Historical Background of Ireland and Its Impact on the Development of the Country

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An analysis of the spectacular growth that Ireland had in the last few decades would not be complete enough without a comparison with the economic performance that the island had prior to this economic miracle. The close historical ties between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, with their shared legal tradition, common language and general close cultural ties, also gives space to considerations about why the Republic of Ireland was eventually able to outperform Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Indeed, it curious to notice that whereas nowadays Dublin can show-off the lavish buildings owned by the multinational corporations, just a century ago the slums in Dublin were considered to be “the worst slums in Europe” (Murphy, 1984). It would be however wrong to think that the situation in Dublin depicted the economic situation of the whole island. Like Italy with its Triangolo Industriale or Germany with the Ruhr-valley, also Ireland had a region where heavy industries were heavily concentrated: protestant East Ulster, centred around Belfast, has been for long regarded as the Irish industrial powerhouse (Ó Gráda, 1993). Whereas Ulster could boast a developed linen-industry and a notable ship-building sector, the industries in the south were mostly related to the food and brewing industries.

The regional disparity between what is now called “Northern Ireland” and the rest of the island was so evident that it eventually led the newly established Irish Free State to be “virtually without industries” if we exclude the food and beverages industries. (Ó Gráda, 1994). It is must be therefore noticed that the structural economic differences between the six counties and the rest of the island predated the partition, and considerations about the economic policy that was to be followed was an important part of the rhetoric of both parties during the public debate about the secession of Ireland (Bradley, 1999). Whereas nationalists were prone to support a more protectionist policy to protect Irish companies from international competitors, unionists favoured a more liberalist approach (McLaughlin, 2015).

Whether the main drive of unionism were the economic concerns or some genuine British nationalist sentiments, may be hard to ascertain due to the positive correlation between social class and British ancestry in Ireland; however, the huge economic interests that some Anglo-Irish families had in a tight relationship with Great Britain makes it hard to believe that the economic aspect of the issue was not of relevant importance. In 1886 the Guinness family sold shares of the company on the London Stock Exchange and eventually moved the headquarters in London in 1932. Jacob’s, a biscuits producer, had a branch in Liverpool that became an independent company after the partition of Ireland.

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The massive influence that British families had on the Irish economy were effectively synthesised in a popular quote of James Connolly, an Irish republican and socialist leader: The greater development of the protestant-dominant regions may have been, however, just an indirect effect of the policies of Westminster, and not necessarily the intended outcome. Indeed, until the nineteenth century the Irish industrial sector was quite developed for European standards, lagging only behind Great Britain itself (O’ Malley, 1981). 
According to the 1841 census, one-fourth of the Irish population was employed in manufacturing (Larcom 1843). However, the south was already showing signs of decline. This could be due to the Act of union with Great Britain (1801), that exposed Irish companies to the competition of British companies. Other explanations may include, more simply, the tendency for the industrial sector to concentrate in a certain region due to economies of scale (O’ Malley, 1981), consequent of the progressive mechanisation of the productive process.

Various explanations have been given to the greater economic success of Ulster before the emergence of the so-called Celtic Tiger. Some theories emphasised the importance of the Reformation: it is indeed a fact that protestant Northern Europe has been historically more industrialised compared to catholic Southern Europe, and a parallel with Ireland was quite easy to formulate. This position was also held by important sociologists such as Max Weber, who analysed the issue in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”, published in 1905. In Ulster, the very nature of the Scottish settlers that immigrated from Scotland to gain a profit, must be at least a part of the explanation. Even the urban planning of Belfast, drastically different from that of Cork or Dublin, reflects the influence that landlords and their entrepreneurial drive had on the development of the city.

This perspective, which tended to have discriminatory undertones in Ireland, cannot however explain the whole picture, considering the subsequent outperformance of catholic regions like Bavaria and the Republic of Ireland compared to their protestant counterparts. Nonetheless, an indirect effect of protestant culture, through the influence that this may have had in the public policy pursued by the governments of mainly protestant countries, cannot be excluded tout-court. In fact, the convergence between the growth trends of protestant and catholic Europe seems to have happened after the establishment of the single market and the consequent policy convergence among Western European countries (Young, 2009). Yet, differences in policies would be an unlikely explanation for the north-south divide in Ireland prior to the partition, since the unity of East Ulster with the rest of the island can be traced as back as the 14th century. It is therefore not surprising that the republican forces had a diametrically opposing view on the issue.

Most Irish separatists viewed the higher social standing of Anglo-Irish people and the greater economic development of the protestant counties as a direct consequence of anti-catholic discrimination by the British government. It is practically sure that some kind of discrimination did happen: the Trinity College, established in 1592, did non accept catholic students for the first two centuries of its existence, and until 1873 limited scholarships and professorships to protestants; the infamous “Penal laws” were an explicit attempt by the English ruling class to promote the spread of Anglicanism, and included the ban of catholics from holding public offices and the transfer of catholic churches to the Church of Ireland. It is curious to notice that the two cathedrals of Dublin, Christchurch and Saint Patrick’s, are still affiliated with the Church of Ireland as of today, despite the local catholic majority.

The discussion should therefore be based not on whether anti-catholic discrimination was present or not, but rather on whether this discrimination is to be interpreted as racist anti-Irish measures or if it were a simple method to ostracise the citizens that were likely to have republican sympathies. At least during the decades right before the partition, it was certainly true that catholicism and the usage of the Irish language were positively correlated with Irish nationalism.

The position that one takes regarding these discriminatory policies also has implications on what view one holds about one of the the most studied events in Irish history: the Great Famine. As a direct consequence of the Great Famine the population fell from 8.4 million in 1844 to 6.6 million in 1851, about half by death and the other half by emigration. This did not however affect the island uniformly; Ulster, and in particular county Down, although far from unaffected, was among the areas the least hit by the famine (Ó Gráda, 2017). Again, the nationalist rhetoric tends to blame Westminster: the Great Famine is regarded by many nationalist as a deliberate attempt of the British government to wipe-out the local Irish population. John Mitchel, an Irish nationalist, is quoted to have said “Potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine”. Indeed, some economists like O’Malley, argue that the famine was not so much caused by an absolute lack of food, but rather to widespread unemployment (O’Malley, 1981). The nationalist view also clashes with the fact that the British government, led by Robert Peel, did intervene at first, repealing the tariffs on corn. However, this would turn out to be insufficient, and a stop on food export from Ireland was never pursued. This is coherent with the general laissez-faire tendencies that Britain had, which was in particular subject of criticism against the following government, led by John Russell. The tendency to promote laissez-faire was also expressed by Charles E. Trevelyan, who worked in treasury during the years of the Great Famine: ”The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated”. Hence, while blaming Britain for the famine may be far-fetched, it is undeniable that Westminster did fail in addressing the issue that Ireland faced. The demographic collapse in Connacht and Munster further exacerbated the structural problems that the Irish industry had already started showing and eventually made the Irish market too small, leading to the death of the few surviving industries.

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Historical Background of Ireland and Its Impact on the Development of the Country. (2020, October 20). WritingBros. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/historical-background-of-ireland-and-its-impact-on-the-development-of-the-country/
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