FOOD RIOTING IN IRELAND IN THE EIGHTEENTH AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES: the moral economy and the Irish crowd

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

By Eoin Dillon

JAMES KELLY, Four Courts Press, €45, ISBN 9791846826399

Eoin Dillin is a scholar of twentieth-century African history.

An extravagant generalisation: predominantly agrarian societies share some basic characteristics. Life is dependent on the vagaries of immediate food production and storage; the technology involved is basic and stable, knowledge accrued is experientially based, and speculation and experiment are avoided. This state of affairs is essentially Malthusian: resources are limited, as is their expansion, so there is a permanent tension between population growth and the resources needed to sustain it. Hunger is never far away, starvation a permanent threat. But who starves and who goes hungry is determined by position in the social hierarchy. Power is the ability to maintain that position. Augmenting production is secondary. Conflict over access to food in the market-place may be seen as a site of class conflict. It involves social and personal strategies deployed worldwide: amidst a torrent of pro-market economic rhetoric, privileged access to the state and its resources still confers a certainty and class privilege denied many. But certain aspects have also abated: changes in food production and communications technology mean that, while hunger is a constant for many people, famine should be largely avoidable, though anyone seeking to remove it from the agenda altogether risks giving a terrible hostage to fortune.

Any notion of conflict implies resistance: the starving poor did not passively submit to their lot—the ultimate acquiescence in a culture of deference—but pursued strategies and tactics of survival that forced concessions from their overlords that asserted their rightful place on earth and their share in its riches. In 1971 the English social historian E.P. Thompson published an article, ‘The moral economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century’, which sought to explore these strategies and tactics under the rubric of ‘moral economy’. In 1991 Thompson defined his usage of the term as being confined to confrontations in the market-place over access to or entitlement to necessities—essential food. Here he found an identifiable bundle of beliefs, usages and forms associated with the marketing of food in time of dearth, as well as associated deep emotions, which imparted a particular moral character to the claims that the crowd made upon the authorities in the face of life-threatening profiteering by those who controlled production and distribution. Thompson needed to clarify his usage, as since he had first circulated the term more widely it had gone on to gather connotations beyond those originally intended: peasant resistance more generally to the encroachment of capitalist economic and social relations had been subsumed within its meaning, most influentially by the American anthropologist James C. Scott.

James Kelly, in this exhaustive study of the scale, distribution and character of food-motivated protest in Ireland from the early eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth, uses the term in the more limited Thompsonian sense, focusing his attention, if not exclusively, on the series of strategies deployed in pursuance of the maintenance of a moral economy by the Irish poor. These included the prevention of the export of food from a given locality; the seizure of food that is then sold at a price determined by the crowd; looting and tumultuous assembly to force price reductions on dealers and local authorities. He is spurred in part by what he sees—albeit one might say in comments that were intended to be suggestive rather than authoritative—as Thompson’s underplaying of food riot as an aspect of Irish history. It would be invidious even to attempt to summarise the evidence marshalled by Professor Kelly, except to say that he proves his point beyond question.

Certain generalisations may, however, be adduced: that while food riot in Ireland is a recurrent feature of the period, it is mostly brought on by the threat of food shortage rather than by actual starvation. This fits with Thompson’s notion of food riot as pre-emptive: a reassertion of an equilibrium that the authorities don’t quite have the power to break but which maintains the popular right to subsistence. Food riot was treated more leniently in Ireland than other forms of disturbance. It effectively ceased to be a weapon of the poor during the Great Famine: threats to withdraw public relief if any disorder occurred were ruthlessly promulgated, and worked. Potential food rioters acquiesced, died or emigrated—victory for the nineteenth-century state, or catastrophic state failure?

Nevertheless, certain omissions in Professor Kelly’s text also need to be noted. The voice of the rioters is hardly to be heard. Thompson’s moral economy was one framed by a paternalism enshrined in a profoundly theological understanding of the bounty of the soil; riots were not ‘rebellions of the belly’ but appealed to a proper notion of price formation and market distribution, backed by state regulation of the grain trade. Crop failures were acts of God; the ensuing profiteering was blasphemy. This is displaced during the long century of enclosure and improvement by the growth of agricultural science, Adam Smith and, perhaps above all, Arthur Young. In Kelly’s text, Irish food riot is reduced to spasmodic episodes, devoid of moral resonance: was there an Irish moral ethnicity as well as moral economy?

And perhaps moral economy is more resilient than we allow: food shortages may be over, but demonstrations over housing and water charges reveal that the Irish crowd still has a strong moral sense that hasn’t been cowed by assertions of the infallibility of a godless economics operating in markets skewed towards a particular class interest.

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