An Irish Reading List

An Irish reading List

Michael Dwyer

As a small peripheral persistently poor country Ireland attracted more interest from anthropologists than economists. The principal question that engaged historians with an economic bent was not about the development of the Irish economy but rather its lack of development. The mystery, if one existed, was why Ireland so poor.

Then one day in the early nineties the boom began. It boomed and boomed until as is the nature of things it bust. Which brings us to today. Prof Patrick Corish enjoyed insisting that anything that happened after 1603 was not history but journalism. We are too close to the former tiger to have the necessary perspective for a proper judgement on its origins and indeed its reality. If nothing else the time needed for a thorough analysis of data yet to be fully gathered precludes a comprehensive study yet being published. Still more so are we stymied by proximity, political prejudice and personal pain when it comes to our late calamity. However as Aristotle observed all men desire knowledge and all economists desire to sell books and appear on TV so we have no lack of quickly assembled opinion and argument on the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger.

This list is mine.

It reflects my reading and my opinion only. I approached it from the perspective of someone asked by a bright foreign friend to compile a reading list which would give a decent overview of Irish history, with a nod in the direction of economics. In this regard I sought to recognise both scholarship and narrative ability.

O Grada is probably the Doyen of Irish economic historians and his statistical work on the famine has changed our understanding of 19th century Ireland but nobody has produced a narrative history of the famine to equal Woodham Smith. In my opinion. Ireland since the famine and The Making Of Modern Ireland are safe choices of great scholarship elegantly expressed. While the background music to Irish academia has tended to be some form of either Keynesian or Marxian theory this is becoming less true. Tom Garvin may not have convinced everyone it is clear and encouraging to see the influence of Mancur Olson and public choice theory in his ground breaking book Preventing the Future. Diarmaid Ferriter covers much of the same ground from a different angle and with different questions in mind.

Joe Lee couldn’t have known that when he published Politics and Society in 1989 that Irish society and politics were about to change so dramatically but it was the book that everyone had to read and it bears up twenty years and so many events later.

There is no book on the war of independence, the troubles or the peace process but I did include an introduction to early medieval Ireland. The list is limited and I wanted something that would speak to the unusual, the atypical nature of the Gaelic social construct which played its role in making us the odd crowd we are today. It was our oddity that attracted the interests of Canadian R K Carty and his book is a very neat exposition of the inability of any political theory to describe our politics.

The last choice was Kevin Whelan’s pre and post history of the 1798 rising. Not only is it a fine work of scholarship but it goes a long way to explaining why the identity politics of 1790s Ireland should go on to dominate the politics of the this Island for next two centuries. It is the aftermath of 98 and the later manipulation of the narrative of the events of the rising which built the walls, orange and green, that we are only beginning to dismantle today.

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