Population, Economy, and Society from 1750 to 1950

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Population, Economy, and Society from 1750 to 1950

In the century before the Great Famine of the 1840s Ireland had one of the fastest-growing populations in Europe. In the century after, Ireland was the only European country to decrease in population in every decade. Therein lies the drama of Irish population change. Explaining these great swings in Irish population is no easy task. Interactions between the Irish and international economies are relevant, as are changes within Irish society itself. In the 1740s Ireland was a thinly populated island, in the process of recovering from the devastating famine of 1740 through 1741. The dominant economic sector was agriculture. Ireland's mild, damp climate naturally predisposed its inhabitants toward livestock farming rather than tillage. The former tended to use more land and less labor per unit of output as compared with the production of cereal or root crops, and hence was more consistent with a low population density.

The people numbered perhaps 2 million, or a little more. Then, in one of the most remarkable transformations in European population history, the inhabitants of the island quadrupled from 2 million to 8.5 million in the space of a century (1745–1845). Concerns with overpopulation rather than the longer-standing observations of underpopulation began to creep into the consciousness and vocabulary of contemporaries. How this explosive multiplication of people came about, and its ultimate consequences, goes to the heart of modern Irish social history.

Fertility and Mortality Fluctuations

The surge in population must have been due either to a rise in fertility (more births) or a fall in mortality (increased life expectancy), or a combination of the two. The only other possibility—a rise in numbers due to an influx of people—can be excluded as there was a net outflow from Ireland during the eighteenth century, particularly from Ulster to North America. Most writers would agree that population change was composed of both changes in fertility and mortality, though there is no settled view on the relative importance of the two. An argument by analogy—drawing on the contemporaneous experience in England where the causal mechanisms of population increase are better understood—would place the main emphasis on rising fertility rather than mortality decline. A fertility-based explanation for Irish population growth is also compatible with some indirect indicators: changes in the market economy and increasing dependence on potato cultivation in Ireland during the second half of the eighteenth century.

The norm governing household formation in Ireland, as in western Europe more generally, was that before entering marriage the couple should possess the means of an independent livelihood for themselves and any children they might have. For the mass of the people this meant a cottage and access to land (at the very least a potato plot). For others, a livelihood might be derived from trade, crafts or commerce, or some mixture of these and agriculture. By all accounts the condition of the Irish economy during the second half of the eighteenth century favored marriage and the multiplication of households.

THE INFLUENCE OF THE ECONOMY AND EXPANDING EXPORT MARKETS Many population changes were market driven, reflecting the deepening commercialization of Irish society in the eighteenth century. Between the 1740s and the end of the French Wars in 1815 the Irish economy experienced a long wave of expansion. This was powered initially by demand for Irish foodstuffs—beef, butter, and pork—in the British colonies of North America and in Britain itself. As Britain was at war during much of this period, wartime conditions gave rise to additional demands for Irish produce. The result was a secular rise in prices, employment, and Irish national income, though the fruits of this expansion were unevenly divided as between different social groups. From the later eighteenth century, demand also shifted in favor of Irish tillage products, cereals in particular, in response to the food needs of a rapidly growing British population, and, to a lesser extent, those of a growing nonfarming population in Ireland. Labor-intensive tillage production amplified the demand for labor, creating additional incomes and thereby enhancing the prospects of marriage and household formation.

The agricultural sector was not the only one stimulated by buoyant external and internal demand. Incomes and employment in industry—as yet largely organized on a handicraft basis—also experienced growth. The eighteenth-century linen industry was a spectacular example of export-led growth, with flax cultivation, spinning, weaving, and bleaching generating extensive demand for labor in the cottages and small farms of the northern counties. The traditional woolen industry, located in many of the towns of the south of Ireland and geared predominantly to the domestic market, underwent fluctuating fortunes but was also a source of significant employment. Other industries included food processing, brewing, and distilling. These benefited from expanding markets at home and abroad. Overall, therefore, growing opportunities to make a livelihood facilitated marriage, possibly (though there is little direct evidence on this) at earlier ages than had been customary prior to 1750.

CULTIVATION OF THE POTATO A further factor, less directly connected to market processes, was the diffusion of the potato, which changed radically the domestic economy and ecology of the countryside. From being a supplement to the people's diet, potatoes had become by the end of the century the dominant element in the food of the rural poor (the small farmers, cottiers, and laborers). The likelihood is that it increased fertility within marriage and, by virtue of improving the food supply, also reduced mortality.

But the cheap, nutritious potato was not only the manna of the Irish masses, it was also a new technology. Its cultivation needed less land relative to the acreages required by other food sources. This made the subdivision of holdings more practicable, a movement also facilitated by the swing toward labor-intensive tillage from the 1760s onwards. Thus new household formation and the subdivision of holdings went hand in hand, each cause and effect of the other. The potato also aided the creation of new landholdings because of its effectiveness in reclaiming marginal or wasteland. Potato cultivation in effect increased the supply of land and lowered the threshold of viability for landholdings. It added to the land area in a further sense, by abolishing fallow periods through its incorporation into new crop rotations. A huge increase after 1750 in the ecological niches for making a living was now available to individuals and families. In an odd way, the potato both caused and accommodated population growth.

It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that the whole of the Irish countryside was now being parceled up into dwarf-sized holdings as a result of interactions between the subdivision of holdings, potato cultivation, land reclamation and population growth. This was true of parts of south Ulster, where the symbiosis of linen manufacture and farming resulted in a patchwork of very small farms. It was also true of the poorer lands of the west of Ireland, where communal farming added a further twist to the landholding system. But on the more fertile lowlands where commercial farming, particularly livestock production, was well established, medium-sized and large farms survived intact from generation to generation. On the edges of these lowland areas, and up in the hills, an increasingly potato-dependent cottier and laboring class reproduced energetically. Thus in the Golden Vale region of south Tipperary, for instance, there coexisted substantial farms and, on their fringes, dense settlements of the rural poor who supplied the labor needs of a commercializing agriculture.

It seems, therefore, that there were at least three demographic regimes in the later eighteenth century. In the northern counties of Ireland the opportunities afforded by the rapidly expanding linen industry and the partial adoption of a potato diet relaxed the constraints on land division and family formation. It is no coincidence that the most rapid growth of population in the period between 1753 and 1791—the formative phase of the population explosion—was to be found in Ulster, the rate of increase being in the region of 2 percent per annum. This was well above the national average, estimated at somewhere between 1.4 and 1.9 percent. Along the Atlantic seaboard population increase was also rapid, whereas in the more urbanized and commercialized east of Ireland population gain was relatively moderate. The differences were not purely regional, however: the rural poor seem to have engaged in less restrained reproduction by comparison with the commercial farming class, where dowry payments and carefully calculated marriage alliances were more in evidence.

Effect on Society

Rapid population increase gave rise to social tensions, often centering on access to land—the renting of potato plots in particular—but extending also to the pay and condition of laborers, tithe payments, and disputes between neighbors and kinfolk. A more crowded countryside intensified competition for material and symbolic resources, resulting in collective as well as personal conflicts. The first major outbreak of agrarian violence, for instance, that of the Whiteboys in south Tipperary in 1761, involved confrontations between landowners and land-poor cottiers and laborers. The immediate provocation was the enclosure of common land, a traditional resource of the poor and all the more valuable under conditions of population increase. In the northern counties religious affiliation and its associated trappings were much more likely to be the bone of contention. But competition for land and other resources, itself linked to population growth, was never far beneath the surface. The Ulster county of Armagh had the highest density of rural population of any of the Irish counties in 1841. Armagh was also notorious for intense and sustained sectarian violence. The two were connected.

Slow Down in Population before the Famine

Population levels continued to rise in the decades before the Great Famine, but there is clear evidence that the demographic escalator was slowing down. By the 1830s the rate of population increase had dipped below 1 percent per annum, and was now in line with the mainstream European experience. Emigration was the major source of this adjustment. Between 1815 and 1845 1.5 million people sought their fortunes in Britain or North America. Rapid population growth had been accompanied by the immiseration of the poorer strata of Irish society, now almost wholly dependent on a potato diet. Decline in the handicraft textile industries stripped away other sources of income, as handicraft production came under intense competition from factory-produced goods. To take the primary example, while huge, power-driven spinning mills emerged in Belfast and along the Lagan Valley from the close of the 1820s, cottage-based hand spinning ceased in tens of thousands of cabins in the Ulster countryside.

Ireland in 1841, on the eve of the Great Famine, was a country of contrasts. Much economic and technological progress had been made in the preceding decades. Modern banking institutions had emerged, communications by land and waterway were much improved, the country was on the eve of the railway age, modern industrialization had taken hold in east Ulster, literacy levels were rising, a poor-law system ensured against the more cruel vagaries of life, and a centralized police force had come into being. Landlords, commercial farmers, the new industrialists, and the professional classes were growing in economic strength. But signs of progress should not be allowed to obscure the more pervasive reality of uneven social development and mass poverty. Perhaps as many as four million individuals lived impoverished lives, close to the edge of subsistence, using primitive spade cultivation and dependent for survival on a slender lifeline: the potato.

In the eyes of many contemporary commentators this immense population of potato eaters had arisen because the Irish poor had entered recklessly into early and fertile marriage: seizing the pleasure of the moment out of despair for the future. The census of 1841 offers a more sober assessment. Age at marriage averaged twenty-eight years for men and twenty-five to twenty-six years for women, much the same as elsewhere in western Europe. There is no sign here of early and profligate marriage. Still, it is earlier periods that matter most, and evidence is limited. There is a strong presumption that marriage ages had been lower in the late eighteenth century and had then risen in the decades before the famine. Moreover, marriage was available to virtually all in Irish society: Among the older age groups in 1841 only 10 percent of men and 12 percent of women were still unmarried and there is no reason to believe marriage had been any less universal in earlier decades. It is noticeable, though, that in some of the southeastern counties the proportions of single individuals were considerably higher on the eve of the debacle, prefiguring a drift toward permanent celibacy that was to be such a feature of postfamine society. (Permanent celibacy is conventionally and somewhat arbitrarily defined as the proportion of single individuals in the age group forty-five to fifty-four years, which is the measure used here.) Further reinforcing the image of a society with formidable reproductive powers, calculations made in the 1990s confirm the opinions of contemporaries that Irish couples were remarkably fertile. Conversely, births outside marriage were low by the standards of other societies, a position that was to be maintained in the century after the famine. The oftproclaimed chastity of the Irish, and the sometimes brutal treatment of single mothers which was its accompaniment, probably owed more to the fragility of the peasant household economy and a dearth of opportunities for making an independent living than to deep moral or religious values.

PHYTOPHTHORA INFESTANS Malthusian tendencies, or an increasing tension between population increase and living standards, were evident in prefamine society. A narrowing diet and rising emigration suggest as much. Yet, paradoxically, the Great Famine was not itself a case of a Malthusian crisis. Population had not outrun the capacity of the Irish economy to sustain these numbers. It partook more of the character of an ecological disaster. The then mysterious potato blight, caused by Phytophthora infestans, struck suddenly and without warning in the summer of 1845. There was a partial failure of the potato crop, but revealingly, Irish society was capable of absorbing this severe challenge without any noticeable loss of life. The return of the blight in more virulent form in the following season opened the floodgates to mass destitution, malnutrition, famine, and famine-related diseases. In "Black '47," although blight was absent, the potato crop was severely deficient. Blight returned in 1848 and again in some areas in 1849. Cruelly, Irish society had been visited, not by one famine, but by repeated famines within the space of five years. This was unprecedented in modern European experience, as was the severity of the food loss. By the end of the famine, which in some districts occurred as late as 1850, sections of Irish society lay devastated. In excess of one million women, men, and children had died of starvation or starvation-related diseases, the great bulk of these belonging to the poorer strata of society. Another one million had fled the country. This great stream of economic refugees flowed to Britain and, in even greater numbers, to the United States.

THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE BRITISH The source of the massive failure of the food supply lay in the world of botany and plant disease. But responsibility for the mass mortality is altogether more controversial. After all, these deaths took place in the environs of the world's most industrially advanced society, and Ireland, under the Act of Union of 1800, was an integral part of that nation state. The charge, therefore, is not that the British sent the blight but that they failed to offer humanitarian aid on a scale sufficient to contain the crisis.

The problem is that once the famine-related diseases of typhus, typhoid, and dysentery had secured a grip, massive mortality was inevitable. Still, there is no doubt that more could have been done. The public-works programs were seriously misguided for undernourished and famished laborers. More constructive initiatives, such as the provision of soup kitchens, which at their peak in the summer of 1847 fed some three million souls, were withdrawn when they could have helped to prolong life. It is clear, therefore, that the Parliament at Westminster could have acted more humanely in relation to the tragedy (though the allegation that the state was engaged in some form of genocide has a reality only in the fevered imagination of political ideologues). It is also the case that many in the propertied strata of Irish society—the landlords, strong farmers, merchants, and ecclesiastics—could have done more to help their starving compatriots of the lower orders. Then, as now, human sympathies trickled only slowly across boundaries of family, social class, ethnicity, religion, and region.

Unlike earlier famines (where population bounced back soon afterwards), the Great Famine inaugurated a century of population decline. From a population of 6.6 million in 1851, in the immediate aftermath of the famine, the numbers had fallen to 4.4 million by 1911, and were marginally lower at 4.3 million in 1951. The last is about half the prefamine level. Some of the more melodramatic writers in the 1950s went so far as to warn against "race suicide" on the part of the Irish. Taking the longer view, however, we can see that major population decline belonged to the nineteenth century. The large loss of population, when millions were uprooted from their tiny holdings, was concentrated in the two decades after 1845, as if a long-evolving imbalance between population and resources was being corrected with indecent haste. The wave of population decline gradually subsided thereafter, and had largely leveled off by 1911. (The politically and economically troubled decade of the 1880s interrupted but did not reverse the decelerating pace of population loss.)

Falling population was wholly due to emigration. Birth rates still comfortably exceeded death rates. In 1880, for instance, the number of births per thousand of the population was twenty-five, while the corresponding death rate was twenty, yielding a natural increase of five per thousand, or a net addition of 25,180 in that year. In a typical year, therefore, emigration topped off the natural increase and more. The source of most of this emigration was rural Ireland, reflecting the large gap between the earnings of servants, agricultural laborers, and small farmers at home and the alternatives available to able-bodied men and women in Britain and more especially in North America. The famine exodus smoothed the pathways of subsequent Irish emigration, particularly from western Ireland where barriers of culture and poverty had previously inhibited migration to America. The prospect of life outside Ireland became increasingly part of the psyche of the Irish family. Thus between 1841 and 1921 more than six million Irish settled abroad, mainly in the United States but also in Britain, Canada, Australasia, and elsewhere around the globe. No other country experienced such a massive exodus of its people. Remarkably also, women were equally represented with men, which is quite at variance with the male-dominated emigration streams from other European societies. Some writers have interpreted this rough equality of movement as indicative of the lowly status of women in Irish society; an alternative reading might be to suggest the relatively fewer restrictions on Irish women.

MALTHUS AND POPULATION CHANGE The volume of emigration might well have been greater still. But in a posthumous and no doubt unconscious tribute to the father of modern population studies, the Irish settled enthusiastically on some of the preventive checks favored by the Reverend Thomas Malthus. Age at marriage edged upwards in the decades after the Great Famine, as parents and children calculated more carefully the costs and benefits of the marriage bed. The more widespread adoption of dowries and the diffusion of the match, or arranged marriage, were indicative of growing social controls over erotic energies. By 1911 the average age at marriage for women was twenty-nine (as compared with twenty-five to twenty-six on the eve of the Great Famine), and this mature age was still the norm as late as the mid-twentieth century, when the Irish Republic topped the late-marrying league for European women. The lengthening of the male age at marriage was even more marked, though from the viewpoint of reproduction is less significant.

THE INCREASE IN CELIBACY It was not, however, delayed marriage so much as a wholesale retreat from marriage that marked Ireland off from the other countries of Europe. By 1911 a quarter of Irish women were destined never to marry; the proportion of permanently celibate men was higher still at 27 percent. Or to take an extreme example, in the fertile farming county of Meath permanent celibacy among men was at the extraordinary level of 41 percent. This remarkable pattern of behavior placed Ireland at the extreme of the European marriage system. These outcomes were little changed by 1951 when rates of permanent celibacy in Ireland were double, or more, those to be found in countries such as England, France, Italy, or the United States. Some wondered—neglecting the deeper economic and social forces at play—if there might not be a peculiar Irish aversion to marriage, rooted perhaps in Gaelic asceticism or puritanical forms of Catholicism.

A Transformed Demography

In the century after the Great Famine, Irish society was transformed demographically. That is, in all but one respect: fertility. The ready availability of emigration for economically surplus sons and daughters absolved Irish parents of the need either to curtail family size or to accept steep reductions in living standards. It is true that some middle-class families, particularly Protestant families, practiced family limitation from around 1900, but Irish society as a whole was a slow and unenthusiastic participant in the European fertility transition.

These new demographic patterns were heavily conditioned by changes in Irish economy and society. These in turn reflected powerful impulses generated by labor, capital, commodity, and information flows in the international economy, during what some see as the first phase of globalization (1840s–1914). The Irish rural economy needed less labor as relative prices, dictated by international food markets, moved in favor of livestock production. Falling transport costs for passengers helped to integrate British, Irish, and North American labor markets, easing the flow of workers out of the Irish economy. The feedback of information on wages and living conditions abroad fueled expectations regarding acceptable living standards at home. While incomes, on average, rose sharply in the second half of the nineteenth century, faster than in industrializing Britain in the same period, material expectations may have risen faster still. Early and fruitful marriage threatened these gains, particularly on the family-run farms. Not infrequently, notions of postponed marriage drifted on into the lonely reality of permanent celibacy. Little wonder that the poet Patrick Kavanagh, describing social life in Ireland between the two world wars, was moved to speak of another Great Hunger, that of sexual frustration. In the 1930s the countryside of his native county of Monaghan teemed with bachelors and spinsters, with little promise of marriage, its intimacies, or its responsibilities.

The pace of demographic change did vary regionally. Most exceptional were the remote western districts of Ireland, where prefamine patterns of early and frequent marriage survived the onslaught of modernization until at least the 1880s. Even in the decades after 1880 western Ireland merged only slowly with the national mainstream. An economically peripheral status, limited social stratification, and a degree of cultural autonomy (based on Gaelic speaking) help to explain the resilience of traditional practices.

The north east of Ireland constituted a very different kind of region. Ulster was the most ethnically diverse of the Irish provinces, with a large Protestant population. Unusually in the Irish context it experienced the twin processes of industrialization and urbanization, which might also suggest the basis for a different demography. The early phase of the industrial revolution (1780s–1830) had touched the Lagan Valley, but the effects were largely confined to the new, factory-based cotton industry. In the second half of the nineteenth century industrialization proceeded on a much wider front. Heavy industry in the form of shipbuilding and engineering, in addition to the traditional but now technologically transformed linen textiles, flourished. Was there, as a result, a distinctive Ulster demography? Differences between north and south were evident by the eve of the World War I, but only in some areas of behavior. Thus in Belfast, permanent celibacy among women was almost as high as in the rest of Ireland generally in the census year of 1911. In the case of men, however, there was a marked contrast. The incidence of permanent celibacy or non-marriage was very low: at 13 percent it was only half the national level. The crowded workplaces of the female-dominated linen industry and its feisty "millies" improved the chaps' chances of a match, or so it would seem. In the northern metropolis age at marriage was also lower than elsewhere. For women it was some two years below the national average; for men the difference, at almost four years, was even more pronounced. Differences in fertility, as already noted, were beginning to open up, as between north and south, and within Ulster as between Catholic and Protestant couples. The industrialization of the north, and the livelihoods it created, also succeeded in reducing the rate of emigration from the northern counties. This was especially true of Ulster Protestants, who by the turn of the twentieth century had consolidated their position economically, demographically, and politically in the northeast of the island. Protestant demographic strength underpinned the political resolve of Ulster unionists to resist Home Rule for Ireland, or the breakup of the United Kingdom as they viewed it.

Patterns in the Twentieth Century

The course of Irish population change following World War I and the partition of the island in 1921 consisted to a large extent of the working out of trends, which had been apparent since the 1850s. Despite the political convulsions, the century after the famine can, with some change of detail, be viewed as a unified period in demographic terms. Indeed, at mid-twentieth century, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic looked rather old-fashioned by comparison with other western societies. While the number of children born to the typical Irish family had undergone some decline since 1900, the fall was minor compared with that experienced by neighboring societies. Similarly, while the incidence of marriage had risen from its nadir during the Great Depression of 1929 through 1932, the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland still featured at the bottom of the European marriage stakes. Birth and death rates were, admittedly, closer to the European norm, though the former were the product of two abnormal forces: a low marriage rate but a high incidence of fertility within marriage. Emigration, that great constant in modern Irish population history, remained high in both jurisdictions. The situation was to get worse before it got better. During the 1950s the Irish Republic witnessed the greatest mass exodus since the 1880s, with an average of 40,000 people taking the emigrant boat each year. The term the vanishing Irish came into vogue, as some sympathetic outsiders worried that the Irish—by which they meant the Catholic Irish—were set to disappear from the face of the earth. But such is the mystery and the magic of population growth dynamics that this dark episode can be seen in hindsight as the hour before dawn: the threshold of a new era in Irish population history.

SEE ALSO Agriculture: 1690 to 1845; Agriculture: 1845 to 1921; American Wakes; Family: Marriage Patterns and Family Life from 1690 to 1921; Great Famine; Indian Corn or Maize; Migration: Emigration from the Seventeenth Century to 1845; Migration: Emigration from 1850 to 1960; Migration: Seasonal Migration; Population Explosion; Potato and Potato Blight (Phytophthora infestans); Rural Life: 1690 to 1845; Rural Life: 1850 to 1921; Subdivision and Subletting of Holdings; Town Life from 1690 to the Early Twentieth Century; Primary Documents: On Irish Rural Society and Poverty (1780); On Irish Society before the Famine (1841–1843); On Rural Society on the Eve of the Great Famine (1844–1845); From Narrative of a Recent Journey (1847)


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Fitzpatrick, David. Irish Emigration, 1801–1921. 1990.

Guinnane, Timothy W. The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration, and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850–1914. 1997

Ó Grada, Cormac. Ireland: A New Economic History, 1780–1939. 1994.

Kennedy, Liam, et al. Mapping the Great Irish Famine: A Survey of the Famine Decades. 1999.

Kennedy, Robert E. The Irish: Emigration, Marriage and Fertility. 1973.

Vaughan, William E., and A. J. Fitzpatrick. Irish Historical Statistics: Population, 1821–1971. 1978.

Liam Kennedy

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