Irish History Live

Philanthropy by Lisa Lavery

Throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was a notable increase in society’s involvement in charity and benevolent work. While this trend was not unique to Ireland and historians have also mapped similar activities in England and America, the condition of the Irish poor was distinct because of the dominance of Ireland’s agricultural economy and its rapidly expanding population. Moreover, poverty was exacerbated during the Famine years (1845-1850). Maria Luddy reinforces this stating that ‘there was an increasing number of poor people in Ireland in the pre-Famine period’.[1] However, the standard of living in Belfast stood apart from the rest of Ireland as it was afflicted by poverty associated with industrialisation and a rapidly increasing workforce and population. Alison Jordan highlights the fact that Belfast was more similar to industrial cities elsewhere in the UK than other Irish cities as it ‘had the same form of commercial base or urban class structure’ because of its rapid industrial growth and the development of the linen and cotton industries. [2]

 The government and middle classes became anxious about lawlessness, immorality and the spread of diseases.[3] Both state and private charitable bodies undertook to combat the issue. The Commission of Inquiry into the Irish Poor was established in 1833 and was followed by the passing of the Irish Poor Law in 1838. This divided the country into 130 administrative unions, each of which was to have its own workhouse to be funded by poor rates.[4] Though government action was important, it is the development of private philanthropy that most pertains to the Belfast Lying-in Hospital (hereafter BLIH).

The concern of the middle classes and gentry for the poor and their standard of living resulted in unprecedented numbers of charitable organisations being founded in the nineteenth century. Jordan asserts that ‘there was considerable public interest in this work’.[5] Though both sexes were involved in this endeavour it was soon dominated by women. The charities were often tailored towards specific areas of need or societal groups and women swiftly began to use their domestic attributes within these charities. Ironically, they were utilising domestic and ‘feminine’ skills as a means of foraying into the public, traditionally ‘masculine’, sphere. The attributes of the ‘ideal’ Victorian woman that were intended to prevent women’s involvement in work outside the home were now being called upon as prime reasons why they were suited to charitable activities. Luddy claims that ‘Women philanthropists believed implicitly in the moral and spiritual superiority of women’ and that they were ‘more capable of dealing with the needs of children and other women than men’.[6] Middle class women’s increasing participation in philanthropy often resulted from their leisured and affluent positions; charity ‘occupied their time, gave them an interest and made them feel good because they were helping others’.  These women may also have been influenced by their husbands’ or fathers’ interest in philanthropy.[7]

Many debates have emerged surrounding the motivations of philanthropists, the sectarian nature of Irish charity and its impact on women’s position. Luddy and Jordan have identified the key motivations as religion, goodness and social control. Jordan states that motivations are ‘hard to assess’ yet she argues that due to the fact that they ‘got no material benefit from their work’ and ‘they failed to exercise any social control over the needy … It is hard to escape the conclusion that it was intrinsically goodness and a desire to share their benefits which inspired them’.[8] However, Luddy focuses more on the theory of philanthropy as a means of social control as she explores the ideal of the ‘deserving poor’ that dominated this period and acknowledges that, ‘The attempt to impose a middle-class sense of morality on the poor is one of the major elements’ of her study.[9] Luddy has argued that just because a greater number of charitable institutions existed it ‘did not mean the poor and sick were entitled to aid’ as those in charge controlled distribution to those they deemed ‘deserving’ recipients.[10] She argues this control stemmed from the view that the poor could abuse the charity.[11]

Philanthropy was often entwined with religious beliefs and thus separate charities developed amongst the various Christian denominations in Ireland. The Belfast Lying-In Hospital (BLIH) emerged out of Protestant philanthropy which was ‘well developed in Ireland from the late eighteenth century’. [12] However, these endeavours were viewed as proselytising by the Catholic hierarchy ,which resulted in the foundation of Catholic charities to combat this perceived threat. Luddy argues that ‘All charities were sectarian’ as there was ‘no co-operation’ between these two factions, they only served their own denomination and that Catholic philanthropists preferred to establish their own charities rather than sit on the same committees as their protestant counterparts.[13]

 It has been largely conceded that female involvement in charity had a significant impact on women’s lives not only in Ireland but throughout Britain. It has been argued the experiences and managerial skills gained through membership of charitable committees contributed to the politicisation of women, their introduction into the workforce and professions and a realisation of women’s capabilities.[14]

[1] M. Luddy, ‘Religion, philanthropy and the state in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Ireland’ in H. Cunningham and J. Innes (eds) Charity, philanthropy and reform from the 1690s to 1850 (Basingstoke, 1998), p. 148.

[2] A. Jordan, Who Cared? Charity in Victorian and Edwardian Belfast (Belfast, 1993), p. x.

[3] Luddy, ‘Religion, philanthropy and the state’, pp 148-150.

[4] Ibid., p. 153.

[5] Jordan, Who Cared?, p. x.

[6] M. Luddy, Women and philanthropy in nineteenth-century Ireland (Cambridge, 1995), pp 178; 214.

[7] Jordan, Who Cared?, p. 188.

[8] Ibid., xi.

[9] Luddy, Women and philanthropy, p. 2.

[10] Luddy, ‘Religion, philanthropy and the state’, p. 150.

[11] Luddy, Women and philanthropy, pp 180-181.

[12] Luddy, ‘Religion, philanthropy and the state’, p. 155.

[13] Ibid., pp 6;154;159.

[14] F.K. Prochaska, Women and philanthropy in nineteenth-century England (Oxford, 1980), pp 222; 226-7.


For more by this author see The Belfast Lying-in Hospital (1794-1903) by Lisa Lavery and Institutionalisation 

Lisa Lavery is a graduate of the School of History and Anthropology at Queen's University Belfast. Her research interests include gender and women’s history, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her MA dissertation focused on childbirth and pregnancy in Ireland and was entitled, ‘From the time of conception to the delivery of the patient’: pregnancy, childbearing, labour and lying-in in Ireland 1730-1850'. She intends to complete a PhD on a related topic.


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