Luxury and Austerity: Historical Studies XXI, Jacqueline Hill and Colm Lennon (eds.). (University College Dublin Press, £30) ISBN 1900621223

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2000), Reviews, Volume 8

This volume in the Historical Studies series is a collection of thirteen papers from the twenty-third Conference of Historians held in Maynooth in May 1997. The choice of the theme of ‘Luxury and Austerity’ was inspired by the much-vaunted ‘Celtic Tiger’ phenomenon, but the themes covered by these papers stray beyond the concepts of the title, to encompass topics such as necessity, poverty, plenty, philanthropy, generosity and hospitality. Twelve high quality colour plates add a luxurious touch to the volume, though some of them are inadequately signposted by the text.
Christopher Berry’s opening contribution sets the scene with a discussion of the elusive idea of ‘luxury’. Through special reference to the writings of David Hume, Berry traces the shift from a pre-modern value-laden contrast between pernicious ‘luxury’ and virtuous ‘austerity’, to the modern, more value-neutral, pairing of ‘luxury’ and necessity’.
Colman Etchingham’s paper on ‘The ideal of monastic austerity in early Ireland’ deals with the concept of austerity and its application both within monastic communities among a wider group of pious lay people between the seventh and ninth centuries. This is merely a taster of the author’s broader work on the area of Irish monasticism in this period, and is a concise summary and critique of the historiography of the matter.
Felicity Heal traces the development of thought regarding the concepts of liberality, charity, generosity, patronage and benevolence in early modern England. This lively paper succeeds in throwing light on many aspects of social, religious and political life during the period in question, neatly demonstrating the extent to which the giving and receiving of benefits permeated society and underpinned human relationships and hierarchical structures. Colm Lennon also tackles the topics of generosity and charity in the early modern period, taking as his focus the response of wealthy sixteenth-century Irish townsmen and of the corporations to the problem of the urban poor. He discusses the attempts to fill the gap left by the dissolution of the monasteries and the increased control exercised by the municipalities over mendicancy, especially during times of crisis. Private initiatives in the foundation of charitable institutions such as hospitals and almshouses are also dealt with, and it might be suggested that further study of these institutions would throw light on the progress of the Counter-Reformation in sixteenth and seventeenth century Ireland.
Toby Barnard, in an essay which discusses ‘Public and private uses of wealth in Ireland’ between 1660 and 1760, seeks to reconsider the stereotyped view of the extravagance of the Protestant elites in Ireland. Barnard draws attention to various issues, such as spending amongst the lower classes, the restraint imposed by the penal laws on the overt exhibitions of wealth by better-off Catholics, the preoccupation of Protestants with fitting themselves into the appropriate level of society through the expedient of public display and the difficulties which many faced in adapting to the consumerism of the eighteenth century. It is to be hoped that an extended version of this thesis will soon appear. Leslie Clarkson likewise concentrates on the gentry classes, tracing the variety, amount and origins of foodstuffs likely to be consumed by them during the eighteenth century. His paper is underpinned by the suggestion that the provision and preparation of all types of food meant that the gentry played an important role in the Irish economy. The eighteenth century is also largely the backdrop to Brenda Collins’ paper on another commodity—Irish linen. She describes and explains the massive expansion of the linen industry up to 1820, demonstrating how the increasingly sophisticated requirements of fashionable customers was a strong influence on this trend.
Three of the essays have at their core the Great Famine. Laurence Geary looks at the ways in which poverty was relieved in the early nineteenth century, concentrating in particular on those people forced into begging as a result of their destitution. He succeeds in drawing a comprehensive picture of the social profile and circumstances of those who subsisted by begging either permanently or at intervals, and of the varying responses of private individuals, charities and the government to the situation. Tim O’Neill takes the charities as his theme, tracing the background to charitable intervention in the relief of the starving in the early nineteenth century, and assessing their role during the 1840s within the context of other forms of relief. David Miller’s paper on the ways in which Irish Presbyterians reacted to, experienced and perceived the Famine is an intriguing piece, though more localised (to Ulster) than the title would suggest.
John Maiben Gilmartin’s case-study of the patronage of the Kilcornan convent of the Sisters of Charity by the Galway landholding Roman Catholic Redington family contrasts the richness of the furniture, statuary, paintings and plate of the convent chapel with the austerity practised by the nuns themselves. The recent sad fate of the chapel contents, the convent, and of Kilcornan House itself (which has become a hotel), are a telling indication of the damage which can be caused in the pursuit of economic prosperity.
Asa Briggs’ contribution returns to the theme of poverty in both England and Ireland with a discussion of Victorian awareness of a contrast between ‘poverty and plenty’, as evinced in debates that accompanied the rise of industrialisation. This paper also touches on some of the available primary and secondary sources on the topic.
The volume ends in the twentieth century with Caitriona Clear’s examination of the lives of Irish ‘women of the house’ between 1921 and 1961. Personal testimony collected by the author reveals an idealised picture of the work of Irish women, in which their austere and hardworking lives were construed by the informants as being positively saintly. However, luxury also comes into the equation, with references to the importance in women’s lives of ‘a bit of style’, exemplified by the growing interest in ‘the cult of appearance’.
Many of the papers in this collection have resonance in the context of contemporary Ireland’s ‘tiger economy’. We are reminded of the recent genesis of Irish economic success, of luxurious living for some in times of hardship for many, of poverty and its relief, as well as of the costs of prosperity. The editors must be congratulated for pursuing the luxury and austerity theme so effectively, and for the quality of the papers to which it has given rise. It represents a significant contribution to Irish and British social, economic and cultural history.

Clodagh Tait


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568