Ireland: society & economy, 1870-1914

The period 1870 to 1914 is critical in the development of modern Ireland. Social and economic change, already at work and greatly accelerated by the Great Famine, moved rapidly during these decades. People have argued that, as a result, late nineteenth-century Ireland became one of the most politically modernised societies in Europe. A new political awareness among the common people was reflected in demands for change at all levels of society. In these years, Belfast became one of the great industrial cities of the British Empire and, as a consequence, eastern Ulster became the main industrial region of Ireland. Improved communications—in the form of railways, telegraph and better postal services—drew the under-developed West into wider national developments.

1. Marriage & Migration

Other changes were less positive. In these years mass migration became a central feature of Irish society. There were also changes in social customs relating to inheritance, marriage, religious observance, and hospitality. This produced a society seen by some as unjust and closed. It has been argued that the Irish experience of industrialisation, even in Belfast, was not matched by comparable ‘modernisation’ in the classical sense. For example, instead of increasing secularisation usually thought typically ‘modern’, the power and social influence of the various churches actually increased during these years. One may conclude that Ireland underwent an incomplete social revolution, changing many aspects of its social and economic structures while remaining fundamentally a traditional society. The ‘stem’ family system of inheritance continued to determine demographic features. Later and fewer marriages were a marked characteristic of Irish society. In 1901, over half of all women aged between 25 and 34 remained unmarried, a significantly higher proportion than in England and Wales. In many families, if the cash brought in by marriage was sufficient, it was used to train other children for a profession. This also involved migration to larger towns and cities. For many, however, the transfer of the family home meant emigration much further afield. Migration was made easier by improvements in transport and communication, and it became a normal part of the life cycle of most Irish families. In the 1870s the rate of migration varied from a high of 16.9 per 1000 in 1873 to a low of 7.1 in 1876. This increased dramatically in the 1880s as a result of poor conditions in agriculture: emigration averaged 16.1 per thousand per annum compared to 11.3 for the period 1870–80.

While emigration was a common feature of European life, Ireland was the only country in Europe to have a smaller population in 1900 than in 1800. In certain periods women emigrants significantly outnumbered men. Over 14,390 women left Ireland between 1901 and 1911, the majority young and single. This emigration reflected the limited opportunities for marriage or employment at home. The huge outflow resulted in Ireland becoming a country where the very young and the very old were over-represented in the population. It has been argued that this constant outflow of young people enabled Ireland to change in a manner that did not alter its peaceful and conservative social structure.

2. Land Reform

The Great Famine not only greatly reduced the size of Ireland’s population: it also changed its social make-up. By 1870, starvation and migration had dramatically reduced the numbers and social significance of the labourers and cottiers who had formed the largest group in pre-Famine Irish society. ‘Strong farmers’ were establishing themselves as the dominant social and political class. Their habits and views increasingly became those accepted by society as a whole. One major consequence of this was the agitation for land reform that re-surfaced in this period. Gladstone’s 1870 Landlord and Tenant Act (Ireland) was the first (and unsuccessful) attempt to use legislation to resolve long-standing hostility between those who owned land and those who occupied and worked it. Economic pressures in the late 1880s increased tension between landlord and tenant, culminating in the so-called ‘Land War’. This in turn led to the Land Act of 1881 which sought to provide security for tenants by giving them legal rights based on the 3 Fs—Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Freedom of Sale. This Act allowed the fixing of judicial rents for fifteen years by Land Courts and was a radical solution to the land question since it effectively removed the landlords’ right to fix the rent payable for land they owned.

Agricultural unrest was already declining as the economy began to pick up in the early 1880s. It appeared again during the next major depression in the middle of the decade, when demands were again voiced for rent reductions and effective protection for lease holders not covered by the 1881 Act. The 1887 Land Act gave the courts the authority to reconsider judicial rents every three years and to adjust them in line with shifts in agricultural prices.

This legislation gave Irish tenants fairly complete protection and put them in a far stronger position than their English or Scottish equivalents. However, it failed to end the demands for land reform. The focus now changed from protection for the tenant to a change in ownership of the land. Between 1869 and 1896 there were no fewer than eight Acts dealing mainly or in part with tenant land purchase in Ireland. Only 74,000 occupiers out of 545,000 made use of these provisions to purchase their holdings prior to March 1903. Where rents were fixed by the courts, purchase made little sense to tenants who were in any case unwilling or unable to afford the prices demanded by landowners. In 1903 the Wyndham Act established a mechanism whereby this stalemate was broken. It ensured that the landowner got a good price for the land he sold while the tenant effectively took a twenty-year mortgage to pay for it. The tenant also paid a figure that was less than the previous fixed rent. By 1908 some 46% of farmers had become owner-occupiers and by 1920 nine million acres of Irish land had changed hands. Thus the demand for land reform was ended, but not, as the British Government had hoped, the demand for Home Rule.

3. Education

Education was increasingly seen as a means of preparing those children who did not inherit the land for other forms of employment or for migration. Ireland was far ahead of Britain in education because of the national system of education, introduced in 1831. Though there was some regional variation, overall levels of illiteracy (a standard measure of the development of any society) fell rapidly, from 53% in 1841 to 18% in 1891. Most of those unable to read and write belonged to the older age groups. Irish children enjoyed the benefits of a standardised syllabus and the attentions of inspectors whose task was to ensure that standards were kept throughout the country.

The Intermediate Education Act (1878) funded secondary education on a payment-by-results basis. This provided serious funding for secondary education and made it more widely available. It marked a great advance in the provision of education generally, and particularly for girls. Students could sit any number of subjects but they had to include two of the following: Latin, Greek, English, mathematics and modern languages. The marks allocated to subjects varied. Latin, Greek, English and mathematics were worth 1,200 marks; German and French 700, Celtic (i.e. Irish) 600. Valuable exhibitions (i.e. scholarships) were awarded on a candidate’s aggregate marks. Girls’ schools competed on an equal basis, and the curriculum in girls’ schools changed dramatically as a result. Because school funding and exhibitions depended directly on the marks achieved by the candidates in the Intermediate Examination girls did the high-value subjects (Latin, Greek, English, and mathematics), despite objections from many quarters that such studies were damaging to girls, and unladylike. Fewer than a quarter of the first 3,700 candidates to sit the Intermediate Examination were girls, but 36% of the 12,000 who sat in 1921were girls.

Because most schools were under effective or actual clerical control, they often tended to reinforce the influence of the clergy and harden religious divisions. In 1862 53% of Irish schools were inter-denominational. By 1900 this number had fallen to 35%. Nonetheless, the schools themselves were to create a major social revolution and generated a vast number of new ‘lower middle-class’ professional jobs. By 1874 the Catholic schools alone employed 2,640 college-trained and 5,000 other teachers. By 1901 there were 20,478 teachers in Ireland, 60% of whom were female, earning about 80% of the corresponding male wage.

The Royal University of Ireland Act (1879) allowed females to take university degrees on the same basis as males. In fact, many religious schools including convent schools (for example, Dominican College, Eccles St, Dublin; Alexandra College, Dublin; Loreto College, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin; Methodist College, Belfast; High School for Girls, Derry; Rutland School, Mountjoy Square, Dublin; Dominican College, Sion Hill, Dublin; St Angela’s College, Cork; St Louis’s, Monaghan, Presentation College, Cork; Christian Brothers College, Cork; Rochelle College, Cork) prepared students for the examinations (including degree examinations) of the Royal University. Catholic girls’ schools were slower than Protestant girls’ school in doing so but, despite the opposition of senior Catholic leaders, the more progressive religious orders gradually began to enter their female students for the university examinations. Progress was, nevertheless, slow and Trinity College Dublin and the Queen’s Colleges (Belfast, Cork, and Galway) remained male bastions.

4. Employment

The ‘modernisation’ process itself created increased employment opportunities for the sons and daughters of the farming class. Local government, the police force, and the civil service provided ever-increasing employment. The well educated could gain access to these jobs through competitive examinations and selection. The role of the civil servant, in many aspects of life, became increasingly more important as Government expanded as the nineteenth century progressed. The Post Office, a large organisation, spread across Ireland, changing the whole structure of rural life. Local government also expanded and it carried out a wide range of functions including poor relief and other ‘welfare’ activities.

Overall, between 1881 and 1901, there was a 17% increase in the number of persons employed in Government in Ireland. By 1901 there were 34,281 Government employees in total, one for every 104 inhabitants of Ireland (excluding the armed forces). This compared to one for every 127 for the United Kingdom as a whole, and one for every128 for England and Wales.

Ireland’s police force, controlled from and reporting to Dublin Castle, also increased in size and developed its functions as the nineteenth century progressed. Unlike their English counterparts, Irish policemen took the census, compiled agricultural statistics, undertook surveys, reported contagious diseases, and acted as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Dublin Government in every town and every rural area. Policemen in other parts of the United Kingdom were under county or borough control and they were much more limited in function than their Irish equivalents.

The expanding public sector also opened up clerical opportunities for women. The Post Office was regarded as the ‘pioneer’ of women’s employment, offering positions as telegraph operators or counter hands to intelligent, educated working-class girls. The country’s first civil service typist took up her post in the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction in 1901. Guinness’s Brewery held its first examinations for four lady clerkships in June 1906. By 1914 almost 8,000 women were employed as clerks, the fastest-growing area of female employment in the twentieth century. For those middle-class girls, benefiting from the academic curriculum offered by increasing numbers of colleges and convent schools, the Universities Act of 1879 offered further opportunities for access to the professions. However, progress in this area was very slow. For example, despite women’s very important role in nursing, only 33 qualified female medical doctors and 68 female medical students are recorded in the census of 1911.

5. Industrialisation

Important elements in the ‘modernisation’ process are urbanisation and industrialisation, and both were not particularly significant in late nineteenth-century Ireland. However, this view is slightly misleading since Ireland had both cities and industries and some expanded massively in this era. The problem is that these developments tended to be heavily concentrated in eastern Ulster. Belfast was one of the fastest growing urban industrial centres in the United Kingdom during these years. The population of the city of Belfast increased from about 174,000 to almost 387,000 by 1911 (122% growth). In the 1870s and 1880s the city’s housing stock quadrupled as streets of terraced ‘kitchen’-and-‘parlour’ houses were built to accommodate the workers from the mills, factories, and shipyards of this vibrant industrial city. In 1870 the shipyard of Harland and Wolff constructed a floating dry-dock and launched five vessels with a total tonnage of 15,571. In 1913 the city’s yards completed sixteen vessels with a combined tonnage of 147,489, and the 48,158 ton giant Britannic was about to be launched. The city grew by attracting migrants from other areas of Ireland and from the rest of the United Kingdom. Throughout this period up to a quarter of Belfast’s population was born outside the counties of Antrim and Down, and the proportion of ‘outsiders’ in the active labour force was considerably higher. Belfast was very much a thriving industrial boom-town and lay at the centre of a heavily industrialised region.

Why was the Irish experience so localised? If industry could fuel massive growth in Belfast or Derry, why not in Dublin or Cork? In fact, there is nothing unusual, in many ways, about the Irish experience of industrial development in the late nineteenth century. No country experienced industrialisation evenly or universally. Rather, it occurred in those areas that enjoyed the advantages of effective communications or a good supply of raw materials. In Ireland’s case the North-East was geographically close to northern English and Scottish coalfields. It also had a strong local tradition of domestic craft industries that formed the basis of industrial development. In contrast, southern cities tended to be commercial and transport hubs rather than manufacturing centres, and did not develop extensive industrial activity. The most often quoted example of ‘failed’ industrialisation in this era is Dublin which certainly performed poorly compared to its northern neighbour, and as a result suffered some of the worst social conditions in nineteenth-century Ireland.

However, the contrast has often been overstated. Dublin did have some very successful industries, such as the brewing giant Guinness and the biscuit maker Jacobs, but neither of these could provide the volume of employment that shipbuilding or linen did in Belfast. Moreover, it must be recognised that Dublin was very much a capital city and, like London and Edinburgh, the white-collar employment sector was far more significant than in Belfast. So also was casual unskilled employment and domestic service. Much of the difference between Dublin and Belfast in the later nineteenth century had to do with different economic functions and employment patterns: capital cities seldom become industrial centres.

These economic differences go a long way to explaining the emergence of working-class Unionism within the industrial towns and cities of Ulster in the wake of the First Home Rule Bill (1886). For workers in the linen and shipbuilding industries of the North-East, the policy of economic development protected by tariff barriers, put forward by Irish nationalists, was nonsensical and posed a threat to the industries that employed them. Few of the ships built on the Lagan were for Irish owners and only a small proportion of the linen and finished goods produced in Ulster were sold on the domestic market. The establishment of tariff barriers to protect fledgling industries in the south of Ireland would, Unionists argued, deprive the successful manufactures in the north of the export markets on which they depended. This economic argument was perhaps the strongest and most coherent Unionist objection to Home Rule and one that nationalists failed to answer effectively.

6. Improvements in Health Care

In the later nineteenth century, though the population continued to fall, Irish society generally experienced improving living standards and there emerged a prosperous middle class in both rural and urban areas. Family size remained large—over a third of married women in 1911 (36%) had seven children or more. Some aspects of health care improved. Under the Medical Poor Relief (Ireland) Act of 1851 a system of local dispensaries had been established. This gave Ireland a system of medical care not matched in England until the National Insurance Act of 1911, if not the introduction of the Welfare State in the 1940s.

But even in the early decades of the twentieth century, childbirth was life-threatening for many mothers. Geographical location and social class were major determining factors in mortality. Irish infant mortality rates as a whole were fairly low by European standards, but babies born in urban areas were almost twice as vulnerable as those born in the country: the urban infant mortality rate was 150 per 1,000 live births, rural mortality was 74. A baby born into the family of a labourer was seventeen times more likely to die within a year than the child of a professional.

However, pre-natal and infant care were major concerns in most Western European countries in this period and Ireland was no exception. A growing body of health visitors and voluntary workers visited the poor to offer advice and practical help. From 1908 the Women’s National Health Association operated mother and baby clubs in Dublin and Belfast. Babies were weighed, doctors were on hand to provide medical advice, and nurses visited homes to ensure that their advice on feeding and hygiene was acted on. The provision of free or cheap pasteurised milk was probably the most effective part of the work of this Association: infant mortality dropped where this was introduced.

Amongst young adults, male and female, the greatest danger to health in late nineteenth-century Ireland was tuberculosis (TB). Death rates from ‘the white plague’ rose rapidly among the 15–25 age groups (more than 11,500 deaths a year) at a time when deaths from other diseases were in decline. There was considerable local variation. The highest death rates were in areas of high population density, and in Belfast where conditions in the linen mills made workers particularly open to infection. At the beginning of the twentieth century only two sanitoria—Crooksling in Co. Wicklow and Heatherside in Co. Cork—had been built by local authorities. Sufferers, therefore, had little option but to go to the fever hospital, from which they (rightly) feared they were unlikely to return. In this context, the Women’s National Health Association launched an intensive educational campaign, involving travelling exhibitions that brought both entertainment and enlightenment to rural areas. Between 1905 and 1918, better economic and social conditions, improving standards of domestic hygiene, and public recognition of the dangers of infection combined to reduce the annual number of deaths from TB by about a quarter.

7. Housing

Health was obviously affected by standards of housing, and experience in this area varied greatly. It was noted in 1911 that nearly every family in Belfast had a separate house. There was a range of styles and rents available for different groups of workers. Further advances were made when a Housing Act of December 1908 gave local authorities the power to build houses and to establish funds to support home construction. Belfast, like most cities, had its share of slums and health problems. Nonetheless, it contrasted strongly with Dublin where the great Georgian terraces, formerly the luxurious and comfortable homes of the gentry, were now divided into filthy cramped accommodations for over 21,000 families. An enquiry in 1914 reported that 28,000 Dubliners were living in houses considered ‘unfit for human habitation’. Largely as a result of the unsettled nature of early twentieth-century political life, poor conditions prevailed until well into the 1940s. Indeed, in some cases they got worse. Housing conditions in rural areas varied considerably, but by the early years of the twentieth century it was reported that around 70% of the rural population lived in houses categorised by officials as ‘good farmhouses’ or better.

8. The Coming of the Railway

One of the most important developments in Ireland, and one that affected the lives of everybody was the building of a railway system. In 1872 there were already 2,000 miles of track and all the main population centres were linked together. By 1914 there were 3,400 miles of track and the rural community was now effectively linked into the transport system. It has been claimed that the railway was a negative influence on Ireland, economically and socially: it made emigration easier and opened the Irish market to cheap imported goods which quickly destroyed Irish local industries, unable to compete in scale and cost.

Certain groups in Ireland benefited greatly from the coming of the railway. If small local industries were put out of business by cheaper rail-assisted imports, the Irish consumer equally benefited from cheaper prices and improved choice which stimulated the retail sector. Some historians claim that these developments benefited English or Scottish producers and damaged Irish firms, but this ignores the fact that some Belfast and Dublin companies were very successful in using the railways to increase their customer base. The prime example of this is the Dublin brewer Guinness, who dominated the Irish beer market by the end of the nineteenth century. His success was based on effective communications and transport throughout the whole island of Ireland.

The movement of goods was not all one way and the railways greatly accelerated the commercialisation of Irish agriculture by opening up new markets to Irish producers and allowing perishable goods to be moved quickly and safely. By the end of the nineteenth century insulated railway vans enabled the shipment of fish from the western seaboard to markets in Dublin and even in Britain. Eggs, traditionally too fragile to transport over long distances, became a major Irish export commodity.. This trade raised the incomes of Irish farmers and their fowl numbers greatly increased in the later nineteenth century. Railways were very much a life-changing experience for the Irish in the last decades of the nineteenth century, giving the rural population access to cheap consumer goods and improved markets on the one hand, while destroying local industries and ‘traditional’ life styles on the other.

9. The Co-Operative Movement

Improvements in transport were critical to the success of another great experiment in Irish economic development, the Co-operative Movement. It established its first creamery in Dromcolliher, Co. Limerick, in 1890. The growth of the organisation was phenomenal. By the end of 1891 there were sixteen creameries, and there were sixty by 1894 when Horace Plunket formed the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society in Dublin. By 1900 there were 171 central creameries, 65 auxiliary facilities, 106 agricultural societies and 76 credit societies operating under the auspices of the movement, which claimed a membership of 46,206 and a turnover of £796,528. The growth of the organisation continued. It got support from the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for new pasteurising plant. It also got support from the Congested District Board.

10. The Congested Districts Board

Arthur Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland, driven by his conviction that state paternalism was necessary to remedy the special problems of isolation, poverty and unemployment that affected the West of Ireland, established the Congested Districts Board in his Land Act of 1891. The Board was staffed with sympathetic and well-informed persons and it was given financial independence. Its purpose was to develop the West of Ireland. It surveyed and identified the problems. By 1901 it was responsible for an area of nearly 3.7 million acres inhabited by half a million people. From 1909 it had a large annual budget of £250,000. It set about improving the economy by financing the infrastructure and subsidising the introduction of new industries and agricultural products. It purchased land for tenants and re-distributed it in economic holdings. In fact, it bought over 2,000,000 acres of land from which it created or improved 60,000 farms. It spent a total of £2,000,000 on improvements to land, houses, farm buildings, drainage, roads, and fences. It encouraged a wide range of cottage industries—bee-keeping, spinning, knitting, crochet, lace-work, carpentry, kelp-making— and taught invaluable skills, for example, in domestic economy, poultry and egg production, and horse-breeding. Among the successful industries encouraged by the Board were Dripsey Woollen Mills, Foxford Woollen Mills, and Killybegs Carpets. It employed agricultural instructors to advise farmers. It vigorously promoted the fishing industry: it built piers, gave capital grants to fishermen for boats and tackle, and introduced marketing strategies. The sales of fish more than trebled between 1891 and 1913. Michael Davitt, who ironically described the Board as ‘enlightened state socialism’, wrote:

‘though opinions differ as to the amount of good done by this body there can be no doubt that much benefit has been conferred by its labours upon the several districts comprised within its area’.

In many ways the Board was the ancestor of all modern regional development agencies, a highly advanced government body of a kind not seen elsewhere in the United Kingdom in these years.

11. The Labour Movement and the 1913 Lock Out

This period closes with one of the few examples of ‘class conflict’ that might be said to challenge our interpretation of change in pre-First World War Ireland. The period between 1909 and 1913 was one of acute hardship for the unskilled workers of Dublin. They, with their families, formed perhaps a third of the city’s population and were a rich recruiting ground for the newly established Irish Transport and General Workers Union under the leadership of James Larkin.

In 1911 Larkin called on the employers to enter into discussions, but William Martin Murphy, the leader of the Employers’ Federation which represented nearly 400 employers in the city, rejected this. The employers were determined to resist any attempt to unionise unskilled labour and effectively declared war on Larkin and his Union. Crisis was reached in August 1913 when the employers issued a united demand that their workers sign a written undertaking not to join the ITGWU or any other union. The employers sacked those employees who refused their demand. Larkin retaliated by calling out the workers in Murphy’s Dublin Tram Company and 700 of the company’s 1700 employees walked off the job. This action resulted in mounting industrial conflict characterised by bitterness and violence on both sides.

In early September the Employers’ Federation decided to lock out their workers in order to break their resistance. By the end of the month 25,000 workers were said to be affected. Although the employers’ actions were widely condemned, they refused to consider negotiation or compromise with the Union. Finally, under mounting public and Government pressure, the Employers’ Federation agreed to negotiations organised through the British Trades Union Congress in December 1913. However, these collapsed on 20 December 1913 without a resolution. By early 1914 financial and food aid from Britain, America and Europe were slowly drying up, there was no sign of a compromise from Murphy’s members, and the clergy were urging workers to return. The strikers’ determination began to crumble. Any hope of continued resistance collapsed in February 1914 when the British Trades Union Congress announced it was winding up its relief fund. By the end of the month the lock out was over and the employers claimed total victory.

12. A Conservative Society

The process of modernisation is a highly complex one but certainly the shifts in Irish society do not seem to fit the typical ‘modernisation’ pattern However, Ireland was changing at a dramatic pace and the social and economic order that had emerged by 1914 was more easily recognised as ‘modern’ than that of 1870. These developments can be seen as largely positive in many ways. However, as with all social and economic change, there were costs which certain groups in Irish society had to pay in order that others might benefit. One has to ask whether the costs of change were greater than the benefits. Certainly Ireland emerged as a stable and socially conservative country that did not suffer excessive upheaval during its period of change. The country had, however, only achieved this through high levels of emigration. The removal of potentially discontented elements within Irish society allowed it to develop in a manner that was stable but not innovative. In fact, emigration ensured that ‘modernised’ Ireland was very conservative.

Myrtle Hill & John Lynch (with contributions by Fidelma Maguire)