Graziers, Land Reform and Political Conflict in Ireland David S. Jones (Catholic University of America Press, £40.50)

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 1996), Reviews, Volume 4

In 1978 David Seth Jones completed his PhD, ‘Agrarian capitalism and rural social development in Ireland’, at Queen’s University, Belfast. Since then every serious scholar of modern Ireland has been in his debt. At times a slightly dry work—partly because so much of the evidence is drawn from official enquiries and reports—Jones’ thesis, nonetheless, stated clearly an analysis of the development of capitalism in agriculture in Ireland which recalled V.I. Lenin’s famous study of the same subject in Russia. Jones states his starting point with some clarity in the preface:

Contrary to the popular image of rural Ireland as predominantly inhabited by small farmers, certain areas, especially in North and East Leinster, have been for generations almost devoid of a peasant community, being chiefly populated by extensive graziers. Although in most areas they were much less numerous than the peasant population, graziers over the years have been a cornerstone of the Irish cattle and sheep industry and thus a vital force in the agricultural economy. Their importance grew as Ireland shifted from a tillage-based to a pasture-based economy during the nineteenth century. In spite of this, they have not been the subject of intensive study.

He is quite right, of course, ‘bullockdom’ is there all right, indeed, it has provided us with the current Taoiseach but, somehow, we prefer to concentrate on that other historical image, the Ireland of small farmers. Gladstone’s speeches and diary entries in 1877 are permeated by the notion that this was the ‘real’ Ireland not the ranch lands, still less, the industrial centres of the Protestant north. There is a remarkable willingness to accept that for Ireland the normal or ‘English’ path of the development of capitalism is suspended, and that the way forward lies in the multiplication of small agricultural properties. This can only have been a green light to the Land League movement. This book is a decisive corrective to once over-simplified notions. The growth of ranch farming and the broad development of the land market in Ireland is laid out with great precision in the first half. The second half is taken up with the ‘social characteristics and political impact of the graziers’, in short, the role of the rural bourgeoisie from the land war of the 1880s to the foundation of the Irish state. Since Jones finished his PhD a number of writers have dealt with this topic—including Sam Clark, Jim Donnelly and the current reviewer.
Jones is very careful to bring his work up to date by integrating these, and other new works, into his text. Perhaps surprisingly, however, he has not made attempted to resolve the debate concerning the one element of his original thesis which provoked some doubt. This concerns his interpretation of the ranch war of 1906-1910 as a function of the isolation of the graziers from the rest of the rural community. Some scholars suspect that Jones—perhaps because of over reliance on certain key texts such as the diaries of the grazier Valentine McDonnell—has exaggerated the degree of that isolation. In particular, it is a remarkable fact that many of the leaders of the ranch war had strong ranching connections themselves; thus, despite its populist rhetoric, Irish nationalism lived by a very visible double standard in this respect.
The Ireland—a strangely hidden Ireland—that Jones evokes is a world of capitalistic calculation and lack of sentiment. Yet many are attracted to Ireland precisely in so far as they believe it to have escaped such harshness. For that reason, this book will never become a paperback best-seller but for all that, it is clear that we cannot understand the culture of modern Ireland without it. Everyone who values solid research will be delighted to see David Jones’ book in the shops at last.

Paul Bew


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