Ireland in the world order: a history of uneven development

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2012), Reviews, Volume 20

Ireland in the world order:a history of uneven development Maurice Coakley (Pluto Press, £17.50) ISBN 9780745331256

Ireland in the world order:
a history of uneven development
Maurice Coakley
(Pluto Press, £17.50)
ISBN 9780745331256

At first glance, judging by the title, I thought this was a book in the Michael Richter mode, treating Irish history in a wide international spectrum. But it turns out that the world framework in question is for the most part Scotland, Wales and England from the twelfth century onward. In the latter part of the book, however, Wales has disappeared from the scene and there is selective reference to more distant countries and to the North Atlantic area generally. The book ends with both a general summary of its arguments and a consideration of Ireland in the present ‘world order in disarray’. The ‘development’ referred to in the subtitle is mainly economic, but with attention to attendant social, religious, cultural and political factors, as well as to the formation of nations and of centralised states.


The author seems to have read—and he quotes from—an immense range of books on general and specific themes. Dip into this work at any point and you will find yourself reading a fascinating account of the socio-economics and culture of Ireland or of some other country or region in some period or other of the last 800 years. Coakley writes very clearly, but because he mentions several—sometimes many—aspects of the many matters he deals with, the text is dense.


In the nine pages devoted to medieval Irish Gaelic society we learn that in a pastoral society the facility to accumulate cattle is accompanied by the facility to seize the wealth of a vulnerable party and the ability to escape from domination by moving from one chief’s territory to another’s. The clan chiefs of Gaelic Scotland maintained connections in the Lowlands and in Edinburgh. The Reformation, by its emphasis on Bible-reading, increased literacy, thereby giving those who converted a practical advantage over those who did not. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Anglo-Irish landlords failed to introduce capitalist agriculture—a facilitator elsewhere of urban industrialisation—because they did not manage to achieve an accepted leadership role vis-à-vis their tenants, as the landlords did in Scotland and northern England. In Bengal, the East India Company’s introduction of individual land ownership was not quite as disruptive as that same measure had been in Ireland because the older stratum of tribute collectors, the zamindars, became a landowning class.


All those are more or less relevant facts. The summary of the book’s arguments at the end does not compensate, however, for the repeated absence of a clear main argument every few pages, as the book proceeds through torrents of facts, moving from one country to another. I found myself repeatedly exclaiming, ‘But your main argument here?’ I found myself imagining a better-organised and probably shorter book. It would have three sections dealing respectively with Ireland from 1200 to, say, 1650; then from 1650 to 1922; and finally from independence to the present. The first two sections would be headed ‘Four reasons why Ireland in this period was comparatively undeveloped, accompanied in each case by illustrative comparisons from elsewhere’. And the third section would be headed ‘Has Ireland achieved adequate development since independence?’


The chapters dealing with Ireland since independence are lucid and—up to a point—insightful. That limiting point is represented jointly, if variously, by the late Dr Raymond Crotty’s argument in Ireland in crisis: a study in capitalist colonial undevelopment that a nation disrupted by capitalist colonialism must remain permanently ‘undeveloped’; the psychiatrist Dr Garret O’Connor’s writings on the continuing impact on the collective Irish psyche of a historically induced ‘malignant shame’; and the statements of Pearse and Connolly to the effect that the Easter Rising was directed as much against the Irish ‘slave soul’ as it was against British rule in Ireland.


Maurice Coakley says nothing about the collective psychology underlying the very low degree of economic enterprise in Ireland since independence—quite shocking when compared with, say, the amount of enterprise which in Norway, after independence in 1905, made that poor country securely one of the most prosperous in the world. Consequently, in his citing of foreign places and peoples for comparison with Ireland, he does not mention Hong Kong and what poor, but uncolonised, Chinese made of that barren island.


This omission of consideration of the psychological effect of long colonisation leaves a question mark hovering over the book’s treatment of Ireland since independence.  HI


Desmond Fennell’s latest book is Third stroke did it: the staggered end of European civilisation (PubliBook Ireland).


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