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Reviewed by:
  • The Irish Establishment 1879–1914
  • James H. Murphy (bio)
The Irish Establishment 1879–1914, by Fergus Campbell; pp. xvii + 344. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, £61.00, $125.00.

Though Irish nationalist parties had been agitating for Home Rule for most of the nineteenth century, the extraordinary events of the period from 1916 to 1922 seemed to throw the whole political process forward at unprecedented speed. It has traditionally been thought that this resulted in a new, politically radical lower middle class, which came to dominate the independent Irish state of the 1920s, overtaking the expectant, moderately nationalist, upper-middle-class Catholic political elite that had been waiting to assume power in an Ireland under Home Rule. This view has had its challenges, but it forms the background to a thirty-year-long debate about Irish social and political elites in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the work of scholars such as John Hutchinson, in The Dynamics of Cultural Nationalism: The Gaelic Revival and the Creation of the Irish Nation State (1987); Tom Garvin, in Nationalist Revolutionaries in Ireland, 1858–1928 (1987); and Senia Pašeta, in Before the Revolution: Nationalism, Social Change and Ireland’s Catholic Elite, 1879–1922 (1999). The debate has focused on the degree to which the Irish establishment was open to persons from a Catholic nationalist background. In spite of contributions such as Lawrence W. McBride’s The Greening of Dublin Castle: The Transformation of Bureaucratic and Judicial Personnel in Ireland, 1892–1922 (1991), which argued for an opening up of the Irish establishment, a consensus has developed around a blocked mobility theory which holds that Irish Catholics were prevented from making their way up the social and economic ladder and took to revolutionary nationalism in revenge.

Now Fergus Campbell has entered the debate in The Irish Establishment 1879–1914, a book that promises to put the discussion on a firmer, more empirical basis through a prosopographical study of the 1,200 persons constituting the author’s version of the Irish establishment and a comparison of the composition of that establishment at two points, 1881 and 1911, to evaluate whatever changes may have occurred. Though the book does show some interest in the progress of Presbyterians in Irish society, the main focus is on Catholics. Campbell devotes six chapters to the principal groups that he sees as constituting the establishment, due to their capacity to make major decisions for society: landowners with over 10,000 acres, very senior civil servants, senior policemen, members of Parliament (both nationalist and unionist), directors of the largest Irish businesses (those valued at at least £200,000), and the leaders of the three largest Christian denominations. The chapters investigate the makeup of the groups and their areas of activity in great detail, and we have reason to be grateful to Campbell for the information he has unearthed and analysed with perception.

The focus of Campbell’s book comes once more to the question of the degree to which the Irish establishment opened itself to Catholics over the thirty-year period of his study. His conclusion is that it did not, and to this extent his work supports the blocked mobility thesis. Large landowners, though now declining in power as tenants became landowners, remained overwhelmingly Protestant (Church of Ireland). The proportion of Catholics in the higher civil service rose a little from thirty-three percent to thirty-seven percent. The proportion of senior policemen who were Catholics actually declined from a quarter to a tenth, and Catholic businessmen rose marginally from [End Page 131] seventeen percent to twenty percent of the total, though mostly through recruitment in already Catholic-friendly businesses. By contrast, Campbell concludes that religious denominations had fairly open elites and notes that the Irish nationalist MPs were more Catholic at the end than at the beginning of the period.

Campbell offers several perceptive explanations as to why the Irish establishment was not more open to Catholics, in spite of the desire of both main British political parties that it should be so: the Liberals in order to prepare Ireland for self-government and the Tories to reconcile Ireland to the...


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