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“I THOUGHT I WAS LANDED!”: THE CONGESTED DISTRICTS BOARD AND THE WOMEN OF WESTERN IRELAND1 DAVID M. SMITH poverty was the rule rather than the exception in the British empire of the 1890s. The poverty of Ireland, however, differed from the destitution of Britain’s more exotic holdings in three important ways. First, Ireland’s poverty was geographically close to England and was thus more difficult to ignore. Instability in Ireland was felt sooner and more acutely in England than were disturbances in its other colonial holdings. Second, the Irish had the “privilege” of electing members to the Imperial Parliament, which gave Irish problems an airing on the highest political stage in the empire. Third, the Irish shared with the English a tie that was very important to Victorian society as it approached the fin de siècle. This commonality was “race” or, more crudely, “color.” It was easier for British society to accept squalor when it was non-whites living in it. Although many in England saw the Irish as a distinct race, there was a wider and more impermeable barrier between whites and non-whites within the English psyche. These three factors help to explain why the British administration approached the problem of poverty in Ireland with more vigor and innovation than it did in British Africa or India. Great Britain was determined to drag Ireland along with it as it steamed into the twentieth century. This move was indeed a formidable task. While the rest of Western Europe was transforming into complex, industrial economies, the west of Ireland was languishing in a comparatively primitive, rural way of life. Unfortunately , this traditional economy could no longer meet the material needs of the ever-expanding population of this region. After his 1890 tour THE CONGESTED DISTRICTS BOARD AND WOMEN’S WORK 209 1 I would like to thank Donald Akenson for reading earlier drafts of this paper and offering valuable insight and suggestions. of the west, Arthur Balfour, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, recognized that the vast poverty of this region could not be dealt with through the existing bureaucratic mechanisms. He therefore created the Congested Districts Board for Ireland as a part of the Land Purchases (Ireland) Act in 1891.2 For the purposes of the act, a congested district was defined as any part of a county where more than 20 percent of the population lived in electoral divisions whose total ratable value, when divided by the population, gave a sum of less than £1 10s.3 When it was applied, this definition created a total of eighty-four congested districts with a population of 3,606,369.4 These districts extended from Donegal through Connacht and into West Cork. The boundaries of this region contained 16 percent of the land area of Ireland and 11 percent of its population.5 The board was given a broad mandate and a considerable amount of money, originally in the neighborhood of £43,000 annually, with which to achieve its ends.6 It was instructed to improve the conditions of the people of the west of Ireland by encouraging emigration and migration, amalgamating small holdings, improving livestock and seed stock, and developing the coastal fisheries and various industrial enterprises. It was further mandated to spend money on public works for the purposes of both job creation and infrastructure improvement.7 All of this, it was hoped, would increase the cash income of the families in this region. Arthur Balfour therefore created the first regional development agency in the British Isles, a significant bureaucratic innovation. For its part, the Congested Districts Board broke with some important bourgeois Victorian paradigms, especially in the conceptualization of women’s labor. Rather than viewing women as peripheral to the earning power of the male head of the household, the board saw women as an integral contributor in cash terms to the budgeting strategy of the family. It therefore inaugurated policies that used this new conceptualization as a means by which cash income could be injected into the family. It can be argued that the board’s policies targeted women as income earners as much, if not more, as it did THE CONGESTED DISTRICTS BOARD AND...


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