Fiction, Famine, and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland

By Gordon Bigelow | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Esoteric solutions: Ireland and the colonial critique
of political economy

In the manuscript collection of the National Library of Ireland, there is a diary recording the impressions of an anonymous English traveler who toured Ireland in 1837. In a digression on the “manners” of the Irish people, the writer comments on the frequent, idiosyncratic use of the English word “elegant”:

The word Elegant is applied by them to almost every thing: two kennel makers
with their faces like the mud they grope in will accost one another with, “we[ll]
Pat and how are ye, by the powers you look elegant this cold morning.” [I]f by a
fire side “let the fire alone ye spallpeen it will be an Elegant one by and bye[”] A
dead pig at a butcher shop will also have the appelation of being elegant.1

The anecdote illustrates a broad perception in the era preceding the Irish Famine that the Irish are completely outside the system of market value that encompassed English society. The story seems to point out that a person living in utter poverty can have no power to discern what is “elegant” from what is not. But reference to the “faces like mud” invokes the question of national and racial difference, which will grow increasingly important within the analysis of Irish economic life. In this discourse, once the disastrous scope of starvation in Ireland becomes clear, the representation of the problem will begin to change. The scorn of the above observer seems linked to his judgment that the Irish are outside British economic systems, with no ability to discern filth from finery, or the human body from dirt.2 Real elegance is lost on “kennel makers.” In the period of the Famine, however, commentators begin to claim that Ireland simply has a different economy from England's, one that cannot be understood in English terms.

In their book Political Economy and Colonial Ireland, Thomas Boylan and Timothy Foley have documented this gradual shift in economic theory and popular ideology in Ireland over the course of the nineteenth century. The Famine, they show, was a watershed in this process, providing clear evidence for cultural nationalists to argue that Ireland could not be ruled

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