PRE-FAMINE IRELAND: SOCIAL STRUCTURE
The companion volume to this one is now almost ready. This book deals with the social and economic aspects of Ireland in the pre-Famine period. The second volume (Ireland 1800-1850}deals with the political history of the same period. This book, Pre-Famine Ireland, grew out of a project I undertook, after completing my doctoral thesis, to read 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 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.
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, historians take a much more objective approach, 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, or 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 outbrea