Fate, marriage and the potato

January 27, 1995

Cormac O'Grada has read virtually everything on Irish economic history and has written much of it. Readers of this volume will be looking forward to sharing what he has learned in the course of a distinguished career. What was the Irish economy like in 1780 and how and why did it change, or fail to change, in the next 150 years? Not only academicians but lawyers, doctors, literary critics, and people of Irish descent everywhere will be interested and eager readers. Some of them may be disappointed. The general reader will find the going tough; the research worker in Irish history, particularly the econometrically minded, will find the book enormously stimulating and an invaluable critical bibliography.

"The story begins, predictably enough, with population," but before we reach the end of the first chapter we encounter paragraphs like this one, chosen at random and characteristic of the book's style: "Copies of the 1821 census lists from two parishes in south Kilkenny and Waterford city again imply that women married young. The evidence is in the gap between the ages of married women in their twenties and thirties and that of their eldest resident child. That gap was 22-24 years, which is consistent with an age at marriage of 21-22 years. While these snippets of data may fail to confirm the impressionistic evidence that most women married before they were 20 or 21, an average marriage age of 22 years is none the less low by contemporary European standards . . ."

Other snippets discussed in the chapter come from a Rabelaisian poem of 1780, Henry Inglis on the Dingle in 1834, Dublin's Rotunda Lying-In Hospital, an Ulster doctor's data of 1822 and 1839, and a comparison of the demographic profiles of English and Irish Quakers. The general reader will be tempted to ask O'Grada, if he concludes low marriage age contributed to population growth, why he doesn't just say so? We trust him. He can put the evidence in the footnotes. All these detailed studies are indispensable to reaching the conclusion, but some readers will prefer them digested, not raw. The specialist, however, will be grateful.

There is a commonly told story about the role of population in Irish history: it derives from the law of diminishing returns. Suppose an economy is characterised by two factors of production, one fixed (land), one variable (labour). If we add successive units of labour to land, then if the process continues long enough, the marginal return to labour will fall, and eventually wages will fall below subsistence. This idea was enunciated on the eve of its demise: capital was becoming an important factor of production and the possibilities of technical change were increasing, altering the relation between inputs and output. But there is a further common belief that only in the modern industrial world, beginning in Britain at the end of the 18th century, have population and living standards increased hand-in- hand in a sustained way. Before that, the story goes, upward drifts of population eventually ran into a ceiling and were checked by epidemics, wars, or other means.

This simple story has been applied to Ireland in the following way: Irish population increased markedly from (say) 1780 to the 1840s. The potato made this possible because of the characteristics of its cultivation and its nutritional value; at the same time, population increase resulted in increasing dependence on the potato, as the average size of holdings declined and the numbers of landless laborers grew. As (some) Irish countrymen increasingly resorted to planting potatoes year after year on marginal lands of lesser fertility in areas of unfavourable climate, the probability of crop failure increased and the consequences of crop failure became more devastating. This is the Malthusian framework for understanding the Irish famine.

After the famine, the story continues, the land-labour ratio improved, and Ireland enjoyed a period of rising prosperity -- not uninterrupted -- but in common with all of rural western Europe, she suffered from the great agricultural depression of the 1880s, as North and South American and eastern European grain and livestock products entered the world market. The continental countries adjusted by protecting their agriculture, a solution which remains to bedevil us today, and Britain adjusted by moving rural population to towns and cities and industry. Neither path was open to Ireland, and she had a difficult time. Part of the "adjustment" was an outbreak of rural agitation, leading to a series of land reform acts, culminating in the buying out of the landlord class and the establishment of peasant ownership, which turned out not to be the economic success that some had anticipated.

O'Grada thinks this story is wrong. Why is it wrong? What alternative explanations does O'Grada put in its place? He begins by saying that from 1780 to 1815 the Irish were better fed, warmer, taller, healthier and "perhaps even happier" than Malthus- ian interpretations allow. Population increase was on its way to being righted. As just some indications, for example, the average marriage age of Irish women in the 1830s was about the same as that of English women; studies of the Irish Quaker community suggest that fertility peaked between 1775 and 1825; evidence on mortality is lacking. And there were impressive signs of improvement in the Irish economy between 1815 and 1845.

So why the famine? O'Grada agrees with Joel Mokyr and Peter Solar in finding the famine an unpredictable ecological accident (Solar), completely unlinked to population growth (Mokyr). Much econometric analysis is enlisted to support these views. The conclusion is that Malthusian models do not have explanatory power, and there is nothing in the structure or circumstances of the Irish economy that puts population increase on a collision course with living standards. Rejecting the population-potato story, O'Grada stresses the role of sheer bad luck. Here, as in his discussion of industrialisation, O'Grada is readier to jettison others' explanations than to set out his own in plain language. In an earlier work, Ireland Before and After the Famine, he is more specific. The famine was due to "an ecological accident that could not have been predicted, an ideology ill geared to saving lives, and, of course, mass poverty."

I have devoted a disproportionate amount of space to the famine: a short review cannot hope to treat the full scope of the book. The development of the agrarian economy is treated in chapters two, five, and 11; chapters 12 and 13 are devoted to industry; money and banking are covered in three, six, and 14; the final chapters bring us to 1939.

In discussing Ireland's failure to industrialise, O'Grada is sceptical about the explanations that have usually been offered, but allows two hypotheses -- lack of mineral resources and geographical propinquity to Britain -- "to count for something though they still need to be convincingly proved".

O'Grada pays scrupulous attention to the topics he has chosen to treat. His range is wide, his observations often acute, his technical expertise impressive. Inevitably some will quibble that there is not enough on regional differences; or on subdivision, consolidation, and the size distribution of holdings; or on agricultural techniques; but certainly the author cannot be expected to please everybody. There is plenty here to digest.

One thing missing is a sense of the broad sweep of Irish history, of the clash between tenant and landlord, as tenants struggle to preserve customary rights of fair rents, fixity of tenure, and fair sale against the exigencies of market forces.

Gladstone and land reform do not make it into the index, and the Wyndham Act (which turned tenants into owner-occupiers), Parnell, and Davitt barely appear. O'Grada criticises Roy Foster for spending too much time on Parnellism and the ascendancy compared with the famine in his Modern Ireland, and he calls The Great Famine, edited by R. D. Edwards and T. R. Williams, "an uncoordinated series of studies rather than a comprehensive and definitive account". But I am not sure he has spent enough time on the land question, and he may be partly vulnerable to the same criticism he makes of the Edwards and Williams volume.

It is a fair question whether O'Grada really believes in the possibility of "comprehensive and definitive accounts".

He leaves us wondering whether the more we know the less we understand. It is interesting that with the vast proliferation of data and sophisticated analytical and econometric techniques -- when scholars like Amartya Sen are devising conceptual frameworks for the analysis of famines, and others like Kevin O'Rourke are using computable general equilibrium models to answer important questions -- O'Grada is moving away from notions of causality in economic history. We already have authors who believe that the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in England rather than France was just a random event.

As to the famine and Ireland's failure to industrialise, O'Grada is anxious to make room for "randomness", the "historical accident", and the significant "small event". Maybe he is right; maybe it's all the luck of the Irish.

Barbara L. Solow is an associate at Harvard University and author of The Land Question and the Irish Economy, 1870-1903.

Ireland: A New Economic History 1780-1939

Author - Cormac O'Grada
ISBN - 0 19 820210 5
Publisher - Clarendon Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 536pp

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