The Eighteenth-century Celtic Tiger
James Stafford (Cambridge) discusses his research trip to archives in Belfast and Dublin to examine papers on 18th and 19th century political thought.
My Ph.D. considers the history of political and economic thought concerning Ireland in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I consider the impact of new ideas concerning the state, the economy and the international order on political controversies regarding the reform of Ireland’s government and society and its place in the British Empire. Major figures such as Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, William Pitt and Daniel O’Connell feature prominently, but much of my source-base consists of pamphlets, periodicals and correspondence by lesser-known writers and politicians. I have also spent a lot of time gathering European perspectives on Ireland’s economy, government and society in this period. Many of these were developed out of a desire on behalf of French, German and Swiss authors to analyse the character and prospects of Britain’s global trading empire by tracing its impacts on Ireland.
The vast majority of my sources are online; indeed, pursuing this sort of transnational intellectual-cum-political history project would not have been possible before the age of catalogue and microfilm digitisation. Even so, much 19th century material from Ireland itself has yet to find its way onto online depositories, and a lot of useful correspondence can of course only be had in manuscript or microfilm. Ultimately, there’s no substitute for getting one’s hands dusty in archives and libraries. I’m very grateful to the BAIS for giving me the opportunity to spend three weeks in Belfast and Dublin doing just that in August 2015.
I’m certainly glad I did so, because what I found has supplied a range of counterintuitive connections and ideas that have altered key parts of my thesis. I’ll mention three here, athough there are more. The first was a series of remarkable letters from the Genevan exile and French revolutionary Finance Minister, Etienne Clavière, to the Ascendancy politician, agricultural improver and financial expert John Foster, from 1784. These are present, albeit in near-indecipherable French handwriting, among the vast holdings of Foster-Massereene papers at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast, wonderfully compiled and annotated by Foster’s biographer, A P W Malcolmson. The letter shows that Clavière was already sharply critical of Britain at this stage: urges Foster to take advantage of Ireland’s newly-won ‘legislative independence’ to establish an entirely separate commercial policy as Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer, and turn Ireland into a low-tax, low-regulation global entrêpot – nestled between Europe and the newly independent America. (It sounds a lot like the hope in the latter years of the Celtic Tiger!) I don’t think anybody else has written about this, so it’s really exciting to have found it.
Another interesting find, nestling among the papers of Viscount Castlereagh in PRONI, is a long memorandum by the Scottish MP Sylvester Douglas concerning the formulation of the British-Irish Union of 1801. It reveals that the decision not to initially amalgamate any state institutions other than the parliaments was quite carefully thought through. Douglas, who was one of Pitt’s major advisers on the major, compiled an extensive comparative document explaining that of the major European states only revolutionary France had a uniform legal or fiscal system, and that it was appropriate for Irish administration to remain semi-detached. This is very useful document for illustrating that, in Ireland like in Scotland, ‘union’ doesn’t mean ‘unitary’: the British union-state has historically placed sovereignty in Westminster, but dispersed government and administration informally around its component nations.
Also worth mentioning is the huge number of pamphlets I found in Dublin, many by Protestant clerics and improving gentlemen-farmers, that point to the political significance of the agricultural revolution experienced by Ireland from the 1780s to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. These were years were the population raced towards its pre-Famine maximum, and exports of grain (facilitated by the efficient, potato-based diet of the peasantry) seemed to be making Ireland the breadbasket of the British empire. This has helped me to understand why Francophile United Irish exiles like William James Macneven, and early Catholic nationalists like the scandalous, pioneering journalist Walter Cox, made Irish de-industrialisation into a cause celebre during the Napoleonic Wars. It really did look as if the British and big landowners wanted to turn the country into what Cox called an ‘agricultural dependency’. These sources also reinforce, of course, how few people thought that famine on the scale of the 1840s would ever really be possible. The emphasis over the previous generation remained very strongly on what seemed to be Ireland’s extraordinary fertility and population.
These new sources alongside many others have really added something to my thesis, and I’m feeling the benefits now that I’m writing up. I am extremely grateful to the BAIS, as well as the staff of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, the National Library of Ireland, and the Royal Irish Academy, for allowing me these extraordinary insights into the thought and politics of this formative period for Irish, British and European history.