Why Ireland Starved: A Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy, 1800-1850

Why Ireland Starved: A Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy, 1800-1850

Why Ireland Starved: A Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy, 1800-1850

Why Ireland Starved: A Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy, 1800-1850

Excerpt

This book is not a general survey of the economic history of Ireland between the Union and the famine. It is not intended as such and should not be read for the purpose of an introduction to the subject. It is true that no up-to-date work has tried to supersede O'Brien (1921) as a general textbook covering the period. There is perhaps a reason for that absence: modern scholarship has revised and criticized many of the positions taken by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers, but disagreements among scholars persist and many revisionist positions find themselves subject to the same degree of criticism their proponents have raised against earlier scholarship. It may be appropriate to postpone the writing of more definitive work which synthesizes modern research until the dust has settled on current controversies.

My purpose in this work is to answer one question which is central to Irish economic history: why was Ireland poor? No pretense is made here to provide an overall picture of all aspects of the prefamine economy. To be sure, there are many other interesting research topics in the economic history of prefamine Ireland besides poverty: the emergence of the Belfast linen industry, the rise of the commercial economy which channeled Irish agricultural products to Britain, and the slow rise of a small urban bourgoisie. But what is most striking about this country is that most of the people who lived in Ireland in this period were poor, poorer than in comparable economies in Europe. Poverty was not confined to the proverbially wretched conditions in the Irish West: it was bad in the cottages of Armagh, in the grazing farms of the midlands, and in the Wicklow mountains. It was almost synonymous with life in Ireland. But why?

Answering questions concerning causation in economic history is always controversial. It is not possible to prove anything beyond reasonable doubt. All we can do is to employ a priori reasoning to formulate and test hypotheses and then try our best to test these hypotheses. Both parts of this procedure invite criticism. First, the hypotheses to be tested have to be derived either from some kind of deductive economic reasoning (neoclassical or other), or from the opinions and judgements of contemporaries. The pitfalls in this procedure are obvious: deductive economic reasoning makes a priori assumptions such as "a class structure exists" or "the aggregate production function is of the Cobb- Douglas type" which, if accepted, could yield testable hypotheses. But should such assumptions be accepted? If a hypothesis based on absurd assumptions is found consistent with the data, do we thereby gain any historical insight? Secondly, the testing procedure is by definition hazardous. In a rigorous statistical test we find that a hypothesis is . . .

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