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Perceptions of Ireland.


Social Thought on Ireland in the Nineteenth Century.

University College Dublin Press. 2009.

24 [pounds sterling], 28 [euro] pb

IT HAS BEEN REMARKED ON MORE than one occasion that given the considerable industry of Irish historians relatively little attention has been devoted to intellectual history. And yet, the ideological landscape of the nineteenth century, together with economic and social constraints and opportunities, is what shaped people's decisions. The ideas and analyses of contemporaries presented the signposts for policymakers and the motivations for activists.

It is perhaps significant that it took an anthropologist to address the question of social thought in Ireland, although this book is truly interdisciplinary in its contributors, who comprise six historians, three sociologists, two anthropologists and two political scientists, even if the distinctions between disciplines are sometimes more a question of approach than of subject matter. This book originated with a conference organized by O Siochain under the auspices of the Anthropological Association of Ireland in 2005. The contributions focus mainly on individuals and their interpretations of Ireland. Most were outsiders--a Frenchman: Gustave de Beaumont, two Germans: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and a majority of English commentators: John Stuart Mill, Harriet Martineau, Sir Henry Maine, James Anthony Froude and Matthew Arnold. There is also one Scottish writer, James Macpherson, who if he did not write about Ireland provided, in his largely concocted "translations" from Gaelic manuscripts, a kick-start to the cult of Celticism that was to effect conceptions of Ireland so profoundly. Peter Bowler diverges from this pattern in addressing a range of early anthropologists and sociologists in their approaches to Ceiticism and race. Vincent Comerford provides an able contextualization of the ideological world of the nineteenth century in the Introduction; while Peter Gray draws out some of the themes of the book in an Afterword. The main focus is on the period between the 1830s and the 1880s, what one might characterize as high Victorian.

For these commentators from outside, Ireland represented a significant other. Indeed, for British policymakers throughout the nineteenth century Ireland was a problem, indeed, an embarrassment. With the British economy forging ahead, the living standards of its population gradually rising, a global and growing empire, Ireland, on its doorstep, was perceived as a failure economically and socially, an indictment of British rule, that lesson etched in public opinion through the horrors of the Great Famine. Moreover, towards the end of the century, Irish issues declared themselves to a British public more and more vociferously through parliamentary obstruction, dynamite attacks and widespread press coverage. So a great deal of the commentary on Ireland focused on identifying the roots of its problems and suggesting remedies.

Certain themes span several of the interpretations. One is the influence of Indian experience and models, particularly in the cases of John Stuart Mill, who had worked for the East India Company and Henry Maine, who served for seven years as legal member of the Viceroy's council in India. The influence of Indian experiences on thought about Ireland is not a new theme--it has been examined in relation to such influential policymakers as George Campbell, who with Mill's writing influenced Gladstone's shaping of his 1870 Land Act, and Sir Anthony MacDonnell, who as Under Secretary in Ireland at the turn of the century, brought his experience as an administrator in India to his commitment to Irish reform, among others. It is noteworthy to what extent India, so different from Britain that its otherness could not be overlooked, helped to raise awareness among policymakers that in Ireland too they were dealing with a society divergent from the British, one that needed to be treated accordingly. India also crops up in Chandana Mathur and Dermot Dix's exploration of "The Irish Question in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's Writings on Capitalism and Empire." Here their analysis of Ireland, based on close observation and in Engels's case three visits and an unfinished historical study, is shown to be more successful than their understanding of the "Asiatic" mode of production in India, partly based on Sir Henry Maine's Lectures on the Early History of Institutions.

Another theme of these thinkers is the United States as an example of modem democracy. Gustave de Beaumont, described by Tom Garvin and Andreas Hess as "the father of Irish sociology" and "one of the founders of the sociology of the oppressed," was a lifelong friend and collaborator of Alexis de Tocqueville. Together they traveled to America in 1831-32 and to Ireland in 1833, but while de Tocqueville is famous for his account of Democracy in America, de Beaumont was more interested in the downside of modem democracy, and the plight of the underdog. His work on America focused on the penitentiary system, the dispossession of the Native Americans and the enslavement of black people. His study of Ireland, L'Irlande--sociale, politique et religieuse, first published in 1839 in French and English, has been relatively overlooked (though its recent re-publication with an introduction by Garvin and Hess may help to attract new interest). Martineau, who, like de Beaumont, had written an earlier work on America, at times compared the situation of the Irish poor to that of black slaves. Marx and Engels also admired American democracy, while the liberal elitist Maine was attracted to it, not for its democracy, but for its free market individualism.

There are, as one might expect, profound divergences in the prescriptions for Ireland advocated by these thinkers. De Beaumont, Martineau and Mill are generally sympathetic and optimistic about Ireland. To de Beaumont, Ireland suffered from an arrogant and obscurantist landlordism but once it had thrown this off and been transformed into a land of peasant proprietors it would settle down as part of a British-Irish constitutional democracy. Mill also saw a solution to Ireland's ills through peasant proprietorship, and like de Beaumont, envisaged the Union continuing, indeed he argued strongly for its preservation. Martineau, who visited and Ireland before and after the Famine, her writings providing rare comparisons between the two periods, was also generally optimistic, pinning her faith in improvement on education, economic reform and the overcoming of religious divisions. Mathur and Dix demonstrate evolution in Marx and Engels's analyses of Ireland but in general they saw the country economically in the throes of a transformation into capitalist agriculture in the late nineteenth century, and became convinced of the need for political independence.

More pessimistic voices among the commentators were Maine and Froude. While de Beaumont, Mill and Martineau were liberal thinkers, Maine was conservative and unionist, his Popular Government (1885) described here by O Siochain as "a long discourse on the dangers of what Maine termed 'extreme democracy.'" Alarmed by the land war, he penned some fifty-eight articles in the St James's Gazette in the early 1880s on Irish topics. Perceiving Ireland as an outpost of barbarism and lawlessness, he saw the land movement of Parnell and Davitt as a threat to the British constitution, advocating the defence of large estates and preservation of the Union.

The most contradictory of the writers examined is James Anthony Froude, who perhaps knew Ireland better than most discussed here, having lived there for long periods between the 1840s and 1870s. Ciaran Brady demonstrates that his writing on Ireland was far more complex than his image as a malignant and slanderous, anti-Catholic provocateur. Indeed, Michael Davitt liked to quote carefully chosen passages from Froude where he excoriated British rule in Ireland in judgements such as: "It cannot be said that England deserved to keep a country which it mismanaged so disastrously." Yet, as Brady points out, it was not so much Irish nationalism as Catholicism that worried Froude, and especially as it Was given new vigor in Irish-America. Froude feared the apparently inexorable rise of the United States to challenge Britain's greatness as an empire and hence his emphasis on the need to preserve the Union and maintain the integrity of that empire.

The two final essays in the collection discuss "Race theory and the Irish" and "Celticism: Macpherson, Matthew Arnold and Ireland." In a sense race theory and Celticism are negative and positive approaches to a similar idea--that of race, now generally discredited. Peter J. Bowler, in the former chapter, makes the case that despite the stereotype of the simian "Paddy" beloved of the cartoonists and music halls of the nineteenth century, the physical anthropologists who dreamed up a stages theory of humankind, did not pay much attention to Ireland. They may have shared anti-Irish prejudices but when it came to dividing human societies into more and less "advanced," the white Irish were included in the former category as Europeans.

Peter Gray concludes that of all the ideas reviewed in the book, it was Celticism that cast the longest shadow, even if, as has been shown by recent scholarship, it was largely based on a myth. This is a thought-provoking book and a most useful and informative guide to the range of perceptions of Ireland in the nineteenth century.

--St Patrick's College, Dublin City University
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Title Annotation:Social Thought on Ireland in the Nineteenth Century
Author:King, Carla
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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