In Ireland tenant farmers held short-term leases that were payable each six months in arrears. If the tenants failed to pay their rent, they were jailed or evicted and their homes burned.
During the time of the Great Hunger (1845-1847), approximately 500,000 people were evicted, many of whom died of starvation or disease or relocated to mismanaged and inadequate poor houses. The alternative to eviction, poorhouses, or starvation was emigration, which pre-dated the Potato famine, but rose to over two million people from 1845-1855. In 1851, the largest number of emigrants, a quarter of a million people, left for overseas destinations. The emigration continued through the 1850s and into the 1860s, with an average of an eighth of a million people. Emigrants tended to follow along family routes, which were found mostly in Great Britain, United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
At the time of the famine British government officials supported a policy of non-intervention, which maintained the belief that it was counterproductive to interfere in economics. The chief instrument of relief came in the form of low-paid work projects to build an infrastructure to promote industrialization and modernize Ireland.
Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel repealed the Corn Laws, a protective tariff enabling the Irish to import grain from North America. For this relief measure, Peele was ousted and replaced by Lord John Russell, who was less lenient on the Irish. Relief measures, such as corn importation, were sent from North America; however, these shipments were mere tokens to the necessary relief required to comfort the starving.
Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary to the Treasury under the Prime Minister Lord John Russell, oversaw famine relief efforts. In 1846 Trevelyan wrote: "'The problem of Ireland being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure has been applied by all-wise Providence...'" Various relief schemes were tried and abandoned: public works projects, importing corn from America, soup kitchens, workhouses, even sending agricultural advisors to the west of Ireland where they found no surviving farmers. Ultimately, the Russell government ". . .was not prepared to allocate what was needed to head off starvation, but was always ready to dispatch police and troops of dragoons to help a landlord evict destitute tenants or protect a shipment of cattle or grain export."
In November of 1845, to lessen the plight of the Irish, Russell approved the purchase of corn and meal; however, the shift from potatoes to corn as the staple food caused dysentery and scurvy due to the lack of nutrients and resulted in additional deaths. Additionally, loans of 365,000 sterling were granted to the Irish in 1845-1846 to lessen the starvation. In principle, they believed that the best interests of the Irish were served by exporting agricultural goods from Ireland, so that they could pay their rents.
In 1847 ("Black 47") the public works projects were abandoned by the government and instead poor houses were established by private groups, such as the church and the Quakers. During the famine peak, one hundred and seventy-three workhouses were built throughout Ireland. During Black '47, the Galway Vindicator newspaper illustrated the degree of workhouse overcrowding when it cited 2513 occupants in the Limerick workhouse, which was built to accommodate 800 occupants.
Generally, poor houses or work houses were mismanaged, overcrowded, and inadequate to provide relief for the starving peasants of Ireland. People entering the workhouses were "forced to wear prisonlike uniforms in fetid male and female dormitories and hoped to avoid the adjacent fever hospital by subsisting on 'poorhouse porridge,' a watery oatmeal soup ladled from a huge iron 'stirabout pot.'" Additionally, soup kitchens gave soup (a broadly defined term) to 3 million people daily.
To limit the number of people seeking relief and the expense to the British government, The Poor Law Extension Act of 1847 was instituted to deny aid to tenant farmers with over a quarter acre of land. This Act promoted emigration, increased land clearance, and disintegrated the structure of rural society, which were beneficial to British landowners, who sought profit, power, and larger plots of land. According to the Poor Laws, landlords were bound to support peasants sent to the workhouse, which cost £12 a year. Instead, some landlords sent peasants to Canada on "coffin ships", which cost £6. Coffin ships were "wet, leaky holds" of timber ships returning to North America that were "crammed in with as many as 900 people, with barely room to stand." Approximately half of the people died during the voyage and the other half arrived in North America unable to disembark, without assistance, due to sickness and starvation.
The British rationalized that landlords and industries, who needed laborers, would find it in their best interests to protect their investments (human laborers). However, with the industrialization of agricultural processes, the decrease in tenant farmers proved advantageous to most landlords, who were intent on maximizing profit by increasing the size of plots. Thus, the absentee landlords were distanced from the peasants and focused on the maximization of trade and luxuries rather than the welfare of the people.