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Home Uncategorized The People’s Story

The People’s Story

Fergus O’Ferrall

The Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland, Eugenio F Biagini and Mary E Daly (eds), Cambridge University Press, 635 pp, £24.99, ISBN: 978-1107479401

The editors of this extensive volume make a large claim:

In the Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland some of the scholars who have been, and are, reshaping the landscape of history reflect on the result of recent monographic research and offer a comprehensive new interpretation of the country’s history since 1740.

We need to consider how far this welcome addition to Irish historiography justifies this claim as we read thirty-five separate chapters written by just under fifty scholars. Indeed, this substantial work requires to be placed in the context of the emergence and development of “social history” in the writing of Irish history and we need to inquire what precisely is the “comprehensive new interpretation” of Ireland’s history since 1740 that it offers.

The book is composed of three major parts under the headings of “Geography, Occupations and Social Classes” (eleven essays), “People, Culture and Communities” (twelve essays) and “Emigration, Immigration and the Wider Irish World” (ten essays). The volume concludes with an epilogue on “Remembering and Forgetting in Modern Irish History” by Guy Beiner and Eunan O’Halpin and an appendix on “Mapping Ireland’s Changing Demography, 1834-2002” by Niall Cunningham and Ian Gregory.

The volume traces developments in Ireland only since 1740-41 – the year of “the Great Frost” and an often forgotten but devastating famine. There is a problem in a volume entitled “The Social History of Modern Ireland” in deciding when “modern Ireland” begins in historiography. It would seem vital to explore the social history of early modern Ireland as social structures were shaped so decisively in wars and confiscations of the seventeenth century and by the emergence of the era of Protestant power and the Penal Laws from the 1690s. The reader needs this essential formative background to the essays in this volume. This omission is a major flaw in seeking to construct any “new interpretation” arising from this book. There is some reference to this omission in Guy Beiner’s essay at the end on “The Formation of Modern Irish Memory, c.1740-1914”, when he adverts to “the unremitting colonisation drive of the early modern era” and the resultant “subversive embittered Catholic memory of dispossession” which shaped so much of later developments including the “Land War” and agrarian secret societies in nineteenth century Ireland.

There is no doubt that this volume will be most valuable to historians as they seek to examine many aspects of Irish economic and social history. Indeed, it provides so much up-to-date contemporary analysis in many of the chapters, such as that on “Migration and Integration since 1991” by Irial Glynn, that it should be studied by contemporary policy-makers in Ireland as well as historians. Readers will find in each essay a succinct account of the current state of knowledge in the form of a survey covering the period from 1740 to the present. References are made in these surveys to many recent important studies but these are not always comprehensive and there is no extended bibliographic apparatus at the end of the volume.

At times one feels that in the relatively short compass available to the authors on each topic too much has been attempted for it to be fully satisfactory. For example, there is no comprehensive survey of the Irish Poor Law system, which was so important for the social history of nineteenth and indeed twentieth century Irish history. Yet I can think of at least three major studies of the Poor Law since the 1980s: Helen Burke, The People and the Poor Law in 19th Century Ireland, in 1987. Ronald D Cassell, Medical Charities, Medical Politics The Irish Dispensary System and the Poor Law, 1836-1872, in 1997 and Poverty and Welfare in Ireland 1838-1948, edited by Virginia Crossman and Peter Gray, in 2011. While Mary E Daly’s essay in this volume on “Famines and Famine Relief, 1740-2000” is a helpful survey it cannot treat the Poor Law system and workhouses or later dimensions in the required depth. Indeed, Daly makes no reference to the studies I have just noted. Catherine Cox’s fine chapter on “Health and Welfare, 1750-2000” does make brief references to Virginia Crossman’s two valuable studies, The Poor Law in Ireland, 1838-1948, (Dundalk, 2006) and Poverty and the Poor Law in Ireland, 1850-1914, (Liverpool, 2013).  It is really quite unsatisfactory in seeking “a comprehensive new interpretation” to minimise the defining experiences of Irish poverty and the general misery of so many Irish people over recent centuries.

The problems for readers in discerning in the book “a comprehensive new interpretation” begin in the short three-page Editors’ Introduction. The editors refrain from “offering an analytical and systematic concept” of the discipline of social history. In effect this leaves them bringing together many authors who naturally reflect a variety of approaches and methods. The editors claim that the age of the “grand theories” is “happily over”. The second reason for avoiding an analytical and systematic approach to social history is that the editors regard “social history ‑ and particularly this book ‑ as not being a point of arrival, but a point of departure. It is open-ended, it is a programme, a springboard for the rewriting of the history of the Irish.” This is what may be described as a “magpie” approach, collecting whoever happens to be available to include in the book. Such an approach cannot yield the claimed “comprehensive new interpretation” of Irish history. It simply assists as a “tool box”, to use the editors’ phrase, in that larger enterprise. The editors state:

It is methodologically eclectic, open to cognate disciplines (geography, sociology, demographics, economics), and, if not histoire totale, it is at least interested in grasping the totality of human experience in society. Its totalising quest of meaning is a project, rather than a narrative.

This book is an enlarged collection of essays, each of which might have appeared in Irish Economic and Social History, the fine journal of the Economic and Social History Society of Ireland which has been published annually from 1974. It would have added greatly to the volume if there had been included a historiographical essay placing the development of social history in Ireland in the context of the rise of the discipline internationally in the twentieth century and in the context of the lengthy “revisionist” debate in Ireland concerning the nationalist narratives and political ideologies which have been so dominant in Irish historiography until recent times. There has emerged a whole range of new approaches to understanding our past: Women’s History, Gender History, History of the Family, History of Education, Religious and Church History, Urban History, Rural History, Labour History, Historical Geography, Cultural History and Local History among other historical disciplines or sub-disciplines of history. Many of these are flourishing in Ireland and are not fully or adequately reflected in the volume if comprehensiveness is being claimed. Local case studies to probe in depth some topics would have added greatly to our understanding of the wide variations of social experience on the island over time.

Before acknowledging the many fine individual essays in this book it is important to ask basic questions about the meaning of “social history”. Is it simply a subdivision of historiography that focuses on aspects of social life or is it the history of an entire society from a social-historical viewpoint – what German scholars call Gesellschaftsgeschichte? From the 1920s, the Annales school of history in France associated with Lucien Febvre (1878-1956), Marc Bloch (1886-1944) and Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) led the way in using social structures as an explanatory focus and in employing social scientific methods in their accounts of the history of society. In particular, they drew attention to longer term factors, such as geography and climate. They analysed the shaping of, and the collective nature of mentalities in the famous journal Annales d’Histoire Economique et Sociale (1929-1939). It is interesting to note the name changes in this journal reflecting ongoing debate about the focus of the new approaches to the past: Annales d’Histoire Sociale (1939-42) Mélanges d’Histoire Sociale (1942-46) Annales, Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations (1946-1994) and finally Annales, Histoire, Sciences, Societies from 1994. The school became associated with the search for “total history”. The Annales historians drew our attention to the longue durée – how geography, climate, demography and other long-term factors led to continuities of the deepest structures and were central to how society is shaped over time. It was exciting as an undergraduate in the 1960s and early 1970s to read Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft and to reflect on humankind being so shaped over time.

In the 1960s the “new social history” took off in the English-speaking world with Edward Thompson and other historians writing history “from the bottom up”, with priority given to phenomena such as classes, movements, urbanisation, industrialisation, inequalities, family and population studies, and gender and race. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, published in 1963, brought the experiences of ordinary people to the historical forefront. The underdogs of history were at last been given attention rather than elites and their political, diplomatic or military history. The Journal of Social History was founded in 1967, and later, the Irish Society for Economic and Social History and the Labour History Society were founded and produced their new journals, Irish Economic and Social History and Saothar. These journals and the scholars associated with them have opened up new vistas for historical research in Ireland. Together with scholars in women’s history – so long neglected ‑ and those working on so many other aspects of Irish cultural and material history, as well as in the renaissance of high quality local history ‑ now flourishing in so many locales, that it is accurate to state that public understanding of our past has been transformed even as it becomes more complex. This public understanding of the diversity of human experience, including that of the many minorities on the island, has both enabled and framed how the commemorations occurring in the Decade of Centenaries, 1912-22, have been remarkably inclusive of different narratives and identities.

Many of these new approaches to the past are included, or referred to, in The Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland and in this regard the inclusive, eclectic and comparative approaches in the many essays will help to inform and excite new research. So as “a tool to unpack Ireland’s social and cultural history in its global as well as national significance” –as stated by the editors ‑ this book will be most useful rather than in offering “a comprehensive new interpretation of the country’s history since 1740”.

The editors’ introduction concludes with a puzzling quote from WB Yeats:

We hope that it will inspire our readers, in the words of W.B. Yeats to ‘go forth … and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear. Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.’

Frankly this is Yeatsian nonsense – manifestly everything is not true and the earth is more than “a little dust under our feet”! A more appropriate Yeats quote if one is needed – which is doubtful ‑ might be “Hammer your thoughts into unity.” For we do need to “hammer” the accumulating results of the prolific research evidenced in the essays in this book into some unity’ for an overall “comprehensive new interpretation”.

There is real value in “grand theories” in respect of historical studies, especially if the aspiration is to offer “a comprehensive new interpretation”. There is a vital need for the historian to use hypotheses in analysing evidence – making claims of eschewing ‘theory’ often reflects unspoken assumptions and biases in accounts of the past. Much better to make one’s theoretical orientation explicit and then to ensure that the crass imposition of any theory is not at the expense of the evidence but that theories are used as heuristic devices to raise new questions and encourage the pursuit of new sources in seeking answers. Historians, and in particular social historians, should not forget that there are large-scale problems of historical interpretation which cry out for treatment. We are informed in this volume about many such large-scale problems – for example, since 1700 about ten million Irish people have emigrated – an extraordinary phenomenon – with now about seventy million people with some degree of Irish descent, of which forty million are in the United States, claiming Irish as their primary identity. So we need theoretical hypotheses to seek to analyse and explain this Irish diaspora.

As John Tosh writes:

The broader the scope of the enquiry, the greater the need for theory which does not simply alert the historian to fresh evidence but which actually attempts to explain the process or pattern in question. (J Tosh, The Pursuit of History Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History, Fourth Edition, Harlow)

Theories such as gender theory in women’s history or colonial or post-colonial theories in countries like Ireland that endured imperialism are highly relevant. For example, an important feature of post-colonialist study is the central role it accords to the indigenous history and culture of colonised people which have been hitherto overlooked or worse have suffered the condescension of the elites in society which were formed around their exploitation.

In the attempts by historians to interpret the past and in analysing many diverse sources of evidence – to “hammer our thoughts into unity” – then theory – grand or not ‑ is most valuable indeed and it is regrettable that it is dismissed at the start of this collection of essays on social history.

Having registered some criticisms, it is important to acknowledge the many important essays in this book which will serve as both a starting point and a stimulus for further work on a wide range of important historical topics in Irish history. It is particularly important that many of the authors illustrate how certain ideological commitments by politicians have shaped the lived experience of so many, often to their great detriment: famine and housing spring immediately to mind. Ideas matter and have social consequences: we cannot see social history as history with the politics left out. Part II covers consumption and living conditions, housing, food, literacy and education, old age, death and mourning, celebrations and the rituals of life, gender roles, childhood, marriage, sexuality, crime and punishment and associational life and leisure. Each reader is likely to turn to the essay or essays most closely associated with their own interests and it is not possible to review each one given the number in this extensive collection.

John Fitzgerald’s overview of Irish demography since 1740, as one would expect from his professional expertise, is essential reading and notable for its treatment of the data sources. Taken with the “Appendix: Mapping Ireland’s Changing Demography, 1834-2002”, by Niall Cunningham and Ian Gregory, at the end of the volume, we have a succinct overview of Ireland’s exceptional demographic trends and a range of maps situating Ireland’s changing population geographically, by occupation and by religion. The reproduction of some of the maps is not of the quality or size that is warranted for close analysis of what they mean. Peter Solar’s essay on “Occupation, Poverty and Social Class in pre-Famine Ireland, 1740-1850”, part of his ongoing research, supplements the demographic analysis.

Gearóid ó Tuathaigh’s essay on “Languages and Identities” explores the significance of language in the construction of a distinct sense of peoplehood or nation and the issue of language as a cultural practice. The central concern here is the exceptional case of Ireland’s major vernacular shift from Irish to English. This is a most valuable overview which suggests the current dangers to the Irish language as a cultural practice even as it still enjoys a symbolic place in the Irish state. It remains very contested in Northern Ireland. This is an example of an essay in this book which would repay policy-makers and politicians to study.

Particularly valuable are the essays in Part III on “Emigration, Immigration and the Wider Irish World”. Here we meet some of the exceptional and defining characteristics of Irish historical experience: one in every three people under the age of thirty in independent Ireland in 1946 had left the country by 1971; fully half a million people left the Republic in the 1950s. Why was Ireland “dying”? Emigration, as noted above, was not of course a new phenomenon: in 1891 38.8 per cent of those born in Ireland were living outside Ireland.

In addition, we have to account for the historical and contemporary patterns of immigration into the island of Ireland. Since 1991 the country has undergone an enormous change: by 2011, 17 per cent of the population had been born abroad while 12 per cent were citizens of other countries. Irial Glynn’s important essay speaks of “a demographic revolution”. With the shadow of the malign direct provision system hanging over the Irish state vexed problems have arisen for public policy in respect of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

These demographic developments have resulted in an enlarged concept of what it is to be Irish. We are moving quite rapidly in terms of major and significant historical shifts from popular understandings of the Irish as a Catholic people to being a global and hybrid people. Richard Kearney is quoted in Bronwen Walters’s key essay on “The Diaspora in Comparative and Multi-generational Perspective” as noting in 1990 that “the Irish sense of belonging is no longer pre-determined by the map-lines of our island”. Indeed, it was symbolic, as Walters observes, that our constitution was amended in 1998 to note that “the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”. The Irish “story” must include the diaspora if it is to be fully and truthfully told. Walters writes: “Hybridity is not a statistical inconvenience but key to ongoing connections between the ‘home’ population and its increasingly mobile genealogical descendants, as well as a growing facet of the settled population of the island itself.” Having traced, however briefly, the experiences of Irish people in the USA, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Newfoundland in Canada, Walters detects “a striking persistence in multi-generational Irish identities in the diaspora”. There is now a recognition by the Irish state of the economic value of harnessing this global Irish heritage, “The Gathering” in 2013 being a recent example of this by tourist interests. The Irish diaspora is more than an economic resource – it is a defining aspect of who we Irish are now.

The increased focus on minorities as being central to Irish history was highlighted by President Mary Robinson in a significant address to the joint Houses of the Oireachtas in 1995. Eugenio F Biagini’s essay on “Minorities” explores how the “myth” of Irishness as being religiously and ethnically homogenous involved social exclusion, leaving many people feeling marginal in relation to the nation’s core group. He traces briefly the place of Huguenots as Protestant refugees in Ireland, Jews and Travellers to show how Irishness is moving towards pluralism with the more recent arrival of so many immigrants augmenting the Muslim population and other faiths and languages in Ireland: the diversity of our population has become “a badge of honour”. Difference is celebrated as a means to develop a good and creative society. However, there are still many who resist accommodating more migrants and helping refugees and there are many reported cases of racism. Ireland, notes Biagini, in recent decades, “was becoming a society of minorities but the process was laborious and complex”.

The Cambridge Social History of Modern Ireland is a very welcome textbook that will be widely used across a great range of topics and themes in Irish history: it is likely to be the first port of call by students and academics. In respect of the analysis of many critical policy areas in contemporary Ireland it also makes an important contribution. It invites us to consider many aspects of the lived experiences of many Irish people in a historical, contemporary and comparative context. It points us on our way to developing “a comprehensive new interpretation” of our past which of course will in turn shape our future. Such an interpretation will need to reflect how a colonised island people, dominated by a neighbour creating one of the world’s empires, has produced distinctively Irish global and hybrid mentalities in Ireland and throughout the world in the twenty-first century.


Dr Fergus O’Ferrall is author of a number of books in Irish history including Catholic Emancipation Daniel O’Connell and the Birth of Irish Democracy 1820-30 (Dublin, 1985) and he has edited and contributed to a number of books including Longford History and Society (with Martin Morris, Dublin, 2010), Longford Irish Historic Towns Atlas 22 (with Sarah Gearty and Martin Morris, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 2010) and Towards A Flourishing Society (TASC, Dublin, 2012). He has contributed essays and reviews to the Dublin Review of BooksStudies: An Irish Quarterly and other journals. He contributed an essay to the recent book A Dialogue of Hope: Critical Thinking for Critical Times, ed Gerry O’Hanlon SJ., (Messenger Publications, Dublin, 2017). He is a governor of The Irish Times.



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