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


Chapter Summary. This introduction tells why this book was written and gives a general account of of the chief points the author had in mind, and what influenced him. As Napoleon wisely observed the history written in books was often little more than a collection of lies that it suited most people to accept. This book challenges the accepted nationalist account of Irish history, and makes a painstaking analysis of all the major aspects of Irish society. Finally the ordering of the book and the division into chapters is set out.

    This is a book about the society and economy of Ireland. A question every student of history must ask is, Which came first? The history or the politics? Was the history written first with political campaigns flowing from the history? Or did the political objectives come first with the history written or shaped to justify the political campaigns?

As Napoleon observed cynically, history was a collection of lies or a version of events that it suited many people to agree upon, especially the victors. In any country where there has been a regime-change as in Russia and Germany the history, the assumptions, the values and the methods of the deposed regime are automatically questioned. But in Ireland, where the regime inaugurated by Sinn Fein and the IRA in 1921 has never been toppled this kind of questioning did not occur. Anyone may legitimately question whether there was a genuine need for a ‘struggle for freedom’ or merely a struggle to control the rackets. (This kind of questioning should not be confined to Ireland.) It is right therefore to clear the mind of any pre-suppositions and conduct an investigation with an open mind as if one were studying a society of 2,000 years ago. The nationalist version of Irish history must be sent to the same dustbin of history as Nazism or Bolshevism.

Nationalism stressed that Ireland had suffered economically and socially from ‘British oppression’ or ‘British colonialism’. It is always possible to pick some episodes which might give colour to sweeping assertions. When one studies the actual facts it becomes clear that not only was Ireland neither oppressed nor backward but was actually one of the most advanced countries in the world at the time. The present study clearly exemplifies this. To remedy the one-sidedness and distortions of nationalist rhetoric this book sets out at length and fairly the achievements of Irish Protestants.

It is impossible to have a unified country without a unifying idea of what that country should be. Ultimately, the failure of the nationalist and separatist ideas was due to the fact that most Protestants were defined as outsiders, as foreigners, as oppressors, and as targets. The formation of the United Kingdom was a brave effort to establish a structure within which diverse peoples could be united equally, with common views, common aims, a common sovereign, a common parliament, and a common flag, while retaining elements of diversity. No such idea or structure was ever devised by nationalists, and their proposed common flag was never anything but a mockery. This is why these views, ideals, and structure are examined closely in this book.

There is another reason for studying the social institutions of Ireland. Ireland was a common law country like England. So too were Scotland, the United States, and the great Dominions in the British Commonwealth. Their institutions had a common origin in England, but all developed differently. Ireland was the one which most resembled England, but over the centuries differences had crept in. Laws enacted in England did not apply to Ireland so the Irish Parliament, when it existed, periodically up-dated its own legislation, selecting what was most suitable for Ireland from British enactments. It proved necessary, after the Parliaments were united, to continue to pass separate legislation for Ireland. One therefore, when studying Irish history, should not assume that the institutions were the exact same as those in England. For example, in England the governing body in a county was the bench of magistrates while in Ireland it was the grand jury. The executive officer was the sheriff, whose role was similar to that of sheriffs in Scotland and the United States but in England his role was much reduced.

Again, study of the past is popular. Some people like to read of the early developments of aircraft or of railway locomotives, when these inventions occurred, how they spread, and how they affected people’s lives. Many people have heard of Samuel Morse and his famous code. The electric telegraph had an enormous effect on the life of a nation long before the era of mass communication, and the telegram was brought into the lives of ordinary people. We can then consider how people managed to communicate with each other over long distances before it was invented. This was an age which saw the widespread developments of railways, steam ships, motor cars, gas, electricity, telephones, gramophones, radio, cameras, cinema, mass production, the factory  system, and so on, at which they first wondered at and then began to use. Increasing wealth meant that there was more money to spend, and a lot was spent on health and hygiene. Clean water was supplied to towns and cities, and an effective sewage system developed. Standards in medical care and nursing rose. The discovery that diseases were spread by germs of different kinds resulted in the universal adoption of antiseptic treatments and pasteurisation not only in hospitals but in everyday life. Sport came to be governed increasingly by railway timetables rather than the phases of the moon. The examination of our past is exciting.

Ireland was a very fast-developing and fast changing country. In my earlier book, Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure, I dealt with conditions in the first half of the nineteenth century. Between 1800 and 1900 there were remarkable changes in almost all aspects. It would be impossible just to attach a few addenda to the earlier book. Some of the changes were sweeping, as in the changes in county government or in the system of the courts. Some were incremental, as in the development of the Board of Local Government, the system of education, or the reorganisation of military forces. Though this volume is intended to stand alone, the reader may find that, for reasons of space, some topics were treated more fully in the earlier volume.The last two decades of the nineteenth century saw more new inventions introduced than perhaps any other comparable span, telephones, internal combustion engines, cinema, and so on.

I have tried to indicate when the introduction of particular features occurred. Those for example interested in the history of farming, of medicine, of law, of education, etc. will like to know the changes that occurred in that period, so they are able to relate them with the conditions they know at present. Things like trams and telegrams came, had an enormous impact on society at the time, and then disappeared. We can appreciate too the great pride people had in their accomplishments. These included the mighty Titanic, the largest ship ever built to that date,  but also newly-trained nurses, dairy instructresses from the Munster Institute, or a farmer with a pedigree bull. So many developments are illustrated by passages from contemporary periodicals.

This book had its origin when the author was glancing through an English translation of Adolf Hitler’s book Mein Kampf. He was so struck by Hitler’s account of German history before, during, and after the First World War that he went and bought the book. What amazed him was its resemblance to the version of Irish history that he had been taught in Irish schools. There was no question of either side borrowing directly from the other, but equally obviously both were drawing on a common set of ideas and used a common method of exposition. Further study showed that both espoused a racist view of history and believed in the Darwinian struggle of the races. Both regarded their countries as subjected by alien races that destroyed the pure native culture. Both attributed every evil in their respective societies to these malign evil influences. Both saw that the alien races would have to be expelled from their countries so that their countries could again prosper when their native cultures were restored. Protestant landlords in Ireland had the same place in Irish racist propaganda and political mythology that the Jews had in Nazi political mythology. Most Irish boys of the author’s generation had, like Hitler, come across an inspiring teacher of history who inspired them to nationalism with his one-sided stories of Irish wrongs at the hands of the English.

Note on terminology: Since Nine Eleven people in the United States are much more likely to describe people as ‘terrorists’ whom they would once have recognised as ‘freedom fighters’ or ‘guerrillas’. In this book all those who used the tactics of terrorism , for whatever motives, political, religious, social, or racketeering, are regarded as terrorists. Their methods invariably involve attacks on the civilian population either by attacking them directly, or by intimidating them into co-operation or silence. I also include in this all those who found themselves unintentionally involved in acts of terrorism but who lacked the principles or the courage to dissociate themselves from such acts or to co-operate with the security forces to protect the civilian population. For example, many could have joined the Land League  believing that it would use only means of peaceful persuasion to get everyone to co-operate against the landowners. Others too could have joined the Irish Volunteers believing they were to fight the British Army  in a straightforward war and then did not dissociate themselves from the organisation when it had recourse to terrorism. A few people like James Stephens, Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, and Patrick Pearse were like this, uncontaminated with terrorism .

 Seeking independence does not imply that a people were oppressed, like seeking freedom does. Norway sought independence from the king of Sweden and he granted it to them. Whether they were best-advised to seek such ‘independence’ is another matter. Many too in Ireland connected with the Repeal and Home Rule  movements, were just seeking a separate parliament for Ireland under the crown, but the cause of early idealists like Isaac Butt was hijacked by those among the Catholics who were principally concerned about control of the rackets and were unscrupulous about the methods used. They were perfectly willing to use the expertise of the traditional agrarian terrorists. It was to these bodies that American money chiefly flowed, and without that money they would have been feeble. The so-called ‘struggle for independence’ was directed and controlled from 1850 to 1920 by hard men whose aim was to control the political rackets.

I prefer also to use the term landowner instead of landlord for the latter word, like the word Jew, has been discredited by the systematic use of lying propaganda  directed against them.

The first chapter deals with the wider aspects of Irish society, its informal structures, beliefs and interests, and the general nature of the economy which supported the whole society. The next three chapter describe the economy in detail. One chapter is given to the central political structures and another to local political structures and government. The latter chapter deals with crime, the police, the courts, and the prisons. The remaining chapters deal with various aspects of society which affected everyone, religion, education, health, leisure and recreation, the press, science and invention and the position of women.



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