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Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright © 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and



          The period 1800 to 1850 in Irish history has not been particularly frequently or well researched. Distortions too were caused by the political objectives of the various writers. Facts were selected, omitted, or twisted to suit political objectives. Catholic or nationalist writers wrote with their own religious and political objectives in mind, and Protestants or loyalists likewise.

            Historians concentrated on the political struggles and conflicts, omitting investigation of other aspects of society, particularly the social and economic conditions and practices of the time. Some of these have long since vanished. Others are still with us but very much altered. Local government for example was drastically altered in the second half of the century. Some people too know institutions and customs only in their British or American forms. Nowadays, for the most part, a much more objective approach is taken by historians, and the study of social and economic history has been developed.

            Social and economic institutions were well-developed in Ireland in the early nineteenth century. It was not a primitive country, nor yet one where a native population was ground down by colonial oppressors. The people, Catholics and Protestants, regarded themselves as living in a free and democratic country. There might be more freedom and democracy in America, but they considered that what they had was more suitable for their country, and congratulated themselves on having escaped the excesses of the French Revolution. Very few after 1800 looked for a republic. There was a free press and letters to the editor were particularly illuminating.

            There were great political struggles between Catholics and Protestants, but these were very similar to those between Republicans and Democrats in the United States later in the century, violence and all. Catholics in the nationalist party in Ireland and Catholics in Tammany Hall in the United States came from the same families. It was not an anti-colonial war.

            There were troubles and disturbances without doubt. Society was very unequal, and many rewards went to those already rich. But there was equality before the law and equality in business. Attempts were always made to remedy real grievances and numerous commissions of enquiry were appointed. Reliance was normally placed on the ordinary processes of the law. Extraordinary measures to deal with outbreaks of violence were limited as far as possible in their scope and their duration.

                        For the most part too, the people were forward looking, and could see that many things could be improved. The great economic improvement of the age was the application of steam power to transport on the land and on sea. But education was also improved, and the franchise extended. A comprehensive system of provision for the very poor was provided. Every effort was made to repair defects in religion and the Churches. All the time the population was exploding.

            The great event, and great mystery, was the Great Irish Famine. Why did it occur?  Agriculture was prosperous, and exports were booming, great developments in railways and steamships were taking place. The possibility of such a famine caused by crop-failure had been foreseen for many years, and every effort had been made to be ready for it. A nationwide system of poor relief had just been completed. Corn Laws had been passed to develop Irish agriculture, and were so successful that they were no longer needed. But despite all the steps taken a major disaster occurred.

            This book grew out of a project I undertook to read, after completing my doctoral thesis, a copy of one or more Irish newspapers for every day between 1800 and 1850. This not only gave me contemporary perspectives on the period but also provided a wealth of information not otherwise readily available. Information, for example, on the courts, on the duties and responsibilities of officers, like mayors and sheriffs, how they were appointed, to whom they were responsible, and who was responsible for seeing they conducted themselves well; who conducted schools, what was taught in them, who managed schools for girls; long-forgotten religious disputes, and so on. It had been my intention to write a single volume on the history of the period, but the vast quantity of data I collected on social and economic conditions compelled me to gather it into a separate volume.

            The plan of this book is not therefore based on an historical framework but a sociological one. The plan is based very loosely on an analytic framework like that of Talcott Parsons without adopting either his sociological jargon or his conclusions. A society must have an economic basis; a set of beliefs, values, and instruction; systems of legitimisation and control. There are multiple gradations in society (lords, gentlemen, common people, women) for example. Other things flow from the desires and capabilities of individuals (pursuits of culture or recreation). Some things (technical developments like the printing press and the railway) lead to the development of vast subsystems which are used for various purposes. Growth and development must also be taken into account. Into an analytic framework like this most aspects of society can be fitted with the least repetition or over-lapping. This was my objective, not adhesion to any theory. But as we know, in life they over-lap and are inter-linked.

            The framework too is neutral and ‘value free’ no judgement being passed on whether any group was right or wrong; any action good or bad. With regard to functional or dys-functional, the social consequences of any course of action (segregated education, factionalism among Presbyterians, or the sub-letting of land for example) the consequences are from time to time pointed out. I have endeavoured to describe each group in a manner that any modern adherent of that group would consider fair and unbiased. These things being said, the plan of the book can be seen from the Table of Contents.

            Countries in Europe and America had been growing steadily for hundreds of years. The Irish economy was better in the nineteenth century than in the eighteenth century. It was perhaps more developed than that of France or the United States at the time. We need to have some idea of orders of magnitude and of trends. So I have copied statistics, for example to show the growth of trade in various ports. All the figures given should be regarded as approximations. We really have no idea how accurately or honestly the figures were recorded. I am always rather sceptical, but we must use what we have.

            The subject is so vast that in the course of a single volume only the barest outline of each topic can be given. There is no room for recounting different interpretations among scholars that belong more appropriately to more specialist publications. My aim is to provide a hand-book for the general reader or general student of Irish history, but also one into which the specialist may dip concerning matters not of their speciality.


            Note: Though in more recent times each law passed by Parliament is given a brief name by which it may be referred to, this was not always the case, and many laws are simply referred to by the year in which they were passed. The two parts of the names refer to the name of the monarch in whose reign it was enacted, preceded by the year of his or her reign counting from the date of accession to the throne. Thus the Sixth of George I was passed in 1719, the king having acceded to the throne on the death of Queen Anne on the 1 August 1714. Some acts, like the Fortieth of George III (1800) acquired special names, in this case the Act of Union.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.