Nineteenth-century Economic Decline

THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY IRISH ECONOMY experienced considerable upheaval. In 1841 Ireland’s population was over three times that of Scotland and more than half that of England and Wales; by 1921 Ireland contained 10% fewer people than Scotland and only one-ninth the population of England and Wales (Kennedy, Giblin, and McHugh 1988, 4). Ireland under the Union experienced the Great Famine of the 1840s, sustained emigration, population decline, and substantially less employment in manufacturing industry. In 1841 more than 27% of the labor force was engaged in manufacturing; fifty years later this had fallen to 17%, and more than two-thirds of this reduced work force was based in northeast Ulster. Both Dublin and Cork saw the manufacturing share of their work force halved between the famine and the early twentieth century, and many parts of Ireland were almost totally devoid of industrial employment. Agricultural employment also fell sharply due to the shift from labor-intensive tillage to cattle grazing, though overall living standards rose sharply, in part because of population decline. How far these events can be attributed to the Act of Union of 1800 is too broad an issue for discussion here. While Ireland’s economic performance under the Union was not the sole factor fueling the movement for independence, it is hardly a coincidence that Ulster, the most successful province under the Union, rejected independence.

The economic failure of nineteenth-century Ireland was an issue that gave rise to repeated comment. One detached observer, Friedrich Engels, attributed Ireland’s poor performance to an absence of coal, which had been swept away millions of years earlier, condemning the country “as if by Nature’s decree” to remain an agricultural nation (Mansergh 1965, 107). Few Irish nationalists accepted that interpretation. Books such as Sir Robert Kane’s Industrial Resources of Ireland published in the year 1844 argued that Irish resources were more than sufficient to sustain a strong industrial nation, a message repeated by witnesses to the Select Committee on Industries (Ireland) of 1884–1885. Irish nationalists such as Young Irelander Thomas Davis and Sinn Fein’s Arthur Griffith adopted this message uncritically (Davis 1989, 186; Davis 1974, 133), and it is not surprising that one of the earliest initiatives by Dail Eireann was the establishment of a Commission on Industrial Resources.

The Political Factor in Irish Economics

Denied the excuse of a lack of natural resources commentators were forced to seek an alternative explanation, and they found it in the political sphere. Horace Plunkett remarked that “the people have an extraordinary belief in political remedies for economic ills: and their political leaders, who are not as a rule themselves actively engaged in business life, tell the people, pointing to ruined mills and unused water power, that the country once had diversified industries, and that if they were allowed to apply their panacea, Ireland would quickly rebuild her political life” (Plunkett 1905, 33–34). The belief that the condition of the Irish economy was politically determined dated back to eighteenth century writers such as Jonathan Swift, George Berkeley, and John Hely Hutchinson. The apparent coincidence between industrial decline and loss of an Irish parliament encouraged an exaggerated belief in the power of politics to determine economic well-being, an interpretation given greater credence because the interventionist policies of the late eighteenth-century Irish parliament coincided with a period of prosperity. Dublin and Cork artisans in the early nineteenth century saw the re-establishment of an Irish parliament as the solution to unemployment and this vision persisted. Daniel O’Connell, the early-nineteenth century constitutional nationalist, advocated protection for Irish industry, and in the 1840s the Repeal Association produced a report that emphasized the benefits of tariffs. Young Ireland’s Thomas Davis enthused about Germany’s industrial development through tariff protection and claimed that given such measures and a native government Ireland could support a population of up to 35 million people (Davis, 1988, 186, 191–92). The debate on industrial decline and the efficacy of protection waned in the immediate post-famine years only to revive in the early 1880s—a period that saw the coincidence of commercial depression and a renewed campaign for self-government. In 1885, Charles Stewart Parnell expressed the belief that industrial revival would prove impossible unless Ireland had an elected parliament with tariff-creating powers (Lyons 1977, 296), and this message was reiterated by Sinn Fein’s Arthur Griffith in the early years of the twentieth century when he cited, or rather misinterpreted, the German economist Friedrich List’s infant industry thesis to justify his case. Griffith claimed that England had deliberately stifled Irish competition whereas an Irish parliament would have protected industry, leading to population increase at a rate similar to England’s (Davis, 1974, 130).

The force of these arguments was bolstered by references to history. The publication of James Anthony Froude’s The English in Ireland in 1872–1874 made the economic ideas of eighteenth-century writers known to a new generation and led to the reprinting of Hely Hutchinson’s The Commercial Restraints of Ireland. This pamphlet emphasized the extent to which Irish economic development was determined by government legislation (Cullen 1969, 117). Subsequent historical writings, notably W. E. H. Lecky’s History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century, confirmed this interpretation as did later works such as Alice Effie Murray’s The Commercial Relations between Great Britain and Ireland (1903) and the writings of George O’Brien. In his introduction to E. J. Riordan’s Modern Irish Trade and Industry, O’Brien wrote, “The industrial decay of Ireland was caused therefore, by no failing of character either on the part of the employer or of the workmen, but was the result of the fiscal changes which were introduced at the Union and completed twenty years later” (1920, 50).

By the time of independence the case in favor of intervention, and specifically of protection, appeared to be well established among the ranks of the dominant Sinn Feiners. Voluntary efforts at industrial revival had been tried and found wanting. During the 1880s industrial exhibitions were held in Cork and Dublin, and efforts were made to establish a permanent body for industrial promotion. Dublin Corporation set up a committee to investigate industrial development, and the British Parliament was persuaded to establish a select committee on Irish industry. These efforts lapsed in the 1890s with the waning possibility of Home Rule but were renewed with the establishment in 1899 of an Irish Department of Agriculture and its publication of Ireland Industrial and Agricultural, an extensive handbook documenting Ireland’s mineral, agricultural, and industrial resources, which was compiled for the Irish pavilion at the 1901 Glasgow International Exhibition (Coyne 1902, preface). It was initially intended that the Department of Agriculture should have responsibility for industry, but it was restricted to promoting rural handcrafts. Nevertheless the Irish pavilion in Glasgow sparked a new wave of exhibitions, the Cork Exhibition in 1902 and the Dublin International Exhibition of 1907, both organized with a view to promoting Irish industry. The Cork Exhibition resulted in the establishment of a permanent promotional body, the Cork Industrial Development Association, and ultimately in the emergence of a host of similar organizations, the largest being the Dublin Industrial Development Association, while the Irish Industrial Development Association was established to promote an Irish trademark. Many of those active in promoting Irish industry were supporters of Sinn Fein (Davis 1974, 132).

No commentator emerged, with the exception of James Connolly, to question the efficacy of government intervention. In 1910 in Labour in Irish History Connolly presented a Marxist analysis that argued that the fate of the Irish economy was determined by developments in international capitalism rather than by the presence or absence of a native parliament and its policies (1973, 28). However, in this as in other areas, Connollys was an isolated voice. While Horace Plunkett rejected the simplistic nationalist version of Irish economic failings and pointed to the role of education and the values engendered by Catholicism, he incorporated the conventional analysis of the evils of British economic policy into his more sophisticated critique of the Irish economy.

The commercial restraints sapped the industrial instinct of the people—an evil which was intensified in the case of the Catholics by the working of the penal laws. When these legislative restrictions upon industry had been removed, the Irish, not being trained in industrial habits, were unable to adapt themselves to the altered conditions produced by the Industrial Revolution, as did the people in England…. It is not, therefore, the destruction of specific industries, or even the sweeping of our commerce from the seas, about which most complaint is now made. The real grievance lies in the fact that something had been taken from our industrial character which could not be remedied by the mere removal of the restrictions. (Plunkett 1905, 18–19)

The Agrarian Interest

By 1900 the British and Irish economies were closely intertwined. Even before the Union Britain absorbed 85% of Irish exports and supplied 79% of imports (Cullen 1968, 45). The nineteenth century brought a common currency, integrated banking and transport, and a common Anglo-Irish market. While Griffith contemplated with equanimity a fundamental restructuring of the banks and stock exchange to assist an Irish industrial revival (Davis 1974, 134), the longstanding connections between the two economies could not be dismantled without pain. Enthusiasts for an industrialized protectionist Ireland failed to appreciate the strength of Anglo-Irish links. Irish agriculture was dominated by cattle farming, which had expanded to meet the needs of the British market as had industries such as shipbuilding, brewing, and biscuit making. Cattle farming and export industries provided a powerful lobby favoring the status quo though the farming community had more influence on nationalists than the predominantly unionist industrialists had.

Agriculture was frequently deemed to be in need of remedial assistance. Postfamine market conditions favored the expansion of cattle at the expense of tillage with consequent loss of rural employment, while the 1870s and 1880s had seen Ireland losing out in the British market to continental and imperial competitors. However, pressure for improvements in agriculture concentrated on technical instruction, cooperation, quality control, agricultural credit, or the restructuring of uneconomic holdings. These issues were outside the scope of the free trade/protection debate and were capable of being addressed under the Union. No measures were introduced to assist industry, with the exception of technical schools, nor could anything of substance have been done without conflicting with the ideology of the British state.

The treatment afforded to agriculture under the Union was thus infinitely superior to that afforded to industry, a consequence of agriculture’s dominance and the complementary needs of the British economy. The fact that the majority of nationalist M.P.’s were dependent on the agricultural electorate consolidated its hold. Agriculture’s superiority was given official recognition in the statement of the semiofficial Recess Committee that “agriculture is now, not only the main, but over the greater portion of the country, the sole Irish industry” (Recess Committee 1896, 10).

Any policy for Irish industry would have to take account of agricultural interests, particularly cattle farmers. Many of those disenchanted by the Irish economy under the Union were equally uneasy about the expansion of grazing. As early as the 1840s the agrarian theorist James Fintan Lalor expressed his wish for a country dominated by “a peasantry, not breeders of stock or feeders of fat cattle; not gentlemen who try to be farmers nor farmers who try to be gentlemen but a numerous, plain and home-bred yeomanry” (Lalor 24 Apr., 1844) and this remained a recurrent theme in Irish social thinking, though the postfamine decades saw a sustained expansion of cattle breeding among large and small farmers alike. The radical wing of Irish agrarianism favored expanding the numbers of socially desirable smallholdings rather than of larger cattle farms, though this policy never achieved dominant support in the Irish Parliamentary party. Sinn Fein endeavored to reconcile industrial protection and a more intensive agriculture. D. P. Moran’s newspaper, The Leader, aspired to the creation of an industrialized and urbanized Ireland coexisting with a modern agricultural sector supporting a stable rural population (Garvin 1987, 114), while Arthur Griffith proposed industrial development plus a contraction of grazing and a substantial increase in tillage, both under protection. He argued that agriculture and industry had identical interests and that both were required to ensure a healthy state (Davis 1974, 128). Such proposals proved attractive to many nationalists because they involved rejecting market forces, which had shifted agriculture to cattle ranching, destroyed Irish industry, and reduced the population. This critical attitude towards economic liberalism also produced a certain ambivalence towards industrialization, despite undoubted concern over Irish industrial decline.

The damage wrought to the Irish economy by nineteenth-century economic developments left some Irish commentators with a decided suspicion of the new age, and Thomas Carlyle appears to have exercised a greater influence than Adam Smith on many Irish minds. Thomas Davis, a poet in the tradition of European romanticism, favored small-scale domestic industry rather than modern factory production (Davis 1989, 186) and his ideas proved surprisingly influential. James Fintan Lalor, a Young Irelander with a more pronounced economic outlook, also denounced the fate of factory workers. “They pass their lives from the cradle to the coffin shut up from the sun and sky and air, working in the furnace and the factory, dwelling in the filthiest lanes of a filthy town, amid everything that is most offensive and disgusting and revolting, an abomination to human feelings and human senses” (Lalor 10 Jan. 1844). Industry conjured up visions of capitalism and city life—matters regarded as alien to Irish society, particularly by Gaelic revivalists and the Yeatsian Celtic Twilight, groups who saw the peasant or small farmer as representing the authentic Irish way of life.

The elevation of the peasant to epitomize the true Irishman reflected the influence of romanticism and the interest in Ireland’s past. Those lauding ancient heroism rejected the modern Irish bourgeoisie in favor of the peasants, while Irish language revivalism elevated those who still spoke the language: the illiterate or semiliterate peasantry of the west. The romantic rejection of industry, modernization, materialism and the middle class in favor of the rural, traditional, and spiritual was copper-fastened by an identical rejection process on the part of members of the Anglo-Irish gentry. The intellectual influence of men such as Standish O’Grady or William Butler Yeats ensured that ideas common to their class permeated the Irish cultural vision. The credibility of such ideas was strengthened by their similarity to those held by a substantial body of “educated opinion” in England that stressed “nonindustrial noninnovative and nonmaterial qualities, best encapsulated in rustic imagery” (Wiener 1981, 5–6). The Irish version differed only in its national and, perhaps, religious nuances. Fr. Peter O’Leary, a West Cork Gaelic Leaguer, presented what one writer has termed “a simple-minded, evil-city-versus-virtuous-village polarity, tied up, of course, with an identification of England and English modes with the former and Ireland and Irish-language traditions with the latter” (Garvin 1987, 59). A British Conservative minister of agriculture during the 1920s aimed at “keeping on the land the maximum population the land will support,” a policy shared by the Fianna Fail party, while the plea of another Conservative minister, Lord Eustace Percy, for “self-sufficiency as both ‘an economic activity not less socially useful than mass production for sale, and as a moral ideal more dignified than the worship of industrial efficiency’” (Wiener 1981, 103, 105) could have been made by Eamon de Valera.

The coincidence of views between such opposing groups reflects the complex interaction of the cultures. Receptiveness of such ideas in Ireland was substantially enhanced because they coincided with the views of the Catholic church (Cahill 1932, 106–52). De Valera’s use of the term frugal comfort, to describe his aspirations for the Irish population derived from the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (Wallace 1966, 272). Irish Catholic clergy feared both socialism and the destructive physical and moral consequences of city life. One priest noted that “the nursery of strong and vigorous men is not in the city but in the country” and argued that “but for the constant influx of rural vigour the inhabitants of a city would die out in the third or fourth generation.” Another felt that the solution to urban unemployment lay in breaking up grazing lands and removing people from the city to settle them on smallholdings (Maynooth Union, 1913–14, 1909). Even a wholehearted enthusiast for industry like Arthur Griffith denounced the evils of the factory system and prophesied that electricity would revive domestic industry, leading to small rural industries as opposed to large factories in congested slums (Garvin 1987, 132). This picture encapsulates the socioeconomic vision of many Irish nationalists. Garvin remarks that “the future Ireland of which they dreamed was industrialized, modern, and at the same time culturally authentic in the sense of being a lineal descendant of Gaelic culture. Rural Ireland was to coexist with the cities of the new Ireland as a modernized rural Ireland which retained all its traditional values; Denmark was to come to Knocknagow” (Garvin 1987, 74–75). This desire for small-scale industry coincided with a distaste for modern capitalism, the creator of dark satanic mills and large cities. While Griffith was generally supportive of the employer class, provided they were Irish, as is evidenced in his hostility to the 1913 Lock-Out, others thought in terms of alternative structures such as cooperatives (Garvin 1987, 133; Cahill 1932). The generous public spending of the eighteenth-century Irish parliament was lauded, though many believed that Ireland was overtaxed and were unsympathetic to the social welfare provisions of the pre-1914 Liberal government (Barrington 1987, 39).

The fledgling Irish state therefore inherited a confused baggage of ideals: a desire to protect rural society and its values and to stabilize the rural population; a vision of industrial development minus the evils of capitalism, materialism, and urbanization; a desire to redress previous disadvantages suffered by Irish businesses; an expectation of material progress without state welfare provisions; the restoration of the Irish language and culture; and, though not explicit until the 1920s, the enshrining of Catholic social teaching. Other issues were not clearly addressed, in particular the nature of future economic relations with Britain, how exporting industries would coexist with a protected industrial sector, and how to reconcile cattle farmers and the restoration of tillage. Except for hopes that electricity and motor cars would help to create this economic idyll, no account was taken of the dictates of the market economy. One writer has described the economic visions of the Irish separatists as “wanting to have their cake and eat it” (Garvin 1987, 74–75). The reality was to prove more difficult.

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