The Dependency Rut

Maurice Coakley, Ireland in the World Order: A History of Uneven Development

Pluto Press, 256pp, £17.50, ISBN 9780745331256

reviewed by David Convery

I grew up in Celtic Tiger Ireland. In school we were told we could do anything. Unlike our parents’ and teachers’ generation we would never have to worry about jobs, money or opportunity. We were lucky. Sure, there were still problems, political corruption being the most heralded, yet for many living through those times, certainly for most commentators, it seemed that Ireland had finally broken with its underdeveloped past and could confidently look forward to a bright, consumerist future. As a young radical in 2001 I watched the economic collapse of Argentina and became familiar with the devastation wrought across Latin America by neo-liberalism, associated throughout the continent with three powerful letters: IMF. But that was Latin America, this was Europe, and I was lucky. Only nine years later the Irish economy imploded. With almost half a million languishing on the dole and tens of thousands of the lucky generation having emigrated, the IMF would arrive in Dublin. The Celtic Tiger appeared a blip in an otherwise forlorn history. What happened? Why was Ireland doomed to repeat this cycle over and over again?

Maurice Coakley sees the beginning of this in the 12th-century Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland. His central thesis is the idea of a clash of two different economic systems: a private landowning elite attempting to forcibly colonise a society in which land was pastoralist and was held in common. In Ireland, unlike Scotland and Wales, there was never any sustained attempt to develop a native middle class that would act as a stable guarantor of London-based rule. Instead, this rule was based upon foreign settlers in Ireland. Harsh laws prevented the native Irish from owning property, being freely able to worship their own religion, being properly schooled, or being given the right to vote. They were seen as ‘other’, to be compelled, rather than convinced, to conform and convert. Coakley argues that what was essential to the creation of a native middle class elsewhere and later the development of capitalism was the spread of literacy. When land is held in common as it was among the native Irish, there is no need for property records and hence contracts or other means of written communication, thus literacy remains the privilege of bards and clerics.

The development of private property encourages literacy not only in landowners but also in tenants, in whose interests it is to understand the contract they enter into with the landowners. Literacy thus precedes the development of a professional and mercantile class. In Scotland and Wales, English power rested upon a native middle class who were courted by England and in whose interests it was to be allied to it for trade, property and power. The Reformation encouraged the spread of literacy beyond the elite by allowing private worship of God, facilitated through the translation of the Bible into the vernacular. This further facilitated the development of an individualist consciousness as opposed to a collective, which was central to the development of commerce, agrarian and later industrial capitalism. The Irish people and their language Gaelic were seen as barbaric, and thus the publication of the Bible in Gaelic was seen as an affront on God. If you could not own property and you could not privately commune with God or have any say in how society was run, then where was the incentive to learn to read and write?

At times the Anglo-Irish elite felt restricted, especially as they were not allowed to trade independently with the Empire or with other nations. In the American colonies, similar grievances helped forge a collective national identity resulting in war and independence. Why did this not happen in Ireland? All things being equal, the Anglo-Irish, for all their grievances, relied on London for their power and prestige. They could not rely on the dispossessed Catholic peasantry to back a revolution, for they were the very same people who had dispossessed them. English rule could thus never appeal to the natives and the elite could never challenge English rule for fear that they would unleash forces they could not control amongst the peasantry. Consequently, an attempt by radical middle-class Presbyterians in the United Irishmen to mobilise peasant support for independence was brutally suppressed in 1798 with the support of the Anglo-Irish elite.

Mass mobilisations of peasantry in the 19th century, first by Daniel O’Connell to repeal the anti-Catholic penal laws, then in Michael Davitt’s Land League, forced skilful concessions on behalf of the British establishment. Attempts were belatedly made to develop an Irish middle class, though its opportunities were curtailed at every turn. When the British government finally conceded Home Rule, it was halted by the outbreak of the First Wold War. The carnage and repression of the war convinced many that Home Rule’s day had passed – what was needed was complete separation. A war was fought mostly in the countryside for independence, agrarian and labour conflict playing a significant part, usually neglected in mainstream historiography. A deal was cut with a section of the leadership of Sinn Féin however, that saw the creation of the Irish Free State and the consolidation of the partition of the island.

The new Cumann na nGaedheal government for the most part simply took over the British administration, the apparatus of the state remaining relatively unchanged. No real attempt was made to break the economic dependence on Britain by developing an industrial base in Ireland. Later Fianna Fáil governments made overtures to partially remedy this situation by introducing limited social measures such as improved housing, electrification throughout the country, and national industries in sugar, energy and transportation among others. Its policy was firmly one of self-sufficiency, with limited economic interest in the outside world. Having brought the country to near collapse in the 1950s, its population shrunk to its lowest ever, Fianna Fáil decided to change tack. Economic improvement would now lie in positioning Ireland between Europe and the United States, a bridgehead economy, dependent on foreign investment and as a stop-off point for foreign capital. There was never any real attempt to develop a strong and independent capitalist class in Ireland, based on manufacturing rather than commerce. Unfortunately Coakley does not spend enough time exploring the reasons for this. Ireland may have been underdeveloped under the union, but it had the potential to develop a substantive industrial base in the post-independence era.

Coakley has many interesting and persuasive arguments to make, but in little over 200 pages he cannot possibly hope to adequately deal with such complex questions over such a large time span. The result is that for nearly every important point that Coakley wishes to make, he is left struggling for space to elaborate. The text is choppy, can be difficult to read and very dry at times, and skips about from century to century without providing a clear narrative thread or structure. Be warned: one needs a firm grasp of Irish history over this whole period in order to be able to follow it, let alone get the most from it. Major events such as the 16th and 17th-century plantations are never really explained, the Great Famine is inadequately dealt with, and the period from 1912-1923 covering the passing of the Home Rule Bill in 1912, the militarisation of Irish society, the First World War, War of Independence, partition and Civil War are covered in a meagre three pages. While relevant to his analysis of long-term trends, the large section on the medieval period could, in light of the lack of space, have been summarised, allowing greater attention to be paid to the development of capitalism in the modern period.