16 October 2011

Poor Law Unions

I found this map in the collection of the New York Public Library. It is from 1922 and shows “the Province of Ulster with the six North East Counties shaded according to Population in favour of the Free State, and in favour of the Belfast Parliament determined by Poor Law Unions.”

Overview. Click on this and other images for a closer look.

Lower right.

Some time after the original printing, thick cross-hatching has been added to the map to represent polling information. This crude over-drawing is unfortunate because what lies beneath is perhaps the most interesting thing about this map. Here the country is not subdivided into parishes, baronies or townlands, but a whole other category; Poor Law Unions. These demarcations were used to organise relief for the poorest members of society and were established under the Poor Relief Act of 1838. Similar units were created all across the British Isles at the time. Poor Law Unions tended to be drawn-up so as to have a market town at their centre. So they often crossed county boundaries and any other kind of boundary that might have already been in situ. Selection of the town that was to be hub of a Poor Law Union was often of local importance as it would, ironically perhaps, bring jobs. The first employment being the building of a workhouse.

By the middle of the 19th century there were 163 Poor Law Unions in Ireland. Elsewhere in the British Isles poverty-stricken people had the right to claim relief from their Poor Law Union but in Ireland it was never enshrined as a right. It was considered to be aid.

Donegal’s Inishowen had Poor Law electoral divisions rather charmingly named “Lilies” and “Three Trees.”

Historian Raymond Gillespie tells us that the “Irish Poor Law system was the quintessential product of the Victorian enthusiasm for administrative reform in Ireland.” Eventually the system of Poor Law Unions evolved from a basic safety net for the poor towards something like an early public health service. In the freshly formed Irish Free State the Poor Law system was abolished in 1925, only a few years after this map was drawn over. In Northern Ireland the Poor Law operated until the National Health Service was established in 1946.

But what of the voting? Voting is the overt subject of the map, at some point somebody drew over the Poor Law Unions in the six counties of Northern Ireland to discuss voting patterns.

Key the to voting.

When Poor Law Unions were operating they were further divided into electoral divisions. By the middle of the 19th century there were 3,438 of these and the northern units are displayed on this map. Voting was used to elect the local Guardians, members of the Union boards. In the title 'Guardian' I think I can detect the Victorian enthusiasm that Gillespie referrers to.

With this map it appears that Poor Law Union’s electoral divisions were used for something else. Not just to deicide on the local guardians but to express a view on the future of Northern Ireland. Maintain union with Britain or go in with the Irish Free State. “[T]he six North East Counties shaded according to Population in favour of the Free State, and in favour of the Belfast Parliament.” When, why and by whom this information was gathered is a mystery to me. The map is hand-shaded, but by who? Were the results of this poll on the future of Northern Ireland taken as an official measure? One tends to hope not, only property owners could vote on Poor Law Union business and the more property you owned the more votes you got. Then again, modern democracy is not necessarily a form of democracy that would be recognised by someone in the grip of a Victorian enthusiasm.

Much of the historic information for the above came from ‘Poor Law Unions and their Records.’ An essay by Dr. Raymond Gillespie. You can read it at this link.