I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Big Questions in Irish History


Reading an issue of the drb is like splashing happily in a pool of ideas. Maurice Earls’s dash across several centuries of Irish history, “No Myth No Nation”, is an exhilarating exploration. At moments, it might seem like a ballon d’essai but the essay is written with serious intent. One could imagine a whole module in Irish history and historiography built round its provocative theses. It challenges and refreshes. I think it is wrong-headed at times, as we all are.

Earls opens with the paradox that while Partition had “exceptional emotional heft” in Irish nationalist politics during most of the twentieth century, it featured little in the Treaty debates and was incidental to the Irish civil war of 1922-23. There are many reasons for the salience of Partition in later Southern political discourse but, presumably, part of the explanation is that it met deep psychological needs. The Irish revolution, like most revolutions it might be said, turned out to be a disappointment. The mood of disenchantment is captured with excruciating exactness in the character of Moran, an old IRA man, in John McGahern’s novel Amongst Women.

What did we get for it? A country, if you’d believe them. Some of our own johnnies in the top jobs instead of a few Englishmen. More than half of my own family work in England. What was it all for? The whole thing was a cod.

The revolution, such as it was, left in its wake much bitterness between former comrades. The Irish economy struggled and stuttered in the 1920s and 1930s. The vision of a Gaelic-speaking Ireland turned out to have as much substance as an eighteenth century aisling devoted to the Stuart cause. Old age pensions were reduced below UK and Northern Irish levels. In 1925 local newspapers reported near-famine conditions following potato failure in remote parts of the west of Ireland and there was a further scare in west Cork during the “Economic War” of the 1930s. A mass exodus from rural Ireland in the 1950s gave rise to existential questions about the viability of a sovereign Irish state. The alchemy of independence failed to make silk purses out of pigs’ ears.

Ironically, the concern with Partition at the rhetorical level did not translate into initiatives that might have done some good for those most directly affected by the practical implications of the post-Partition settlement. It was only as the Troubles began to boil in the North at the end of the ’60s, as Earls relates, that it “became embarrassingly clear that the Republic had done little or nothing to ameliorate the conditions of the Northern minority”.

With much to feel disappointed about, Partition had its uses as a scapegoat for the ills of Irish society. It seemed unnatural even in visual terms. Schoolbooks and maps imprinted the image of one small island. For people with an island psychology the gash across the northern part of the image could only signify violation.

In the nationalist imagination the economic consequences were also profound. These beliefs were largely misplaced. To take the example of the border city of Derry, it lost wholesale and retail trade with its Donegal-Sligo hinterland but this was incidental to the main reason for its economic decline. Changes in the international economy led to a collapse in demand for Derry’s major industry, which was shirtmaking. Similarly, in the Belfast region, linen manufacture, shipbuilding and engineering declined in the face of changing demand patterns and overseas competition. Historically, the two economies in Ireland were not complementary, North-South trade was limited and the opportunities for economic co-operation are limited even today. What Partition did succeed in doing at the time was avert a civil war between nationalists and unionists.

Earls is concerned that Irish historians tend to see Easter 1916 and the guerrilla war of 1919-21 as sui generis and not issuing from the politics of the nineteenth century. “The argument offered in the present essay then is that the War of Independence was more connected with than disconnected from the nationalist currents of the nineteenth century and was fought in pursuit of political objectives established in that century.” I’m not so sure historians would disagree. Most, if not all, would trace the antecedents of the 1916 rising back to the Fenians of the 1860s, and some to the Young Irelanders of the 1840s. After all, the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) was responsible for both the skirmishes of 1867 and the rebellion in Dublin. Indeed, a half century ago, FSL Lyons introduced his great textbook Ireland since the Famine with the somewhat overblown claim that the “national demand” remained in essence what Wolfe Tone had declared it to be as long ago as 1791, which was “to break the connection with England”.

Earls also worries that a “bogus” distinction is being made between physical force nationalism and peaceful agitation, a view that also tends to separate out the period of the Irish revolution from nineteenth century movements that aimed at Irish legislative independence. As noted by Earls, the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland abandoned its earlier support for legislative autonomy as epitomised by “Grattan’s Parliament” and quickly accommodated itself to the post-Union settlement. British and royal intransigence delayed Catholic emancipation for a further three decades. No matter that the reform was mainly of benefit to middle class Catholics or that the major changes to Catholic rights had already been conceded, bringing masses of people onto the historical stage changed the course of Irish history. Daniel O’Connell’s people-powered campaign for Catholic Emancipation and even more so his later agitation for Repeal of the Union had solidly ethno-religious bases, a colouration that did not go unnoticed by Northern Protestants. However, O’Connell did not cross the line into insurrection.

Charles Stewart Parnell and the Home Rule agitation of the 1880s went close to the edge at times, by which time we can speak of full-blown Irish ethno-nationalism wearing a largely Catholic face. We should not forget that Parnell offered to resign in the wake of the barbaric killings of the chief secretary for Ireland, Lord Cavendish and the under secretary, Thomas Burke, in the Phoenix Park in 1882 by the so-called Irish National Invincibles. Irish nationalism in general was revolted by the murders and it showed little enthusiasm either for the American-inspired dynamite campaign (“scientific warfare”) in Britain that was also contemporaneous with the struggle for land and Home Rule.

Still, the issue is not that clear-cut and it is good that Earls raises awkward questions. There were shades of opinion within Irish nationalism that bled into each other. The Fenians and those they influenced had no problem with the use of violence for political ends. Some supporters of the Home Rule party, including MPs, believed that violence could be justified in principle but not in practice because of the might of the British empire. Others, in contrast, sought political progress through exclusively constitutional means. Between the two extremes, ambivalence towards the use of violence could be fluid depending on time and circumstance. But historians should wrestle with these variations (as David Wilson has done in his monumental biography of the Young Irelander and later father of Canadian confederation, Thomas D’Arcy McGee), neither assuming a simple dichotomy nor eliding the distinction between peaceful and violent means of agitation.

There was ambivalence and blurring at the edges and jingoistic platform rhetoric was sure to get a cheer. However, the arming of the UVF and the fighting of the Easter Rising were altogether different forms of agitation to those we have been considering, though each had lineages that stretched back into the nineteenth century. For one, physical force unionism and physical force nationalism blew peoples’ brains out, including those of civilians on the streets of Dublin in 1916 and on the streets of Belfast five years later.

Earls is also concerned that some historians view the IRA campaign of 1919-21 as “a squalid ethnically based event rather than the culmination of a long struggle for Irish legislative autonomy”. Might there not be elements of truth in both, if the pejorative term “squalid” is excluded? What was retrospectively called the “war of independence” (I discuss the nomenclature and complexity of the struggle in more detail in the final chapter of my book Unhappy the Land) was the scene for killing, burning, sectarianism and, on occasion, torture and sexual assault. If we include the civil war and the Northern “troubles” the intensity of the terror and the distinctive properties of “physical force” nationalism and unionism show through. It’s a distinction that deserves recognition and not only because the implications were life-changing, and life-ending, for many.

I would agree that the ends sought by the Irish revolutionaries were extensions of those sought in the nineteenth century. However, the choice as to means was no mere technical decision devoid of consequence. Means and ends interpenetrate. The lurch into militarism – orange, green and khaki – during the revolutionary decade brought into being an independent Irish state, two bitterly divided peoples on the island and destroyed any possibility of some kind of historic rapprochement. Edward Carson, who had hoped to keep all of Ireland within the Union, found himself in a much smaller place in 1921, his original hopes dashed. Eamon de Valera, who had fought for an all-Ireland republic, looked out onto a similarly shrunken reality in 1922. Could a non-violent pathway to political change have produced a worse outcome?

“No Myth No Nation” contains two related observations that are worth considering. “The main characteristic of the War of Independence, as prosecuted by Collins and his colleagues, was its controlled low-level character, just enough pressure to continually needle the British and to prevent Westminster governing as usual.” This is an interesting thought but I wonder if there might not be an element of post hoc rationalisation there. Dan Breen, Ernie O’Malley, Tom Barry and Liam Lynch seem to have been happy to blaze away at every opportunity. Had they had at their disposal the arsenal of weaponry available to the Provisional IRA later on, I doubt if they would have stinted on its use.

Earls makes the further point that “for all the marching and military rhetoric since 1914, the Irish political class of that time was not particularly warlike”. The head of the Irish Volunteers, Richard Mulcahy, might well concur. The phrase used by Mulcahy in later life implies manipulative intent and is revealing: the people “had to be led gently into open war”. Possibly all bets were off once the people had been manoeuvred into confrontation with British forces, whose obliging brutality produced the necessary alienation. Nevertheless, Earls is alerting us to a point of fundamental importance. Compared to wars in southern and eastern Europe in the same time period – characterised by pogroms, slaughter, ethnic cleansing and rape – the Irish conflict was remarkably restrained. This restraint owes much to the stronger civilising processes coursing through West European societies from at least the period of the Enlightenment, as well as owing much also to the reforming aspects of British policy in Ireland. (Earls is especially good on the integrative tendencies as well as the separatist tensions long present in Irish society.)

One episode, taken almost at random, serves to illustrate the point about scale and brutality. In January 1919, the month and year of Soloheadbeg as it happens, a Chekist (secret police) chief took a Red Army detachment into the Don province on the Russian-Ukrainian border. Some 12,000 Cossack peasants were slaughtered after quick-fire trials for allegedly resisting Soviet power (Anne Applebaum, Red Famine, p 39). The Russian White Army committed atrocities on a comparable scale. In the Balkans, vengeance, mass killings and ethnic cleansing were commonplace both then and later.

The reference to the unwarlike character of the Irish political class may hint at a great lost opportunity. Peaceful resistance to British rule – the anti-conscription campaign of 1918 which united all elements within Irish nationalism furnishes a model – might have delivered a better outcome than Mulcahy’s graduated descent into national and ultimately communal and civil war. I tend to agree with McGahern’s Moran: “It was better if it had never happened.” The same might be said in relation to Carson and the UVF’s embrace of militarism. The successful mass mobilisation around the signing of the Ulster Covenant had indicated an alternative pathway but Orange jingoism carried the day.

“No Myth No Nation” speaks of the importance of historical commemoration to the life of the nation state. I too would argue for historical commemoration of the legacies of the Orange, the Green, labour, the RIC and other traditions, however controversial these might be, though I would favour more open and critical discussion running alongside these events. Moments of great national significance should be recalled in the present and marked with appropriate rituals. Whether they are celebrated is a matter of ideology and ethics, and ultimately comes down to personal choice. All this commemorative business has been a godsend to Irish historians. Still, I would suggest that the current over-concentration of research activity on the Irish revolution represents a serious misallocation of intellectual resources. Soon we will know about nearly everyone who shot someone down a boreen in west Cork or elsewhere in Ireland between 21 January 1919 and the 11 July 1921. There are two millennia of recorded Irish history out there.

Somewhat unexpectedly, “No Myth No Nation” has much to say about the economic and social history of Ireland. At the heart of the discussion are issues of economy and demography as, it is said, these formed the “backdrop to life, culture, literature, marriage, love, family, inheritance, property, birth and death”. Indeed. But tracing lines of causation, interdependence and relevance is no easy task.

It seems to be an act of faith on Earls’s part that those pressing for legislative autonomy had economic considerations at the centre of their gospels. Were the middle classes of the time really “obsessed with economic development and industrialisation’? I would accept that O’Connell’s Repeal campaign generated a catalogue of concerns about the deleterious effects of the Union on Irish industry, but these seem more in the nature of ammunition to buttress a political case. In 1834, before launching an early attack on the Union, O’Connell requested that his supporters supply him with information that would back up his anti-Union case, seeking instances such as “the wrongs of the Irish distillers” or how “the bounty on imported linen yarn operated to shift the trade from Ireland to Scotland”. These do not sound like an interest in economics per se. In Colonialism, Religion and Nationalism in Ireland I traced Parnell’s economic ideas, as best I could find them, and concluded that in matters economic he was more of a Tory than a radical reformer. I should add, though, that Parnell favoured protectionism to encourage Irish industry, as did Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin. Earls places much emphasis on this policy option that remained off the table while Ireland cohabited with Britain.

It is not easy to say how effective such a policy might have been. It seems to have helped economic growth in the case of some European countries, in some time periods (but not others), as the economic historian Kevin O’Rourke suggests for Italy, France, Germany and Scandinavian countries (Economic Journal, April 2000). However, other authors have come to different conclusions and Ireland as a case separate from the UK was not in the sample of ten countries studied by O’Rourke. As he also cautions, economic growth is influenced by many factors other than trade policy. Economic geography can hardly be discounted. Ireland was in the closest proximity to the furnace of the industrial revolution, so it is difficult to see how tariff barriers could have protected “infant industries” in Ireland from the competitive blasts emanating from the neighbouring island, at least for any length of time. Moreover, import tariffs that favoured struggling Irish industry would have damaged Ireland’s export-oriented agriculture, thereby adversely affecting the principal economic sector in Southern Ireland.

Intriguingly, the Lagan Valley industrialised without the aid of protective tariffs. Protectionism would in fact have damaged Northern industry as it catered for foreign rather than domestic markets and drew most of its raw materials from abroad. Ulster captains of industry, we may recall, expressed their fear of a protectionist Ireland during debates surrounding the third Home Rule bill. The classic study of pre-Famine Irish economy, Joel Mokyr’s Why Ireland Starved, tends to emphasise the costs rather than the benefits of protectionism in the Irish case. It seems unlikely that protectionist measures would have altered greatly the course of Irish economic development and they might possibly have been counterproductive.

Absolutist claims tend to creep in where the evidence is at its weakest. For instance, it is asserted that Irish economic successes in more recent times, presumably from the 1990s onwards, “were rendered possible by the successful conclusion to the War of Independence”. This is a quite a leap across the twentieth century, opening up space for a family of counterfactuals. Presumably, what is meant is that autonomy in economic policymaking was a necessary condition for major economic advances, including the emergence of the Celtic Tiger economy. So far, so good. But was Irish independence conceivable without resort to armed insurrection? The shift to an outward-oriented economic policy, which proved to be the key (as protectionism was gradually dismantled), was only taking effect in the 1960s, and sustained convergence with the living standards of leading European countries was delayed until the 1990s. These gains depended also on a specific conjuncture of forces in the evolution of global capitalism, including trade liberalisation, opportunities for attracting internationally mobile capital, the role of generous tax concessions and facilitating corporate tax avoidance. It is hard to believe, had Tom Clarke, Patrick Pearse, James Connolly and other militarists never lived, that nationalist Ireland would not have achieved independent statehood, or at the very least dominion status and autonomy in economic policymaking by the second half of the twentieth century.

Moving back in time, Earls pronounces that “The whole purpose of nineteenth century political agitation was economic growth”. It is hard to see this motive driving demands in the 1820s for bourgeois Catholic participation in the imperial parliament. Economic concerns played a part in the Repeal campaign but more in the sense that the magic potion of home government would remedy all kinds of ills, though in unspecified ways. The Land War of the early 1880s, the Plan of Campaign a few years later, and the “Ranch war” of the early twentieth century (note the attraction to war imagery) were primarily concerned with safeguarding existing property rights and earlier economic gains. The objectives were more defensive and redistributive than growth-oriented.

We now come to one of the great issues of nineteenth century Irish history, its peculiar demography, which as Earls says is intimately bound up with the state of the economy. Ireland lost population in the hundred years after the Great Famine in a way that has no parallel among other European countries. Between 1845 and 1911 the population fell from a peak of 8.5 million to 4.4 million. This implosion has to be understood against the backdrop of a century of population growth before the Famine when Ireland had the fastest growth of any European country. Had Ireland experienced the modest population growth of Scotland, for instance, in the same period, the subsequent winding down of population would have been far less severe. (This would have required a more rather than a less ruthless landlord class, one more akin to the Scottish lairds, but that’s another story.) Unfortunately, the economic base for Ireland’s population explosion was peasant agriculture and increasing dependence on the potato crop. Rural industry, mainly handicraft textile manufacture, also promoted population growth but much of this industry had withered by the 1840s. Relative price changes after 1850 directed the rural economy towards livestock production that had an ever-declining potential to absorb labour. The Irish economy on the eve of the Famine was one of immense fragility, though this is much clearer in retrospect.

Any European country so heavily populated and subsisting at such a low level of material comfort was bound to lose population, that is, if it had access to opportunities elsewhere. This is precisely what happened to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Highlander migration to the industrial lowlands and emigration – accelerated by its own potato famine in the mid-1840s – drained the crofter communities of people and resulted in long-run population decline. If we think of Ireland, economically speaking, as a region, then its fate is not quite so anomalous in European terms. The starting points might vary but many parts of Western Europe lost rural population during the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Irish had the good fortune of easy access to the two great labour markets of the western world, North America and Britain. For most Irish there were no great linguistic barriers. As the author of Why Ireland Starved quipped, the Irish industrialised, but overseas.

On a minor point, emigration was tapering off before Irish independence, in large part because of the narrowing gap in living standards between Ireland and destination countries, so there is little to suggest that independence as such produced this deceleration, as Earls seems to imply. The efflux of the 1950s – the highest rate of emigration since the 1880s – puts paid to any such comforting supposition.

Earls draws on the work of Kerby Miller to argue that “mass Irish emigration was involuntary”. At best, this is a two-dimensional view of emigration, and not just in the Irish context. Of course there was heartache and hardship in leaving Ireland – there was much of that at home as well – but the more joyless explorations of Irish emigration have difficulty in reckoning with the opportunities that emigration offered relative to the alternatives. The other great historian of emigration, Don Akenson, in a number of works and including Ireland, Sweden and the Great European Migration, 1815-1914, offers a more holistic interpretation of the Irish emigration experience, as does Enda Delaney for emigration to Britain in Demography, State and Society: Irish Migration to Britain, 1921-1971.

The musical heritage of Irish emigrants (“I wish I was in …”) might suggest an overwhelming desire to return to the home place. But apparently the self-perceived exiles didn’t return to the extent practised by other European emigrants. Did the rhetoric belie the reality? In part, this may be because return migrants from abroad, and Britain in particular, were undercounted. One might wonder also about the accuracy of some of the return rates elsewhere, in particular for Italian men moving back and forth between southern Italy and South America. It may be in the Irish case that possession of English resulted in closer attachment within other English-speaking societies than was the case for non-English speaking immigrants to North America from other parts of Europe. Attraction to what we used to call the opposite sex (before life became complicated and we discovered more than two gender categories) also mattered. Unlike other Europeans, Irish men and women emigrated in roughly equal numbers. Indeed if the Blasket Islander Éibhlín Ní Shúilleabháin (Cín Lae Éibhlín Ní Shúilleabháin) is to be believed, it was the emigration of the girls at precociously young ages that put pressure on the lads to follow in their wake. In any case, an even gender balance created the conditions for marriage between compatriots, as Cormac Ó Gráda has suggested. Children to these Irish couples followed soon after. Thus, family formation in the host society weighed down the attractions of returning, as also might modest upward mobility. By contrast, the economic opportunities back home in rural Ireland were certainly constrained for those returning without some capital in their trunks or cardboard suitcases.

More speculatively, it might even be that the welcome on the mat for a returned Yank bearing scant savings was little better than that for a pregnant, unmarried daughter. Earls speaks of Irish society becoming “internally vicious” in its struggle for survival against the corrosive backdrop of a constantly falling population in the post-Famine decades. That could explain it – some deflation of the hundred thousand welcomes – but I doubt it. Living standards on average rose substantially during the second half of the nineteenth century so Earls’s invocation of “lifeboat ethics” seems misplaced. Was post-Famine Irish society that vicious? The mores of French peasants and smallholders, as portrayed in Eugen Weber’s panoramic overview Peasants into Frenchmen hardly seem superior to those of their Irish counterparts, and France was a society largely unburdened by emigration. Still, it seems there is something more to be explained about the interactions between Mother Ireland and her diasporic children.

In the end, we come back to the North. East Ulster is an exception in that it did industrialise. We still ponder why Southern, largely Catholic Ireland did not industrialise but a case for the critical importance of political autonomy needs to be made rather than assumed. The doyen of Irish economic historians, Louis Cullen, concluded a long time ago: “Irish economic development is more independent of non-economic factors that has been generally believed.” He could be wrong of course but a glance at the industrial geography of late nineteenth-century continental Europe would show that the industrialisation process was highly uneven spatially in other countries as well. An industrial enclave in one region, in the Irish case around Belfast, and a largely agrarian economy over much of the rest of the countryside was more the norm than the exception.

We come back to the North again, as so often nowadays, from the political angle. It is surely the case, as Earls argues, that “overreach” by unionists in 1921 in staking out six rather than four counties (or even accepting a more sensitive partitioning of territory not dictated by county boundaries) laid the conditions for insecurity and continuing communal conflict in the North. A unionist-dominated parliament in Belfast rather than the status quo ante of full integration didn’t help either. Earls is especially insightful in delineating the social and political world of Southern Irish Protestants and their long retreat but it is his cautionary words in relation to the current political impasse that will lodge with many of his readers. He warns that the “dormant politics of coercion may be about to get a new lease of life” and adds that “it has become clear recently that the Belfast Agreement contains a majoritarian subtext”. The plan now, in view of the changing political demography of Northern Ireland, is to override unionist opposition and push-vote that community into a “united” Ireland. This replaces “the Provisionals’ futile and bloodstained efforts”, as Earls notes, but in the end it also is a coercive strategy.

There is plenty to worry about here, particularly understandings of what is meant by consent in the event of a Border poll being called. It would be good to hear Earls on this vital subject in more detail but for the moment it is his invigorating thoughts on the Ireland of recent centuries that I would like to commend to other students of the Irish past. Disagreements apart, what his essay demonstrates above all else is that there is much to be said for posing big questions and taking the long view.

Liam Kennedy’s recent book is Who Was Responsible for the Troubles? The Northern Ireland Conflict (McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 2020).


Maurice Earls comments:

I would like to thank Liam Kennedy for his interesting and courteous response to my essay “No Myth No Nation”. While some aspects are approved, Professor Kennedy clearly has substantial disagreements with many of the arguments advanced. I would like to comment briefly on some areas of disagreement.

Liam Kennedy speaks somewhat disparagingly of “the magic potion of home government”. It seems to me that underlying his disagreement with “No Myth No Nation” is a failure to fully appreciate the historical importance of the nation state and the extraordinary political scope of its legislative powers.

Significantly, Professor Kennedy struggles to see that legislative autonomy has shaped the condition and experience of life in the Republic. He characterises the obvious connection between legislative independence and late twentieth century economic growth as  “absolutist”. He fails to see that independence was historically transformative and widely welcomed. One apparent result of these lacunae in his thinking is that he underrates the historical importance of the consistent passion with which people in Ireland struggled to achieve access to legislative power.

Thus, he somewhat casually takes the view that the state which emerged in 1922 was a disappointment, even a failure. Equally, the War of Independence is seen as a mistaken undertaking. Most citizens of the Republic will, I believe, regard these views as bizarre. Professor Kennedy’s key witness for both propositions is Michael Moran, a character from John McGahern’s wonderful novel Amongst Women. Referring to the War of Independence Moran declares “It was better if it had never happened.” Describing the independent state as “a cod”, he asks: “What did we get for it? A country, if you’d believe them.” Professor Kennedy happily aligns himself with these views, commenting tellingly: “The alchemy of independence failed to make silk purses out of pigs’ ears.”

I use the adverb “tellingly” because Kennedy’s phrase suggests belief in the inevitability of Irish failure, a tone which pervades his response, particularly in relation to the nineteenth century. This is an old story and a bogus one. The explanation for failure used to be Catholicism. In Kennedy’s retelling it is geography. What next? The weather? Anything, it seems, except the absence of agency, anything except imperial interference.

In Free State Ireland and later in the Republic, the salient historical point is that people valued political autonomy, regardless of the difficulties and pain involved in overcoming the state’s problematic nineteenth century inheritance. The fact that huge numbers, somewhere in the region of 150,000 men and women, signed up during WWII to protect and defend the independence secured by the previous generation, is surely more compelling, as historical evidence, than the views of the sour, bullying and narcissistic Michael Moran whom, as McGahern shows with skill and subtlety, life and the world were bypassing at speed.

Professor Kennedy’s attraction for the fictional is of a piece with his wider thesis. He appears to believe that if only the Irish had been patient Westminster would have granted the country substantial autonomy in good time for the Celtic Tiger. This is surely a flight of fancy rather than history. It follows from this pie-in-the-sky view of things that armed political struggle was unnecessary because the unstoppable march of good sense and decency within Britain – egged along with a little gentle Irish agitation – would have set everything aright in the fulness of time.

Professor Kennedy’s colleague at Queen’s University Belfast, Margaret O Callaghan, recently spoke of the business of historians, saying the aspiration was “to explain what happened and how and why it happened and to whom”. It would be difficult to improve on this simple dictum. It seems to me that Professor Kennedy is determined not to engage with what happened and why it happened.

The problem continues when it comes to nineteenth century nationalism, where Liam Kennedy’s response involves an unsubstantiated rejection of economic motivation and ambition as an important causal factor. In particular, he doubts that economic development was an issue of importance for the O’Connellite bourgeoisie.

It is possible to speculate endlessly what the results of economic self-government might have been had it been introduced in the mid-nineteenth century. But such speculations are irrelevant to explaining the phenomenon of nationalism and its achievement of an independent state. The historical point of note, I would suggest, is that nationalists, whose efforts culminated in an independent state, strongly desired economic development and that one important thread within that concern tended towards a policy of protectionism.

As this important question ‑ one which has not received the attention it deserves ‑ can only be settled through a focused examination, I propose to look at the subject in detail over the years 1815-1845, the formative era of modern Irish nationalism. I believe I will be in a position to illustrate the underlying cultural and political centrality of the desire for economic growth in nationalist thinking of that era, and, moreover, that economic development was recognised as an issue of great importance across the confessional/political divide.

New variants permitting, this work should be ready for an autumn issue of the drb.


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