Land, Politics and Nationalism: a study of the Irish Land Question Philip Bull (Gill and Macmillan, £14.99) ISBN 0-7171-2191-7

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 1997), Reviews, Volume 5

Over the past quarter century the Irish land question has been the subject of a barrage of historical inquiry. Traditional nationalist interpretations have been deconstructed and inverted, the class composition and objectives of agrarian movements dissected, and the triangular political relationships between these organisations, landowners and the British government examined in depth. Building on this foundation of monographs and journal articles, Philip Bull has set out to produce, for the first time since the 1930s, a comprehensive overview of the politics of Irish land in the nineteenth century. This is an ambitious undertaking, combining as it does a synthesis of the  extensive recent literature, detailed primary research (particularly on the United Irish League’s activities in 1898-1903), and an extended interpretative analysis. Both the great strength and the flaws of this book arise from the particular weighting Bull gives to the last of these elements. This is very much a general thesis on the relationship between land and politics, and as such invites a critical reaction.
Bull’s argument is vigorously and coherently expressed. Opportunities for landlord-tenant co-operation in agricultural improvement were, he argues, squandered in mid-century as both the Anglo-Irish landowners and the British state rejected proposals for legal recognition of indigenous perceptions of property rights. By the time British Liberal ministers began to grasp, reluctantly, the necessity of such intervention, a pattern of relationships had emerged that fused land agitation with nationalism, in which the former increasingly became a metaphor for the latter. The agrarian conflicts that erupted as a consequence of the deferment of reform, although triggered by adverse economic conditions, owed their potential for collective mobilisation to the success of nationalist discourse in polarising Catholic rural society against the landlords as a political and cultural ‘other’. So strong had this nexus become over the century that when effective land purchase legislation was finally passed in 1903, essentially ‘solving’ the land question for the majority of tenants, the pattern of polarisation proved impossible to break. The historical window of opportunity opened by the conciliatory land conference of 1902-3 was promptly shut as a result of the limitations of nationalist imagination. The legacy of this failure, Bull concludes, was the perception into the twentieth century of an agrarian culture resistant to agricultural innovation, and the smothering of pluralism by the establishment of the anti-landlord tradition (with its vibrant sectarian and ethnic overtones) in the political culture of independent Ireland.
Some of the problems of Bull’s thesis arise from the very single-mindedness of his argument. To shoehorn the multifaceted complexity of the land question into a streamlined analysis, he has in places resorted to an over-schematic approach. This stress on clarity at the expense of complexity is perhaps most evident in the early chapters of the book. Bull rightly identifies the emergence of the ‘land question’ as a specific political phenomenon in the 1840s, but his attempts to trace a series of dichotomies from that period are problematic. The first lies in his identification of the three founders of the tenant claim to a perpetuity on their holdings—William Conner, James Fintan Lalor and J.S. Mill—juxtaposed with a false prophet—Sharman Crawford, the populariser of the doctrine of ‘tenant right’. This overstates the differences between Crawford and Conner (Crawford explicitly committed himself in 1843 to a ‘fair rent’ set by valuation as essential to the tenant’s ‘practical fixity’, and was followed in this by James McKnight, the leader of the Ulster agrarian agitation of the 1840s), and underestimates the differences between Conner and Lalor (dramatised in the physical confrontation between their respective acolytes at Holycross, County Tipperary, in 1847). In relying so heavily on Collison Black’s classic work on economic thought and the Irish question for this section, Bull fails to provide sufficient political ‘weighting’ for his subjects; so while Conner, a marginal figure politically, little known beyond the south midlands, receives excessive attention, the introduction of agrarian issues into the platform of the Repeal Association from 1843, and the adherence of many junior clergy to the land struggle during the Famine years, go unmentioned.
The tendency to excessive dichotomising is also evident in the attempt to create a sharp divide between rural Ireland and Britain as the site of the ‘triumph of laissez-faire’. British historians of the period have learned to adopt a more nuanced attitude towards laissez-faire in thought and governing practice, and as the Tory political campaigns in the 1840s for official recognition of Lincolnshire ‘tenant-right’ and for the revival of agricultural protection remind us, there was no unanimity on applying the principle to English agrarian life. At the other end of the political spectrum, J.S. Mill was not an isolated voice, but part of an intellectual nexus advocating heterodox solutions to agrarian problems, and attracted the attention of some in the political elite in the 1840s. Bull is correct to see the 1849 Encumbered Estates Act as embodying the temporary victory of ‘free trade in land’, but needs to make greater allowance for the ideological contest over land that raged in the 1840s and which provided the context for the ‘transformation’ of governing attitudes in the later 1860s.
A more serious reservation arises in relation to the book’s engagement with the existing scholarly literature on the land question. Bull’s discussion of the work of W.E. Vaughan, Paul Bew, James Donnelly and others is imaginative and stimulating, but the partiality of his selection is striking. There is a total absence of any discussion here of the recent economic challenge to the Vaughan-Solow orthodoxy on rents, prices and economic performance. One looks in vain for any mention of the work of Cormac Ó Gráda, Michael Turner or Peter Solar, questioning the view that tenant farmers were the main beneficiaries of agricultural price rises in the middle decades of the century. This controversy has major implications for, amongst other things, the debate on the origins of the Land War, yet the only suggestion that such an alternative reading might exist is a brief end note reference to the flagging of the issue in Theo Hoppen’s 1989 survey text. The question is not whether the Vaughan-Solow thesis is correct, but whether a book which fails to engage with one of the liveliest areas of current debate on the land question can be considered truly comprehensive.
The treatment of Ulster gives rise to further concerns. The leading role of the north in the Tenant League agitation of the 1850s is acknowledged, but Bull’s focus is on the three other provinces and Ulster is regarded as a marginal aberration to the general pattern. It is unfortunate that Bull does not examine the Land War in the shatter-zone of Ulster as a central element of his thesis, and the reader must turn instead to the late Frank Wright’s excellent Two lands on one soil for a nuanced analysis of the land question in nineteenth-century Ulster.
Notwithstanding these reservations, the ‘Bull thesis’ will unquestionably become a pivotal part of the debate on Irish land and its relationship with nationalism. This important and original study raises fundamental questions about the nature of the British-Irish relationship, the political culture of Catholic Ireland, and the role of political leadership in ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics.

Peter Gray


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