‘Ireland in 1916 was not poor, oppressed or downtrodden’

A plaque dedicated to Roger Casement which was unveiled during a ceremony on Wednesday at  Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, to commemorate the centenary of his execution

A plaque dedicated to Roger Casement which was unveiled during a ceremony on Wednesday at Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, to commemorate the centenary of his execution

A century after Roger Casement was hanged for high treason, the failed Easter Rising gun-runner was this week hailed in some quarters as a great humanitarian. But historian GORDON LUCY argues here that Casement’s view of Ireland in 1916 was not borne out by the facts ...

According to Charles Flanagan, Dublin’s Foreign Affairs Minister: “It is very clear that, as an Irish nationalist, Casement was motivated by a deep sense of the injustice he witnessed in the suffering which affected many in Irish society and an equally strong belief in the right of the people of Ireland to decide their own futures.”

Despite his experience in the Congo and Peru, Casement managed to convince himself that Ireland had “suffered at the hands of British administrators a more prolonged series of evils, deliberately inflicted, than any other community of civilised men”.

It is exceedingly difficult to take this assertion seriously.

On September 18, 1914 the Third Home Rule Bill had received the Royal Assent and was placed on the Statute Book. Admittedly, the Act was accompanied by Suspensory Act, suspending its operation until the end of the Great War. It was also accompanied by an assurance from H. H. Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister, that “the employment of force, any kind of force, for … the coercion of Ulster, is an absolutely unthinkable thing … a thing which we would never countenance or consent to”.

In other words, at the end of the Great War the greater part of the island (either 26 or 28 counties) would come under the jurisdiction of a Home Rule parliament in Dublin. Thus, the goal to which most nationalists had aspired since the formation of the Home Rule Party in 1870 was on the brink of realisation, albeit imperfectly.

The remaining four or six counties would not come under the jurisdiction of a Home Rule parliament because nationalists had conspicuously failed to persuade Ulster unionists of the merits of such constitutional arrangements or to allay their fears. Be that as it may, the Home Rule Act had changed the relationship between the two islands and ought to have removed any justification for violence.

Ireland on the eve of the 1916 Rising was not a poor, oppressed or downtrodden country. On the contrary, the Act of Union in 1801 had incorporated a society of retarded development into the most advanced country in the world.

The Union transformed Irish society through the adaptation of British administrative solutions to Irish conditions and far-reaching state intervention in a wide range of areas, notably public health, education, the land question and economic development.

For example, with respect to public health, in 1805 the Government created dispensaries for the sick in each county and in 1819 sanitary officers were appointed to supervise and inspect the lunatic asylums, which had been set up in 1817.

With respect to education, in 1831 the [Irish] National Board of Education set up a system of primary schools decades before England could boast the same and in 1845 the Government built and endowed three university colleges.

From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, Government legislated to protect tenants and also to promote, with public financial assistance, the distribution of land among occupiers.

Government intervention was widespread and frequently welcome. In 1846 Friedrich Engels, after a visit to Ireland, substantiated the first point when he noted, “The Government meddles with everything.” And Robert Peel substantiated the second by observing in 1814, “There is a disposition in Ireland to refer everything to Government.” He added, “I think the majority have the same idea of Government which the natives are said to have of the East India Company.” In other words, there was an in-built preference for a paternalist approach to Government.

The Union inaugurated a national uniformity previously unknown and laid the foundations, political and administrative, of modern Ireland, north and south.

By the beginning of the twentieth century Ireland was actually a rich country – one of the richest in Europe. Income per head was on a par with the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Yet 70 years after the Rising in 1986, Irish income per head was half that of the Scandinavians.

Two out of three people born in the twenty-six county state in the 1930s – ‘the first real generation of the new State’ – ended up living abroad, usually in

England. This scarcely constitutes a ringing endorsement of Irish independence.

In his budget of 1924 Ernest Blythe, the Irish Free State’s finance minister, notoriously reduced old age pensions from ten shillings a week to nine shillings a week. Why did he do so? In 1909 John Redmond, the nationalist leader, denounced old age pensions as ‘an extravagance that would not have been indulged in by an Irish [Home Rule] parliament’. On the eve of independence, the Exchequer in London subsidised Irish pensions to the tune of £4 million, three-quarters of which went to the twenty-six counties which constituted the Irish Free State. Without the British subvention, Blythe was obliged to confront the painful reality that the cost of the British standard of pension provision was too great for the Free State to bear.

Unhappily for the people of the twenty-six counties, they left the United Kingdom at a point at which the advantages of being part of the United Kingdom were becoming even greater.

As Professor David McWilliams of Trinity College, Dublin, one of Ireland’s leading economic commentators and the first economist to identify the Irish boom as nothing more than a credit bubble, has quite rightly pointed out, “The heroes of 1916 were economically clueless” and the people of the twenty-six counties paid for their economic illiteracy.