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Big Picture History

Barra Ó Seaghdha

Ireland in the World Order: A History of Uneven Development, by Maurice Coakley, Pluto Press, 256 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0745331256

The pacification of Ireland was the last great achievement of Elizabeth’s reign, and the final act in Irish history during the Tudor period. For the greater part of a century English statesmen had wrestled with the problem, only to retire baffled by the difficulties encountered and the inadequacy of the resources at their disposal. Those who crossed St George’s channel as viceroys or lord deputies sometimes cried to be delivered from ‘this hell’ of a country, that seemed to devour reputations with the rapacity of one of its own bogs, or came home broken in health and spirit by the severities of the service; and few could be prevailed upon to return for a second spell of office. There was no glamour, no uplift, no satisfaction in their work to compensate for the hardships endured; on the contrary much of it was sordid and demoralizing. Humane men like Anthony St Leger or Sir Henry Sidney, men of iron like Lord Leonard Grey, had to admit themselves beaten by this strange island, whose people, while acknowledging England’s sovereign rights, refused either to govern themselves or to be governed. Can it be wondered at that, as Spenser tells us, many wished ‘all that land were a sea-pool’?

This is how JB Black began “The Irish Problem”, the twelfth and last chapter of The Reign of Elizabeth 1558-1603, the eighth volume in the Oxford History of England, published in 1936. Is it necessary to point out how Ireland is conceived of as a problem for “English statesmen”, how the problem almost perversely refuses to be solved, and how the whole country begins to mutate into a single, symbolic, rapacious bog that devours those who venture into it? Behind this description of the colonist’s burden at a certain point in history we begin to sense a certain exasperation with the Irish problem, with its awkward obtrusion into the smoother lines of British history, with the very need to deploy time, energy and intellectual resources on attempting to understand “this strange island”. (JB Black, it should be said, made every effort to be fair, the next paragraph beginning, “Yet the blame for the confusion cannot be ascribed solely to the Irish.”)

The note of exasperation rings down the centuries, from some of those seeking to govern as from some of those attempting to diagnose Irish ills or to explain Ireland’s unsettled history. Today, as for obvious reasons the public sphere resounds with accusation, self-exculpation, hypocrisy, hollow assurances and politically incoherent outrage, and as, in the intellectual sphere, sounds of war still arise from the revisionist/anti-revisionist battlefield, the note struck by Maurice Coakley in his Ireland in the World Order: A History of Uneven Development is strikingly different:

Ireland’s proximity to the heartland of the emerging modern world order makes it an interesting case study because instead of emulating the English pattern of growth in the nineteenth century, Ireland came to display all the classic features of underdevelopment: immiseration, ‘overpopulation’, famine, revolt. Not only was Ireland geographically close to England, it shared a government. More than that: Ireland was inextricably bound with England from the Middle Ages. Why did they develop so differently and what does this tell us about the development process? This work attempts to address these questions by exploring the relationship between socioeconomic, political and cultural forms in Ireland from the medieval era to the present.

The tone is dispassionate. Ireland is not a cause for which Coakley is marshalling material; it is a case study of particular interest for someone who is attempting to understand how the world works. If there is something reassuring in the calm way in which the author announces this ambitious project that encompasses eight hundred years of Irish history, the path to the project has not been the conventional one. Coakley’s intellectual background appears to lie in literacy studies and in contemporary thinking that makes imaginative use of the Marxist toolbox (the writings of Robert Brenner and David Harvey, for example). As we shall see, this very difference, in combination with sustained attention to and original reflection on the process of historical change in Ireland, is what makes this book so valuable.

To catch the distinctiveness of Coakley’s undertaking, it may be useful to compare Ireland in the World Order with a recent narrative history such as Thomas Bartlett’s Ireland: A History. Bartlett’s primary commitment is to telling fifteen hundred years of the Irish story as completely as he can within the confines of his six hundred or so pages. The primary method used is the deployment of significant detail. Thus, we learn on page 59 that, of the one hundred and fifty members of John de Bermingham’s household massacred by Dundalk townsfolk in 1329, twenty were musicians. As a historian fully aware of the choices (of terminology, of detail, of theme and of interpretation) that constructing a narrative entails, Bartlett proposes rather than imposes a possible connection between this aspect of the Bermingham household and the mysterious massacre. At times, he also brings larger matters of interpretation to the fore:

This thesis of the rise and decline of the English lordship, followed by a renewed and, this time, triumphant English conquest of Ireland has a satisfying symmetry to it; but as an interpretative framework for the history of Ireland, rather than merely the history of the English lordship of Ireland, it is inherently flawed and based on unspoken assumptions.

Bartlett knows that a survey such as his cannot but be, in a sense, an interpretative essay in narrative guise, and therefore contestable by those operating within a different framework. Ultimately, however, his book is a commented narrative – the kind of book in fact that a reader unfamiliar with Irish history should have read before embarking on Coakley’s.

What is fascinating about Ireland in the World Order is its almost exclusive preoccupation with patterns and frameworks. Coakley (in this book at least) is not interested in the individual players in the drama of history, or in conveying the texture of historical experience through significant – we might say novelistic – detail. Instead, he focuses on how societies organise and perpetuate themselves, how surplus wealth is created and deployed, how the spread of literacy affects authority and social forms, how social elites will be in a vulnerable position if they do not foster a supportive class between them and the mass of the population, how matters of language and religious difference interact with political and economic factors, or how the early adoption of certain forms of social organisation or technology confers long-term advantage and, in the age of high capitalism and empire, may condemn other sectors and societies to a structurally dependent position.

In reading conventional histories of the nineteenth century, for example, with their concentration on the detail of high political history or the year-to-year evolution of the land question, we may lose sight of the societal consequences of the effective dismantling of Irish proto-industry in the 1820s or fail fully to register how – with Ireland depopulating after the Famine and irremediably set in its role as agricultural provider to industrialising Britain and the Empire – the gulf between the two island economies that compose the United Kingdom grows wider, despite a certain cultural convergence. (Even such gifts of the Union, so to speak, as the railway system may serve only to undermine nascent Irish enterprise.) Because he focuses relentlessly on patterns, and because the need to compact eight hundred years into two hundred pages forces him to eliminate all but the minimum of flesh from the skeleton, Coakley induces readers to see Irish history afresh and in the process to question the assumptions by which they navigate the field and on which they construct their favoured narrative.

Coakley in no way supplants Lyons, Hoppen, Ó Tuathaigh, Lee, Jackson, Foster, Daly, Bew, Ó Gráda, Larkin, O’Connor, Curtis and the numerous other historians (not forgetting a bracing outsider, the Austrian Erich Strauss) who have explored the nineteenth century, but he performs the admirable function of provoking serious thought. The same could be said of his treatment of other periods. In fact, the medieval period takes on an almost startlingly different aspect when submitted to Coakley’s procedures. To judge from his references, he is eclectic in the historical sources on which he draws; if his intellectual reference points come from territory little explored by Irish historians, that is no reason to ignore what he offers.

Given that he has exposed himself to the slings and arrows of a thousand potentially outraged specialists, Coakley writes with undeviating certainty and confidence. This may aggravate some readers and provoke a few extra arrows. Clearly, Ireland in the World Order is not light reading; on the other hand, once its terminology has been established, it aspires to maximum clarity rather than to wilful obscurity. A little more historical sign-posting might have been helpful and some historians will find fault with the near exclusion of individual actors and of a sense of the lived, ungetroundable unpredictability of events. Coakley refers to the enormous loss of life that occurred in Ireland in the 1640s. How the human reality behind such figures – behind the Famine, the First World War, the War of Independence and the Troubles too – should be treated is an extremely complex and troubling question; it could be raised in relation to many works of Irish history, but not without consideration of the almost exclusive focus on systems and models in Coakley’s case. Issues of language and culture are highlighted in the earlier chapters; in its general thrust, the later material may be thought-provoking for cultural historians but Coakley has not done their work for them: the comments on literature and the media on page 161, for example, are simply banal. (And for those who care, the book endows Fine Gael with an unwanted fada while Clann na Talmhan/Talún ends up unhappily straddling the pre- and post-Caighdeán spellings.)

When books deal with centuries of history or of literary activity, reviewers often concentrate on (and sometimes, we may surmise, read nothing but) the later chapters. Maurice Coakley’s interpretation of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is entirely consistent with the analysis laid out in earlier chapters, but his uncompromising judgements (of the Home Rule middle class; the Civil War; why Northern Ireland eventually exploded; Fianna Fáil’s journey from a national project of some kind towards a mindless embrace of international capital; Sinn Féin’s economic analysis; Labour’s failures …) will leave few of his Irish readers entirely happy. All the better perhaps: the book deserves to be read – by historians, by policy-makers, by activists – on its own terms and not simply plundered for ammunition in battles already under way. As Coakley moves into the twentieth century, and as the Irish economy becomes, as he says, a bridge economy for American capital in relation to Europe, the frequent comparisons with England, Wales and Scotland open out onto to a wider range of comparisons: the title of the book is not an empty flourish.

Some evocations of globalisation effectively endorse passive surrender to the corporate/financial interests that have been increasingly allowed to shape the world order. Coakley’s conclusion – it can be read on its own as a summary of the book by lazy readers or by those fearful of the ideological effects of total immersion – makes it clear that he does not believe in such passivity. Unlike JB Black’s statesmen who “wrestled with the problem, only to retire baffled”, Coakley maintains composure and focus to the end. Though he recognises the extreme seriousness of our current problems, his awareness of Ireland’s place in the world order means that he can read this island as no stranger or more exasperating than any other:

One of the ironies of the current situation is that sovereignty and national democracy ‑ the key themes of the national independence movement that have long been considered to be antiquated and utterly irrelevant ‑ have re-emerged as pressing claims in popular discourse. To say that the national question has been forcibly reasserted by the financial crisis is not to argue that there is a national answer to the crisis. Ireland’s predicament of debt bondage is part of a wider pattern: resistance is only likely to be successful if it is part of a wider coalition.


Barra Ó Seaghdha has contributed essays, reviews and interviews in the areas of literature, music, cultural history and politics to a wide range of publications. He is currently based at DCU, where he is researching Irish music history.



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