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[Post Famine Ireland- Social Structure Ireland as it Really Was. Copyright © 2006 by Desmond Keenan. Book available from and]

Chapter One


Chapter Summary. All the basic social structures of Irish society are described and not merely the class structure, but also the structures within classes. The formal political structures are however given a separate chapter. Questions of population and in particular of emigration are noted. Apart from religious beliefs which are dealt with in a different chapter, the secular beliefs which form the bases of much political action are also noted, whether they were centuries old beliefs or new inventions in the nineteenth century. Political action too follows from interest groups, namely those who benefit from a particular course of action. Such interests are not necessarily financial. One in particular was gaining control of patronage, very important in an age when most public appointments were made through patronage. Finally the general economic structure and position of the Irish economy in the general world economy is considered. The hyperlinks immediately below are to the most important headings.

The Structure of Irish Society


Old Beliefs and New Ideologies

Interest Groups


The Structure of the Irish Economy


Irish Society, General Aspects

Ireland was an integral part of Western Europe and its history was more or less the same as other countries in the region. Since about the year 1000 A.D., and more particularly since the ‘industrial revolution’ in the eighteenth century all the countries in Western Europe were growing in population and wealth. Bogs were drained, forests cleared, roads and canals constructed, towns built. As states grew in size, and the number of wars dwindled it was no longer necessary to have walls around towns. Industry, agriculture, trade and science prospered and this was called Progress.

From about 1750 to 1920 Ireland experienced constant growth and prosperity in its commercial sector. In the first part of this period agricultural production and manufacturing for export was confined to the eastern half of the island. This pattern had been established in the Middle Ages and it has been argued that north and west of a particular line the rainfall was too heavy for the successful growing of wheat for export. Where wheat could be grown a successful manorial system of cereal production for export could be maintained. In the wetter or colder parts, the ancient Gaelic system of cattle rearing and subsistence farming and manufacturing for local use only persisted or was revived. In the 1890s roads and bridges were finally constructed along the coast of County Galway opening up the last little pocket in Ireland to the money economy. There were of course some bad years but on the whole Ireland was prosperous, and increasingly prosperous. As everywhere else some local industries like cotton manufacture and boot-making were driven out of business by more efficient industries in Britain. This was true of parts of Britain as well. But even in 1920, if one looks up trade directories, one finds that almost every small town had a local industry exporting goods.

Like in most countries in the world society was still overwhelmingly a rural one. There were many small towns, some really no more than large villages, but none of any great size. About 20% of the population dwelt in these towns and villages. By 1951 the figure was 50% (Freeman, Ireland, 129). Many of those who arrived in the big cities and towns retained close connections with the countryside.

The countryside still remained the great centre of the aristocracy and the ruling classes even when it was being deserted by the working classes. They lived on their great country estates, and went to London only for parliament and the social ‘Season’. When the king went outside Dublin he stayed in the houses of the great noblemen. As the population fell in the second half of the century, most of the exodus was from rural areas. The towns remained stable in size, and so grew relatively. The upper classes employed great numbers, and much of the economy in a rural area depended on the ‘Big House’ as it had from the time of the Romans. Sports were largely rural, and the gentry entertained each other in their houses. The big houses, regularly with extensive stables, gardens and orchards, were well-maintained. The gentry were often to the forefront in improving farming. They could go on expeditions to Dublin to see the Horse Show.

Apart from the statistical elimination of the very poorest class, either because its members died, or emigrated, or were able to rent larger patches of land, Irish agriculture was much the same after the Famine as before (O’Grada, Ireland, chapter 11). The Irish market economy as a whole was scarcely affected by the Great Famine followed by the Great Fever and mass emigration. For the great fall in population especially among the cottiers was in those parts of Ireland which were not producing for the market (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland, chapter 3). Agricultural production continued virtually undiminished. When the Famine was over in 1850 the same amount of food was being shared by a decreased population, and the relative prosperity of Ireland in the immediate post-Famine period was noted by travellers (O’Grada, Ireland, chapter 10). For several years after the end of the famine, large numbers had still to be supported from the public purse. But conditions were changing rapidly.

            Bigger ships and the faster speed made the import of materials and foodstuffs from round the world feasible and even cheap. The consumption of tea even in the remotest parts of Ireland grew enormously, and likewise the wearing of cotton clothes. Wheat could be imported from America and Australia. Canned meat could come from South America, and then refrigerated meat from New Zealand. These latter were considered inferior to fresh meat, so Irish livestock tended to be exported live and slaughtered in the town or city in which it was consumed. This meant that the manufacture of other products like leather and glue fell off. [Top]

The Structure of Irish Society

          The picture of Irish society sedulously disseminated by the nationalists of poor oppressed Celtic Catholics in mud cabins oppressed by rich Anglo-Saxon Protestants in their big houses was a fable. The structure of Irish society was much the same as in the rest of Western Europe, and indeed in much of North America. In recent centuries societies were banded into upper, middle, and lower classes based on wealth and political power. The upper class was the governing class and members of this class largely controlled membership of parliament and provided civil and military officers for the administration. This ruling class was to be found equally in traditional monarchies with hereditary aristocracies and in republics like the United States. The lower class or working classes were largely excluded from political power. In some democracies they were allowed to vote, but they themselves had little chance of being elected to anything. There was also a middle class whose chief importance was that they paid most of the taxes and so could not be ignored. Traditionally, they were the strong [rich] farmers and the merchants of the towns. From the Middle Ages they were required to send from their ranks ‘knights of the shire’ and ‘burgesses of the towns’ to the king’s parliament where they sat in the house of common people, i.e. not of the nobility. Originally their chief function was to vote for the new taxes, usually to finance foreign wars, which the kings requested. From the time of the French Revolution (1789) power was gradually transferred from the House of Lords to the House of Commons. This transfer of power was largely the result of the gradual extension of the franchise which occurred mainly in the second part of the nineteenth century. The traditional powers of the aristocracy were gradually subordinated to the authority of those directly elected by the people.

It should be noted that these grades and distinctions applied to Protestants and Catholics but not always in equal measure. The upper class was overwhelmingly Protestant as a result of the Penal Laws against the Catholic religion in the preceding centuries. There was a large Protestant middle class. Many of these were strong farmers who became prominent in the struggle for tenant right. There was also a numerous Protestant working class including small farmers farm labourers, domestic servants and small tradesmen and craftsmen. These were especially numerous in the region of linen manufacture and in the city of Dublin. As the century advanced and industries developed in North-East Ireland this Protestant working class tended to grow.

It had been true in Ireland, as in the rest of Europe and North America, that those who dissented from the state religion had, at one time, been largely excluded from offices of state. One could always conform to the established religion and the great majority of the Irish rulers whether they spoke Irish or English conformed to the state religion to retain their lands. Inter-marriage had taken place between the Irish rulers and the incoming Normans and English from the twelfth century onwards so there was really only one upper class in Ireland. The idea of ‘Anglo-Irish’ is a racist fable. The Catholic nobility and gentry, though excluded from parliament and official posts, were not excluded from society or from the royal court, and they behaved exactly like Protestant gentlemen and ladies. Largely due to the exclusion of Catholics from the universities, the members of the professional classes, doctors, lawyers etc. were almost all Protestants of the Established Church. But as the Catholics had been admitted to the universities in 1793, there was an increasing number of Catholic professional men, especially lawyers. Catholics had never been excluded from trade or manufacture, though they were excluded from the official guilds of merchants and from the corporations of towns and cities. Some Catholic merchants became very rich. From 1778, most of the restrictions on the holding of lands by Catholics were removed.

            The threefold distinction of classes is too simple for within each there were many grades. Some of the big landowners had titles of nobility, but by no means all. The most important families in a county were referred to unofficially as ‘county families’. Beneath these was a layer of lesser landowners whose families were considered ‘near county’. Both these were popularly considered ‘gentry’ or ‘gentlefolk’. Irish writers often referred to ‘buckeens’ and ‘squireens’, and the vivid ‘half-sirs’ as belonging to this group. These were usually younger sons of impoverished noblemen or gentlemen, many of whom disdained working or entering the professions and who survived by getting leases on a couple of hundred acres of land which they sub-let. Their time was spent in hunting, horse-racing, and assisting the county families at election time (Somerville and Ross An Irish R.M passim). Many of this class became doctors, lawyers, military officers, or clergymen. A gentleman could call on another gentleman for ‘satisfaction’ for some injury, real or imagined, i.e. could challenge him to a duel. If the offender was not a gentleman, he could order his servants to beat him up.

            Below these were the farming classes, who were not gentry, and never could marry into the gentry. Those with the largest farms were called the ‘strong farmers’. They corresponded to the yeoman farmers in England. These provided the backbone of agricultural production at every period. With large farms and diversified crops they had been virtually unaffected by the Famine. They were also, like gentlemen farmers, likely to be in the vanguard of improvements in agriculture, keeping an eye on trends, and adopting new machinery, new breeds, new seeds, and new methods of agriculture as they came along. They had horses to ride and employed numerous farm labourers but unlike the gentry they could practise manual labour if it were necessary, for example at harvest time. But their farm work, like that of the gentlemen farmers, was mostly supervisory. The distribution of strong farmers was very uneven over Ireland. Their lands were leased from the landowners who strictly speaking were the only landlords. In some counties they were numerous, and farm sizes varied from a hundred to several hundred acres. In other counties, where sub-division of leaseholds had been rife, they hardly existed. But as sub-letting was common, the larger leaseholders were usually called landlords as well.

            Beneath them was the grade of small farmer who could hold anything from five to fifty acres. Though socially they were in the same class as the strong farmers there was little intermarriage because of the dowry system. The small farmer simply could not afford to give his daughters the amount of dowry the strong farmer would expect. Nor could the small farmers afford farm machinery or the better animals and seeds the strong farmer could. Nor was there the same drive to adopt new methods. The small farmer, if he could possibly manage it, kept a horse. This was a status symbol; even if most of the time he had to hire out himself and the horse. He was his own master so on a fair day, or a hunt day, or an election day, he did not have to ask permission from anyone to leave his job.

            Towards the bottom of the social scale in the countryside were the farm labourers. They might be cottiers with small holdings but their principal source of income came from the fact that they were employed by the farmers to work the land. The could not marry the daughters of even the smallest farmers for few farmers would degrade themselves so far as to allow his daughter to marry a labourer or common workman. Not all the labourers were equal. Some like ploughmen were very skilled indeed and prided themselves on their ability to plough straight and clean no matter what the soil. Skilled stockmen were equally prized.

At the very bottom was the class, very numerous before the Famine but rapidly disappearing after it, were those who had virtually no visible means of support, but who survived somehow. They usually lived in clusters of tiny mud-walled cottages, roofed with thatch or sods. They typically had a small patch of potato ground held and worked in common on the rundale system of lease, or perhaps just reclaimed from a bog without permission. The men spent most of the summer looking for casual labour, while their wives and children begged. Though their houses were little better than pigsties, their clothing only sufficient for decency, their medical services non-existent, they were depicted by observers at the time as a cheerful, improvident, happy-go-lucky people, noted for their music singing and dancing. The origin of this numerous group is not apparent, but it was probably derived from several sources. The two most obvious sources were the very bottom strata of medieval society and higher strata which were progressively driven to the bottom. In either case they seem to have lost most of their social skills with regard to carpentry, house building, boat building, cookery, and so on. French peasants were noted for their ability to collect food from the wild, and make most use of local herbs to flavour their food. An inability to forage, even on the sea shore, or to cook anything but potatoes was evident during the Great Famine.

            There was in the country areas as it were a parallel hierarchy among the working classes, and that was among the servants of the gentry. Almost everyone who had over fifty acres of land, or was a professional man, had servants. The very poorest of the class might have only one indoor servant. A schoolmaster, or a small shopkeeper, might only employ a single woman, to cook and tidy the house, what the French called la bonne a tout. The great aristocrats could employ hundreds of indoor and outdoor servants, all arranged in their own hierarchy. Before the First World War it was observed that there were no fewer than thirty five grades of female servants, each with their allocated duties, and grade of remuneration. Outdoor servants like milkmaids, dairymaids, and washerwomen, were ranked below indoor servants like scullery maids, and kitchen maids, who were below parlour maids and lady’s maids. Outdoors also were coachmen, grooms, stableboys, gardeners, groundsmen, farm workers of every kind, gatekeepers and game keepers, yachtsmen, and so on. Butlers, coachmen, head gardeners, skilled ploughmen and stockmen were at the top of this ladder.

The gentlemen in the ‘Big House’ also supported a whole range of small local self-employed tradesmen, saddlers and harness-makers, tailors, dress-makers and milliners, gunsmiths, farriers and blacksmiths, horse dealers, not to mention skilled carpenters, masons and plumbers. They supported a whole range of local shops and industries. They were inclined to send their children, boys and girls, away to school, and so paid for colleges and school masters. Music and dancing had to be taught, and probably some French. If private tutors could not be employed a few years at a properly conducted girls school taught the daughters how to behave properly in society. It must be borne in mind when considering the question of land and rents, very many jobs in the country depended on the rents being paid. Bankrupting the landlords, which was the aim of the Land League, meant forcing many small tradesmen into exile, and raises the question what class the Land League was supporting.

            In the towns there was a similar hierarchy. The richest merchants and masters of the trades corresponded to the strong farmers, but being ‘in trade’ could not mix socially with the gentry. They almost invariably employed servants called journeymen, to do most of the work. A master tailor might for example do no more than measure for a garment and cut the cloth, leaving the sewing to a journeyman or apprentice. The master tradesman did not need permission to leave his work to attend a hunt, for example, or a political meeting whereas a journeyman did. In the textile trade, the old system of ‘putting out’ work to independent weavers and spinners was coming to an end. The old restrictions on working in towns had been abolished. So, even before machinery was adopted, gathering spinners and weavers into ‘factories’, where there was much less opportunity for cheating and pilfering, was beginning to be adopted. The use of machinery accentuated this trend. By and large, the merchants did not mix with the gentry or intermarry with them, but there were examples of a rich merchant being given a knighthood, which though not a degree of nobility, was certainly confirmation of his status as a gentleman.

            Among the working classes there was another social hierarchy at the top of which were the skilled craftsmen. Beside the traditional printers, ploughmen, coachmen, tailors carpenters, and weavers, were now boilermakers, lathe operators, train drivers, all of whom had served long apprenticeships. There were those with particular skills like machinists, and those with lesser skills, often women in the textile industry, who were machine minders. The number of those employed in retailing grew and grew, and shop assistants or clerks usually regarded themselves as superior to mill workers. When women were allowed to become clerks they regarded themselves as above shop girls. Women teachers and nurses considered themselves above women clerks. Former farm labourers, especially those employed on large farms, often had the rudiments of quite a number of skills. At the very bottom of the scale were the unskilled workers in the towns who were often unemployed. In good times they could find work as general labourers on building sites where immense numbers were required to use picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows.

          Society was a pyramid, or rather a pyramid made of lesser pyramids. There was great inequality of wealth which some working class people were coming to resent. At first sight it might seem appalling that some could have incomes of a hundred thousand pounds a year, and others only ten pounds a year. But the man with the big income had to spend it, so he bought goods and he bought services. He could spend the entire hundred thousand on these. Some people he employed directly in his house and on his farm. But he also paid his tailor, who paid the weaver, who paid the sheep farmer who paid the man who tended his flock. The stream of money circulated through the pyramid. It was of course possible to construct a society without big landowners collecting rents, and this was eventually done. But it was done at the cost of the jobs of all those little people whose livelihood depended on rents being paid.

            In Ireland the pool of families that counted was small, probably not more than 500. These families knew each other. Impoverished Catholic noblemen and gentlemen mixed with the greatest families in the land. Catholic bishops and especially cardinals were admitted by virtue of office, but even politicians like John Redmond and Tim Healey were admitted to the houses of the rich.

            It should be remembered that the whole purpose of the Home Rule movement, whether nationalist or republican was to replace these largely Protestant families with traditional wealth with around 500 Catholic families from middle class families. In this objective they were successful. ‘Who you knew’ rather than ‘What you knew’ still applied in the Irish Free State. [Top]


          The decline in population was very much a nationalist issue. The depopulation of the more remote and infertile parts of Europe and of the United States was a widespread phenomenon. People left the region in which they were born because they had higher expectations of a standard of living, and there were better opportunities elsewhere (O’Grada, Ireland, 232). Steamships made the passage to America relatively cheap. Above all there were better opportunities for marriage. Had the nationalists been considering the good of the Irish people they would have had little cause for complaint. The Irish increased and multiplied elsewhere in the globe. The obscure families of Keenans who probably numbered some hundreds in the eighteenth century numbered over 40,000 by the mid-twentieth century. They were just typical of all the families who left Ireland. But the nationalists wanted a separate state controlled by themselves, so for them, a falling population within Ireland itself was portrayed as a disaster.

In the first half of the nineteenth century potato culture, the legal facility for sub-dividing and subletting land for potatoes the great expanses of marginal bogland which could be squatted on, the total lack of social controls with regard to marriage, and the tolerance of many of an extremely low standard of living, allowed a great expansion of the population. In the post-Famine period the loss of a quarter of the population, the ease of emigration brought about by the steamship, the greater access to markets brought about by the railways, greater social control over early and improvident marriages, and a desire for an improved standard of living not only contained the growth of the population but sent it into decline. Ireland was by no means unique in this respect.

The population of Ireland had reached its recorded maximum in 1841 at 8,175,124 and at the next census in 1851 the figure was 6,552,392 representing a fall of 19.5%. By 1861 the figure was 5,798,564 a fall of 11.5% and thereafter was in single figures per decade. Between 1871 and 1881 the rate of decline was 4.6% but 8.8% in the following decade. Between 1901 and 1911 the fall was 1.6%. The population in 1911 was 4,390,219 after which the population became fairly stable at around four and a quarter millions (Freeman, Ireland, 120). Since the population continued to fall during the entire period from 1850 to 1920 living standards continued to rise. As in other countries the proportion of the population living in rural areas declined while the proportion in urban areas increased (O’Grada, Economic History, 213-8).This increase in urban population was a relative one because the populations of the towns was falling at a slower rate than those of rural areas. Dublin, the capital, with a population of about 240,000 around 1800 was the largest, though it was still small by the standards of the following century. It was the second largest city in the United Kingdom. As a capital it was on a par with other capitals like Rome, Madrid, Copenhagen. Berlin etc. Dublin grew steadily from 285,000 in 1841 to 398,000 in 1911. The population of Cork fell from 81,000 to 77,000 in the same period. Dundalk was against the trend, growing from 11,000 to 14,000. Belfast grew rapidly into a great city. By 1911 its population of 386, 947 outstripped Dublin’s 304, 802 though part of this excess was caused by definitions of city boundaries. (Other figures sometimes referred to ‘Dublin with suburbs’.) The proportion of the population who never married rose. In Connaught by 1911 about a quarter of the men and women between 45 and 54 years had never married. Though these rates were high they were not unique to Ireland. Despite the fact that emigration was depicted as a disaster by nationalist politicians and blamed on the British Government, a letter in the Irish Times in 1907 claimed that people saw emigration not as something deplorable but as an opportunity to improve themselves, to get a job, to marry, and to establish a home (Weekly Irish Times 16 March 1907).

Women in rural areas especially were likely to see their future drudgery as spinsters, looking after their father first and then their brothers. They were more likely to leave the country areas to go to the towns, or to leave the country altogether than men. The linen industry in Belfast had a particular attraction for women and Belfast throughout the nineteenth century had a predominance of women. In 1901 there were 188,000 women to 162,000 men. Women were to be found especially in the linen and clothing trades and in domestic service (Clarkson ‘The City and the Country’ in Beckett, Belfast, the Making of the City, 155). Ireland had a higher proportion of female emigrants than any other country in Europe (O’Grada, Economic History 225-6). Vere Foster, the Irish Protestant philanthropist helped girls to emigrate safely but encountered strong opposition and vicious personal attacks (McNeill Vere Foster , 82-100). One reason why Foster preferred assisting women to emigrate was that they were far more likely than their brothers to send remittances back to their families at home. These remittances formed a substantial part of the income of many rural families. Another philanthropist who took a great interest in female emigration was Charlotte O’Brien the youngest daughter of William Smith O’Brien of Cahirmoyle, Co. Limerick. She opened a hostel for women emigrants at Queenstown, Co. Cork, the great point of departure for America and later a similar one in New York. She induced the Board of Trade to see that greater protection was given to women on board ship (DNB, O’Brien, C.).

            It is interesting to note that the population of the six North-Eastern counties (Northern Ireland) reached it lowest point in 1891 while in the area of the Republic of Ireland the lowest point was reached in 1961 (Encyclopaedia of Ireland, ‘Population: statistical profile, 887). The great urban development in the North East resulted in a small relative increase in the Protestant population of Ireland.  [Top]

Old Beliefs and New Ideologies

The dominant belief or self-image among the vast majority of the people in the United Kingdom was the traditional one forged by the Reformation and the wars against Catholic Spain and France and confirmed by the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This was that England/Great Britain/the United Kingdom was the greatest kingdom on earth, ‘This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars; This other Eden; demi Paradise’ (Shakespeare, King Richard II). Part of the self-image was that the Protestant religion as practised in Britain was the best and most perfect religion ever. The third strand was that the free British constitution was the most perfect on earth, and some even believed it could not be improved. Another strand was that the British Army, and especially the Royal Navy, were the best armed forces in the world. Finally, there was the non-unmerited feeling that in agriculture, commerce, and manufacture Britain was unsurpassed. Consequently it was good to go into pagan countries to restore order, to remove evil rulers, to establish the rule of law, to improve commerce, and to preach the gospel. The 19th century was undoubtedly the century of the United Kingdom, though by 1900 it was in some ways surpassed by Germany.

Most of this was commonly accepted by English Catholics except for the bit about Protestantism. Irish Catholics too, especially of the educated classes, largely accepted the view as well, though many Irish Catholics were far more suspicious of the intentions of the Government than were the English Catholics. This difference was very marked at the time of struggle for Catholic Emancipation (1793-1829) Keenan, The Grail passim)

In Britain, as a result of the struggles between the crown and parliament in the seventeenth century political opinion was divided between the Tories and the Whigs. In general the Tories supported the rights of the crown while the Whigs asserted the rights of parliament. Political opinion in Ireland mirrored that in Britain. Irish Catholics tended to support the Whigs for they had supported Emancipation, while an increasing majority of Irish Protestants supported the Tories.

There was also an Irish national identity which was a sub-set of the British Protestant identity, and was marked among the Protestant ‘patriots’ in the eighteenth century. It had probably always existed among English-speakers in Ireland. In the days before colonies existed and there were no nations, only the separate dominions of a feudal overlord, there can be little doubt that those closer to the king’s court in England looked on the English-speaking Irish as mere country cousins. In the eighteenth century the Irish Protestant savants and antiquarians resented this, and also the English belief that the Irish had been mere savages before the Norman invasion in the twelfth century. Protestant scholars took the lead in studying Irish history and antiquities. For them Saint Patrick had brought the pure Protestant religion, albeit in a ‘Celtic’ form in the 5th century. Discoveries of gold ornaments and illuminated manuscripts proved that Ireland was civilised before the Normans and English arrived, and the Protestants were proud of their inheritance. Many of them came to feel that the Irish Parliament under the crown should have equal rights to exercise control over the monarchy in Ireland as the British Parliament had in England. These became known as the ‘Patriots’. Their attitudes closely resembled those of their contemporaries the Irish Protestants in the United States at the time of George Washington except that they wished to retain the link with the crown.

 This strong Protestant sense of a special Irish identity, as a sub-set of the British national identity, persisted even after the Act of Union. All through the nineteenth century Protestant scholars maintained their interest in Irish scholarship and Irish antiquities. The study of the Irish language was retained in Trinity College, Dublin, and when attempts were made to revive the Gaelic language Protestants were among the foremost promoters. It was only when the Irish republican movement hi-jacked the Gaelic language (and the shamrock) as their badges of identity did Protestants drop out. This feeling of a separate Irish identity among Irish Protestants formed the basis of the Home Rule movement and allowed some Protestants to join the Home Rule party. Irish Catholics for the most part accepted or did not question these images. If a separate Gaelic identity ever existed it had disappeared. The heads of the old Catholic families, the actual landowners, had either conformed to the Protestant religion or accepted the situation.

            There was however one belief which was to prove the strongest and most intractable, and most widespread, and eventually the most dominant. This was the deep-seated traditional anti-Protestant belief among lower-class Catholics. As noted above many of this class many members of this class may have formerly belonged to higher classes. It was repeated and inculcated as strongly as anti-Popery sentiments were among the Protestant working classes. It was derived from the defeats of the Catholic armies in the civil wars in the seventeenth century and the resulting losses of lands through the various confiscations. The resentment strongest among the poorer Catholics as Dr James Doyle (1786-1834) the Catholic bishop noted. Edward Hay (1761-1826), the Secretary of the Catholic Committee, reported the intensity of the opposition to the royal veto at the time of Catholic emancipation before 1829 from small farmers and shopkeepers in the country areas. In his evidence to the enquiry of the House of Commons in 1825 regarding the state of Ireland Dr Magauran, the Catholic bishop of Ardagh, was asked regarding the attitude of the Catholic lower orders regarding emancipation. He said that they had very vague ideas about it, but felt themselves to be an excluded caste. Around their firesides at night they had traditional stories regarding the sufferings of their ancestors. It was on this vague, ill-defined sense of grievance and oppression that the Catholic nationalist outlook was built. Writing in 1868 William Steuart Trench wrote ‘ In Ireland that dreadful crime [murder] may almost universally be traced to that wild feeling of revenge for national wrongs to which so many of her sons believe she has been subjected for centuries. The cry from Ireland is invariably for “Justice”’ (Realities of Irish Life, 357). It is not surprising that organisers of terrorism, whether of the agrarian or political kind, had no difficulty in getting recruits. Those bits of Whiggery or ‘patriotism’ which suited them were grafted on (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland, 25-35).

Beginning in the 1840’s evil ideologies, racism, socialism, and nationalism, were developed which were to rack Europe and the world for the next hundred and fifty years. They were coupled with the idea of revolution and the overthrow of the state. A milder version of socialism to be achieved by parliamentary means developed and was called social democracy. They were evil, not in themselves, for they were only romantic dreams or scientific nonsense, but in their usefulness to designing men who wished to give a cover of good to their actions. They drew to a greater or lesser extent on millennial ideas which were floating around Europe and America at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The basic millennial belief as expressed in the Bible was that there was formerly a state of happiness. There followed sin and punishment with the subjection of the people to harsh foreign rulers like the pharaohs in Egypt. Finally a leader rose up, and led the people into battle against the foreign tyranny and re-established the epoch of peace, prosperity, and goodwill. The struggle of the people against domestic oppressors was called class struggle, Klassenkampf.

            Nationalism combined with racism. In the 1840s the theory of separate races was being developed, an Anglo-Saxon race, a Celtic race, a Teutonic race, a Latin race, and so on. These were allegedly identified by their languages. There was supposed to be constant warfare between the racial groups (Rassenkampf), and the superior race triumphed and wiped out the inferior race. So the Anglo-Saxons were supposed to have wiped out the Celtic race in England and part of Scotland, but failed to do so in Wales and Ireland. In Ireland it was claimed that there had been a wonderful period of peace and prosperity which ended with the coming of the English, Ireland being then subjected to oppression for hundreds of years. But when a great leader came who would throw out the English the old peace and prosperity would return. The hypothetical Celtic race was identified with the Catholic population of Ireland. This was of course utter nonsense, but the racist ideology was no worse than that to be found in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf . There was always this sense among the Catholics, and not merely among those of the lower ranks of society, that Ireland was a separate country, Celtic by race and Catholic by religion, which was governed by a class ‘alien by race and religion’, namely the Protestants. There was supposed to be a foreign ruling race in Ireland called the Anglo-Irish.

Though this racial element was later to be highly emphasised by Catholic nationalists, it was not an essential part of nationalism as developed by the writers connected with The Nation newspaper. In the 1840s a group of young writers connected with The Nation, usually called Young Ireland, began to develop what was to be called Romantic Nationalism , which could also be called poetic nationalism. It was not to be based on race or religion but on the common interest and common heritage of all Irishmen. Young Ireland desired that an independent Ireland should be a secular state in which no Church should have predominance. With regard to education, Young Ireland would write the textbooks which would be filled with works of Romantic Nationalism and the teaching of religion would be subordinate to this. (Later the Irish Literary Theatre was established to revive Romanticism.) Though accepting the idea of a separate republic to be achieved by force if necessary the first nationalists stressed rather that a nation should be composed of all those born in it whatever their religions or origins. This in fact was the principle, with some exceptions, on which the various states that composed the United States were founded. Nationalism thus defined was perfectly compatible with maintaining the United Kingdom. Almost everything they wrote was poetic nonsense. There never was the slightest likelihood of the whole nation rising up in arms against the British. But there was a considerable likelihood of a large number of Catholics rising up against the Protestants to seize their lands and businesses. So nationalism combined with racism  flourished among Irish Catholics.

In later years, Tim Healey MP was a powerful exponent of the view of the Catholic bishops that religious instruction should have the first place in education no matter what material losses were incurred in getting it. The other issue which the bishops routinely condemned was recourse to violence. The practical problem, apart from the fact that the early nationalists were tainted by association with the French Revolution and its sanguinary conflicts, was that it required the clergy of the main denominations to accept the primacy of national theory or ideology in the schools. Most of the clergy were totally opposed to this. But in the event, nationalism grew into Catholic racism mis-called Catholic nationalism.

Not unnaturally, in the face of the development of Catholic nationalism aimed at seizing the lands of the Protestants there arose the rival ideology of Protestant unionism. After the outbreak of the French Revolution some of the more extreme Irish Protestant Whigs wished to establish an independent Irish republic. But following Catholic Emancipation which brought the danger that Irish Catholics could form the majority in an independent Irish Parliament, the vast majority of Irish Protestants, both Whig and Tory, turned against the idea of an independent Irish parliament controlled by Catholics.

There was to develop a very strong self-image of the Irish Protestants as the defenders of the pure reformed Christianity against the machinations of the evil papists. This had always been part of the common Protestant tradition in the British. This was contrasted with the alleged debased Christianity and superstition of the Roman Catholic religion, priestcraft and total submission to the clergy in religious matters and to absolute monarchy on the French or Spanish models. There was nothing peculiar to Ireland in these views which were widely shared by Protestants in Britain and America.

The rhetoric and ideas of Daniel O’Connell had a lasting influence. He was a strange man. What his principles were, or whether he had any, is difficult to decide. He seems to have been chiefly interested in his own importance. He, of course, would play the leading role in an independent Irish Government if ever achieved. He constantly preached the need for a Repeal of the Act of Union, but he never seems to have believed that Repeal could actually be achieved. Though entirely ignorant of the subject, he wrote a fanciful history of British misrule in Ireland. He largely supplied the rhetoric for Catholic Repealers and Home Rulers for the next century. He played on the prejudices of his supporters who were mostly in Munster. His main themes were that the Catholic Irish, ‘the foinest pisantry on earth’, had been oppressed for hundreds of years by the Irish Protestants who had seized all the good lands, and occupied all the positions of importance, but in an independent Irish kingdom under the British crown the Catholics would get their rights. Above all they would get their land back. He never saw any need to conciliate Irish Protestants, nor indicated what they should do when the Catholics took all their jobs and lands. He never actually considered such problems, and seems never to have taken his own rhetoric seriously, not believing that self-government could be achieved.

By the beginning of the twentieth century there were only two major ideologies or belief systems left, the Catholic nationalist one and the Protestant unionist one. Neither of these beliefs systems was quite homogeneous. Catholics believed in traditional O’Connellism or in the Romantic Nationalism of Young Ireland in various degrees. The Protestants by-and large supported Tory Protestant Unionism though there were some exceptions. An ever-decreasing minority of Protestants still supported Liberalism, while some embraced nationalism. Pure republicanism  was rarely a major issue. Some of those, perhaps a majority, who wished to pursue national independence saw a role for the monarchy. The king of England could be king of Ireland as well with a separate Irish Government and Irish Army.

The separatist struggle in Ireland was virtually a class war. It was however between classes based more on religion than occupation. So socialists, syndicalists, and supporters of the Labour Movement found it hard to establish themselves. (See below Political Beliefs and Movements.) [Top]

Interest Groups

          Besides ideologies there were also interests, usually material interests. Ireland around 1850 was a normal western European country. There were the typical interest groups, the landowners in the country, the merchants in the towns, and increasingly the great manufacturing cities as yet scarcely represented in Parliament. The two great political parties were the Whigs and the Tories, and they controlled between themselves the official rackets, namely ensuring that every public job or public contract went to their own followers who would make larger or smaller contributions to the dispenser of the favours. The gentlemen who controlled the official rackets were almost all Protestants.

            The Government was itself an interest group, but it had a wide variety of objectives. Its chief objective was to maintain and increase the prosperity of Ireland, despite what nationalist propaganda asserted. (See below, Chapter 5.) Neither when the Whigs or the Tories were in office did it favour dissolving the Union. But after 1886, when the Liberal Party was in office it favoured the devolution of limited but indeterminate powers to a local parliament.

One of the primary aims of the Established Church, after preaching the gospel was to maintain its established position. But it was defeated on this issue in 1869. The Catholic clergy, with few exceptions, considered that Home Rule  government in Ireland controlled by Catholic laymen who deferred to the Catholic clergy  as being most advantageous to their order. The Protestant clergy, both of the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterians, naturally took the opposite stance.

The larger businesses, which imported raw materials and exported around the world were entirely in favour of Free Trade and opposed to Protectionism whether of the British or Irish nationalist versions. But smaller manufacturers could see the advantages for themselves of tariffs against British manufacturers.

The landowners were at first happy with free trade within the United Kingdom. In 1813, when the Napoleonic Wars were coming to an end, the Corn Laws were passed particularly to maintain prices at a sufficiently high level so that Irish landowners could invest in land improvement, especially by expensive drainage  works. By 1845, the Irish landowners agreed that their lands were sufficiently improved not to need protection. In fact, in the immediate post-Famine period Irish agriculture was very prosperous. Gradually, imports from the new lands abroad undermined British and Irish agriculture and turned the minds of farmers towards protection. As nationalists were determinedly protectionist with regard to Ireland Home Rule  had a certain attraction for some of the landowners.

In the nineteenth century landowners set their faces against long leases, and were determined to get the market rent for the land they leased out, which was reasonable in itself. For example, when a 31-year lease was ended his agent would accept bids for the new lease. Though this was the common practice with regard to urban property it was very emotive with regard to land. For example, a sixty-year old farmer with a wife and family, but with out-of-date farming methods and no capital, might loose his lease to a thirty-year old farmer from England with enough capital and skills to double the number of animals on the farm, and so able to pay twice the rent. The next seventy years were spent trying to deal with this problem, entirely apart from nationalism.

The interest of the tenant farmers was the exact opposite, namely to secure long and secure leases of their farms. These were often strong farmers and could be either Catholic or Protestant. It was argued on their behalf that a farmer could not be expected to make improvements unless he had a firm lease for a reasonable period and a chance to have the lease renewed if he had always paid his rent. If the lease was not renewed he should be compensated for his improvements. This led to the Tenant Right movement. This peaceful middle class movement was largely superseded by the violent working class Land League. Various Land Acts were introduced to concede the demands of the tenants. These had the perverse effect of reducing the incentive to both landlords and tenants to improve agriculture which was supposed to be the chief objective of tenant right. Rents were to be fixed by courts, so the landlord would get no return on any improvements he made. The tenant on the other hand gained financially by not improving his holding for he got his rent reduced.

There was a class of illiterate labourers and cottiers, mostly speaking nothing but Gaelic. This class was much reduced by the Famine, but there remained substantial numbers of farm labourers , often with a small potato patch, all over Ireland. It would seem that the original agrarian terrorists were drawn largely from this class with some from the class immediately above them. Politically they were powerless and their best means to redress grievances was to launch terror campaigns against hate-figures like petty landlords and clergymen. Almost by definition they were landless, in that such pieces of land as they held were insufficient to support a family, but they were still charged a rent and tithe. The tithe was usually tiny for it was split between a score or more of individuals, but the tithe proctor had to collect it all. The worst grievances of this class had been remedied, in so far as they could be remedied, by 1850, but the practice of agrarian terrorism  remained and increased.

There was a group of working class Catholics to whose prejudices O’Connell, as noted above, particularly appealed. It formed the stratum of Irish rural society immediately above that of the illiterate labourers, migrant workers, and those with small potato patches which produced the agrarian terrorists. This group was literate, often small farmers  and tradesmen, who read newspapers  and took an interest in national politics. They received no secondary education, though late in the nineteenth century small numbers of their children spent a few years in grammar schools run by the Irish Christian Brothers. Most of them may have been the descendants of the minor branches of the bloated aristocracy of the late Middle Ages, who had been reduced to the ranks of tenant farmers or even manual labourers. Notable in Ireland is the absence of working-class surnames derived from occupations which are very common in England. Names like Farmer, Miller, Shepherd, Coward, Hogward (Howard), Archer, Fletcher, Thatcher, Carter, Carpenter, Smith, Joiner, Fuller, Tailor, Dyer, Hawker. Almost all Irish surnames are derived from petty chiefs and heads of local septs. Under an Irish Parliament controlled by themselves they could claim back the hereditary lands of their clan. This of course was an illusion. There were just too many O’Neills or O’Briens descended from chiefs of the Middle Ages all claiming the same land. However the delusion persisted that first with Emancipation and then with Home Rule they would have their own carriages.

After 1829, the sentiments of the small farmers  were shared by many of the strong farmers   from whose ranks the Catholic clergy  was recruited. The bitterly anti-Protestant Cardinal Cullen was their typical representative. It should be borne in mind that the members of this group had no particular heavy grievance to complain about, but everything could be declared to be an insupportable grievance demanding instant remedy. If they succeeded in getting Repeal or Home Rule they would control political patronage and racketeering over the whole of Ireland. Their model was Tammany Hall. Irish Catholic emigrants succeeded in getting control of Tammany Hall the notoriously corrupt headquarters of the Democrat Party in the United States. The Third Reform Act (1884)  finally handed decisive power to this group of intransigents which they held until massive urbanisation a hundred years later diluted their power. It explains why moderate leaders like John Redmond could never negotiate compromises with the Protestants, and why there was such widespread condoning of acts of terrorism. The Nationalist Party and later Sinn Fein themselves became interest groups. Their interest was in getting power and patronage into their own hands. However much they might claim that they were doing it all for Ireland everyone knew who would have to be cultivated and bribed if ever Home Rule was established.

There remain the interests of the urban working class. It was to these that socialism had the greatest appeal. Their desires were at times expressed through trade unionism. Originally, trade unionism was a violent movement, and to some extent it always remained so. With contacts between the rural working class and the urban working classes so close there were undoubtedly links between trade unions and agrarian criminals. Trade unionists could not make up their mind whether it was better to fight for betterment of the working class within the United Kingdom as a whole or in a separate Ireland, but religion proved to be the deciding factor. Irish trade unionism after 1850 where it existed was not noted for its violence. However, revolutionary republicanism and the Land League engaged many of the working classes. By 1884 with the so-called lodger vote the urban working class got political influence. In Catholic areas this vote went exclusively to the Home Rule Party. Lord Randolph Churchill and his political advisers realised that the interests of farm labourers  and factory employees were different from those of the Liberal land-owners and factory-owners, and so could be harnessed to the Tory Party. In Protestant areas, the ‘Orange vote’ i.e. the vote of the working class members of the Orange Order  went to the anti-Home Rule Conservative Party. Tory working class supporters, so common in England, were almost exclusively Protestant in Ireland. It should be noted that the interests of the skilled urban workers, especially in the great export-led manufacturing  industries of the North East, lay in the direction of Unionism and free trade, while the Liberals were advocating Home Rule and thus Protectionism for Ireland. An Irish Labour Party was not established until the First World War and by then the working class was polarised over the question of Home Rule. Sinn Fein, the great exponents of terrorist tactics, got as much support in the working class of the great cities as it did in the countryside.

Some rich Irish Protestants like Charles Stuart Parnell and Sir Roger Casement who supported Home Rule or a Catholic-dominated parliament were regarded as traitors to their class. Their actions are certainly inexplicable from any rational point of view. [Top]


            A change was gradually taking place in the organisation of Irish society. Competitive examinations were steadily replacing patronage as the means of filling public offices. In traditional societies the king selected people to fill the great offices of administration. These great office-holders in turn selected lesser office holders who in turn selected those who did the actual work. There was no other way of filling most offices. The king for example appointed the Lord Lieutenant, who appointed the sheriffs, who appointed the gaolers, turnkeys etc. Or in chartered towns the burgesses made the appointments.  Or the king might appoint a colonel to raise a regiment. He appointed the officers, and these offices were then saleable. The person who purchased the rank then just had it confirmed so that he could draw his pay. Bishops and others had the right to appoint to clerical offices. The Pope appointed Catholic bishops who then appointed the lower clergy. In the National School system the local, usually clerical, school manager had absolute discretion with regard to whom he appointed. If a teacher was dismissed for whatever reason it was unlikely that he or she would ever again be employed in a school with a clerical manager. The person who made the appointment was called the patron. To get any appointment one had to approach the patron and ask for it. Or one might have a relative of higher rank who could ask for you. Arthur Wellesley was the 4th son of a minor Irish nobleman. His family was able to purchase offices for him in the army but it had little influence, so Arthur, and his older brother on his behalf, spent years soliciting appointments to minor offices (Longford, Wellington, 40).

            Sometimes there were restrictions on whom the patron might choose. In appointing sheriffs, the Lord Lieutenant had to choose from a list of three candidates presented to him by the County Grand Jury. After 1829, the Catholic priests in a diocese had the right to present the Pope with a list of three candidates for the office of bishop. It became increasingly common for patrons to require evidence of fitness or experience. From the 1820s onwards the Board of Customs appointed only those who displayed fitness and capability. The Government began to demand evidence of practical experience from those entrusted with publicly-funded roads or drainage schemes.

            The greatest changes came about through the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms which required success in competitive examinations for admission to the civil service. The Cardwell Reforms abolished purchase of commissions, and entrance came by examinations. Teachers, too both primary and secondary increasingly had to have qualifications or show evidence of their practical skills. The principle of the best man, or woman, for the job was rarely applied. Who you knew was more important than what you knew. Patrons, as Wellesley discovered, usually had more important preoccupations in mind, people with prior claims on the Lord Lieutenant.

            Nevertheless an enormous amount of patronage remained. As the number of tasks imposed on local authorities increased, and they increasingly used direct labour, and provided public services, so too did the opportunities of an official or a councillor to do favours to friends increase. So too did the opportunities for taking bribes. Rooting out corruption in public life was not an objective of nationalist separatists, but rather to transfer the patronage to themselves. [Top]

The Structure of the Irish Economy

          There always had been some trade into and out of Ireland since the Bronze Age but in negligible amounts. In the Middle Ages the Norman settlers tried hard to develop an economy oriented towards producing goods for export and importing other goods but with little success. Ireland’s economy was largely a subsistence one but also oriented towards the needs of the warrior classes which needed to import firearms. Irish trade and production for export did not really take off until around 1750. A statistician noted that Irish foreign trade started to increase at the time of the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. From that date onwards Irish the graph of Irish exports and imports  rose steadily and consistently, as did the national income and standard of living.

This market and money economy developed first in the eastern half of the Ireland within reasonable distance of the east coast ports. In large parts of the Midlands and the West the subsistence economy survived, but it was being constantly eroded as canals, river navigations, roads, and finally railways reached out westward from the east coast ports. Being able to transport exportable goods like butter or wool in wheeled vehicles or barges was much easier than by pack pony. By 1850 adequate means for the carriage of goods covered the eastern half of the country, and a railway line had reached Galway on the west coast.

 Ireland by 1850 had a fully-developed and balanced modern economy in the eastern half of the island. In the development of agriculture, Irish farmers were among the best in the world. The best Irish craftsmen could produce work equal to that anywhere in the world. The foundations of the great industries like linen-manufacture, ship-building, rope-making, tobacco manufacture, and machinery manufacture had been laid. A writer in the Irish Railway Gazette (5 February 1849) commented on the great growth of Irish manufactures in the previous fifty years. Quality had so far improved that the upper classes were no longer importing the goods they needed, but could rely on the quality of Irish manufactures. Among textiles there were silks, cottons, stuffs, embroidery, woollens, blankets, carpets, tapestries, lace, hosiery, gloves, knitted ware; also cords and ropes, furniture, carving, gilding, glass, musical, optical, mechanical and scientific instruments, paper, books, engravings, metal work of all kinds, agricultural implements, carriages and cars, leather goods, saddlery, harness, candles, soap, glue. The iron products included most of what was required for the new railways. Irish shipyards had commenced using iron to build ships before mid-century, but in the Fifties, Edward Harland and Gustav Wolff came to Belfast. Ireland was not a primary producer relying on the export of one or two commodities so that a fall in price on the world market produced widespread hardship. By 1900 it was a great exporter both of agricultural products and manufactured goods.

The Corn Laws of 1815 had been passed primarily, by enabling Irish farmers to invest more heavily in their farms, to give Irish farming a chance to develop behind a protective barrier, and also to maintain the profits of British farmers at war-time levels. The resulting high price of bread made the Corn Laws unpopular. Gradually the Whigs came round to the view that they should be abolished, and more importantly, the Tories under Sir Robert Peel, with William Gladstone as President of the Board of Trade repealed them. By the 1840s there was no great objection by Irish farmers to the repeal for they felt that Irish farmers could now successfully compete with those in Britain. Ireland had become an open economy which was the only way such a small region like Ireland could prosper. Ireland was less affected by the Great Agricultural Depression than England because commercial agriculture had not spread onto marginal lands to the same extent. However, by the end of the century, Danish farmers were driving the Irish out of their long-cherished British markets. Though in some ways Ireland was going into a relative decline, the decline was merely relative and the trend was still upwards.

In agriculture, there was a strong trend away from tillage and the growing of cereals to the more profitable but less labour-intensive production of cattle and this was hastened by the repeal of the Corn Laws. The fact was, given the demands of the English market, the farmer got a better return per acre from producing beef cattle  than from the cultivation of cereals. Cattle-rearing was much less labour intensive but it is far from clear if the change to cattle-rearing caused the emigration of farm labourers or was caused by it. These changes did not take place over-night, especially as it was estimated that it took several years to change a field which had been exhausted by poor tillage into a profitable permanent pasture. These trends were to become marked in the second half of the nineteenth century, both in Britain and Ireland.

Almost as an appendage to the market and subsistence economies there had grown up, as described earlier, what might be called an excrescence, namely the cottar or cottier economy. Cottiers or cottars had always existed. Cottiers were people who rented small patches of ground on which to build huts or cottages and to grow some crops. But they depended on getting additional work on farms in the spring and autumn. In times of scarcity or famine they were always the first to die. The introduction to Ireland of the potato which gave heavy crops even on poor, wet boggy soil permitted an extraordinary expansion of this category. By the time of the Great Famine they may have numbered as many as two million or more. Often they were squatters in remote bogs and mountains. The problem of the cottiers never went away but after 1850 it had been reduced to more manageable proportions. In the 1890s a Government programme to build roads and bridges along the south-west coast of Co. Galway opened up the last remaining spot in Ireland to the market economy.

The railways also spread the market economy. Whole areas of the country which might have sent some sheep , cattle, or horses to the local fair once a year now joined an organised market. For the railway, the steamship, and free market conditions allowed easy access to the growing cities in England. They also allowed British factories to supply manufactured goods, of better quality and a cheaper price all over Ireland. People now had cash to spend. Many local industries in Ireland were wiped out as the Irish manufacturers were unable to develop their own factories to compete. Nevertheless various Irish towns had manufacturing industries connected with the textiles, provisions, and leather industry. The Irish businesses which survived were able to draw their raw materials from around them. Still, by 1920, there were still many small local industries in the small towns and in rural areas.

Dublin was and remained a manufacturing centre with a great diversity of crafts and trades. Belfast was rapidly growing to be a great industrialised city such as were found in Britain and increasingly elsewhere in Europe and the United States. It should be remembered that business in both, and indeed all over Ireland, was dominated by Protestant firms. The direction of trade in Ireland was east-west, and scarcely ever north-south. This was to have political consequences, for many Catholics outside Ulster could spend their whole lives and never speak to an Ulster Protestant. The Belfast region too was unique in that a large part of the raw materials, especially coal, iron, timber, and flax  were imported and the finished products exported. In the rest of Ireland most industry was based on agricultural products. In some cases though, raw materials like raw sugar, tobacco, silk, and iron were imported to manufacture goods for sale in Ireland.

Trends which started in the first half of the century became more marked in the second half of the century. Apart from the significant fall in population the Famine itself was in no way a watershed any more than in England. So the year 1850 only marks an arbitrary stage in a continuous process.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.