Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Wild Workhouse Girls and the Liberal Imperial State in Mid-Nineteenth Century Ireland

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Wild Workhouse Girls and the Liberal Imperial State in Mid-Nineteenth Century Ireland

Article excerpt

In 1860, a riot broke out in the South Dublin workhouse, quelled only by the arrival of the police. The formidable adversaries were sixteen-year-old girls, who jeered at workhouse officials, and hurled heavy glass soda water bottles, platters, stones, and stirabout gruel at them, finally jumping the master. In the 1850s and 1860s, riotous and refractory pauper girls disturbed workhouses, prisons and reformatories in England, Ireland and Australia. (1) But these Irish girls also found supporters, who used their plight as a weapon in their struggles against the British state. When a Roman Catholic chaplain was fired for defending the girls, he became a cause celebre for the Catholic Church. Lady reformers then stepped into the fray, using the fate of these girls to denounce the cold hard "machine" of the workhouse system.

This incident revealed many of the tensions inherent to the liberal imperial state of the mid-nineteenth century. (2) Liberalism envisioned as subject the self-governing individual who could independently function in the market for free labor. To mold the working class into independent individuals, government officials instituted the massive poor law. Its centerpiece was the workhouse, a "total institution," in the Foucauldian sense, which was to run with perfect efficiency and rationality. But this ideal was far different from the reality of squalor and decay. The state relied on philanthropic and religious institutions to make up for its deficiencies and to discipline the poor more extensively. Yet female philanthropists and Irish Catholics, relatively disenfranchised, could use their own charitable institutions to challenge the state's moral hegemony. As female reformers and Catholic bishops pointed out, the workhouse also clashed with another prized institution of the nineteenth century, the family. Was this institution any place to bring up children who were poor through no fault of their own? Female philanthropists also argued that the workhouse did not help girls become self-governing subjects. But how much agency did the workhouse girls have? Was their violence an effective means of resistance?

The Irish poor law reflected Ireland's status as both part of the Union and as a subjugated colony. The English New Poor Law of 1834 was harsh enough, mandating that paupers receive meager relief only in the workhouse so that they would take any jobs they could. During the 1830s, Irish politicians and social investigators suggested that this model was unsuitable for Ireland, which had few jobs for poor people to take; instead, they advocated industrial development. But the British Parliament (where Irish members had few votes) imposed an even more strict version of the New Poor Law in 1838. The English poor law commissioners mandated that Ireland be blanketed with regimented workhouses, one for each union. Like its English equivalent, it forbade outdoor relief (outside of the workhouses). While local English boards of guardians soon evaded these rules and granted some outdoor relief, especially to deserted wives and widows, the Irish poor law remained much more restrictive. It was carefully constructed to deny that the able-bodied poor had any "right to relief," although in the midst of the famine this right was grudgingly extended to the aged, widows with two or more legitimate children, and the disabled--but still only in the workhouse. Few able-bodied adult men could gain entrance, so most workhouse inhabitants were women, children and the aged. (3)

The Irish poor law can be seen as a classic example of colonial modernity. The modern colonial state of the 19th century both imposed grandiose new institutions and exploited violence and poverty to ensure the imperial order. (4) The workhouses were supposed to run on a system of Benthamite order, with schedules, bells, and silence. They were mandated to impose elaborate classifications, men apart from women, parents from children, the sick from the able-bodied poor. …

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