In review: Maurice Coakley on how Britain under-developed Ireland

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Maurice Coakley, Ireland in the World Order: a history of uneven development, London, Pluto Press, 2012

I read this book a couple of years ago and meant to review it then, but other things got in the way.  To make up for the delay, I’ve done something bigger – basically a mix of summary and review:

Coakley begins with a brief survey of bourgeois and anti-capitalist attempts to explain uneven development, from Weber and Durkheim to Gramsci, Jack goody, Immanuel Wallerstein and Robert Brenner. Coakley is concerend, in particular, with the different patterns of growth exhibited in Britain (especially England but also Scotland and Wales) and does so by exploring the unequal relations between them from the medieval era onwards.

Imposition of feudalism

He notes that the Anglo-Norman conquest resulted in the division of Ireland into Gaelic and Anglo-Norman regions. While the boundaries and interactions were fluid, they possessed different social structures. In the Anglo-Norman areas, a manorial/feudal economy was developed, with the local nobility owing allegiance to the English monarch. The peasantry which worked the land for the new elite included a layer of free peasants (largely transplanted from England) and a larger layer of unfree peasants (serfs) of Irish stock. This latter group was less free than the unfree peasants (villeins) in England itself. For instance, they had no legal rights at all.

The crisis of feudalism throughout the 1300s in Europe, including Ireland, explains the decline of Anglo-Norman power and the English language. It also reduced free tenants to labourers. This produced a significant return to England by peasants wishing to avoid greater subjection. The lords in Ireland were then forced to make concessions to Irish peasants. This combined with the impact of the plague largely finished off serfdom by about 1500.

The economy, moreover, had shifted in the 1300s back largely to pasture. This meant a different form of social organisation to tillage, where peasants laboured for a lord. Pasture involved a more kindred pattern of social organisation. The Anglo-Normans were also becoming Gaelicised. But Anglo-Norman-Gaelic Ireland was a hybrid social formation because as well as the kindred social organisation the major feudal lords were more powerful than their counterparts in England who were checked by the king from above and a large lower aristocratic layer and yeomanry below. Even in the Pale there was no yeomanry.

In the distinctly Gaelic and predominantly pastoral areas of Ireland, land and cattle denoted power. Access to land was dependent on kinship, with collective inheritance. While cattle were individually owned they were also dispersed; for instance, through being loaned to poor members of a clan. There was no significant surplus product which might create and sustain a Gaelic ruling class and state comprised of bodies of armed men; rather, “the principle of reciprocity permeated every aspect of Gaelic society”, although this did not mean equality.

British state centralisation and the new conquest

In Britain, a process of state centralisation was taking place under the last of the Plantagenets and, especially the Tudor dynasty. The Tudors tried to extend this to Ireland, including through incorporating the Gaelic elite. Their policy of incorporation was partly the result of the rise of humanist philosophy but it also reflected the reality that military conquest failed, at least initially. They were determined, however, to impose English Common Law. (In the Gaelic system marriage records were not kept, divorce was common as was extra-marital sex, while illegitimacy was no disgrace and no barrier to inheritance.)

The failure of the Tudor reforms in Ireland led to a new round of invasion and conquest. Whereas in the past invaders from Britain had the same religion, now the new English elite in Ireland were Protestants. The new elite saw themselves as the elect and the Gaelic, Catholic population as barbarous. The invaders assembled the largest English armies of the Elizabethan period – Elizabeth I ruled from 1558-1603 – and these were met by the largest Gaelic armies ever. This conflict was also part of a wider European conflict.

Differences with Wales and Scotland

Coakley spends considerable time examining how and why things worked out differently in Wales and Scotland compared to Ireland.  He notes, for instance, that while Scotland and Wales had similar forms of social organisation to Gaelic Ireland, they were not subjected to the type of conquest carried out in Ireland during the Renaissance era. The social transformation in Scotland and Wales was less brutal and took place over a more extended time period than the rapid and brutal imposition of a new social order in Ireland at the hands of the English monarchy and its allies. In Scotland and Wales, unlike Ireland, there was no massive population displacement and full-scale plantation programme, such as that in Ulster in the early 1600s. In Scotland and Wales the old elites had time to adapt to the new social organisation, whereas in Ireland both the old English (or Anglo-Norman) elite and the old Gaelic elite were replaced by the new English elite.

Grievances in Ireland exploded in the 1640s, initially among elite groups but soon spreading to become a revolt among the oppressed masses. The suppression of the rebellion cost Ireland dearly in people, with a third of the population being killed or driven out and ownership of land changing dramatically. In 1600 Catholics owned over 80% of the land in Ireland; by 1703 they owned only 14% of the land. The older mercantile and artisan communities were largely disposed, notes Coakley.

The divergence between Scotland’s economy and society and Ireland’s becomes particularly noticeable in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Scotland becomes much more urbanised and the industrial revolution gathers rapid pace. Coakley cites the work of Scottish historian Tom Devine who pinpointed two vital developmental differences: Scotland saw the successful development of agrarian capitalism and Scottish merchants made significant profits from participating in colonial trade. Both of these developments were blocked in Ireland by British rule, most especially through the Penal Laws. In the northeast, however, Ulster Custom helped stimulate some capital accumulation and some improvements in agricultural productivity.1

Industrial revolution and advance of capitalism

The industrial revolution in England spread to Scotland where capitalist agriculture had created a three-class pattern of landowner, capitalist farmer and landless labourer, the latter providing the raw material for a proletariat. In Scotland an alliance of improving landlords, commercial farmers and urban merchants also provided the base for the Scottish Enlightenment. There were simply no obstacles in the way of their planned imitation of socio-economic-political developments in England.

In Ireland, however, the obstacles of British rule and the Anglo-Irish aristocracy meant industrialisation was restricted to the north-east. In most of Ireland there was almost nothing of a class of capitalist farmers or landless labourers. Rural Ireland was essentially divided between big landowners and tenant farmers who dare not improve their holdings because the result would be higher rents. There was simply no incentive to improve productivity. In addition, the ban on Catholic schools affected literacy rates.

In Scotland, the ruling class was very much indigenous and able to bring the mass of the people behind them in any confrontation with London. Coakley notes that, on the other hand, the elite in Ireland – the Anglo-Irish upper class – was more an alien force and they were far more worried that any confrontation with London would be a signal for the Irish masses to revolt against them. (Indeed, I would say, they were utterly dependent on British rule for their position atop Irish society. In this they occupied a different position to even the old Anglo-Norman elite, who had over the course of several hundred years, become less of an alien presence and intermixed to some degree with the old Gaelic elite, certainly taking on Gaelic language, customs and dress.)

One of the effects of the lack of a rural class capable of carrying through the capitalist modernisation of agriculture was that the Protestant aristocracy pressed higher and higher rents on their tenants: “unable to maximise output, the Irish landowners,” Coakley writes, “settled for maximising the surplus”. However, surplus isn’t really the best term, as what the landowners took was often part of the subsistence of the peasants who thus remained, and could only remain, poor.

From failed revolution to famine

One of the most horrendous consequences was the Great Famine of the 1840s. While some aid was provided by Westminster it was minimal and tardy; this, as Coakley puts it, “was partially dictated by the belief that Ireland was overpopulated anyway and that it was unhelpful to to interfere with the workings of the free market.” (Personally, I’d say it was very largely dictated by those things, rather than partially dictated by them.)  He might have also mentioned the Encumbered Estates Act which, according to Marx, was even more effective than the famine in clearing the Irish peasantry off the land.

Around this point in the book, however, it seems to me is perhaps its one glaring weakness. This is in its treatment – or, more accurately, lack of treatment – of the United Irish movement of the 1790s and, in particular, the impact of its defeat on Ireland’s subsequent development – or, more specifically, its lack of development. Wolfe Tone is not mentioned at all and the UI movement is touched on as much in the context of a discussion about literacy as it is in any broader political context. The author mentions the American and French revolutions but, unfortunately, does not draw out how the failure of the equivalent revolution in Ireland – ie the bourgeois-democratic or bourgeois-nationalist – was crucial in maintaining social structures that were being eradicated in all the parts of the world that went on to become developed capitalist countries.

It seems to me impossible to explain fully the under-development of most of Ireland without linking it to the defeat of the modernising revolutions which succeeded in most of Western Europe, the United States and Japan (and which were implanted in the settler-colonies of Canada, Australia and New Zealand).  Coakley does make the useful point later on that the most successful Asian country of the era was the one which remained free of colonial rule and interference, namely Japan. It was able to push through a social transformation which helped it catch up to the imperialist powers – and, indeed, become an imperialist power itself. Countries which continued to be ruled by Britain or the other European colonial powers, by contrast, languished in under-development, providing cheap raw materials and, in the Irish case, cheap migrant labour for the factories and roads produced by the industrial revolution in Britain.

The economic backwardness of an oppressed and super-exploited rural Ireland had an impact on urban life. For instance, incredibly, industrial employment in Ireland actually fell over the 1800-1900 period, even with the industrialisation of parts of the northeast. Not surprisingly, poverty was endemic. By contrast, in late Victorian Britain living standards rose across the board.

Modernising Ireland

In the late 1800s, the Land League broke the power of the landlords and shook the hold of Orangeism over the Protestant peasantry, but the British state moved to assist tenants in buying out landlords and averted the danger of any republicanism taking hold among the Protestant tenant farmers.

Industrialisation in the northeast strengthened the cross-class Protestant alliance – jobs being provided for ‘loyal’ workers – and the region, especially the Lagan valley centred on Belfast, along with the rest of Antrim and Down, began to depart economically and politically from the rest of Ireland. Belfast grew from 20,000 in 1800 to 250,000 by 1880 but, despite the substantial industrialisation, there were not enough jobs for all who wanted to work. Labour competition played into the hands of the Unionist bosses, who were able to strengthen the cross-class alliance which tied Protestant workers to their own exploiters rather than to their Catholic fellow proletarians.

Coakley notes the link between class struggles and the development of Irish nationalist consciousness. For instance, the struggle for the soil of Ireland, a material-economic struggle, inevitably took on a political-nationalist-separatist character because of the relationship between the landlord class in Ireland and the British ruling class and state in Britain itself. The emergence of the working class in the south, especially Dublin, heightened that connection. The southern working class, small farmers and rural poor became – and I would suggest have largely stayed – small ‘r’ republican.

Free State and under-development

The book mentions the 1916 rebellion only in passing and deals very briefly with the War for Independence and the civil war. Coakley then notes that Free State economic and social policy scarcely changed from what it was under British rule. The economy remained dominated by Britain, although politics was now in the hands of a Catholic upper middle class. Its policies of repression coupled with the impact od the Great depression destroyed the Cumann na nGaedheal regime and brought Fianna Fail to power. FF promoted industrialisation, employment and twenty-six county self-sufficiency. Protectionist tariffs helped grow industry and jobs until the early 1950s. In the countryside, emphasis shifted from pasture to tillage in order to provide employment, along with food for the domestic market.

Into the 1950s, Fianna Fail economic policies had achieved all they possibly could. Unemployment and under-employment grew and a new era of mass emigration began. Policy shifted from import substitution to an export strategy. The new generation of Fianna Fail politicians, often the offspring of Ffers who had been active in the revolutionary period (1913-23), were increasingly closely connected to business interests, especially new money. Because of their past and their traditional base among workers, Fianna Fail was able to maintain a long social pact with the unions. While Fianna Fail was no workers party it “permitted high levels of unionisation and were slow to use state power against the unions”, Coakley notes. In the later 1980s ‘social partnership’ deals more blatantly subordinated the unions to capital and the state, with a concomitant weakening of workplace organisation.

From tiger economy to bubble economy to splat

The book briefly explores the ‘Celtic Tiger’, noting that there were real increases in productivity, employment and wages. But it was soon to be accompanied by the ‘Celtic Bubble’, a massive expansion of the artificial economy which burst so dramatically, as any Marxist foresaw but which ‘mainstream’ economists, by and large, never saw coming. Coakley explores briefly ideas about financialisation and provides some useful references.  However, it’s also important to understand where financiaisation comes from, otherwise it gets treated as a ‘thing in itself’.  It actually arises because of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall in the productive economy; this is crucial for understanding the flood of foreign investment, loans and credit in the Irish economy.  (For an extended treatment of the tiger and bubble economies, see Ireland’s Credit Crunch; my review of it is here. For incisive analysis of crisis theory see Michael Roberts thenextrecession blog; also see his talk on Marx’s crisis theory and the GFC, here.  For an excellent account of how the tendency of the rate of profit to fall in the productive sector drives the artificial economy, see Tony Norfield on derivatives, here.)

In essence, Coakley makes a convincing case that the Conquest “had a critical long-term impact”. A whole social order was destroyed and Ireland was incorporated into Britain as an oppressed region, marked by socio-economic under-development and political-religious discrimination and repression.

This book should be read by all who wish to grapple with the national question in Ireland, where it comes from and why it remains such a central political question, albeit in somewhat different forms to the past.  Coakley has, in particular, done a service to all working in Ireland towards national liberation and socialism.


1 Ulster Custom refers to the norm that Protestant tenants in the province of Ulster who were loyal and paid their rents had security of tenure and could even sell their tenancies to people who met the landlord’s approval.  It was custom rather than law.

Posted on June 4, 2015, in 1798 - 1803, 1930s and 1940s, Culture, Democratic rights - general, Economy and workers' resistance, Fianna Fail, Free State in 1920s, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Irish politics today, Natural resources, Partition, Political education and theory, Republicanism post-1900, Republicanism pre-1900, sectarianism, Social conditions, Toadyism, Trade unions, Unionism, Workers rights. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on In review: Maurice Coakley on how Britain under-developed Ireland.

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