D. W. Hayton, James Kelly and John Bergin (eds), The Eighteenth-Century Composite State: Representative Institutions in Ireland and Europe, 1689-1800.
In recent decades, the eighteenth-century Irish parliament has been the subject of more intensive investigation than ever before, as historians have moved away from the great set-pieces of Anglo-Irish relations, to consider in detail the business of legislation throughout the century. The work of David Hayton, Charles Ivar McGrath and James Kelly - all present in this book - as well as other historians, notably Edith Mary Johnston-Liik, has transformed our understanding of how the Irish parliament worked and why it was important. Hayton and Kelly were also the guiding lights behind the Irish Legislation Database project (www.qub.ac.uk/ild/), whose culmination was marked by the conference out of which this volume emerged. The Database is a remarkable achievement. Thanks to the work of John Bergin and Andrew Sneddon, the researchers on the project, it provides information on every legislative proposal made in parliament. This facilitates a much more detailed understanding of the business of parliament than available heretofore, as a number of the contributions to this volume attest.
The most welcome feature of the volume under review is the intention to 'place the Irish parliament in its wider European and Atlantic setting' (p. x). In order to facilitate this, the editors offer a novel conceptual framework: H. G. Koenigsberger's 'composite state' model. Using this approach it is suggested that the Irish parliament no longer appears unique, but rather, as Hayton and Kelly put it (a little tentatively): 'a local variant, albeit unusual, of that more familiar entity: a component of an ancien regime "composite state"' (p. 13).
To make a case for the 'composite state' model demands a comparative approach. The essays take us some way in that direction, by offering contributions on the Irish parliament (five in total), as well as a further four pieces on comparable institutions elsewhere in Europe (in Burgundy and Languedoc in France, as well as Hungary and Poland/Lithuania). While it is in many respects understandable that the chapters are divided into those dealing with Ireland and those dealing with 'Europe', this diminishes the opportunity for individual authors to address the 'composite state' theme in a genuinely comparative manner. Of the Irish authors, some ignore it, some nod dutifully toward it before moving quickly to their chosen topic and a few engage with it, notably Kelly. All five Irish contributions have, however, something significant to offer and they each illustrate how a detailed consideration of the business of the Irish parliament sheds light on Irish political, religious, social and economic history. Ivar McGrath's detailed essay on financial legislation feeds directly into the current debate about another (not necessarily mutually exclusive) framework for understanding eighteenth-century Ireland: the fiscal-military state. Neal Garnham concentrates on a very specific seam of legislation relating to the Irish militia, now the subject of an important book by the same author. Andrew Sneddon addresses the record of the Irish parliament on that key concern of the eighteenth-century Irish elite: social and economic improvement. Sneddon focuses on fishery legislation and records both the importance and limitations of a range of endeavours. Kelly and Hayton offer considered perspectives on religion. Kelly's essay on legislation targeting Catholics has important implications for the perennial debate about the penal laws. His contribution is especially interesting for its concentration on the legislative process. Hayton provides a parallel assessment of the Church of Ireland and, like Kelly, uses instances of failed legislation to good effect, revealing the significance of parliamentary antipathy towards the church hierarchy in mid-century before a change of attitude dating to the 1780s.
The other four essays in the volume treat potential parallel institutions. Julian Swann engages fully with the composite model in his stimulating article on the Burgundian estates and parlement. While Swann recounts the debates about a Burgundian constitution and provincial autonomy, he shows that the institutions on which these rested were abolished with the minimum of fuss during the early French Revolution, which points ultimately towards the successful integration of the regions within the French state. Swann's article is complemented by Stephen J. Miller's piece on the estates of Languedoc. Like Swann, Miller sees the estates as an expression of elite power and while it exercised real authority, it worked closely with central government and was not a genuine expression of Languedocian opinion. Richard Arthur Dillon, the archbishop of Narbonne and president of the estates for much of the later eighteenth century is mentioned by Miller, but his Irish ancestry (of which he was very conscious) is not commented on, though it is surely appropriate in the context of this work. If the Burgundian and Languedocian examples were ultimately provincial, the other two parallels offered in the book were, in some sense, 'national'. Orsolya Szakaly recounts the history of the Hungarian diet in the eighteenth century as the locus for struggle with the centre of Habsburg power in Vienna. It is striking however that the Hungarian diet, while it claimed extensive power, did not - unlike the Irish parliament - meet regularly, with a pronounced gap between meetings in 1765 and 1790. Like Szakaly, Richard Butterwick offers a study in the relationship between state centre and peripheries in his article on the Polish/Lithuanian Commonwealth. Here, the complexity of representative institutions and lawmaking in the Polish/Lithuanian Commonwealth is traced, though he comments more extensively on the value of the 'composite monarchy' model (useful before 1772; not so afterwards).
Hayton and Kelly, conscious that the individual essays provide largely unconnected case studies rather than genuinely comparative research, draw together some of the main strands of discussion in a useful conclusion. At times they appear a little hesitant about applying a concept that was created originally to describe sixteenth and seventeenth-century states. Others have been less reticent, notably Ian McBride in his major study, Eighteenth-Century Ireland: The Isle of Slaves (Dublin, 2009). In any case, the value of this collection might lie elsewhere, in the way it places eighteenth-century Ireland (and indeed the Anglo-Irish relationship) firmly within a European framework. While the kingdom or colony debate will no doubt rumble on, even as alternative or complementary frameworks are offered, the crucial point is that the case for Irish exceptionalism (and essentialism) in the eighteenth century is becoming less and less tenable.
Department of History, Mary Immaculate College
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|Publication:||Irish Economic and Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2014|
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