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Behind the Erin Curtain

Bryan Fanning

In his 1959 science fiction novel Ossian’s Ride, Fred Hoyle imagined an Ireland of the near future in which startling developments have perplexed the outside world. The year is 1970. How, a young scientist is asked by the British secret service, could such an apparently backward country suddenly manifest bewilderingly advanced technology? The answer seems to lie somewhere beyond a mysterious cordon that extends from Tarbert on the Shannon estuary, via Kanturk and Macroom, to the south Kerry coast. Every nation on earth is directing ninety-five per cent of its undercover activity towards Ireland, but to no avail. Behind the iron curtain that had descended over Kerry there were signs of perplexing technologies at work under the control of the Industrial Corporation of Eire (I.C.E.). I.C.E had come into existence in 1958, soon after the real-life Irish government had adopted its First Programme for Economic Expansion.

In Hoyle’s 1958, a group of scientists had approached the Irish government for permission to set up an industry that would extract chemicals from turf. They asked for and received a ten-year tax break, after which taxes of up to £5 million would be paid each year. But within eight years they were making hundreds of millions of pounds profits per annum from the export of contraceptive pills. The Church fulminated, but to no avail (“Against laughter the Hierarchy fights in vain.” “Think of it, contraceptives from turf!”). But clearly these have not been for Irish use since the birth rate in Ireland has begun to rise. Ireland has become an immigrant destination. Foreign scientists are recruited by I.C.E in large numbers. By 1970 Hoyle’s Ireland has considerable high-tech industry and a chain of commercial nuclear reactors. The British are nervous. And the Americans. If I.C.E can make reactors it can also produce weapons of mass destruction. Hoyle’s scientist hero, Sherwood, eventually discovers that Ireland’s miraculous development is directed by aliens from a dying world.

Science fiction for Hoyle was a sideline. He was one of the best-known British scientists of his time. During the war he had been one of the boffins who developed radar. He was a cosmologist who pioneered the study of nucleosynthesis in stars, calculated the age of the universe and coined the term “Big Bang” that became the shorthand for a theory he didn’t subscribe to. He was preoccupied with science and progress. In the novel, his protagonist eventually joins the aliens and the other scientists living and working behind what one reviewer of Ossian’s Ride called the Erin Curtain. Within their compounds, they are cut off from the surrounding peasantry, whose lives, habits and occupations hardly seem changed by the fantastic technology in their midst.

Some contemporaneous assessments of the condition of Ireland examined what they saw as insurmountable barriers to progress. A 1957 article by John Kelleher in Foreign Affairs entitled “Ireland … and where does she stand?” declared that its leaders had much success in turning the country into the “small, remote and damp but sinless nirvana of their elderly dreams”. By 1957 it was in the midst of an economic crisis, but Kelleher argued that the prime causes of emigration were not economic. Ireland emerged from the war period a creditor nation and in a burst of good sense the government had embarked on large-scale housing and hospital-building programmes and on improving social services. Quite a few new schools were built. However indifferently or unimaginatively, a welfare state was created. All these improvements were in train by 1950 ‑ and that was the year emigration reached 40,000. What the Irish people had been offered and had rejected, according to Kelleher, was a stultifying climate of paternalism:

Long years ago Mr de Valera was credited with the statement that he had only to look into his own heart to know what the Irish people wanted. Whether he said it or not, it sounds like him … What Mr. de Valera found in his heart was a burning desire for compulsory Irish in the schools and civil service; a thoroughgoing, or at least hardworking, censorship; efficiency and honesty in local government (achieved by taking all real powers away from the elected county and borough councils and killing such community initiative as there was); and in general a society based upon Catholic and “Gaelic” principles of “frugal sufficiency” and geared to the supposed tastes and interests of the small-farmer, the truly representative Irish citizen.

For all that the Irish complained about the colonial oppressions that had held them back Ireland had enjoyed a relatively lucky recent history. Its civil war was less bloody and destructive than similar conflicts in post-World War One Europe. It had been spared from the devastation of the Second World War. Ireland, he insisted, had no right to be sick:

If she compares her resources with those of other small Western countries, and its population with what those have to support, one can hardly avoid deciding that Irish ills are largely psychosomatic. True, they can all be explained from history; but to explain is not always to excuse, the less so indeed since Irish history records so little energetic common sense and so much casual acceptance of accidental developments. Any conversation on Ireland in Ireland is almost bound to produce some defensive mention of the terrible troubles the Irish have survived and the hard time of it the nation has had generally. Alas, the truth is that Ireland has had an almost fatally easy time of it, at least in this century.

According to Kelleher, de Valera and his successors had left Ireland a duller and, in spirit, a deader place than they found it. Its complacent elites, its politicians, clergymen, professional Gaels and other comfortable bourgeoisie looking into each other's hearts found there, or pretended to find, the same tepid desires.

Another outside critique, Paul Blanchard’s 1954 book The Irish and Catholic Power, disparaged Ireland’s stultifying conservatism and the voluntary deference of the Irish people to the Church. Ireland’s population had been falling since the Famine a century earlier. Whilst economic factors contributed to low rates of marriage it was also the case, Blanchard argued, that Irish priests had exalted celibacy to the point where it was almost a national catastrophe. Young women had less chance of marriage than those of the same age in any other country. Priests he interviewed ruefully admitted Ireland’s failure to realise Catholic family life for many of its people. Only two out of every five Irishmen between thirty and thirty-four years of age were married, the lowest proportion in the world. The 1951 census showed that the percentage of unmarried was “still the highest in the world”. Blanchard acerbically described the frequent photographs in the Dublin newspapers of “young” married couples, with their balding grooms and ageing brides, looking like extracts from the family albums of the middle-aged. It seemed to him that marriage in Ireland was surrounded with such anxieties, hesitations and fears that only the brave, the foolish, and the well-to-do risked it at the age which was common in other countries. Blanchard contended that the Irish emigrated in large numbers from a socially dysfunctional society, not just for economic reasons. Emigrant lives could be hard, but lives at home were stunted. He argued that Irish young people were leaving their nation “largely because it is a poor place in which to be happy and free”.

These arguments to some extent reflected the views of Catholic modernisers, who from the 1950s articulated a new economic nation-building project that came in time to supplant the earlier cultural nation-building ideals exemplified by de Valera. Retrospective academic analyses of Ireland’s economic development also drew on such perspectives. Most influentially, Joseph Lee concluded his Ireland 1912-1985 Politics and Society with a 176-page essay which evaluated independent Ireland’s “cultural, intellectual and spiritual performance”. Lee set himself the task of explaining the causes of “Ireland’s social and economic backwardness”, “the mystery of the mediocrity of Irish socio-economic performance”, “the dearth of enterprise” and “the absence of an adequate performance ethic in the society”.

Lee attributed the Irish pathology to social practices that were cemented after the Famine. Possession of land was what counted, not its improvement. Wealth came about through inheritance rather than individual economic performance. The nature of Irish farming “itself fostered scepticism about the relationship between effort and reward”. The return on cattle and sheep depended variously on haggling skills at the fair or market and on the “luck” of British prices. According to Lee, post-Famine pastoralism rewarded “strokes” rather than hard work and witnessed the emergence of a “zero sum” mindset whereby people saw the advancement of others as only possible at their own expense. The cure for such prosperity-blocking fatalism, Lee argued, was a liberal mindset adept at enterprise. Lee argued that such begrudgery severely hampered the emergence of meritocracy and of an “enterprise culture”. Intense competition within communities focused on securing advantage over existing sources of wealth, farms and public sector employment. Intense conflicts within families and communities fostered emigration and the marginalisation of those who lost out:

Few peoples anywhere have been so prepared to scatter their children around the world in order to preserve their own living standards. And the children themselves left the country to improve their material prospects. Their letters home are full of references to their material progress, preferably confirmed by the inclusion of notes and money orders. Those who remained at home further exhibited their own worship of the golden calf in their devotion to the primacy of the pocket in marriage arrangements calculated to the last avaricious farthing, in the milking of bovine TB eradication schemes, in the finessing of government grants, subsidies and loans, of medical certificates and insurance claims, in the scrounging for petty advantage amongst protected business men, in the opportunistic cynicism with which wage and salary claims, not to mention professional fees, were rapaciously pursued. The Irish may have been inefficient materialists. That was not due to any lack of concern with material gains. If their values be deemed spiritual, then spirituality must be defined as covetousness tempered by sloth.

The notion that there was something derelict in Irish character had long been a feature of analyses of the condition of Ireland. Visiting political economists during the nineteenth century worried about the unwillingness of the Irish to improve themselves and whilst often they concluded that discrimination against Catholics explained why this was the case, it hardly justified, after Catholic emancipation in 1828, their perceived indolence. To give just one example, Harriet Martineau, who wrote pre- and post-Famine accounts of Irish society, emphasised how prevailing environmental conditions had fostered “habits of slovenly cultivation, of dependence on the potato, and of consequent idleness”. In effect, she advocated a shift away from peasant oral culture towards a more rational organisation of agricultural life centred on “regular and punctual labour” and greater “observance of hours and rules”. She documented examples of tenants not being permitted to improve lands they rented but was, in the main, exasperated by the unwillingness of Catholic peasants to adopt new techniques of working. She argued that giving peasants legal rights of tenure or land ownership would not improve social conditions. She endorsed emigration and land clearances and argued that “the best hope for Ireland lies in the settlement of British capitalism”, meaning the importation of new (non-Catholic) English settlers as part of a rational reorganisation of Ireland’s rural economy. The political economy critique of Ireland ranged from sympathetic analyses that emphasised the legacies of the penal laws against Catholics to social Darwinist perspectives that judged the Irish as inferior for not having bettered themselves.

Elements found favour with some Catholic nationalists, most notably Daniel O’Connell, who was in political alliance with the Liberal Party and had argued on utilitarian grounds against the retention of the Gaelic language because it did not prepare people for employment in Ireland or in the countries to which they emigrated. However, post-Famine nationalists such as John Mitchel influentially depicted liberal political economy as an expression of colonialism. Mitchel’s The Last Conquest of Ireland (perhaps) argued that this defining ideology of British colonial conquest was responsible for the expulsion of Irish peasants after the Famine:

Reflect one moment on the established idea of there being a ‘surplus population’ in Ireland; ‑ an idea and phrase which were at that time unquestioned and axiomatic in political circles; while, at the same time, there were four millions of improvable waste-lands; and Ireland was still, this very year, exporting food enough to feed eight millions of people in England. Ireland, perhaps, was the only country in the world which had both surplus produce for export and surplus population for export; ‑ too much food for her people, and too many people for her food.

Mitchel and those he influenced, like Patrick Pearse, forged a nationalism that railed against the kinds of modernity the British empire and its industrial revolution were seen to exemplify. Douglas Hyde, in his seminal 1892 the The Necessity of De-Anglicising Ireland, strongly advocated the need for cultural isolationism but his definition of culture implicitly included economic ideas as well as language and literature. Their “Irish-Ireland” cultural nation-building project, of which de Valera became custodian, trenchantly opposed the kinds of secular modernity and liberal individualism that were part and parcel of economic liberalism.

In this context of Catholic power and assertive cultural nationalism, criticisms of the inability of the Irish to improve themselves were not taken lying down. Witness the reception of Horace Plunkett’s 1904 manifesto for economic development, Ireland in New Century. The book came in for much criticism from Catholics who found his castigation of their non-economic tendencies to be patronising. Plunkett was the founder of the cooperative movement in Ireland, a major figure of his time, but he lost much of his influence in the furore that followed the publication of his book. Much of his argument about Irish character would resurface eight decades later in Lee’s analysis of cultural barriers to economic modernisation.

Historians like Lee and Tom Garvin in his Preventing the Future: Why was Ireland so poor for so long? place considerable emphasis on the rising 1950s generation of political leaders and civil servants who articulated the need for and put down the institutional foundations of a new developmental nation-building project. Lee, for his part, foregrounded an argument about the need to improve Irish character that seemed to owe a lot to Plunkett specifically and to nineteenth century political economists in a more general ideological sense. This involved moving beyond claims that there existed some pathology of Irish character to considering the means by which the necessary changes could be brought about. For Garvin, a huge part of the challenge was how to dismantle the interlocking interest groups that between them buttressed complacency and blocked innovation. During the 1950s Ireland was still being led by the 1916 generation. Similarities with China’s “long march” gerontocracy come to mind. Sean Lemass, the political leader who enabled the new national-building project to be articulated, was the youngest of the 1916 generation, and a founding member of Fianna Fáil.

A 1958 report, Economic Development, written by TK Whitaker, then secretary of the Department of Finance, came to be regarded as the foundation text of the new developmentalism. Whitaker argued that an integrated programme of national development was urgently needed if Ireland was to survive as an economic entity. He cited a 1957 article by an iconoclastic Catholic cleric, Bishop William Philbin, who had argued that the essence of the problem was “an attitude of mind amongst all groups was inimical to growth”. Philbin, in a Spring 1962 article on the case for joining the Common Market, set himself the task of identifying shortcomings that needed to be addressed. Unlike Fred Hoyle, who considered science and technology as the drivers of progress, Philbin argued that social factors mattered more:

In the test which now confronts us the decisive element will be neither material equipment nor technical skills. The ultimate power-unit of any achievement is the mentality of individual human beings: everything else is in-between machinery of transmission. The future is enquiring of us not so much what we have as who we are.

Philbin rehearsed the stock criticisms of the Irish, arguing that these were often valid, but he pointed out that such strictures seemed to apply less so to Irish people who had integrated themselves into the life of other countries. The success of Irish people in every department of American life suggested that they did better in other more challenging competitive environments that at home. He maintained that if the appropriate influence from abroad could be imported rather than sought by emigration the same benefit might be obtained. The excuse that Ireland’s backwardness was due to past repression had come to the end of its useful life:

If we are not making the most of our country’s assets, if our techniques are behind the times, if many of our products cannot compete on equal terms with those of other nations, if our output is relatively low and if our progress in improving these shortcomings is unsatisfactory, then it is time we tried to discover causes other than historical ones for such general inefficiency. These defects are not facts of nature; they cannot be explained merely in terms of geography or climate or coincidence of mischance; they could be remedied by a people sufficiently determined to remedy them.

Philbin argued that economic development had replaced political and agrarian reform as the basis on which Ireland’s future as a nation would be determined. Old forms of “messianic” nationalism no longer held the keys to the future. There might be no glory in fighting an adverse trade balance, and nobody would write ballads about it, but the true patriots of the age, he insisted, were those who took risks for and made great exertions for the economic well-being of their country.

Whitaker, in an essay published in 1961, argued that “the psychological factor” was the most important factor of production in Ireland. Within a few years the call for such psychological change had transmuted into the claim that such change had been the main achievement of economic development policies. In a 1964 essay Garret FitzGerald argued that that Economic Development and subsequent attempts at planning “more than anything” provided “a psychological basis for economic recovery” insofar as it helped change radically the unconscious attitude of many influential people and to make Ireland a growth-orientated community. What was described as psychology was a proxy for ideology and even faith in a new Irish manifest destiny. Economic Development was repeatedly invoked in dozens of articles in a manner that recalled how an earlier generation ritualistically referred to papal encyclicals. Around Whitaker and Economic Development a new nation-building renaissance myth was propagated, along the lines advocated by Philbin, one less glamorous than the 1916 Rising, which had put de Valera’s generation of nationalists into power, but effective nevertheless. Whitaker’s argument that cultural change was a precondition of economic development evolved into the mantra that a cultural change had precipitated the sixties boom and a new institutional Irish history that dated progress from 1958. For all that he championed what would now be called evidence-based policy-making, Whitaker could at times make improbable claims. In an otherwise dry as dust 1966 essay “Economic Planning in Ireland” he claimed that it was no coincidence that the psychological stimulus of planning coincided with a strong period of economic growth between 1958 and 1963.

Within Irish intellectual politics the new developmental narrative was part of a wider revisionism that challenged how romantic nationalists had portrayed the Irish past. Yet from O’Connell’s time liberalism had been a main current of Irish intellectual life. It had only ever been partially subordinated by cultural nationalism. Ireland’s economic policies remained those of nineteenth century liberals until Lemass and Whitaker ushered in a belated Keynesian emphasis on using state expenditure to pump-prime economic growth. When the civil service journal Administration published an issue to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising, it made no mention of Pearse, James Connolly or even de Valera. Instead it published four articles on different strands of public administration between 1916 and 1966. One of these noted that the many organisations devoted to various aspects of Irish culture had apparently failed in their objectives. Young people were apparently not as interested “as they should [be] in either the language or the history of the country”. Another article in the 1916-themed issue was entitled “Sir Horace Plunkett as an Administrator”. Plunkett was portrayed as an apt role model (for heroes were not required) for the new modern Ireland that was to be built from policies and plans.

Beyond such limp institutional narratives it fell mostly to Fianna Fáil political leaders to communicate the new national geist to the Irish people. A 1963 cover story in Time magazine, which read like an upbeat sequel to Kelleher’s 1957 article, celebrated Lemass as the leader of a new progressive Ireland. His son-in-law, and future taoiseach, Charles Haughey, exemplified the break with earlier cultural nationalist frugality. Only one businessman, however, was to become taoiseach. Albert Reynolds played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process but his administration was otherwise mired in accusations of business corruption investigated by the so-called Beef Tribunal.

By the time Hoyle wrote Ossian’s Ride important changes in Irish economic policy had already been mooted. The sixties witnessed the expansion of secondary education, increased urbanisation and the beginnings of secularisation. In 1961 Ireland applied to join the Common Market and was admitted twelve years later. Irish economic development owed much to investment by multinational companies. The task of attracting these fell to the Industrial Development Authority (IDA), an earthly equivalent of the I.C.E. that operated in Hoyle’s fictional 1970. Kerry never got an alien-run contraceptive factory but Ringaskiddy down the coast in Co Cork acquired something similar. Pfizer first built a chemical plant there in 1969 and went on to manufacture most of the world’s supply of Viagra.

In a sense, the developmental nation-building narrative that placed Whitaker at its centre was also a kind of fiction. Economic Development did not emerge in isolation from the trials and errors of a whole generation of previous effort. It did not introduce fundamentally new ideas to the Irish scene. There had long been an interplay between economic liberalism and cultural nationalism, but from the 1950s the balance shifted away from the later. Compared to the 1916 Rising and the literature of the Gaelic Revival, Economic Development was thin gruel on which to nourish a new nation-building mythos. The kind of economic patriotism advocated by Philbin was hardly as glamorous that advanced by the heroes of 1916. The challenge for advocates of the new nation-building project, and here we should include the historians who wrote about its importance, was to canonise a second greatest generation. But perhaps what also happened was that Irish people mostly forgot the founding heroes of Irish independence, or remembered them differently.


Professor Bryan Fanning is the Head of the School of Applied Social Science at UCD. His books include The Quest for Modern Ireland: The Battle of Ideas 1912-1986 and Racism and Social Change in the Republic of Ireland.