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An Irish Working Class

An Irish Working Class: Explorations in Political Economy and Hegemony, 1800-1950

Marilyn Silverman
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 560
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    An Irish Working Class
    Book Description:

    InAn Irish Working Class, Marilyn Silverman explores the dynamics of capitalism, colonialism, and state formation through an examination of the political economy and culture of those who contributed their labour. Stemming from the author's academic research on Ireland for over two decades, the book combines archival data, interviews, and participant observation to create a unique and intricate study of labourers' lives in Thomastown, County Kilkenny, between 1800 and 1950. Political anthropology, Gramscian approaches to hegemony, and the work of social historians on class experience all inform Silverman's perspective in this volume.

    Silverman explores the complex and changing consciousness, politics, and social relations of a cross-section of workers. These workers were employed in the mills, tanneries, artisanal shops, and retail outlets, and on the landed estates, farms, and public works projects which typified this highly differentiated locality. In constructing the social history of workers in a particular place over time,An Irish Working Classmakes an important contribution to Irish Studies, European historical ethnography, and the anthropology of working-class life.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7079-2
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Maps, Tables, and Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Marilyn Silverman
  5. Part I: Encountering Labour in Field, Archives, and Theory

    • 1. Political Economy, Class, and Locality
      (pp. 3-18)

      In the summer of 1980, my colleague Philip Gulliver and I began long-term field and archival research in ‘Thomastown’ – a southeastern Irish town of about 1,300 people and a rural hinterland containing another 1,400.¹ From the moment of our earliest encounters there, we were struck by the ways in which so many people in both town and country explicitly talked about themselves or others as ‘labourers.’ We were impressed by records from the past, such as the one by TUSA above, which used similar language. We also were often touched by the content of stories which people told. An...

    • 2. Relations of Class and Thomastown’s ‘Lower Orders’ in 1800
      (pp. 19-38)

      When E.P. Thompson suggested that historians could analyse the reciprocity and restraint which typified relations between rich and poor in Britain after 1760 as ‘class relationships,’¹ he was not suggesting that paternalism and its obverse, deference, were fixed. Rather, he meant that such relations were continually being altered and renegotiated such that, at any particular moment, the ideas, beliefs, and practices associated with them comprised the kind of ideology that Gramsci had labelled ‘common sense.’ In the Thomastown area in 1800, an essential component of common sense was class difference, and this infused the world views of people in all...

  6. Part II: Labouring Experience in the Nineteenth Century

    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 39-42)

      In 1800 the Irish Parliament voted both to abolish itself and to accept union with Great Britain. Thereafter, the few propertied men who held the vote in Ireland elected members directly to the British Parliament. Thereafter, too, the presence of the colonial state was increasingly embodied in the office of the lord lieutenant, appointed by the British prime minister and supported by a bureaucracy in Dublin which gradually grew as the state extended its jurisdiction into and over more and more areas of everyday life during the nineteenth century.

      The 1800 Act of Union had been opposed by one faction...

    • 3. Realizing the Working Class: Political Economy and Culture
      (pp. 43-79)

      The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 brought extensive economic depression to county Kilkenny, as elsewhere in Europe. Local witnesses appearing before a parliamentary inquiry in 1834 described the political economy of the previous few decades. They pointed out how the export market for agricultural commodities had expanded dramatically as, equally vividly, local living standards fell. Thomastown’s labourers and artisans were entrapped in a dual process of impoverishment and differentiation, exploited as both workers and consumers. Subsistence crises invariably ensued, reproducing both the relationship among paternalism, deference, and dearth and dominant attitudes about workers and the labouring poor. People...

    • 4. Political Domains and Working Combinations after 1815
      (pp. 80-99)

      By the early nineteenth century, labourers were a necessary and naturalized part of the social landscape. Yet, if they became too numerous and wages fell too steeply and/or if prices rose, subsistence crises might ensue. Conversely, if labour became scarce, wages might rise beyond what employers perceived to be the costs of subsistence. To maintain the balance, charity from gentry in times of dearth was key. Labourers, however, also were learning that, in addition to being deserving and deferent, it was sometimes useful to combine. After the 1815 peace, as the condition of labour deteriorated, such political action took several...

    • 5. The Political Domain: Labour as Device, Resource, and Project
      (pp. 100-118)

      During the nineteenth century, labourers were objects whose presence and condition were of concern to non-labouring people for varying reasons: economic self-interest, charitable impulse, Christian morality and notions of self-improvement, aesthetic values, and public health. This concern also emerged in the political domain, where labourers were used, through action and talk, in the political machinations of others. These experiences, as discursive political devices, competitive resources, and educational projects, invariably infused the common-sense ideology of labourers while reproducing relationships between labourers and the people from the dominant classes.

      From at least the early years of the nineteenth century, the organic attachment...

    • 6. Custom and Respectability: The Petty Sessions
      (pp. 119-141)

      That the Irish poorer classes were seen to be unruly and disorderly was expressed during the 1834 parliamentary inquiry when a landlord/magistrate, resident near the town, said: ‘To this habit of making their own regulations, and combining for the revenge of private injuries, may be traced much of the lawless habits of life so prevalent among them.’¹ Ironically, this view was in turn mirrored in the attitude that state agents had of Irish landlords: as inept and shoddy agents of law and order. The 1827 Petty Sessions Act thus aimed to domesticate both the landed magistrates and the poorer classes...

    • 7. Privatizing the River: Politicizing Labouring Fishers
      (pp. 142-166)

      In 1802 the rivers Nore, Barrow, and Suir and the Waterford estuary were ‘celebrated’ for their salmon while the fishing itself was ‘free by custom’ to those who lived along the banks.¹ These resources and rights, as well as the rivers themselves, became highly contested during the nineteenth century. On the upper, non-tidal portions of these rivers, the prerogatives of private property began to usurp and, by 1884, had criminalized the rights of custom. The process was complex, woven out of parliamentary legislation, case law, policing policies, administrative priorities, and market exigencies. Also crucial were political combinations, alliances, and oppositions...

  7. Part III: At the Turn of the Twentieth Century, 1885-1901

    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 167-172)

      Inside a hierarchy of exploitation and domination wrought by capitalism and colonialism, the structure of common sense – that is, of everyday ideology – in Thomastown during most of the nineteenth century was discernible in the changing colouration of three interrelatedcultural codes: status-class, respectability, andlocality. These codes were in turn sited in the material and economic structure of society, inproperty relations and labour processes. An essential part of this was the process ofstate formationthrough which coercion and hegemony were actualized by theagencyof individuals, combinations, andorganizations. All these topics form the lenses through...

    • 8. Political Sentiment and the Inland Fisheries
      (pp. 173-192)

      Between 1884 and 1901, the inland fisheries remained a focal point around which local, labouring political sentiments and understandings were created, experienced, and mobilized. Most tellingly, the fisheries also served to structure, both discursively and materially, categories of opposition and alliance within the wider region and colonial state. The result was a complex world view of contradictory and occasionally contested sentiments and interpretations. The political economy and politics of this structuration process comprise the focus of this chapter.

      In 1886 a labourer’s weekly wage in Grennan Mills was 10s.2d. The price of salmon that year went as high as 2s.6d....

    • 9. Social Organization and the Politics of Labour
      (pp. 193-216)

      Among both workers and cotmen, the material experiences and systems of knowledge that grew out of the late nineteenth century were sustained by local networks of kinship, occupation, and neighbourhood. These slowly merged with the growth of formal, working-class organizations and ideologies after 1890. Less than a decade later, the franchise was extended. Local and regional government was reorganized and a new frame was provided for labourers to pursue their interests. One of these interests was subsidized rural housing. Created through the agency of the state, the Irish Party, and public health officials, housing became a focal point through which...

  8. Part IV: Metissage and Hegemony, 1901-50

    • [PART IV Introduction]
      (pp. 217-222)

      Providing subsidized housing for labourers was part of the commonsense view that wages should be linked to the costs of a labourer’s subsistence and, specifically, that such costs formed a ceiling on wages. Thus, the 1883 Labourers Act tackled many issues. It aimed to obviate a farm-labour shortage, keep a labour pool in rural areas, restrain wages levels, and alleviate what had become an unacceptable living standard and public-health problem. Simultaneously, it gleaned political and ideological support for the colonial state even as the Irish Party claimed some of the credit for the act. Indeed, even landlords could be fitted...

    • 10. The Organizational Impetus: Class and Nationalism before the War, 1906-14
      (pp. 223-242)

      In 1908 a ‘cruel incident’ was reported, an incident ‘too inhuman and tyrannical to ... pass without being brought under the public gaze.’ So stated the KilkennyJournal, the nationalist county newspaper, when it conveyed the story of labourer-cotman Edward Wallace (Case 10.1).

      The powerful narrative of Edward Wallace’s last few months resonated with diverse and even contradictory strands of deeply rooted common sense at the time. Because his plight could be differently construed, it mobilized people of all classes and allied them in common effort. In the tale of a person, Wallace was a poor labourer cum fisher who...

    • 11. From Class to Nation: National Chronology and Local Experience, 1914-23
      (pp. 243-261)

      A week before the home-rule celebration in Thomastown in September 1914, a drill instructor for the Volunteers joined the British army. Six weeks later, a meeting of Volunteers, chaired by Father O’Shea, tendered its ‘deep sympathy’ to Major Connellan whose only son had been killed in action. A month later, Walter Lindsay, now a colonel, left Thomastown to join his regiment.¹ In such ways was the impact of the war on local labour, its organizations, and its patrons made clear. Yet such local happenings have mostly been buried by the compelling events of macro-narratives and the nature of the records...

    • 12. From Nation to Class in the New State: Replicating Capital and Labour, 1920-6
      (pp. 262-280)

      The new Irish Free State incorporated the diverse and conflicting interests, sentiments, and perceptions that had long comprised local society. In part, this came from the ease with which the new state had appropriated the formal organs and agents of the British colonial administration. In part, too, it emanated from the local economy – its relations of production and labour processes which remained unchanged because labour leaders had failed to mount a successful challenge. All this became clear both during and after the Troubled Times.

      Several months after the local elections in June 1920, but before Thomastown’s district council swore...

    • 13. Labouring Viewpoints and Lives: The Metissage of Experience and Identities, 1914-30
      (pp. 281-300)

      Oral and written materials such as life histories, employment narratives, eulogies, memoirs, and stories are all means for seeing how individuals shaped their lives and were, in turn, shaped by social conventions, beliefs, and experiences. At the same time, because these materials always emerge out of particular contexts, they also provide insight into socio-cultural worlds. In this chapter, through portraits of individuals and situations, I try to highlight processes of socio-cultural reproduction and some of the threads that formed themetissageof working-class awareness and experience in the early twentieth century.

      When Thomastown people constructed images of workers and their...

    • 14. The Uneven Economy and the Moral Economy, 1926-50
      (pp. 301-320)

      The population decline that began in the 1830s and accelerated thereafter resulted from persistent emigration impelled by what was an underdeveloped economy. The pulse of this economy, especially its local employment levels, engaged people of all classes in Thomastown. Depression affected not only the quality of life among workers but also their buying power in shops. Conversely, a labour scarcity meant higher wages and better work conditions which would have an impact on farmers, retailers, industrialists, and professionals. In other words, people of all classes had a direct interest in the local economy and in the condition of labour.


    • 15. The Quality of Charity, Values, and Entitlements, 1908-50
      (pp. 321-338)

      The ways in which Thomastown’s labourers viewed both themselves and people of other classes and status-classes hinged on at least three features. First, it rested on a worker’s personal ties to individuals from other classes. Second, it depended on the ways in which people of other classes viewed labourers as a group and concerned themselves with their condition. Third, it evolved out of how labouring people assessed their own economic and social place in the locality and their perceptions of their rights as citizens. What were these viewpoints, in what ways did they change, and what were the implications for...

    • 16. Redundancy and Status-Class: Purveying Values through Recreation and Education, 1929-50
      (pp. 339-358)

      The changing definition of entitlements and of the importance of the state, its bureaucracy, and politician-brokers created both dependency and opportunity. However, the state and its civil servants were not simply neutral referees in competitions for scarce resources. Rather, the antitreaty Fianna Fáil party which formed the government of the Free State after 1932 had a definite and explicit view of how Irish society should look: economically self-sufficient, Gaelic, and Catholic. On the one hand, self-sufficiency from a Thomastown perspective had come to mean that the state should be the main purveyor of the amenities and jobs that citizens required...

    • 17. ‘And the Church Preached Its View’
      (pp. 359-379)

      The nature of individual experience in a rural locale, which created complex and often contradictory images, possibilities, and conclusions, could of course be mediated and organized by formal associations and/or coherent ideological interpretations. However, not only were such associations and ideas often in competition, but some had strategical and perhaps compromising alliances with other groups. Sometimes, these coalitions also had the backing of the state. In this kaleidoscope of ideas and structures, the Catholic Church had immense influence – spiritually, organizationally, and ideologically.

      In the Thomastown area, the few non-Catholic, labouring families worked on Mount Juliet estate. Two farmers, several...

    • 18. ‘We Had a Live Union Then’
      (pp. 380-400)

      Individual experiences, and the redundancy of social relations in a rural locale, created diverse and often contradictory images and possibilities which might be clarified or made coherent by formal associations and/or by the dissemination of ideological formulations. Catholic beliefs and practices, as mediated by the hierarchy and as supported by those who framed the policies of the Free State, were one such example (chapter 17). Another included ideologies of a Gaelic past and future, as mediated through the educational system and recreation (chapter 16). Yet others were the values of a benevolent capitalism, a moral economy, and a hierarchical yet...

    • 19. ‘Much Wants More’: Framing the Politics of Labour
      (pp. 401-420)

      The IT&GWU, as an organization and way of thinking, helped to clarify for many the often-contradictory images and potentialities that underpinned local life. Like other beliefs and practices, ideologies, and organizations, such as the Catholic hierarchy and the state, the local IT&GWU was immersed in relations and ideas which circulated from outside the locality. For example, local IT&GWU members, sympathizers, and detractors were linked to other labourers via the union’s Head Office and/or the Irish Labour Party. Both union and party, in turn, existed in a wider world of competing agents, organizations, ideologies, and institutions, such as, for example, the...

    • 20. Inside the Frame: The Politics of Mediation
      (pp. 421-441)

      During the 1930s, experiences of underemployment conjoined with a belief that public amenities and jobs were interdependent goals, obtainable through state intervention (chapter 14). This common sense, shared by people of all classes, merged with and reproduced sentiments of localism. Yet locals did not agree on the precise means or agency for achieving these goals while, at the same time, competing ideologies, organizations, and agents had proliferated, fracturing loyalties and viewpoints (chapter 19). In addition, a political economy that implicated paternalism and ‘compassionate inequality’ (chapter 16) became meshed with ideas about Christian morality and personal entitlements (chapter 15). In the...

    • 21. Organizing Labour in the 1940s: The Politics of Combination
      (pp. 442-460)

      The forces that had channelled politics after 1926 derived in large part from prior agency, ideologies, and organizations. So, too, was this the case during the Emergency. It began in late 1939 and lasted until 1945. It was a time of Irish neutrality and when an Allied or German occupation seemed possible. The physical isolation of the state exacerbated the material problems that working people had long faced: high commodity prices relative to wage and relief rates. Shortages of fuel, clothes, and the basic foodstuffs of the underemployed (bread, tea, butter, and sugar) caused living standards to fall.¹ As part...

    • 22. Reproducing the Political Regime and Regimen, 1940-50
      (pp. 461-480)

      In the May 1944 Dáil election, J.P. Pattison ran as a National Labour candidate for one of the three seats in Kilkenny constituency. No one ran for the Irish Labour Party. Pattison held onto the third seat, although with a much reduced vote.¹ The result, however, pointed to the solid bedrock of labour sentiment in the locality which, despite the factionalism, did not defect to Fianna Fáil and continued to choose a labouring option. Equally, it pointed to the personal quality of political loyalties resulting from the agency of mediation. Indeed, the interplay of these features formed the dénouement of...

  9. Part V: Conclusions:: Political Economy and Culture, 1800-1950

    • 23. Theory, Concept, and Text: A Holistic Approach to the Politics of Class
      (pp. 482-504)

      Among the topics essential for understanding the processes of capitalism, colonialism, and state formation are the political economy and culture of people who have contributed their labour. In this present incursion into the social history of a working class in southeastern Ireland, I have tried to construct both an analytical and historical ethnography of class awareness and class experience as these comprised part of more general hegemonic and political-economic processes over a period of one hundred and fifty years. My aim has been to explore the historical dynamics of inequality as actualized through the economy and the state. To do...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 505-538)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 539-550)
  12. Index
    (pp. 551-566)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 567-567)