the United States.
Workhouses were buildings designed for the poorest in society, who could no longer afford to live outside. They were run on the principles of discipline, work, separation from family members and dull food. A total of 130 workhouses, with a capacity for 100,000 people, were commissioned in the 1830s, the last being completed in 1843. Although conditions were harsh, they were never intended to be the over-crowded, disease-ridden pits that they became during the famine. Before the famine they were usually run at around 40% of capacity and, in fact, comparatively fewer Irish people entered the workhouses than in Britain. Funny as it may seem now, the designers had originally worried that non-needy cases would enter the workhouses in order to live off the taxpayers. In reality, those who entered the workhouses were genuinely needy (although entering a workhouse was a matter of choice, there was in reality no other option for the poorest people). In 1844, 40% of inmates were not of working age, and a third were sick on entry.
Figures and Maps showing Pre-Famine Demographics and Poverty
The table below gives some statistics for the immediate pre-famine period (figures for 1841).
The following map indicates the level of poverty in Ireland on the eve of the famine in 1841. The index that it measures is based 50-50 on literacy levels and the levels of class 4 (worst) housing in each county. There is a close correlation between this graph and the types of agriculture in Ireland in 1841 and with the effects of the famine. This indicates that both poverty and famine severity were linked with the type of agriculture being undertaken. This is discussed in parts 1 and 2 of the 'Causes of Famine'.
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