(Published in the Sunday Times, January 4th, 2015)
Alas, personal flaws recur. Similarly, cultural failings may be identified in communities across great distances in time. We hope mistakes are character-building and not repeated, but often lessons are not learnt.
I suggest there were parallels in the current relationship of Irish people with property, and an earlier reaction to the seemingly unlimited supply of potatoes before the Great Famine. Both suggest a tendency towards complacency, though undoubtedly the conduct of our forefathers was more understandable.
The potato plant, solanum tuberosum, is native to the Andean uplands of South America. It is uniquely well-suited to damp and temperate Irish conditions, becoming a staple crop for the native Irish soon after its introduction by British colonists in the early 1600s. Buried in the ground it also proved ideal for peasants confronting the presence of a succession of armies that laid waste to the countryside over the course of the seventeenth century. Large families could live off paltry acreage, and the population grew from under a million in 1600 to over 8 million in the 1840s. In no other Western country has so rapid a rate of natural increase been sustained for so long.
The surge in population was nothing short of a demographic miracle and the population of this island has never since scaled similar heights. But over generations it could not have escaped notice that holdings were being continuously sub-divided, and that sustenance was increasing dependent on the unpalatable but prolific Lumper variety of potato. Yet the pattern of early marriage and large families endured; gynaecological brakes were not applied as occurred in other European peasant societies at that time.
During these decades of unprecedented fecundity, political activism was lacking, even in the face of the continued injustices of the Penal Laws. Most of the leadership of the United Irishmen came from Protestant and Dissenter minorities in Dublin and particularly in Ulster. Of course, a Catholic society denuded of its native leadership (the Earls flew in 1607 and the Wild Geese thereafter) was likely to find it difficult to mobilise politically; still, the relative passivity of the Catholic Irish of the 18th and early 19th centuries is conspicuous.
No Western economy experienced growth, at least in the period 1995-2007, comparable with that of the Celtic Tiger. It was another Irish economic miracle and again political stasis took hold. A party, many of whose members had been revealed as corrupt or inefficient, continued to win elections. The myopic notion that the ‘boom just got boomier’ per Bertie Aherne in 2005 was readily accepted so long as the price of property continued to rise. Even as the noose grew tighter delusional optimism endured. We dined out, flew off for weekends in New York, and snorted cocaine on the back of a great whale that we mistook for terra firma.
Failure of both property and potatoes emanated from America. In the case of the famine it was the dreaded blight, phytophthora infestans, which first blackened the leaves and then reduced the crop to inedible mush. The pin that pierced the Irish bubble, a large boil on a global wart, was marked with another American sign, that of the ruinous Lehmans Brothers Inc. Both the potato blight and the financial meltdown afflicted other countries, but excluding tiny Iceland in the case of the latter, none so severely as Ireland.
The habit of blaming native capitalists is no less apparent: bankers now, profiteers then. The Galway Vindicator’s headline writer in 1846 fulminates:
‘There is no use in thinking that the peace of the country can be maintained while the farmer, merchants, miller, meal monger, baker, and provision huxter seem ruthlessly determined with a cupidity, an avariciousness that puts to the blush every feeling of humanity and libels the very name of Christian, to wring fortunes, if they can, out of vitals of the poor and reaps a golden harvest in the plunder, shameful plunder, of the public.’
The response of politicians was also similar. Nearing the end of his days, the great leader of Catholic Emancipation Daniel O’Connell addressed the House of Commons in 1847: ‘Ireland is in your hands, in your power. If you do not save her, she cannot save herself. I solemnly call upon you to recollect that I predict with the sincerest conviction that a quarter of the population will perish unless you come to her relief’. These words might not be so far distant from our government’s plaintiff appeals to the European Council to reduce the EU’s punitive rate of interest.
Happily Ireland is not now confronted with starvation, only the diminished sovereignty of the state and the continued emigration of many its inhabitants. Unfortunately the nation, the culture writ large, did not learn its lesson and failed to take precautions against the failure of an ambrosial crop.
Partly in reaction to the Famine, over the course of the second half of the nineteenth a highly conservative Catholic church took charge of many of the institutions that would dominate the future state. Moreover, the political movements that emerged espoused an unrealistic romantic nationalism and a conservative view of the state they wished to build on independence.
Hopefully we won’t lose the plot again, and the state we re-build will display a more vibrant political culture, and greater foresight with regard to material accumulation.