My latest Critical Quarterly column, on Ireland’s not-so-unusual economic history, is available here.

5 replies on “1916”

An excellent, thought-provoking piece. Thank you.

I agree with you about the 50s. But I think you’ve glided over the GUBU decade (’77-’87) and the Greed and Stupidity decade (2002-2012) too easily. True, other countries have screwed up policy – and screwed up quite badly, but there’s usually some evidence of learning – and they didn’t lose decades.

Ah Kevin …

Our exceptionalist particulars are merely ‘normal’ universals … boring, in other words.

Was it for this …?

This article certainly challenges some preconceived notions and prejudices of mine. So much for Yeats ‘romantic Ireland’!

The lethargy of post WW2 Ireland is again highlighted, but what were the reasons?

The conclusion that Ireland is ‘normal’, presumably in an economic sense, is a little bit at variance with the previous statement that Ireland is a “hyper-globalised country”, unless hyper-globalization is now ubiquitous. The reality may be than such a hyper-globalized economy would in times of economic stress be left with little to globalize, except it’s surplus labour force.

Good work. This is an excellent article. It compares favourably with the rubbish churned out by academics from the the Conor Cruise O’Brien School of History Falsification. According to them Ireland pre-1922 was a social and economic and paradise, a land flowing with milk and honey, only to be later ruined by the dastardly DeValera and the Catholic Church, who forced millions into emigration, a phenomenon that had been unknown in Ireland under the Viceroys. However, I’d take issue on a number of points (apologies: I’m on a train from London so unable to back up my points with stats as per usual):


(1) The scale of emigration from Ireland pre-1922 was certainly unique. Every other country in Europe saw its population rise substantially in every decade up to 1922. Almost all saw their populations double in the period 1841-1922. Irelands fell by 65% in that period. Totally unmatched anywhere else. Furthermore, the fall wasn’t just a one-off famine event, but occurred in every decade up to 1922.

(2) All the population decline in this period was due to emigration. I fail to see what celibacy has to do with it. Fertility is more important. Ireland was very fertile during this entire period of population decline. In 1870 Ireland had 110k births and 66k deaths, but its population fell by 28k. And that year was typical of the period.

(3) The fact that Ireland’s national income per capita remained stuck at 60% of the UK level in the period 1861-2011 doesn’t mean its growth rate was the same as that of the UK. Clearly, if the UK’s population doubled in that time and Ireland’s halved, then the fact that there was no change in their per capita income levels means that growth in Ireland was a fraction of that of the UK.


(4) In the period 1922-1958 the pre-1922 trend continued but at a reduced rate. Under De Valera’s 1932-1948 government the population stabilised for the first time since the famine. Over the entire period 1922-1958 Ireland’s economy grew less rapidly than the UK’s but the gap was less than pre-1922. Although total net emigration in the period 1922-1958 was high by today’s standards, it was significantly lower than in the decades pre-1922. This period should be seen as the transition period between the disastrous pre-1922 economy and the booming dynamic post-1958 economy, the period when the ship got turned around. It would have been nice if this transition period had been shorter, but the period 1922-1958 saw (a) the partitioning of the country with its only industrialised areas being hived off (b) the Great Depression and (c) World War 2. How could there possibly have been an economic transformation under such circumstances? Nevertheless, many of the foundation blocks for the post-1958 growth were laid during this period. Ireland went from zero-industrialisation (after partition) to modest industrialisation. And De Valera’s achievement in keeping Ireland at peace and in creating a socially conservative and cohesive society, with strong family values, strong emphasis on education, little divorce and little crime, helped pave the way for the later economic advance. De Valera is nowadays mocked by the revisionists for his 1944 speech about ‘maidens dancing at crossroads’. Most countries in Europe in 1944 would have been only too happy to be in circumstances where their leader could focus on such an innocent issue.


(5) The turning-point came in 1958-1959. Since then Ireland has had by far the highest growth in western Europe. It has also had by far the highest population growth in western Europe.The growth has been almost continuous for 58 years. There have been two occasions during this period when the growth stalled or reversed briefly – these were 1983-1986 and 2008-2011. On both occasions the revisionists leapt gleefully to the conclusion that the growth was finished. On both occasions the revisionists leapt gleefully to the conclusion that massive net emigration and depopulation had returned. On both occasions the revisionists never tired of telling us how the whole ‘1916’ affair was a disaster – if only Ireland had remained within the UK, all would have been well. On both occasions they were proved totally wrong. Hence their quite incredible levels of anger currently.

(6) Ireland’s post-1958 growth can only be called ‘convergence’ up to a point. Its only ‘convergence’ when there is higher growth than other countries but from a lower level of per capita GNI – hence ‘catching-up’ (the situation that pertained up to around 2005). But, when there is higher growth than other countries but from a higher level of GNI per capita (the situation now), its called ‘divergence’.

(7) Other poor counties like Spain and Portugal never ‘converged’ on the rest of Western Europe. They closed that gap at times, but never caught up. Ireland is unique in being the only country that previously was much poorer than the western European norm but is now richer.


You can argue ad nauseum about growth rates in this year or that. All a bit pointless. The bottom line is this: Pre-1922 Ireland had a disastrous economy and population decline that was totally unique – post-1958 Ireland has had by far the fastest growth in western Europe and by far the highest population growth in western Europe. And its per capita GNI levels are now the second highest in western Europe (after Luxembourg). There is no sign of this ending. The situation has been totally transformed. The heroes of 1916 are the ones primarily responsible for the transformation.

It is wrong to analyse Ireland 1841-1922 in purely economic terms or to wonder if its economy did or did not follow the normal rules of economics during this period. It should be seen rather as a period of economic genocide against nationalist Ireland with a view to obtaining a pro-Union majority in the island as a whole. This unionist majority would be based on protestant areas of Ulster and nominally catholic West Brit areas of The Pale. The strategy succeeded in Ulster. In 1841 nationalist counties in west Ulster had a far high population than unionist counties in east Ulster. The partition could never have occurred without the massive depopulation of nationalist west Ulster from 1841 on. In 1841 the population of Tyrone was 330k, higher than unionist Antrim or Down. By 1922 it was down to 130k, while that od Antrim and Down had increased. Likewise for the other nationalist counties of Ulster. There was a similar trend in the rest of Ireland with counties outside The Pale showing dramatic falls in population, but those inside The pale showing increases. Had it not been for 1916, this trend would have continued. The depopulation of nationalist counties would have continued at its pre-1916 rate, and there would probably now be a pro-Union majority in the whole island. At the time of the 1916 centenary celebrations last Easter a prominent economist in Ireland derided 1916 as less important than a competition to find the best potato crisps. But, the vast crowds that turned out for the celebrations showed that the public thought otherwise and rightfully saw 1916 as the key event in Ireland’s economic transformation.

What about the period between the end of World War II and 1958? And were not the pre-war policies of FF the same as those of post-war?

Otherwise, you make some excellent points. However, one must not overdue the MOPE syndrome. We have been in charge of our own affairs for well nigh a century. A version of the Pale, if a paler one, if you’ll pardon the pun, has been in existence all that time and, while its composition has changed somewhat, it has never gone away and shows no sign of doing so. Emigration currently can be largely attributed to those “in possession” remaining so at the expense of those that were not. It is the incoming tide lifting all boats that has reversed it, largely courtesy of FDI.

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