The heroes of 1916

The heroes of 1916

The heroes of 1916 were economically clueless and the nation paid for it

by David McWilliams

As we are about to embark on a year of celebrating 1916 and the birth of the nation, maybe it’s a good idea to stand back and ask what 1916 did for the economy.

The last time I checked, you couldn’t buy bread with slogans, speeches and flags, so isn’t it a good idea to ask what happened to living standards and economic opportunity after the Rising?

What was the economic and financial backdrop to the Rising? And what economic policies were followed to ensure that the pledge to “cherish all the children of the nation equally” (which was intended to refer to Unionists rather than the poor) was underpinned by financial reality?

Ruins of the DCB bakery O'Connell Street. 1916
Ruins of the DCB bakery O’Connell Street. 1916

When I learned about 1916 and the national struggle, economics was never mentioned other than scant reference to Horace Plunkett and his co-operative movements. Because this Plunkett, a former Unionist MP, was often confused with his relative Joseph Plunkett, a Proclamation signatory, there was always a vague sense that some Plunkett who was involved in national politics at the time had something to do with economics.

That was about the height of the economics – which is unusual because the story of revolutions tends, typically, to have a big economic component. The story of our revolution, as told in school, is one of rich Britain subjugating poor Ireland. This sounds good, but it’s not entirely accurate.

Work by economists Kevin O’Rourke and Ronan Lyons reveals another, more nuanced, story. In fact, the decades leading up to the Rising were a period of relative prosperity for those people who stayed in Ireland. They were decades of rapid social improvement. I know it sounds counterfactual, but it’s true.

Take for example, the lot of Irish skilled workers and tradesmen, such as carpenters and fitters. During the Famine they earned about 90pc of what their English counterparts did. This ratio remained more or less unchanged, but in those decades leading up to 1913, both English and Irish tradesmen saw rapid increases in their wages. The Empire project enriched all of Britain and Ireland. In the later part of the 19th century both Irish and English tradesmen got richer together.

However, we see much greater upward mobility in the wages of unskilled Irish workers and farm labourers, which actually rose rapidly after the Famine. This goes totally against the national narrative. I am not saying that people weren’t poor, but they were beginning to get richer.

In 1845, Irish unskilled workers earned half of what their counterparts were earning in Britain – by 1913 they were earning three quarters.

This seems counterintuitive because these were years of natural catastrophe and mass emigration – and surely that should be the key metric for any assessment of economic viability. But the fact is that those workers who stayed in Ireland did well after the Famine. When there are fewer workers to do the work, their wages tend to rise, and that’s what happened. Therefore, strange as it may sound, the typical economic reasons for a Rising, which traditionally should be a deterioration in the plight of the local people ahead of the Revolution, were not present in Ireland.

In addition, wealth, which in agricultural Ireland primarily stemmed from land ownership, was also undergoing a transformation. The various Land Acts from 1870 to 1909 began the mass transfer of land from the Anglo Irish aristocracy to the local farmers. This too would have had a profound positive impact on the wealth of the local population. Finally, the Irish stock market, which if the country had been an economic basket case would have been falling, actually doubled in the late Victorian era. Indeed some household names such as Arnotts were quoted at the time, revealing a buoyant retail sector in Dublin.

During this period, we had an Irish Home Rule party that held the balance of power in Britain and could therefore extract concessions from British imperialists who were looting the globe at the time. As a result, large-scale sanitation and infrastructural projects were undertaken such as bringing clean water to Dublin from Roundwood Reservoir. (By the way, there is a statue of the dude behind that initiative, which saved the lives of thousands of poor Dublin children – more than Jim Larkin ever did – situated just behind “Big Jim” on O’ Connell Street. Can you name him?)

All this taken together explains how in 1913, on the eve of the Rising, far from being poor, Ireland was actually a rich country – one of the richest in Europe. Income per head was on a par with the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Finland.

Seventy years after the Rising in 1986, Irish income per head was half the income of the Scandinavians. What happened?

Did our population expand rapidly so that our income per head fell – which would have been the inverse of what had happened between 1850 and 1900, when wages rose because the population fell? No, in fact, the Irish population kept falling up until the 1970s.

Emigration remained at ridiculously high levels. Consider this: in the 1950s, we know that 450,000 Irish people emigrated to England alone. That is not taking into account the people who went to America, Canada or Australia. And we are talking about a decade when the rest of the world boomed. In the 1980s, again, when our major trading partners – the English-speaking world – boomed, we went backwards. This is hard to do.

Since then, things have got much better. In fact, since the mid-1990s, even despite the crash, Ireland’s living standards have increased dramatically.

However, the fact remains – the first 80 years of this State were an economic disaster.

I am talking here about the ability of the new State to look after its own people, to match the rhetoric of nationalism with some semblance of achievement. Two out of three people born in the country in the 1930s – the first real generation of the new State – ended up living abroad. Just take that in.

I wonder will any of these individual stories be referenced in the many centenary celebrations that lie ahead?

Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t trade my Irish citizenship for anything and I believe in a nation’s right to make its own mistakes. And yet we should acknowledge that the people who took over this country in the aftermath of 1916 in our name were about as economically literate as the Taliban, and it wasn’t until these men were dead that this country began to deliver economically for its citizens.