A magisterial work.
WHEN HE ANNOUNCED the publication of David Dickson's Old World Colony: Cork and South Munster, 1630-1830 at the American Committee for Irish Studies' Meeting at the University of Notre Dame in April 2005, Professor James S. Donnelly, Jr. described the work as "magisterial." Let it suffice that I agree fully with Donnelly's evaluation. And we are not alone in our praise. A recent RTE Radio news release noted that the hardback version of the book was already sold out and that a paperback version had just been released. It is hard to imagine a university press offering "selling out," especially one of such heft. My copy of Old World Colony is 726 pages long. (Other notices claim 730, 736, 744, or 760 pages.) The text itself is exactly 500 pages; another 226 are devoted to extensive notes, appendix tables, the bibliography, and the index. A wide variety of illustrations, portraits, and graphs complement the narrative. The high quality of the paper on which the book is printed adds to its girth. Its appearance is truly impressive; perhaps even a bit intimidating. Dickson's study, which was, incidentally, sponsored by Cork 2005: European Capital of Culture, has attracted not only academic attention, it inspired a five-part (RTE) radio series, The Makings of Cork. The series, produced by Cathal Poiteir and presented by David Dickson, tells the story of South Munster in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Dr. Dickson, Associate Professor of Modern History at Trinity College, is also the author of the highly acclaimed New Foundations: Ireland, 1660-1880 (1987). Considered by many to be the best general history of eighteenth-century Ireland, it was revised and enlarged in a 2000 edition. In his preface to the latter, Dickson notes that significant work relating to eighteenth-century Irish studies was published after the initial appearance of New Foundations. He refers in particular to "exciting" scholarship in the areas of local and regional studies: specifically Jean Agnew's Belfast Merchant Families in the Seventeenth Century, T.P. Power's Land, Politics and Society in Eighteenth-Century Tipperary, and Jacqueline Hill's The Shaping of Dublin Government in the Long Eighteenth Century. To this should be added Mary O'Dowd's work on early-modern Sligo and the relevant essays in Geography Publications' Irish county series. To date, sixteen volumes have been published. Old World Colony is undoubtedly the most ambitious and original contribution to this genre.
South Munster's economic development stemmed from its agricultural resources--profitable tillage and grazing--and its Atlantic location. Cork's merchant families built their fortunes on foreign trade; her shopkeepers on the provisions trade. The first four decades of the seventeenth century were peaceful and trade in cattle, hides, wool, and butter brought prosperity. The events of 1641, however, wreaked havoc on the region and bubonic plague, which first appeared in 1649, killed between one-tenth and one-fifth of the region's population, while perhaps as many as 4,000 Munster-born soldiers departed as mercenaries after 1645. Over 50 Catholic landowners and their dependents and 11 from Kerry were allocated lands west of the Shannon. About half of County Cork was subject to confiscation, as was most of peninsular west Kerry, and a small fraction of west Waterford. But, as Dickson observes,
in Cork and Kerry the impact of the Cromwellian land settlement was modified by two factors: the relatively large proportion of land that had already passed into New English control before 1641; and the decision by the Commonwealth government to keep most of Cork and Kerry outside the pool of counties to be allocated either to English bond-holders (the Adventurers) or to parliamentary soldiers in settlement of arrears. (41)
Most of the region's old Protestant proprietors weathered the twenty years of chaos and during the Restoration period a number of the area's Old English peers and gentry were able to repossess or purchase lands. In 1688 about one-third of the agricultural land in Cork and one-quarter in Kerry was held by Catholics. Few Jacobite proprietors, however, survived the next round of confiscations. Despite these vicissitudes, the city was the leading Irish port for imports of tobacco and sugar in the 1680's, and in the 1690's naval victualling gave business to brewers, bakers, butchers, and prostitutes. The city also controlled a high proportion of national beef and butter exports. Though most of the city's Protestant merchants fled during the Jacobite War, economic recovery was swift and exports reached pre-war levels by 1698. The period between 1691 and 1714 was one of consolidation for the region's Protestant interest; it also marked the beginning of the Penal Era. Legislative measures debarring Catholics from engaging in foreign trade, however, were never entirely successful and, as Dickson notes, "Every Catholic family [in south Munster] of status had kinship connections in at least one of the centres of Irish settlement on the Continent, and most had a multiplicity of connections" (169). In fact, between the 1730's and the 1770's three of Cork City's most prominent trans-Atlantic trading firms were owned by Catholics.
Developments and reversals in commerce, agriculture, industry, land ownership and usage, confessional relations, culture, and politics between 1703 and the Great Famine are at the center of this study. Dickson, however, does more than compile facts and statistics. In Old World Colony "he reconstructs the framework of a pre-modern regional society in a way never before attempted for Ireland" ("Read Ireland Book Review"--Issue 301). The traditions and conflicts he explores are used to posit the argument that post-Famine society in south Munster was shaped more by pre-famine developments than by the horrors of 1846-49. The Great Famine was not the defining economic or cultural divide for the region. Population losses in 1740-41 were greater. It was in the 1820's, a time of post-war economic misery, growing unemployment, evictions, emigration, and rural violence, that the "unusually strong political nationalism of Cork and Kerry, evident in 1848, 1867, the Land War, and the War of Independence, was created" (499). This period also witnessed the growing influence of the Church, the strengthening of episcopal authority over both parish and regular clergy, and a boom in new church constructions. Sacramental regularity and the saying of the rosary in the home were encouraged and the publication of cheap devotional literature (most in English) further nourished the growth of popular piety. Long before the Famine "priests were forbidden to issue curses or excommunications from the pulpit, and were warned against giving credence to traditional forms of magic" (482).
Traditionally, Irish poverty on the eve of the Famine has been blamed on Penal Legislation, particularly those laws that related to land ownership and usage, a demographic explosion in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, absentee landlordism, a potato monoculture, and lack of industry. Consideration is given to all of these areas. But,
the most striking characteristic of social arrangements in the region, more apparent in 1800 than 1700, was the increasingly complex class structure and the exceptionally unequal distribution of income. The extreme vulnerability of the labouring underclass was evident from the early eighteenth century, but the problem of constant structural underemployment only became pervasive a century later after Waterloo, by which time labour's modest economic advances of the eighteenth century were canceled out. (497-98)
The early chapters of Old World Colony examine the rise of Cork City to international prominence and its role in making the city and its hinterland--Kerry, Waterford, and County Cork--one of the wealthiest regions in early-modern Ireland; "Why south Munster starved" is addressed in later chapters. While some generalizations about Irish society in the pre-Famine decades hold true such as its dependence on the potato, others such as increased female fertility and early marriages to explain the demographic growth, and the role of gavelkind inheritance in the declining fortunes of Catholic landholders, do not. South Munster starved because it was poor. The provisions trade during the French Wars had brought prosperity, or at least benefit, to virtually all residents of the regions. Post-war peace and a demographic explosion brought a reversal of fortune. By the 1830's the specter of poverty loomed over the region. The seeds of disaster, however, were sown long before Waterloo. By 1790 at least half of the rural population were wage laborers. A growing labor surplus contributed to declining wages, and rising land prices meant that these same workers were unable to rent parcels over an acre or to maintain a cow. After 1815 unemployment was rife and rents remained constant. It is not surprising that the potato went from being the winter food of the south Munster poor to their main foodstuff for eleven months of the year.
Old World Colony is based on thirty years of research. It is encyclopedic in its scope and meticulously detailed. Though it might be described best as a study of south Munster's long-term economic and political development, Dr. Dickson's work does not ignore the religious, social, and cultural factors that shaped the region. He includes a particularly interesting discussion on Irish literature in the first half of the eighteenth century. While south Munster bishops are said to have engaged at most in a discreet and passive Jacobitism, they were, with their clergy, part "of a remarkable cultural phenomenon: the quite exceptional level of vernacular literary production that occurred in the region in the course of the eighteenth century" (260). Much of this literature, he points out, was political in nature. Many poems and songs written as late as 1760 contain references to the Stuart court in exile and reflect hope that deliverance will come from abroad.
Thomas Bartlett calls Old Worm Colony "an engrossing read." I would argue that this holds true of most but not all of the text. Meticulously detailed, yes, but the topographical material relating to agricultural and industrial outputs, pigs and milk cows per household, butter production, etc., to which a surprising number of pages are devoted, will not appeal to a wide audience. This, however, in no way detracts from the book's contribution to our understanding of early-modern Ireland and specifically to the history of early-modern Cork City and its hinterland. Old World Colony is not only the most original addition to an exciting body of regional and local studies, it will be the model against which future contributions to this genre are measured.
--St. Joseph's College, NY
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|Title Annotation:||Old World Colony: Cork and South Munster, 1630-1830|
|Author:||Brennan, Monica A.|
|Publication:||Irish Literary Supplement|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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