Ireland's first green revolution

Was Ireland a Colony?
January 20, 2006

In the mid-1940s, I was a passenger in a taxi in Boston driven by an Irishman. He told me that he had just returned from fighting in Palestine. Intrigued, I pressed him further. "I will fight the British wherever I find them," he replied. Something of this spirit pervades a few, but certainly not all, of the 17 articles in this volume.

The book is divided into four sections: economics/politics; history; ideology; and culture. Terrence McDonough provides an introduction and Terry Eagleton an afterword.

The case for Ireland as a 19th-century colony is easiest to make in the political realm, and Peter Gray and Virginia Crossman contribute solid articles. Gray deals with the debate on maintaining the office of Lord Lieutenant, something that can only be described as inconclusive since the office persisted until 1922. Before 1850, Whigs and Radicals found Dublin Castle a badge of Irish inferiority and sought assimilation into the UK on terms resembling that of Scotland and Wales. After 1850, Dublin Castle was increasingly seen as a bulwark of British rule and a suppressor of Irish dissent. Gray shows how the debate illustrates Britain's dilemma in Ireland: principles of constitutional government were hard to reconcile with the difficulties of coping with the realities of Irish life. Would integration diminish or encourage demands? Likewise, would retention suppress dissent or inflame it?

Crossman's piece on local government reinforces Gray's point. Namely, there was a conflict between modelling local government on British institutions and using it to respond to particular Irish conditions.

Nicola Drücker draws on a collection of family and estate papers by the Grehans of County Cork, covering 150 years, for her article on hunting and shooting - activities exemplifying issues of caste and class, property rights, gender and imperial rule. This is micro-history at its best. Tony Ballantyne's paper deals with the role of the Irish in the British Raj - and imperialism in general.

The ideology section contains a sophisticated treatment of the vocabulary of colony and empire by Sean Ryder; a discussion by Amy Martin of Marx and Engels's theories regarding Ireland's role in the forthcoming revolution of the international proletariat; the changing political economy literature after the Famine by McDonough, Eamonn Slater and Thomas Boylan; and Ulster is introduced to the picture by Pamela Clayton.

Post-colonial theory and cultural analysis are applied to Ireland with articles on poetry, novels and the theatre by McDonough, Valerie Kennedy, Willa Murphy and Lionel Pilkington. One of the book's highlights is Catherine Wynne on "the bog as colonial topography in 19th-century Irish writing".

The economics section begins with articles by Denis O'Hearn, McDonough and Eammon Slater. There are serious problems here. McDonough and Slater misunderstand the perpetuation of feudalism in 19th-century Ireland and fail to incorporate Marx's views on why this occurred. Far from being imposed by the ruling class, feudalism in Ireland continued because of the organised resistance of the tenantry to the new economic order of capitalism. Under feudalism, land is not owned; lords have only powers of occupation and rents are set not by market forces but by customary rights and obligations. Of course the lords had the lion's share of the rights and the tenants of obligations. But the tenant did retain some property rights - to common land in England and to tenure in his holding in Ireland. Thus in Ireland, but not everywhere, rents were set on a live-and-let-live basis by valuators who decided how much the sitting tenant, with his skill and technology on his holding, however small, could afford to pay. Of course rents could be kept at the level that just permitted tenants to survive and work, and population pressure ensured rents could be kept high.

Marx saw the transition from feudalism to capitalism as driven by the extinction of tenants' rights to the means of production: land became privately owned; landlords could evict superfluous tenants who dragged down their revenues; and rents could be set by market forces. Marx thought the increased revenues could provide capital for industrial investment, with displaced tenants providing the labour, and he saw the introduction of capitalism, driven by expropriation, as dynamic and productive. He just thought that it was based on injustice and would come to a sticky end. But the tenants clung to their holdings through a mixture of threats, violence and ostracism, Small wonder that they did; they would otherwise have been cast adrift, homeless and destitute.

The struggle over the principles of rent-setting - which is the same as the struggle over land - for a long time resulted in stalemate. In the end the tenants won and the organisation of agriculture favoured by the British never occurred.

A series of bad harvests and a return of the potato blight in the late 1870s, plus a European-wide agricultural depression, meant that the tenant movement became strong enough to force the British Government to take the rent-setting mechanism into its own hands. Rents were set neither by market forces nor by custom, but by judicial fiat. There followed the subsidisation of tenants who wanted to purchase their holdings and a parallel compensation for landlords. Ireland moved to peasant proprietorship and the English taxpayer footed the bill.

Papers by Christine Kinealy and Charles E. Orser Jr conclude the economics section. Kinealy's deals with the inadequacies - to use no stronger word - of British relief policy in the Famine; Orser's shows the potential contribution of archaeology to historical understanding by describing an excavation in County Roscommon.

Eagleton's afterword broadens the context of the colonialism question. There are different kinds of colonies: settler, plantation, colonies of direct or indirect rule. They can be exploited by mere looting; by the metropolis channelling trade to its benefit and to the disadvantage of the colony. Thus the consequences of colonialism differ.

Eagleton concludes by discussing the different reasons for opposing colonialism - and no one in this book can find much that is positive to say about the system - and ends by arguing that it is the denial of political, not cultural, rights that is fundamental.

My taxi driver saw England as the villain of Irish history. But there is another villain lurking in a few of these papers: the "revisionist historian". It might have been useful to invite someone who questions the received wisdom to contribute to the volume.

Barbara L. Solow has retired from the economics department of Boston University, US. She is writing a book on Trollope and Ireland.

Was Ireland a Colony?: Economics, Politics and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Ireland

Editor - Terrence McDonough
Publisher - Irish Academic Press
Pages - 356
Price - £49.50 and £20.00
ISBN - 0 7165 98 7 and 2806 1

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