Published in Book Reviews, Issue 6 (November/December 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

Reviewed by Conor McNamara
The 1916 Scholar in Residence at NUI Galway.

Conor McNamara is the 1916 Scholar in Residence at NUI Galway.

Galway is a peculiar place—both an urban and a rural county, a congested district and a Gaeltacht region, idealised (and frequently misunderstood) by generations of artists. Accounts of the west frequently fail to engage with the harsh realities of life—or, worse still, romanticise them. This study analyses the disjuncture between impoverished communities in the west and the political priorities of the new Free State and examines the failure of the first Cumann na nGaedheal government to develop long-term responses to the social problems of the west, inherited, though not created, by the new state.
Cumann na nGaedheal’s approach to the enduring poverty of the west, Newell argues, and the failure of the new state to meaningfully address social distress in Galway reflected the priorities of the new political élite. While acknowledging the achievements of Cumann na nGaedheal, Newell outlines the new state’s inability to confront enduring rural poverty. The first Free State government’s failure to see the Irish language as a demonstrable financial asset and the slow and dilatory nature of land redistribution reflected the reality that, for most people in the west, ‘the new state in its early years signified peace if not prosperity, continuity if not change, stability if not creativity’.

The arrangement of Newell’s study reflects the multi-textured nature of her analysis of the period, examined in three contexts: conflict, society and politics. A marked absence of any obvious jubilation greeted the establishment of the Free State in Galway, and the county had the lowest turnout for any contested constituency in the ‘pact election’ of June 1922 in which arch-anti-Treatyite Liam Mellows was ousted from his seat in the county. Republican resistance in Galway during the Civil War was limited, with the anti-Treaty IRA largely confined to Connemara and north Galway. ‘The civil war was an intimate war,’ Newell concludes, ‘it was a bitter war and it was a public war. Trade was disrupted, food supplies were at times limited and some areas became increasingly isolated, but everyday life went on.’

The largest section of the book examines Galway society in terms of land reform, poverty and the Irish language, and crime and morality. The lack of land reform proved a profound disappointment for land-hungry smallholders in the west, with the disproportionately large number of smallholdings remaining as they were owing to the fact that there was simply no land available to meet the extraordinary level of claims. Severe distress in parts of Connemara was witnessed from 1923 to 1925 owing to bad weather and failed harvests. Government responses tended to be short-term, supplementing Church and private relief while failing to address the root causes of poverty. The economic problem of the west, Newell writes, ‘was a problem of brutal facts’—an over-dependence on poor and barren land, the prevalence of uneconomic holdings, the absence of alternative employment and the decline of fishing.

The establishment of the Gaeltacht Commission in 1925 held the promise of potential economic amelioration in Irish-
language districts. In supporting the economic development of the Gaeltacht, the government promoted the idea of stimulating the ‘making of goods by the people of the Gaeltacht for the people of the Gaeltacht’. Such a vision reflected long-standing notions surrounding rural development in Irish politics but proved ineffective in addressing the economic woes of the west, proving to be ‘little more than a sop to the greater problem of land congestion’. ‘Remuneration, as well as patriotism, was needed to rouse the west,’ Newell concludes, ‘and regional expectations exceeded national performance.’

Newell’s study avoids the mistake to which broadly similar works are occasionally prone: analysing politicking and political rhetoric in the absence of a coherent interpretation of the distinct social and cultural factors that shape such priorities. Newell acknowledges the drudgery of life that was the lot of the ordinary poor in the west: ‘for many people in Galway, poverty, not politics, was their primary concern … and the idealisation of the west by cultural nationalists and literary revivalists, and the veritable chorus of comment in praise of the simple life it supposedly represented, contrasted with the reality of everyday life’. In this respect, Galway town is unrecognisable from the modern city, and Robert Lynd described the ‘City of the Tribes’ in 1912 as ‘A town awaiting a blessed resurrection … so hollow of joy and vigour’.

This book builds on the significant emerging genre of local studies of early twentieth-century Ireland but is significant in that the consequences of political change on a local level in the 1920s have not been subject to the intense scrutiny of the revolutionary decade. Newell’s work reinforces the importance of such studies in restoring to the national narrative the intensely local experience of social and political change.

Newell’s study stands alongside John Cunningham’s A town tormented by the sea: Galway, 1780–1914 and Fergus Campbell’s Land and revolution: nationalist politics in the west of Ireland, 1891–1921 in terms of the coherence of her analysis and the framing of political change in the west within its distinct social and cultural milieu. In the west of Ireland in the early years of the new state, as Newell argues, ‘the language of Free State politics—the treaty, the state and the fear of the gunman—differed significantly from the language of local Free State society—land, distress and disappointment’.


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