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The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration, and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850-1914.

By Timothy W. Guinnane. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997. Pp. xvii, 335. $49.50.

In many poor countries, the population problem is one of excessive growth. Not so in postfamine Ireland. As the title of Timothy Guinnane's book suggests, the Irish seem to have "vanished." Some departed for the New World or for England. Others were never born, because marriage rates were low, and illegitimacy uncommon. Yet, among those Irish who chose to marry and remain in their homeland, fertility was relatively high. Guinnane takes dead aim at the conventional wisdom that the Irish were simply "exceptional" in their demography. Rather, he insists, Irish demographic behavior can be understood once the incentives to marry and procreate are spelled out, along with the constraints and institutions that circumscribed demographic decisions.

The Vanishing Irish is divided into a preface, introduction, seven chapters, and a conclusion. Chapter 1 sets forth the basic issues to be addressed and the approach taken. That approach differs in its avoidance of Malthusian models, which Guinnane views as unhelpful in the Irish case. Guinnane's method is to think about behavior - when and if to marry; when and if to emigrate; when and if to marry - in standard neoclassical terms so that individuals are at the center of the analysis, not Irish "social norms." Despite the explicitly economic approach, Guinnane is highly sensitive to institutions and culture, so the analysis is always grounded in historical context. The chapter also briefly introduces the novel dataset studied in the book, samples from the Irish manuscript censuses of population of 1901 and 1911.

Chapters 2 and 3 set the stage for the demographic analysis. Chapter 2 focuses on the rural economy. Guinnane reviews agriculture before the famine (including the potato) and postfamine developments such as rising labor productivity and shifts away from grains and potatoes toward livestock production. The structure of the agricultural labor force changed as agricultural laborers "disappeared" while average farm size rose. Guinnane also reviews various features of Irish land tenure (such as the concept of "elastic" rent), land reform (the 1881 Land Act, which Guinnane downplays in importance), and Ireland's allegedly high rate of agrarian violence. Although Ireland industrialized to a limited degree in the 19th century, real wages managed to converge significantly on those in England and the United States, partly due to emigration. Chapter 3 surveys institutional change, focusing on poor law, education, and religion. Guinnane makes the important point that, although Ireland was primarily Catholic, fully a quarter of the Irish were not, and Irish Catholics did not always follow the Church's teachings on matters of faith and morals.

Chapter 4 examines demographic behavior before and after the famine. Before the famine, Ireland had relatively high birth rates by European standards, primarily because marital fertility was high. After the famine, population declined dramatically; by 1911 the Irish population stood at 4.1 million, compared with 8.2 million in 1841. Yet the famine's direct, long-run impact on population was evidently small. Population decline in late nineteenth century Ireland occurred because the proportion never married approximately doubled (for both sexes), marital fertility fell slightly, and emigration rates remained high. Guinnane sketches the influential, Malthusian argument of Kenneth Connell of why Irish celibacy rates rose so dramatically after the famine. According to Connell, the spread of the so-called "Match" accounted for both high rates of celibacy and emigration in postfamine Ireland. In a "Match," a single son was heir to the family farm, and upon marriage he brought his wife into the house. His siblings could remain at home as long as they remained single, but if they married, they had to leave - hence, the "peculiar" Irish pattern. The chapter also reviews the relatively limited research on Irish mortality, focusing on tuberculosis, an especially serious killer in Ireland even when death rates from the disease had begun to fall in England, and the similarity of male and female life expectancies at the turn of the century, by which time women could expect to live longer than men in most European countries.

Chapter 5 is devoted to household structure, in particular, Connell's view that so-called "stem" families became more prevalent after the famine due to an increase in primogeniture. Using the samples from the 1901 and 1911 manuscript censuses, Guinnane shows that Irish household structure did not fit into the neat design required by the model. Closer study of inheritance practices suggests that property division was more equal, as well. A farm was not necessarily the prize it appeared to be, because the heir may have waited for a long time, postponing higher earnings, and he would have incurred obligations to the surviving parents and possibly unmarried siblings remaining in Ireland.

Chapter 6 uses the manuscript samples to study the age at leaving home. Results from two estimations, a waiting time model and a probit, are reported. Males were less likely to leave home than females, primarily because of the peculiarities of the inheritance system. Otherwise, local labor market opportunities, household structure, the gender composition of the children, and the head's occupation influenced when a child departed. Chapter 7 confronts the rise of permanent celibacy in the late nineteenth century. Guinnane rejects convoluted Malthusian explanations (such as Connell's) as well as explanations emphasizing sexual psychosis (that is, a desire to remain apart from members of the opposite sex, possibly induced by early religious experience). Rather, he suggests several basic factors influencing the incentives to marry for both sexes. Land reform made property rights more secure for young males, increasing the likelihood that they would remain in Ireland (rather than emigrate). Guinnane shows that many who did wait became wealthy unmarried farmers. Poor law reform reduced the value of marriage as old age security, as did increased access to financial institutions. Finally, agricultural crises in the 1870s and 1880s led to reduced marriage rates for specific cohorts. Chapter 8 focuses on marital fertility, demonstrating that, contrary to much received wisdom, Ireland did experience a fertility transition, albeit modest, and Irish couples did attempt to control their fertility. The conclusion summarizes the basic arguments and provides a glimpse at subsequent demographic developments.

The Vanishing Irish has many virtues. The book is extremely well written and displays not only an easy command of the relevant demographic and economic history literature but also religious history and Irish literature. The comparative approach certainly dispels excessive notions of Irish demographic uniqueness, although this contribution is arguably more relevant to the general reader than the specialist. Guinnane is right to criticize Malthusian models and emphasize individual demographic behavior, but I suspect that true believers will focus on his (and others') data that (as he candidly points out) are not always best suited for the study of long-term demographic change (being essentially cross sectional). But these are minor quibbles. The Vanishing Irish is a most impressive monograph, and it deserves the attention of all scholars interested in demographic transitions, past or present.

Robert A. Margo Vanderbilt University and NBER
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Author:Margo, Robert A.
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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