Gregory Clause

The process of eviction did not seem to have been advancing rapidly enough to satisfy Government, as a few years later another provision was devised calculated to facilitate it further. This was the famous Gregory clause, introduced by Sir William Gregory of Coole Park, Gort, and Member of Parliament for the city of Dublin.Gregory in 1847 defended Lord George Bentick's scheme for giving employment in Ireland by Government lending money for the institution of railways, and commented strongly on the policy of leaving the people in such an unprecedented calamity as to be fed by private enterprise, considering that throughout a large proportion of Ireland there was no one of capital and experience equal to such an undertaking. He added that there was not a ton of Indian meal to be purchased in Galway, though there were a thousand tons in Government stores at that place, and that the people could by Government agency alone be fed in many parts of Ireland. He spoke also in March on the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1847 to Powlett Scropes's proposal to organise a general and continual system of outdoor relief for the able-bodied; and he introduced and carried two clauses into the Bill, commented on by Oliver Burke in the Dublin University Magazine of August, 1876 as follows:-

"The dreadful potato disease of 1846 engaged much of Mr. Gregory's attention. Ireland, at that period, was chiefly peopled by a peasantry in the wretched condition of squatters, whose miserable holdings were quite inadequate to afford more than a precarious support to their occupiers. Comforts were out of the question, because a worse than French morcellement had split up farms into mere squatter holdings. The low standard of life thus caused amongst the agricultural classes, and the facility of obtaining that low standard so long as the potatoes lasted, had encouraged the pernicious subdivision of the land and stimulated such an increase of population as has never elsewhere been witnessed in a country with a moist climate, and where the population is utterly dependent from the absence of manufactures, on the produce of the soil. Here, then, were two difficulties for the statesman, the one how to manage matters so that none but the destitute should receive relief, and the other how to provide an outlet for the redundant population.

"Mr. Gregory was amongst those who devoted their thoughts to those twofold difficulties. As to the latter, he proposed to the House that any tenant rated at a net value not exceeding 5 should be assisted to emigrate by the Guardians of the Union, the landlord to forego any claim for rent and to provide such fair and reasonable sum as might be necessary for the emigration of such occupier, the guardians being empowered to pay for the emigration of his family any sum not exceeding half what the landlord should give, the same to be levied off the rates.

"This clause was agreed to without opposition. Of the humanity which dictated it there can be no second opinion; it was surely humane to try and provide an outlet for the famishing people. At home there was want, at home there was a vast population depending for food upon a soil which seemed to be excepted from the primeval blessing that 'the earth should bring forth herbs and fruits according to its kind'. Fever was at home, and, worse than all, despair as to the future. But a few days sail away, across the Atlantic there lay a land with millions of unoccupied acres, teeming with natural riches. Why not open a career in that New World for those who were willing to go there, and thereby diminish the pressure on the resources at home. Surely such an effort would be humane, and that effort was made by Mr. Gregory. But there remained that other difficulty of which we have spoken, namely, the absorption by undeserving persons of a large portion of the public funds. How was this evil to be met? If it were not arrested, and that, too, speedily, the tax for the relief of the poor, already a frightful burden on the land, would become intolerable. The poor rate was already so heavy that in many cases it exceeded the amount of the yearly rent of the land... Mr. Gregory proposed that a test be applied to insure that no undeserving person should get relief, and his test was that the possessor of more than a quarter of an acre of land should not be entitled to assistance. This suggestion became law, and has since been known as the 'Gregory Clause'.

"It is very easy to prophesy after the event, but on the night when the 'Gregory Clause' passed the Committee of the House of Commons, there were present in the House 125 members, many of them Irish members, and of these 125 only 9 voted against the measure. Mr. Morgan John O'Connell spoke strongly in its favour. The evil results we have alluded to were not then foreseen, certainly they were not believed in by Mr. Gregory, whose advocacy of the emigration clause is the best proof of his good motives to those who do not know the humanity and the kindness when, then and always, have marked his dealings with the tenants on his own estates".

The Archbishop of Tuam, Dr. McHale, never forgave Gregory on account of his clause, and always referred to him as "Quarter Acre Gregory". The author of The History of the Famine, Father O'Rourke stated, "A more complete engine for the slaughter and degradation of a people was never designed. The previous clause offered facilities for emigrating to those who would give up their land; the quarter-acre clause compelled them to give it up or die of hunger." John Mitchell described the clause as "the cheapest and most efficient of the ejectment acts". So great had the evil become that by an act of 1848 special provision was made for granting relief to families evicted from their dwellings.


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