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Review… Sins of the Father – Conor McCabe. Irish History Press (2011) July 14, 2011

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.

This review is by SonofStan…for which many thanks…

What follows won’t exactly be a conventional review of Sins of the Father, and for two reasons: firstly, I know Conor slightly, and have discussed some of the material in the book with him, and read all the pieces on Dublin Opinion that preceded and informed it. So while this may not be as compromised in terms of reviewer disinterest as ex-Senator Harris’s glowing encomium to Ruth Dudley-Edwards’ Why Are Irish People Grudgeful?, it is unlikely to be entirely objective either: I was well- disposed to this book long before ever seeing a copy. Secondly, and more importantly, I imagine a fair number of people reading this will have either already read the book, or will do so, irrespective of anything I say. So in this regard, the advertising function of a glowing review is also irrelevant.
I will, therefore, be less concerned with telling you what a good book this is and why you should buy it – it is, of course, and you should – and more to do with examining matters arising. It is not at all a criticism to say there is no new information here: a look at the notes while show that all of Conor’s sources are in the public domain. Newspapers, books, academic papers: no hitherto unrevealed sources, no new letters or emails that explain ‘everything’. What is new is the piecing together of this information and the construction of what – in the end – seems the only possible conclusion, or conclusions. So, if all this information was already out there, why didn’t the people charged with studying this – economists and economic historians – spot all of this before?

This is a relatively short book, and it covers a great deal, and with fine, polemical force: it is admirably concise, but necessarily selective, and, in respect of all of it, there is much ‘reading in’ to be done, and indeed, Conor has already started running some ‘B-sides and Outtakes’ on Dublin Opinion. I had intended to talk about all of it, in greater or lesser detail – and the housing chapter, especially, deserves a longer discussion here – but that would have been beyond the scope of even an already much too long review, so what I want to do instead is to show how, with respect to one particular aspect of the Irish economy –agricultural policy – the very same information was used to build an entirely different narrative, and how that narrative became the official story of the Irish economy since independence. In order to do this, I want to view the same information through a different lens.

That lens is James Meenan’s book The Irish Economy Since 1922 (Manchester University Press: 1970). Conor briefly references it in his text (McCabe 77) although it is absent from the bibliography. Meenan was Professor of Political Economy and National Economics in UCD, and his only other book was an appreciation of his colleague and predecessor, George O’Brien, a man who, as Conor notes, was a friend of Patrick Hogan, the Minister of Agriculure in the first Cummann Na nGaedheal government. Meenan’s background and education might dispose him towards a sympathetic view of the CnaG/ Fine Gael orthodoxy, and his book largely confirms this. Nevertheless, it is a thorough and clear account of what happened when, and the more political parts of it offer an interesting insight into what the current generation of UCD economists would have been taught. He held his chair from 1961 until the late seventies, and a short list of those who studied economics at UCD during that period would include Colm McCarthy, Moore McDowell and John Fitzgerald. So it is likely, to say the least, that his book represents a link in a chain that stretches from the economic policies that set the state on the road, to the people who advise the current lot. It was published just after the midpoint between independence and now – before the EEC, before the Oil Crisis, and at a time of modestly optimistic expectations for the future.

Conor’s book consists of 5 chapters: on housing, agriculture, industry, finance, and a final one on the current crisis. Meenan divides up the territory in a roughtly similar fashion, though at (much) greater length. However, it is instructive to note two variations: Meenan doesn’t have a chapter on housing, and, indeed, the building industry as a whole is remarkably underrepresented in his book. It is taken as a given for every other kind of economic activity, much as water or power or transport are treated, but is not, in itself, considered as one of those activities. It is hard to imagine that a book written even ten years later would have been capable of such a glancing presentation.

Equally, Conor’s book has no specific chapter on population and population change, to which Meenan devotes a long chapter. Emigration is not, of course, ignored in the Sins of the Father, but neither is it given the centrality as both an index and a cause of economic underachievement that Meenan affords it. I’ll come back to this, but briefly: Conor quotes Senator O’Farrell in 1923, to the effect that ‘the ranches were created by filling the emigrant ships’ (McCabe 63). In other words, mass emigration suited the graziers and their political servants, and therefore, if it was not actively encouraged, no serious attempt was being made to curtail it. Meenan’s argument is revealingly different: because the young people all emigrated, leaving children, the old and the infirm, there was a shortage of suitable labour to attract industry, at least until the sixties. Therefore the country lacked an essential resource needed for development. He further argues that the provision of technical education effectively functioned as a source of skilled labour for British industry – we trained them, and the ingrates took their skills to well- paid jobs, decent housing and a functioning health service in Birmingham or Glasgow. And, in a very revealing phrase – and again, I will return to this – he characterises this as a ‘clash between the interests of the Irish individual and the Irish state’ (Meenan: 1970 269).

The chapter on agriculture is the pivot around which Sins of the Father turns, I think. You can sense the excitement at discovering the absolute centrality of the cattle industry to the whole story in some posts Conor wrote last year. On first reading, the sentence that leapt out at me was ‘But Ireland was always part of the modern era’ (McCabe 61) and that’s the big insight: Agriculture, is not the opposite, or the complement of industry, as it was presented in our school geography – it is an industry, and Irish agriculture was a production line stretching from the small farms of the west to the slaughterhouses of East London, and the small farmer, raising his handful of calves, before selling them on to the grazier in the east, had more in common with an industrial piece- worker than with the generic European peasant. And further, Ireland – and Irish beef production – was an integral part of the biggest, and most developed economy in the world by the end of the 19th century.

Meenan’s book is in two parts: the first section analyses the various sectors of the economy and their performance since independence – the second is more engaged and offers prognoses and critiques of each segment in turn. It is instructive to compare Meenan’s chapter on “Agriculture: Issues of Policy” with Conor’s corresponding chapter. Both quote almost the same passage from George O’Brien’s eulogy to Patrick Hogan, to the effect that:

The principle aim of agricultural policy in the Free State should therefore be the maximisation of the farmer’s income, and not, as in certain other countries differently situated, the provision of food for the urban population or the solution to the unemployment problem. (McCabe 70/ Meenan 303)

The rationale for this prioritisation – from which Hogan was never deflected, even by actual cases of rural starvation (McCabe 71) – was as follows: farmers (for which read: ranchers) were the most important segment of the economy because, almost alone, they were the export sector – which meant that, as Meenan puts it:

Policy should encourage the concentration of public and private resources on the production and marketing of commodities for which the country possessed the greatest comparative advantage. In the 1920s, after 80 years of free trade, it was fairly clear that the forms of production which the Irish farmer had adopted under those conditions were prima facie those in which he had the greatest superiority. (Meenan 304)

Livestock production was, effectively, the export sector, and thus without it, the country would have been unable to finance its imports. Large farmers were therefore – affirms Meenan – of national importance, and, in a classic piece of special pleading, as Conor notes, quoting Joe Lee:

…dogmatic free traders cleverly succeeded in confusing all farmers purchases with farming ‘costs’. There was no immediate reason why protection on consumer goods should have directly and sharply increased farmers costs of production, as distinct from the cost of living. The convenient confusion between farmers’ consumer purchases and producer purchases was a shrewd propagandist non-sequitur (J.J. Lee, quoted in McCabe 74)

The result of this was twofold, as Meenan states, more or less approvingly. Farmers’ costs were to be kept down, and thus, he ought to be free to purchase as cheaply as he could, wherever he could, so no tariffs were imposed to protect the domestic production of feed or fertilizer. Equally:

The agricultural community formed the principle market for Irish industrial products, whose expansion depended on its prosperity. It followed that protection by tariff for industry should be sparingly applied and confined to those cases where there was a reasonable cause to believe there would not be a permanent increase in costs. (Meenan 304)

It is, I think, no exaggeration to say that, until you understand the absolute priority given to the demands of the agricultural sector – and further, one particular sector of that sector, the production of cattle for live export – the rest of the story of the Irish economy cannot be understood. Everything else – the uneven pattern of industrial development, the maintenance of the link with sterling, the delay in setting up a central bank – flows from this one point.

The thing is, of course, such a policy didn’t appear demented to its architects, firstly, because they – or their class – were the beneficiaries of such a policy, but also because it did seem to have some ostensibly compelling, ‘objective’ features to recommend it. Ireland, or rather the Free State, was an agricultural economy, and manufacturing and other industry was very weak in comparison with its neighbours. In 1907, slightly under 300,000 were employed in industrial pursuits [32 counties]: the figure for Scotland was 885,000, at a time when the population of the latter was about 500,000 greater than that of the island of Ireland. In 1931, the figure for the 26 counties was just over 100,000. (Meenan 134). The comparable figure for those engaged in agriculture in 1926 was 670,000. And even in 1967, the last year for which figures were available to Meenan, very close to 30% of the population was engaged in agriculture. (inter alia, that figure comes from a table comparing the proportions of the labour force in various sectors across Western Europe, and I can’t resist pointing out something not directly relevant to this: the five countries with the highest proportion of the population engaged in agriculture in 1967 are Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy, and the first four also comprise the bottom four with respect to levels of industrial employment).

In light of this, the five reasons that O’ Brien offers for Hogan’s policy with respect to agriculture, a policy that, as we have seen, set the course for the economy over at least the next four decades, and the consequences of which we are living with still, have the appearance of ‘common sense’. These reasons are:
In the first place, it utilized to the maximum the physical and geographical resources of the country; secondly, it developed those branches of production which are particularly suitable for the average Irish farm; thirdly, it did not involve any breach in continuity in the tradition of Irish farming or in the constructive programme of the Department of Agriculture; fourthly, it promised to provide abundant rural employment, as the agricultural statistics prove that mixed farming with dairying as the principle feature gives more employment per acre than almost every other type of agricultural activity; fifthly, food production would be stimulated and the population of the Free State could never be reduced to famine during wartime. The alternative objectives of agricultural policy, namely employment and food production, would thus be incidentally secured. (O’Brien, quoted in Meenan, 305)

This relatively short paragraph encapsulates the mixed appeal to naturalism, to tradition and to the logic of the market that determined policy in the first years of this state: if nothing else, it substantiates Balfour’s claim (Meenan 15), that the polity the Free State took over was the one built by the Tories in their own likeness so as to ‘kill home rule with kindness’. To take them in turn: the first two are a simple repetition of the ‘God gave us the plains of Meath for a reason’ argument, the third elevates a relatively recent pattern of development into ‘a tradition’, the fourth, as Conor amply illustrates, is simply a lie: not only was the rest of the economy entirely subordinate to farming, but agriculture as a whole was entirely subordinate to beef production. The fifth is piety. And the notion that the object of employment and food production would be ‘incidentally’ secured, is a structure of thought repeated again and again through the economic history of the state: just as desirable housing outcomes would be ‘incidentally’ secured by offering tax incentives to builders, or employment outcomes would be ‘incidentally’ secured by a low corporation tax and the construction of, effectively, an offshore tax haven in the ISFC. The idea of directly setting out to achieve socially useful ends, rather than by the diversion of the states resources into private hands, appears never to have occurred to ‘us’.
Nevertheless, from the ‘official’ point of view, despite the sagacity and selflessness of our native ruling- class, it was clear to Meenan that it hadn’t really worked out as planned. Ireland in 1970 remained underdeveloped, both agriculturally and with regard to other economic activity, the population was limping along around the 3m mark, with bulges still at each end – the very young and the very old – and a shortage of those of working age to support the rest. How had it happened? I noted earlier his conclusion that, in matters of emigration, there was a ‘clash’ between individual interests and the interests of the Irish state – the young and able-bodied taking themselves off to decent prospects, good housing and proper health and education in the UK, rather than staying here to be patronised and bullied. Well, apparently with regard to farming, it was the people all over again who weren’t doing their bit: and in particular small farmers, who refuse to adapt, to learn new tricks: Irish agriculture has ‘a long, unhappy and complicated history’ he sighs(Meenan 308). Problems of ‘psychology and attitudes of mind’ resistant to robust competition are ‘a recipe for a stagnant state and a second-rate people’ (Meenan 314). Interesting how tradition and continuity are laudable with regard to prosperous farmers, but to be deprecated when it comes to the other end of the scale. Put crudely, too crudely maybe, I suspect that Meenan feels that the state, or at least the state in CnaG/ FG hands, and under Lemass/ Whitaker, did its best, but the people – the bastards – let it down.

Conor, of course, also sees the history of our economy as a clash between ‘individual interests and the interests of the Irish state’ but correctly identifies those individual interests as being the interests of a particular sector of society, over-represented in politics, banking and finance, and with familial and business links with the grazier and rancher class, whose interests are decidedly not identical with those of the Irish state, if that state means ‘the rest of us’.

There was loads more I wanted to talk about, but this is already much too long: the history of the Irish banking sector, for instance, offers just as dispiriting a narrative. One story from a very recent paper by Cormac Ó Gráda is worth repeating in this regard though: In 1940 a delegation from the Bank of Ireland travelled to meet the head of the Bank of England, Montague Norman, to seek reassurance concerning the safely and liquidity of Irish capital held there. This is what he told them:

Notwithstanding the long and intimate relations between the two institutions he was not prepared to commit the Bank of England by promising to come to the assistance of the Bank of Ireland in an emergency of the nature under discussion. As an ordinary banking transaction there would be no question whatever about making an advance to the Bank, but in an emergency situation there was an important principal (sic) involved. The Bank of England looked upon Eire as a Dominion… Mr. Norman stressed the view that the Bank whose centre of gravity was in Eire‘ should look to their own Treasury or the Currency Commission to help them over difficult periods. Sir John [Keane, Deputy Governor of the Bank of Ireland] pointed out that the position in Eire did not admit of a solution in that way, as the Treasury came to the Bank when it was short of funds, and the Currency Commission was not a lender of the last resort. Mr. Norman then urged that as Eire was a separate political entity it should have a Central Bank of its own.

(in Ó Gráda ‘Five Crises’ delivered as Central Bank of Ireland, TK Whitaker Lecture 2011 – available on irisheconomy.ie)

Being told by the central banker of the former colonial power, nearly 20 years after independence, that it was possibly time to take over the management of your own treasury, must have smarted ever so slightly.
The absence of a Central Bank had of course been noted before, and ignored: it didn’t suit the commercial banks to submit to the oversight of such an institution, and that, for two decades, was that.
As Conor notes, writing about the position in the thirties:
It was a testimony to the power of the (commercial) banks in the Free State that, after 16 years, two commissions, and one international financial crisis, their ability to dictate the pace and direction of Irish economic growth to suit their own business agenda to the detriment of almost all other aspects of Irish economic and social life remained undaunted. (McCabe 133)

You could, of course, substitute ‘90’ for ‘16’ in that sentence without any great sacrifice in accuracy.


1. Logan - July 14, 2011

There seems to be some confusion here as to what exactly Conor (or sonofstan)is criticising. One of the factors he mentions is that the dependence on agriculture in the early years of the state meant that not enough emphasis was placed in developing our own industial base. i think few would disagree with that.

But he seems to expand this to a criticism of the government promotion of the beef industry in particular. This is a common enough theme amongst left wing critiques of the agricultural policy of the Irish Free State. But it is rarely substantiated. There is a sneering tone taken at the “God Gave us the plains of Meath for a reason” attitude amongst officialdom at the time. But have Conor or sonofstan any ideas as to how the farmland of Meath would have been better employed in the 20’s and 30’s than in the procuction of beef for the our near beighbours in the British market?

If so, i would like to hear it.

it seems to me that the attitude that Ireland had a comparative advantage in the production of beef was not just a result of the deluded “common sense” attitude of officialdom of the time, but was the objective reality.

Also, the comment that Irish officialdom were not put off their policy of regarding high food prices as a good thing by reports of “actual rural starvation”.

My understanding is that the Irish government at the time were mainly concerned with obtaining high prices for Irish export products – mainly beef and bacon – to Britain. I am not sure how cheaper beef -which the rural poor would have rarely tasted at the time – would have made much of a difference to rural hunger.

in fact, cheaper prices for the export products would have been bad for the Irish rural poor at the time, not good. For most of the rural poor would have been agricultural labourers back then. So lower food prices would have meant less money in the pockets of the farmers, and so attempts to save money by cutting back on the wages of their labourers by employing them less or paying them less for their labour. Most poor Irish rural families would have been better able to fend off hunger with higher food prices and a father with a job than somewhat lower food prices but no money to buy it.

Also, the article gives the indication that there was little resistance o the domination of “everything to help the ranchers is good” ideology of the time. But that is not so – even if the resistance was not dressed up in a leftist way. Throughout the period there was a lot resistance from rural Ireland to the large farmer interest – look at the history of the co-operative movement or political parties like Clann na Talmhan. Perhaps Conor does not want to look at them too deeply because most had views along the lines of “lets get everybody settled on twenty acres and have a mad autarky policy” (and often heavily infused with by conservative Catholicism) but they were an oppositional force at the time.


sonofstan - July 14, 2011

Conor will probably answer this better than i will, but I wasn’t arguing that we should have ignored the beef industry, or attempted to dismantle it: it was the absolute prioritisation of it that was the target, so that measures that would have helped develop and sustain other industry and employment were stymied because of their probable effect on agricultural -primarily beef – production -and on the producers.

I didn’t say that high food prices were the cause of -well documented – rural starvation: my argument was that the under-and un- employment consequent on the policies of the government with regard to the development of industry and protection of that industry, and the shape of farming, led to appalling social consequences: consequences that CnaG seemed to imagine would be ‘eventually’ ameliorated by a trickle-down effect……

The stuff about Clann na Talhhan is interesting.


LeftAtTheCross - July 14, 2011

“Most poor Irish rural families would have been better able to fend off hunger with higher food prices and a father with a job than somewhat lower food prices but no money to buy it.”

That’s a pretty thin apology for trickle-down economics isn’t it? Is there not an argument that the small farm sizes favoured by the Land Commission, too small to economically sustain a family, forced a proletarianisation of the rural population, i.e. hunger as a result of market-driven commodification, selling labour for money, buying food with money?


Conor McCabe - July 14, 2011

That’s correct LATC, in fact that point about uneconomic farms created by government policy was made by the chief inspector of the land commission itself, Mr. J.J. Waddell. Just to give the quote:

“In 1936, J.J. Waddell, the chief inspector of the Land Commission, argued that the minimum requirement for sustainable farming was 32.5 acres.75 However, the size of new farms created by the government was limited to 22 acres, not enough to provide anything more than feeder farms for the ranchers, and certainly not large enough to threaten the system of production. Waddell cited the experience of the Rath Carn resettlement in County Meath, where families were given 20 to 200 acres each. ‘Practically every family is sending members across the water to England’ wrote Waddell, ‘to assist the occupiers in living on these holdings and help to pay the annuity and rates, and to exist on them.’76 However, any move to make small farmers economically self-sufficient would affect the supply of calves to graziers and fatteners – not because they would automatically switch to tillage, but because such redistribution would allow small farmers to fatten calves past the time which their present holdings would allow. The pressure to sell a calf after one to two years would lessen, and graziers and fatteners may be compelled to pay more for the product. The ranchers didn’t just want small farmers to produce calves for them, they wanted poor small farmers who were not in a position to feed calves for much longer than a year.”


2. conor mccabe - July 14, 2011

Hi Logan,

my criticisms of the Irish cattle industry are the same as those of Ibec, the amercian consultancy firm that was brought over in the early 1950s to look at the structure of the Irish economy – namely that it was the export of live cattle that was nuts. Ireland didn;t have a beef industry, that was the problem. Britain had a beed industry and the ranchers of Meath were supplying it.

I don’t know if Ibec was in fact an Irish left-wing mole burrowing its way through government policy in the 1950s, but I doubt it.

The ‘objective’ fact that in Ireland, as Ibec put it, cattle was king, and it was the export of live cattle that was killing growth in the economy.

I use a quote in the book to give a sense of the energy of their report, and the possibilities for an actual beef industry instead of a live cattle export industry the purpose of which was to feed the acutal beef industry in Britain.

first of all, here’s Ibec (the american firm, not the irish umbrella group), giving its thoughts on the ‘natural’ irish cattle industry:

“It appears to an outsider that the overall pattern of the Irish cattle industry has been organised in a fashion that serves the convenience of the economy of the United Kingdom rather than its own economy. The historical basis of this mode of procedure is easy to understand, if not condone, but its persistence for so long a period after the Republic of Ireland had won its political independence is somewhat of an enigma.
There can be no doubt that the organization of Ireland’s cattle industry is exceptional in the degree to which its product is disposed of through export shipments of live cattle and, consequently, in the meagreness of its meat production from cattle in Ireland relative to the size of its cattle industry.
appears to be no more heavily concentrated on the dairying aspects of its cattle industry than either the United Kingdom or the United States. One would expect that exceptionally favourable prices would have been required to induce the Republic of Ireland to commit so large of her cattle to live shipment, but this situation does not appear to have applied. (p.73)”

and here they are on the potential of an actual irish beef industry:

“…the initial processing alone in Ireland of live cattle worth £20 million would add £3.6 million of processing activity to the Irish economy … There would be available on the Irish market an additional £3.5 million of hides (468,000 times 60 pounds time 30 pence per pound) for local processing which, since the fellmongery and leather category adds some 41 per cent in net product to the cost of materials, might contribute another £1.4 million of processing activity. This could make a substantial contribution also to Ireland’s exchange position since Ireland’s leather imports in 1949 (net of leather imports) amounted to £1.3 million. If the additional supply of leather from a domestic source was not of a suitable type to displace imported shoe leathers, it might be used substantially to increase leather manufactures of other types in Ireland. Estimating upon the analogy of Ireland’s boot and shoe industry, in which the net product amounts to about 70 per cent of materials costs, this could increase manufactures based on leather by £2.52 million, (£3.5 for hides and £1.4 for leather processing minus £1.3 imports times 7). Offal value should amount to at least £3 per beast, and that would provide another £1.4 million of raw materials for processing. ”

There was no Irish beef industry to talk of until the 1970s, yet you seem to argue that there was – and not only did it exist but the Irish government was doing everything it could to promote it!

Can you please give me evidence of this developed, Irish-government-encouraged, Irish beef industry in the 1950s, because even Ibec missed out on that one!

you start off your comment by stating that Ireland exported beef to Britain in the 1930s. We did nothing of the sort! you are absolutely completely and utterly wrong.

We exported live cattle to feed the British beef industry. And I make that point very clear in the book – as, indeed, did Ibec in the 1950s and more recently the UCD historian, Paul Rouse, in his excellent book, Ireland’s Own soil.

As regard to Clann na Talmhan, my book is about tracing the decisions that shaped the irish economy.

what decisions did clann na talmhan influence in the shaping of that economy?


3. Conor McCabe - July 14, 2011

As an aside, and to tie in with what Sonofstan says about Irish economic historical writings, Cormac O’Grada in his recent irish central bank whitaker lecture made the following point:

“In 1940 the Free State produced 4.5 million pair of leather footwear and 1 million pair of rubber footwear. Only a quarter of a million pairs were imported. But this was not self-sufficiency, because although Irish tanneries produced most of the necessary leather, only about half of the hides they used were home-produced, and virtually none of the chemicals, nails, and other components. Naturally, the raw materials for rubber boots and shoes were all imported.” (p.20)

The fact that Ireland was exporting live cattle to Britain, and then IMPORTING cattle hides FROM Britain, is of no concern to O’Grada.

It’s amazing, but he doesn’t delve into this at all in his lecture. It’s staring him in the face, and he cannot see it.


Jim Monaghan - July 15, 2011

Could I add a point on the leather industry. There was a problem with the warble fly which was endemic. This left the leather with holes an off a low grade. My father was an early adopter of the spray for dealing with it. Irish agriculture produced low quality. My father also said that during WW2, the British took everything and paid top price. And were given low quality. After they reverted to Argentinian beef.As well Scottish beef got a premium on the London market.Foras Taluntais (set up with American aid) did wonders in promoting quality against a mindset which was unfriendly.


4. LeftAtTheCross - July 14, 2011

SoS, any chance you might rewrite this book review for say the Irish Farmers Journal, making the arguments you’ve made above, but aimed at a very different readership obviously? Serious suggestion. Whether they’d publish it is another matter altogether.


Conor McCabe - July 14, 2011

I wasn’t going to comment on this review as who wants the author barging in, elbows flying, but Logan called on me so I felt I had to reply, but I’ll finish after this I promise.

Just to echo LATC and The Irish Farmers Journal – it is worth noting that the Irish Farmers Journal puslished Paul Rouse’s book, Ireland’s Own Soil, and anyone who has read my book will know the debt I owe to him and that work.

Ireland’s Own Soil is quite, quite brilliant. I wouldn’t agree with all of the conclusions, but the research and analysis is stunning.

and that was published by the Irish Farmers Journal.


5. sonofstan - July 14, 2011

This is rather like that scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen is being driven mad by a guy behind him in the cinema queue pontificating about Marshall MacLuhan and produce McLuhan himself to answer the guy’s argument 🙂


6. FergusD - July 14, 2011

I really enjoyed “Sins of the Fathers” and got a lot from it, it really points out the peculiarities of Irish economic development. I found myself angry and frustrated at the criminally lost opportunties post-independence. I kept thinking of maybe a similar country, Finland, a small country on the edge of Europe, formerly largely agricultural (and poor), independent in 1917 (from the Russian Empire) and it’s development. Maybe they aren’t really comparable countries (although they may share emigration, young Finnish women seemed to have been a major export at one time e.g. my sister-in-law – two diasporas get together), but it makes you wonder what Ireland could have been.

Regarding emigration, Ferriter’s magnum opus shows that successive Irish governments actually saw emigration in a positive light (despite what they may have said in public now and again, it meant that many of those who might have challenged Ireland’s trajectory left the country, but send funds back to support the aged and young left behind.

I note sonofstan’s point about the high levels of agricultural employment in Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain in the 60s – the PIGS! Must be related – the disparity in economic development of the countries of the eurozone must be a key element of the current crisis.

Which leads to my last point, Conor’s book addresses Irish specifics very well, what puzzles me now about the present situation is it’s root cause. Many would argue it is due to banker greed and stupidity etc. OK, there is that, but is it not a manifestation of the type of capitalist crisis Marx wrote about? Is it due to a falling rate of profit? (Where is David Yaffe when you need him?). Does that classical Marxist analysis fit in here? Enquiring minds need to know!


Conor McCabe - July 14, 2011

so much for staying away 🙂

I don’t go into it in the book but I broadly agree with the analysis put forward by Monthly Review. They’ve published a collection of their articles in The Great Financial Crisis:


Interestingly, Monthly Review and the economists associated with it are mentioned favourably by John Cassidy in his mainstream bestseller, How Markets Fail


both books are well worth picking up, especially The Great Financial Crisis.


FergusD - July 14, 2011

Thanks for the tip off, just ordered “the GReat Financial Crisis”.


Conor McCabe - July 14, 2011

I think it’s a great collection of essays. Incredibly clear and straight-forward. They may hammer home the point about the financialization of the economy a little bit too much, but it’s a minor quibble. It really is fantastic stuff. when it comes to money and financial markets, the group centered around the Monthly Review Press are simply streets ahead.

another book which you may find useful is this one by Christian Marazzi:


It is a small book, more an extended essay really – just over a hundred A5-size pages – but it is fantastic. Really gets to the heart of how financial markets operate today.


7. Jim Monaghan - July 14, 2011

My father was on a county committee of agriculture. Thus, I read the reports. The size of a viable farm was like a mirage. It grew year by year. I suppose it was difficult to tell small farmers the truth that they were doomed and that they would be unable to buy the equipment etc. necessary to grow and be viable. A similar mirage of self contained peasant proprietors was pursued in Eastern Europe and is a factor in Africa. There factory farms which should be nationalised under the control of the workers and managed as coops are being broken up.
In Ireland and in lots of Europe there was the myth of the yeoman farmer as being the heart of the nation. Urban dwellers are a bit iffy.


Conor McCabe - July 14, 2011

I have to disagree with you there jim about the idea that government policy was about creating peasant proprietors. government policy was about keeping small farmers as feeder farms for the fatteners and ranchers. As sonofstan pointed out, this was classic outsourced piece-work. It may have been written in the language of glorious peasantry, self-contained, but the reality was that small farmers had to raise heads of cattle as a de facto cash crop. Where’s the self-sufficiency in that scenario?


8. 1798Mike - July 14, 2011

Good discussion this. I’m in the middle of Conor’s book at the moment – after my local bookshop down here in the sticks finally (after persuasion) got two copies – both now sold.
I have finished the section on housing. It really is an excellent analysis. After reading this discussion – really looking forward to the rest.
Posting this to offer congratulations on a fine book.


9. Budapestkick - July 14, 2011

As regards the claim that the book is unreadable, this is clearly bullshit. The book clips along at a decent pace the whole way through. The only exception to this is the bit relating to the US financial crises, derivatives etc. but this can’t really be helped considering just how complicated the processes involved at the height of finance capital are. As for the stats. Well, the book is putting forward a controversial and radical thesis that needs to have a mountain of evidence behind it.


Garibaldy - July 14, 2011

What eejit said the book is unreadable?


Budapestkick - July 14, 2011
Dr. X - July 14, 2011

Hmmm. That Indo review wasn’t as bad as I expected.


Garibaldy - July 14, 2011

Thanks for that. I am surprised to see the writing described that way, and the idea that the book has an argument that is hard to discern is a little baffling.


WorldbyStorm - July 14, 2011

Completely agree Garibaldy, that’s a strange criticism. SOtF is actually very clear and IMO well written. Though in fairness the review is otherwise pretty positive.


sonofstan - July 14, 2011

Well, if your model of clarity is the Indo……


10. Jim Monaghan - July 14, 2011

“He further argues that the provision of technical education effectively functioned as a source of skilled labour for British industry – we trained them, and the ingrates took their skills to well- paid jobs, decent housing and a functioning health service in Birmingham or Glasgow. ”
McEntee opposed increased funding for education. the country needed just so many tradesmen was the logic.Reference, I think Lee. Medical places were restricted in the colleges at the request of the Medical Union. No points system but only a 100 places in First Med. in Ucd. So you did your pre-med and competed with your own cohert and those repeating.
My main point is that not only did we have emigration at a huge scale. In the 60s I was told that at least 50% of those born in the state were living abroad. But we exported the bulk of them ill educated. No wonder we filled more places in prisons, produced more alcoholics that our proportion in the British population. As well a young person in court on a minor thing, was given the probation act if a ticket was produced.


1798Mike - July 14, 2011

Also powerful elements of the administrative elite opposed ‘free’ second-level education being introduced in the ’60’s. The Dept. of Finance was bitterly hostile to this policy development. A full second-level education was something suitable for the middle classes not for the generality of the population.


11. Logan - July 14, 2011

LeftAtTheCross said:

“That’s a pretty thin apology for trickle-down economics isn’t it? Is there not an argument that the small farm sizes favoured by the Land Commission, too small to economically sustain a family, forced a proletarianisation of the rural population, i.e. hunger as a result of market-driven commodification, selling labour for money, buying food with money?”

Well, of course it drove the Irish rural poor into selling labour for money, but that had already been doing that since the post-Famine period.
I am not saying that that was a good thing or a bad thing, I am just querying the assumption that higher food prices was what cause “starvation” in rural ireland in the 1920’s and 30’s. In reality what cause hunger during the “hungry Thirties” in rural Ireland was a depression in World food prices causing a knock-on effect of less money in the pockets of the Irish rural poor in that period.

Cheaper food would have been a boon to the British working class or the Dublin poor at the time, but a net negative for the rural poor..

So perhaps sonofstan (or Conor , I have not read the book) were being a bit hard on Hogan, to suggest that he didn’t care about rural starvation for wanting high prices for agricultural products.


12. Logan - July 14, 2011

Conor said

“…you start off your comment by stating that Ireland exported beef to Britain in the 1930s. We did nothing of the sort! you are absolutely completely and utterly wrong.

We exported live cattle to feed the British beef industry…..”

Sorry for being unclear, I of course meant live cattle, not beef. Nowadays the term “beef farming” or “beef industry” seems to have taken over from terms like “cattle rearing” to mean the business of farming bovine animals, and I fell into that terminology.

I am interested in your arguments that the beef -cattle producing interest was what stymied the development of agricultural-based industrial production in the country.

Surely this depended on the party in power. By the early 1930’s , Fine Gael had become identified with larger farmers, (and the beef producers of Meath in particular – Sarah Carey, late of the IT, wrote movingly about the close bond of the Blueshirt and the Meath beef rancher a few times when talking about her family).

But Fianna fail were more associated with the smaller farmer. And of course they brought in tariffs, etc., to stimulate native industry after 1932 as part of the Economic War. Are you suggesting that this was ineffective? or just not carried through properly?

Are are you also suggesting that FF in the 1930’s were as dominated by big farmer interest as the earlier CnG governmenrt, despite having won power after a campaign that was based on attacking the larger farmer interest (amongst other reasons)?

Was it because FF ministers were captured by their civil servants? Or (very believable for FF) was it all just insincere at the from the beginning?

Sorry for all the questions. If your book is all economic analysis perhaps you feel you are not in a position to answer them.


13. Conor McCabe - July 14, 2011


not to force a sale or anything, but I think your questions are answered in Sins of the Father, especially the chapter on agriculture.

As regard this:

“I am interested in your arguments that the beef -cattle producing interest was what stymied the development of agricultural-based industrial production in the country.”

Again, that is not just my argument, but the argument of contemporaries such as the american consultancy firm, Ibec, and recently the historian Paul Rouse (although Dr. Rouse’s point is not as forceful as mine.)

The same argument was also made by Brian O’Neil in the 1930s in his publication, The War for the Land in Ireland, and also by Ray Crotty in Irish Agricultural Production.

The analysis I’ve put forward regarding the role of the ranchers in the Irish economy is not a new analysis by any means.

what is new in my analysis is that I put monetarypolicy front and centre. It is not possible to talk about the irish economy purely in terms of the ranchers – the bankers also need to be factored in.

Again, I deal with the role of irish banking in the irish economy over the past 80 years in a separate chapter to that on agriculture.

I did this because although the machine can only be observed in motion, it can only be understood by breaking it down to its constituent parts.

The book is NOT a social history; and, although it is present on every page, nor is it a fully developed class analysis of Irish society/history. first of all, it is 26-county in scope, and post-partition as well. and although it deals with the effect of Irish monetary policy on the retardation of the economy post-1922, it does not look at that policy in terms of the two islands. The Australian anthropologist Chris Eipper argued in 1986 that in Ireland the dominant class forces reproduced themselves through The Church, The State, and through Business. I deal with only one aspect of that trinity – that is, business. But the Church dominates (very much present tense) Irish society, and is still a potent force within that society.

That is for the next book, which will be a history of money and credit in Ireland. After that, hopefully I’ll be able to produce a book on the history of class relations in Ireland. and, after all that, Ican write the book which I wanted to write at the start of this project – a history of Edenmore, Dublin 5.

however, I believe all the questions you are asking above can be answered by Sins of the Father, available in all good shops for the princely sum of €16.99 – in other words, you get 80 years of Irish economic and political history, and all your questions answered, for less than the price of a 30-minute driving lesson.

That’s value, no? 🙂


sonofstan - July 14, 2011

BTW, the Ó Gráda paper i quoted in my review and that Conor reffed above is available at here

His discussion of the 30s and the economic war is interesting, because he clearly disapproves of everything Dev did, as an economist, but has to admit that, nevertheless, he won. FF did try to turn the ship of state a little, and Dev stated, for example, that the prime duty of agriculture was to feed the people – clearly not Hogan’s view – and Ó Gráda has to reluctantly concede that the ‘sovereign defualt’ – withholding the land annuities – worked.


14. sonofstan - July 14, 2011

I’ll never get the hang of tags on this site- here is the Ó Gráda

Click to access FIVE%20CRISES%20Speech%20by%20Cormac%20O%20Grada%2029%20June%202011.pdf


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