Old World colony: Cork and South Munster 1630–1830

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Early Modern History Social Perspectives, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2005), Reviews, Volume 13

Old World colony Cork and South Munster 1630–1830 1Old World colony: Cork and South Munster 1630–1830
David Dickson
Cork University Press, E49 h/b, E29.95p/b
ISBN 1859183557
Historians of eighteenth-century Ireland have waited a long time for the appearance of this book, a revised and expanded version of a pioneering and much-cited PhD thesis passed by its examiners nearly 30 years ago. Though prolonged, the period of waiting has certainly been worthwhile. In over 700 closely printed pages of text, adorned with 100 illustrations, twenty statistical tables and ten maps, we are presented with a comprehensive and utterly authoritative account of the economic development of one of the most distinctive and important parts of early modern Ireland, an area comprising counties Cork, Kerry, south Limerick and west Waterford, which the author terms ‘South Munster’. The region took its identity partly from dynastic and political interests—first the Desmond Fitzgeralds, then the Boyles—and partly from the development of Cork as its provincial capital and economic centre, and the chronological span of the book takes us from the plantations of the early seventeenth century (hence the title) through to the world of O’Connell and the rising Catholic middle classes, whose activities gave early nineteenth-century Munster politics their particular flavour.
This exercise in writing the history of a region of Ireland over the longue durée clearly takes its inspiration, as the author acknowledges, from the example of French historians of the Annales school. Professor Dickson takes the geography of South Munster as his starting point, and builds from these foundations an impressive and convincing account of agricultural, commercial and industrial development, on which stands the superstructure of social—and, to a lesser extent, political—analysis. The arrangement of chapters is essentially topical, as the author surveys landholding, agricultural production, trade and commerce, but there is also a clear narrative thrust. Having begun in the era of ‘New English’ hegemony, more particularly the period in which the dominant (even if not the only) magnate interest was that of the so-called ‘Great Earl’ of Cork, Richard Boyle, Professor Dickson traces the upheavals of the 1640s and ’50s, and the emergence of Cork’s son, Lord Broghill, later earl of Orrery, at the head of the Munster Protestants, through to the politically more diffuse Protestant ascendancy of the first half of the eighteenth century. The period is broken around 1770, and the second half of the book, entitled (a trifle tendentiously) ‘Reckoning’, traces the transformation of Munster society as the security of Protestant landlord control broke down. In this changing balance of the distribution of economic and political power, the 1790s appear as the pivotal decade. Indeed, once the 1798 Rebellion has taken place we move quite quickly towards the conclusion, and the final 30 years of the period get relatively short shrift.
What is really striking about the book is the way the scale of the author’s ambition—the breadth of the canvas, so to speak—is matched by an extraordinary attention to detail. This is a grand picture, which does not become blurred on closer inspection. Professor Dickson has mastered every aspect of his subject, from soil types and methods of cultivation to the various processes involved in turning Munster’s agricultural produce into valuable retail commodities, the intricacies of land tenure and the practices of landownership, and the ramifications of family relationships and often obscure kinship networks. He has also based himself on a truly heroic range of primary sources. Historians studying eighteenth-century County Cork may well be more fortunate than their counterparts elsewhere in being able to utilise a number of significant collections of estate and political papers, notably those of the Boyle, Brodrick, Egmont and Southwell families, but Professor Dickson’s research goes far beyond these more obvious sources. There can be few, if any, relevant archives in Ireland, Britain or America that he has not scoured, and, unlike some other recent works on the period, he does his readers the valuable service of listing the manuscript sources consulted in an extensive bibliography.
The story that Professor Dickson has to tell is one of economic and social transformation, or rather transformations. Over two centuries he traces the decline of the great plantation interests of the early seventeenth century, through a combination of mismanagement, absenteeism and dynastic accidents. Great estates crumble and fragment, and new social classes arise. In the late seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth it is the smaller Protestant landed proprietors who increase their holdings at the expense of the declining aristocracy. Resident gentry supplant absentee magnates. In essence this represents a consolidation of the Protestant landowning élite and, superficially at least, a growing sense of stability, manifested in the building of country houses and urban or suburban villas, the planning and construction of demesnes, and the importation into south Munster of luxury goods and metropolitan fashions—a story that fits well with Toby Barnard’s recent explorations of the material culture of Protestant Ireland (much of the evidence for which is taken from Munster). But as this Protestant ‘squirearchy’ reaches its apogee in mid-century, a further transformation is under way. The growing agricultural and commercial prosperity of Cork and its economic hinterland is producing a new class of wealthy Catholics. In the countryside middlemen are being replaced by prosperous tenant farmers, while in the towns we can discern the appearance of wealthy Catholic merchants and professional men. Soon local Catholics are beginning a process of re-entry into public life, and the effect, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, is to destabilise the settled society of the Protestant gentry. Political opinion becomes polarised; sectarianism—which had never gone away—becomes more clearly visible; and the stage is set for the violence and disruption that the French Revolutionaries and their local imitators brought to anciens régimes across Europe.
This is not only a convincing account of a particular region, successfully integrating economic, social and political developments into a coherent narrative; it has a far wider importance. While not wishing to underplay the distinctiveness of South Munster, or the varied nature of the Irish economy in this period, it is surely possible to extrapolate from this geographically focused study some more general conclusions about the nature of eighteenth-century Ireland and the historical trajectory that produced crisis and conflict at the end of a century of apparent calm. Some of the more important conclusions of the book, relating to the consolidation of the gentry class in the first half of the century and the effects of economic growth in the second half, once fully absorbed into the historiography, will surely have a profound effect on more general debates: whether, for example, eighteenth-century Ireland is more usefully described as a ‘colony’ or as a typical ‘ancien régime’ state, and on the extent and pace of the politicisation of the Catholic community.
In most cases, Professor Dickson himself addresses these debates obliquely rather than directly. His choice of title might lead the reader to expect a firmly ‘colonial’ rather than revisionist approach. However, the writing itself tends to straddle the fence between the two interpretations—whether eighteenth-century Ireland is better described as a colony or as an ancien régime state—or perhaps to occupy a middle ground between them. Here the reader can sympathise with an author who may find his own evidence and conclusions too complex to fit into categories that elsewhere are sometimes crudely conceived and simplistically presented. Nonetheless, one is left with a regret that Professor Dickson has not stated explicitly where he stands on this issue, and in particular that he has not responded expressly to some of the more challenging interpretive concepts presented in S.J. Connolly’s Religion, law and power: the making of Protestant Ireland 1660–1760 (1992), which offers an account of Ireland in the first half of the century that is in some respects complementary and in other respects at odds with the evidence from South Munster.
In part, what can appear as a hesitancy to engage directly with historiographical controversies is really a reflection of the careful scholarship of the book. Leaving the ‘colonial’ question aside, there are few avenues that Professor Dickson leaves unexplored, and the overall effect of the book is both judicious and convincing. Nor, it must be said, is he always reluctant to lock horns with other historians and to expose arguments that in his view misconstrue the evidence. This reviewer had less patience than others may have had with his willingness to tolerate some of the excesses of the recent Jacobite tendency in eighteenth-century Irish historiography, but was cheered by the skilful debunking of the modern myths surrounding the execution of the young Sir James Cotter in 1720 (a trail pioneered by Neal Garnham in an article in Irish Historical Studies and followed through here).
Inevitably in a book of this size and scope, a pernickety critic will find things to complain about. There are the inevitable slips in proofreading, of course, but so few as to point up the commendable accuracy of the presentation in general. There are, also inevitably, quirks of style that sometimes intrude, an occasional penchant for the modern language of university managerialism, for example (my list includes ‘sourced’, ‘best practice’ and one instance of the dreaded ‘stakeholders’). But again these rare examples only highlight the overall clarity and elegance of the prose, even when the author is dealing with abstruse and technical aspects of land law, agricultural techniques or industrial processes. On the other hand, there are some more serious regrets. The wealth of illustrations—itself a work of considerable research—is somewhat undermined by the quality of reproduction. Many are simply too small, and in some cases, where print is involved, they can be quite difficult to read. It is also observable that the lengthy period of the book’s gestation and production has resulted in the omission from notes and bibliography of some more recent works. Perhaps the most significant, apart from Neal Garnham’s account of the Cotter episode, come in the earliest chapters, where Patrick Little’s studies of the Boyles and their political and dynastic strategies, culminating in his recent biography of Lord Broghill, have added considerably to our understanding of events in Munster in the first decades of Professor Dickson’s period.
None of these minor criticisms should detract from what is by every conceivable standard a major achievement. Professor Dickson has written a model regional study, in which the integration of economic, social and political analysis represents historical writing of a very high order, an example that could be profitably emulated for other, very different, regions in early modern Ireland. He has also given us an account of the eighteenth century that, once its conclusions have been properly absorbed by historians, will offer the possibility of reconciling and developing existing interpretations of Irish society in this period. Above all, he has done so by practising the traditional historical virtues—painstaking (not to say exhaustive) research, careful and scholarly analysis, and clear and graceful writing. One could hardly ask for more, or begrudge the time of waiting for this genuinely magnum opus to appear.
David Hayton


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