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Review: Ireland Exceptional & Unexpected 

Maurice Coakley, Ireland in the World Order: A History of Uneven Development, Pluto Press. London, 2012.

D.R.O'Connor Lysaght

23 December 2013

The malaise of the Irish intelligentsia is shown in the fact that this book made its appearance with little of the acclaim that it deserves. The best of Pluto Press' somewhat patchy series of publications on Ireland, it is well-researched, imaginative, but, particularly thought-provoking and exasperating.

The research that went into it is to be seen in the work's eighteen-page bibliography. Coakley's imagination asserts itself in his project, presented on the back cover, of "cutting through many of the myths - imperialist and nationalist - which have obscured the real reasons for Ireland's course of development". Inevitably such aims mean that he provokes thought and annoys all parties.

In part, this is because the very broadness of the work's treatment makes it difficult to distinguish its argument. Fundamentally, this restates the basic anti-imperialist case on new terms. There are two chief changes. One is its basic internationalism as against the traditional Sinn Fein Amhan, long rendered redundant by imperialism. The one criticism to be made of Coakley's handling of this context is that he concentrates overwhelmingly on the nations of these islands. He could argue that the medieval context comprised a narrower collection of comparable experiences than that of today. Nonetheless, his sampling leaves out potentially useful colonial ventures of the times such as those of the Tutonic Knights. 

His second innovation is more problematic, the integrating of linguistic issues into the centre of its argument, rather than as an appendage of the nationalist aspects strengthening the anti-imperialist cause in Ireland. 

It is not that this latter's attempt is unnecessary. The problem lies in the fact that the whole relationship of language, literacy and nationhood is something of a labyrinth in which it is too easy to get lost. In England, for example, it is possible to talk of a single nation before the end of the Hundred Years War, before Caxton's invention of printing had enabled literacy to spread and when there was widespread incomprehension of the most basic words. From Coakley's own account, the linguistic divisions of the Scots nation had little effect on its development, appearing as expressions of civil war under the Anglo-Scottish union and as a front in a struggle for British hegemony, rather than for Scottish independence. Coakley's other contrasting example, Wales, is one of linguistic advance less as expressing political aspirations than as substituting for them. Even Irish nationalism moved by stronger forces than language. Certainly that ideology's greatest success was aided by the revival and rationalisation of its country's language and script, but this revival was itself fuelled by a common national insurgency based on material reasons to break the connection with Britain. Scots nationalism has similar reasons to thrive, as a supplier of cheap fuel to a declining economy. Only the Welsh have a truly cultural national revival, and it has yet to overcome real economic division.

Concentrating on linguistics tends to divert attention from parallel causes of the differences between the fortunes of national aspirations. In comparing Ireland and Wales, for example, there was the fact that Welsh aspirations were far more fragmented than the Irish, partly because modern Wales had no continuous practice of any kind of high kingship since the ninth century, and probably not even before that. The mountains protected but the valleys divided and, after 1066, the southern lowlands gave the Normans a more secure base than their cousins in Leinster, if only by their closer proximity to England.

Scotland was another matter. Coakley suggests rather tentatively (P.60): "The Scottish core region was never as fragile as the Pale. The existance of an autonomous Scottish monarchy may have been crucial here". There is nothing "may have been" about it; the Scots monarchy had less authority than that of England, but it had far more national authority than the Hign Kingship of Ireland. For power, the "Ceann Mor" beat the "Ard Ri" every time. It seems to have achieved this, partly by good fortune, but also by the Scottish monarchy's strategic position in the centre of its rivals and between highland and lowland. Whatever the cause, it was strong enough to survive the ten year interregnum of 1296-1306; in Ireland even Robert Bruce could not have reasserted a united authority, any more than his brother did. This authority allowed the Kingdom of Scotland to bring in Norman feudalists on its own terms, rather than on theirs and to enable them to become, if not more Scottish than the Scots, then Scottish enough to give their new country two national dynasties the legitimacy of the second of which was not challenged.

Despite the differences between Scotland and Wales they had one common feature denied to Ireland. Both countries could claim to have taken over England rather than vice versa. In Wales, particularly, where the country's relationship to Britain had been the more like that of Ireland, the victory of Enri Tewdwr at Bosworth appeared as a miraculous vengeance for a millennium of oppression, all the more in that any wise money would have been on his defeat. It was made more lasting in the opportunities that the new regime gave to families of the old Celtic stock, the outstanding beneficiaries being the Cecils and the Herberts.

In Scotland, the takeover was less dramatic but no less obvious. After several English attempts to place Scotland under their own kings, a Scottish monarch was successful in  the reverse process, and with benefits to the leading subjects of his original demesne. Unlike the Welsh, the Scots would rebel against the new united state power, but either as they would have done in a separate Scotland against religious persecution(1640-6) or in support of the claims of their native monarchs to the whole of Britain (and Ireland) against the British majority. These latter risings might have proved more serious in the next century, when the Stuarts were well and truly exiled, but, by that time, as Coakley notes, Scottish capitalism was able to enjoy real benefits as the price of parliamentary union.

Ireland got the worst of both these worlds. As in Wales, the English created and magnified divisions that prevented the potential nation  completing its creation. Unlike Wales, though its leading families participated in the English political struggles, they could not embed themselves in the metropolitan state, let alone seize it. Instead, they had to watch while new settlers were sent from England to run their own country's government, occupy their lands and impose a new religion. Again Coakley shows the result of a divided society under an official ruling group too insecure to assert its leadership. The Scots ruling class had achieved a certain hegemony through its interdependence with the independent monarchy. The leaders recognised by the Irish people were not those recognised, because imposed, by the government, with the result that the ability of anyone to speak effectively for Irish interests was compromised. 

Coakley's problem is that, while recognising these political facts, his travels in the minefield of linguistics diverts his attention too much from the economic situation behind them. His impressive bibliography has surprising gaps, a disproportionate number in works of economic history: nothing by George O'Brien, Alice Murray through John O'Donovan, Joseph Johnston and (on the linen industry) Conrad Gill to Raymond Crotty or Conor McCabe (This last omission is particularly glaring). In fact, his sources for general Irish economic history see to be restricted to those by James Meenan and LM Cullen. Even James Connolly is excluded.  This is reflected most obviously on pages 81-2, where a number of claims are dismissed as to the economic causes for Irish industrial under-development:

Radical nationalists argued that Irish economic stagnation was a product of English political rule, and pointed to various measures that had been taken to restrict Irish industry in the formative stages of the industrial era.  The absence of mineral resources in Ireland, especially coal, was a common explanation. 

This theory, though, has its own problems. While there was little coal, there was an abundance of peat. Some capital investment and a little technical innovation could surely have turned this into a ready source of energy. Even without using peat, maritime transport was cheap and easy. If cotton could be shipped across the Atlantic, why could coal not be shipped across the Irish Sea?  Besides, the region in England which had the least mineral resources - the southeast - became and remained the prosperous one. Why did Ireland not develop an industrial base focussed on lighter goods, for example the production of food?

Historians have also pointed to other "internal" factors, especially the absence of capital. However, this explanation is also problematic. In the 1840s and the following decades Ireland experienced a wave of railway building which gave the country one of the most extensive rail networks in the Europe of its time. Joseph Lee has shown that, while most of the initial capital came from England, once the venture proved successful capital flowed from within Ireland to build the remainder. Clearly there were stocks of capital within Ireland, and clearly too those holding them were reluctant to invest in enterprises unless they were sure of a safe return (Lee, 1969).   

Two points should be made here. Firstly, in a work full of annotations, these passages carry but one, Lee’s evidence supporting the refutation of the absence of capital. The reader is not told on whose authority the original argument was made, let alone the "external" one of British discrimination or the other internal one of the absence of minerals. Connolly could be invoked to back the both the arguments and Coakley's alternatives. In fairness, at the end of the passages quoted, he gives the name of Dennis O'Hearn as authority for a variation of the "external" argument, but this is dismissed quickly as ignoring the industrial success stories of Scotland and north America. 

All in all, Coakley's treatment of the arguments carry a sense that he sees them as merely obstacles to be eliminated to make way for his own: the fact of the general land crisis caused by the colonial situation of the landlord class and, thereby, its more complete alienation from its tenants than that of its peers elsewhere on the north Atlantic seaboard, its greater exploitation of its tenants (Rackrent) and the resulting contraction of the Irish market for manufactured consumer goods. He cannot deny the fact that this was made possible by the "external" factor of British suppression of the economy, but it is clear that he considers that his dismissals of the "internal" arguments of lack of minerals and capital have disposed of them for good. 

In fact, his argument disposes more definitely of his question as to the possibility of creating "an industrial base focused on....the production of food";  in the dysfunctional rural order, this was not a possibility before the land reforms of the late nineteenth century. However, by then, the dysfunction had placed the live cattle trade in a dominant position in Irish agriculture, a position strengthened by the new competition in frozen goods provided by the ranches of America and Australia, and not threatened by the development of the dairy industry, which it was able to use as a cover for its own interests 

On the other hand, in the previous century, it does not seem as if rackrent had succeeded, even aided by the efforts of the British parliament, in destroying the internal market for some Irish industrial products. Until the introduction of steam, starting in the 1790s, production of linen by water power was thriving. Its entrepreneurs may have depended excessively on a foreign market that Britain felt able to neglect (part of the basis of UlsterÕs survival in the next century) or they may have considered the home market secure enough. Nonetheless they got the Irish parliament to impose a customs duty on coal to block competition therein from the new steam technology, considering any foreign market was expendable. As George O'Brien records, under the parliamentary union, Westminster's standardising of import duties left the repeal of that one until the eve of the famine, by which time, outside Ulster, with its proximity to the Scots coalfields, the steam produced textiles had seized the market once supplied by Ireland. 

What rackrent did do was weaken the rural stimulus for technical innovation and investment. Coakley's inventor might have discovered a means using peat as a coal substitute (but it might not have been so easy to to find a substitute for heavy industry's other staple, iron ore). He would have been under pressure not to do so, lest the landlord reaped what he had not sown.                                                                       

The same was true as regards savings; they might not be much, but they should not be flaunted lest the landlord felt justified in raising the rent. Accordingly, such changes were left to the landlords, and, by their nature, only a small minority bothered.

Matters were rather different in the cities and larger towns. Here the middle classes had money, but little opportunity to use it within the country. There was, of course a knock-on effect from the rackrented countryside in that the opportunity for investing in agricultural goods was severely limited. The expansion of heavy industry was handicapped by the need to import most of the raw materials and by the fact that the colonial metropolis had its own indigenous supplies and no incentive to delegate their workings to the neighbouring island,  (Ulster was practically part of the market for Scottish mineral deposits; the rest of Ireland too far away from other possible fields.) There was, and is, of course, a fine Irish tradition of scientific research, represented in the nineteenth century by such names as Tyndale, Boole and Fitzgerald, but they did not provide immediate help to Ireland's economic development.

For most Irish capitalists there were two means of economic procreation: investment in services and investment abroad. The first seemed eminently suitable for the country as well as the investor. it was, after all, a notable feature of British economic development. The nineteenth century in Ireland was the great period of railway-building and of banking. The problem was that as motors of economic development these enterprises lacked fuel. Railways are built primarily to transport commodities already produced. In Ireland such commodities were in short supply. Instead of expanding the means of buying labour power, the Irish railways became the means of making it easy to export such labour power elsewhere. The banks were a similar story. The banking system of the south-east of England arose out of a very prosperous trade in commodities, most notably wool. By the time of the industrial revolution it was in a position to benefit disproportionately from the exploitation of the north and midlands, as it benefitted increasingly from its foreign investment. A similar story is that of the Scottish financial institutions (the British Linen Company Bank). The Irish banks started from a weaker position, and one which became weaker over the decades. Banks have to make profits and the best profits were abroad. Along with the emigrants, money left the country.

Two examples may illustrate the situation of Irish entrepreneurs. This reviewer's ancestors left Munster to found and organise steel mills on the River Severn, close to the mineral supplies of south Wales. Later, another Munsterman, William Martin Murphy, stayed in Ireland but prospered by investing abroad and in home enterprises of a service character, particularly the casus belli of the 1913 Lockout, the Dublin tramways.

All in all, the causes for Irish economic under-development can be summarised as follows. The absence of adequate supplies of coal and iron ore made it unlikely that Ireland would be a player in the industrial revolution in a similar manner to Belgium. The alternative (Danish) solution of production based on agriculture was aborted by the English occupation, not just in its oppression, economic and military but in its inability to follow any policy as long or as consistently as was necessary. By the time three quarters of the island achieved political freedom, the capitalist interests that were predominant accepted its role as being essentially client of whatever major imperialist metropolis seemed to offer most. (This was always on the cards; that outstanding advocate of Irish self-sufficiency, Arthur Griffith, saw nothing incongruous in his free Ireland sharing in the super exploitation of Britain's colonies.)

At this point, the reader is entering the twentieth century leading to the present form of the Irish economic problem. Descriptively, Coakley is at his best in describing the relationships of the bourgeoisie at that time. There are some inevitable mistakes in chronology. More importantly, he could learn from the republican theory-tasters  (and Connolly) that he disavows when he asserts the need for the state to borrow to fund growth (P. 158), ignoring the country's foreign capital reaserves. It is known too, now, that the financial saving made by leaving education to the religious denominations (p.160) was a myth, even in strict financial terms. Nonetheless, it is an accurate general report of how Irish, or at least twenty-six county capitalism survived.
A more significant weakness comes when Coakley should relate the activity of the bourgeoisie and its grazier allies as part of the broader society. In particular, he does not examine seriously how the radicalised working class of the decade after the Dublin Lockout collapsed into what he follows Poulantzas in describing as Jacobinism. Simply ascribing this to "the lopsided development of Irish intellectual life" (P.155) can be seen to be inadequate; after all, the Irish workers had in Connolly probably the greatest Marxist thinker these islands have produced. It was those who survived him who accepted his trust in the spontaneous development of the class they led, preaching constitutionalism under the cover of socialist economism (Today their successors have abandoned that cover altogether.). It could not defend the workers against the twenty-six county bosses offensive during the Civil War and produced further betrayals to keep them imprisoned in trade union consciousness.

The author's method leads him into the trap of recording the perceptions of society at the expense of their objective base. In particular, he accepts the conventional wisdom of avoiding  the fact that Sean Lemass' economic policy was a specifically capitalist one, literally, of creating peacefully a genuine national bourgeoisie after the time of such a bourgeoisie was done. Coakley does emphasise the limitations of the project in the sphere of credit and planning, where objections were voiced by his ministerial nemesis, MacEntee at Finance, but not that created by his close ally, Jim Ryan's inability to break the dominance of the cattle interests. On the other hand, the emphasis he shares with others on the distinction of Fianna Fail as the initiator of nationalised industries tends to be overdone; two of the twenty-six counties' largest state capitalist concerns, the ESB and CIE, became state-owned under Treatyite ministers. 

The book gets worse as it comes to the present. It is at its best relating the boss class' wheeler dealing, that is followed by its weakest part, the class analysis of Ireland today. The country's current problems are stated accurately, as far as it goes, but the class forces, national and international, that are necessary to change them are left obscure. A call for revolution is no doubt premature, though less premature than it seemed a few years ago, but Coakley must have some idea which interests are likely to be most effective in changing matters for the better and behind what programme. As it is, the most definite perspectives for hope given the reader are that an internal solution of the Northern Irish problem is possible, which is increasingly obviously untrue, and that the international imperialist offensive can be resisted only internationally, which is true but which begs the question: how, and with what class does effective resistance start.

This book is to read as a source of information and ideas rather than as an accurate description of Irish under-development. Used as the first, it will be very valuable. As the second, it will lead any aspiring activist into a cul-de sac.      


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