David Dickson. Old World Colony: Cork and South Munster, 1630-1830. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005. xvii + 726 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-299-21180-6.
Reviewed by James Patterson (Department of History, Centenary College)
Published on H-Atlantic (July, 2006)
David Dickson's Old World Colony is a masterful account of the socio-economic and political evolution of the south Munster region, defined by the author as Counties Cork, Kerry and the western half of Waterford, over a two-hundred-year period. The era in question is a very long eighteenth century beginning with the first Elizabethan efforts to plant "New English" Protestants in the region in the 1580s and continuing to the eve of the Great Famine.
This sizable study is divided into three primary sections. Part 1 describes the political evolution of the south Munster region during the formative period of active colonization dating from the Desmond land confiscations of the 1580s up to the establishment of the so-called Protestant Ascendancy (1695-1709). Importantly, Dickson identifies the radical transfer of land that occurred between the 1580s and 1690s as a colonial process, which in turn brought about a dramatic economic transformation. After allowing that his work is a regional study whose conclusions do not necessarily apply to the rest of the island, Dickson firmly concludes that "by any definition the victors in the struggle for control of south Munster were a colonial group" and "economic power in the region (in terms of ownership of land and control of wholesale trade) passed largely into the hands of these migrant families.... This group unquestionably constituted a self-defined community with demonstrably colonial characteristics" (p. xii). The second phase of confiscations followed the Nine Years' War, ending in 1601. Yet contrary to the interpretations of many historians of the period, Dickson finds that the long-term impact of the confiscations on regional Catholics was a "visceral antipathy to the New English and a legacy of dispossession" (p. 12). He also describes the little-known process by which the New English planters manipulated their advantageous social and legal status to "peacefully" occupy as much as one third of the land by 1641. The highly complex events of the Wars of Three Kingdoms (1641-52) resulted in the notorious Cromwellian land settlement that transferred ownership of as much as 50 percent of the land in the region from Catholic Old English and Old Irish to Protestant hands. The final act was the defeat of the Irish Jacobites in 1692. With the passing of the sectarian-based Penal Laws by the Irish Parliament between 1695 and 1709, Catholics in south Munster were effectively barred from meaningful civic, corporate and socio-cultural participation on both the regional and national levels. By 1703, only about a score of surviving Catholic landowners remained in the entire region, and the ensuing 130 years belonged to the Anglo-Protestant landowning and mercantile elites.
The commercialization of the regional economy is a further key theme presented in this section. Here again, the decisive event was the arrival of New English colonists. In effect, by 1641 a highly commercialized market economy, featuring the export of wool and live cattle to the west of England, was firmly in place. Other aspects of this transformation include the first efforts to enclose land, the monetization of the regional economy, and the rapid expansion of local market fairs. Contemporaneously, the 1620s and 1630s witnessed the departure of the first elements of the eventually vast Irish diaspora, and by the 1650s the Irish were a real presence in places like Montserrat and Barbados. It is, perhaps, important to note that the majority of these first emigrants to the New World were New English planters. Alternatively, dislocated Catholics were already departing to France and Spain, where they rapidly became a fixture as soldiers, clergy, and merchants.
Perhaps of greatest interest for this particular review, Dickson clearly delineates the impact of the economic integration of the south Munster region into the broader Atlantic world. The initial phase of regional involvement in trans-Atlantic trade consisted of the movement of New World commodities, principally tobacco and sugar, to Munster. In fact, by 1640 the port of Kinsale in County Cork was the largest importer of tobacco in Ireland. However, by 1664 Cork had largely supplanted other regional ports, and, as Dickson notes, by 1700 the city of Cork was "one of the great port cities in the Atlantic World" (p. 144). The key to Cork's rise to prominence was its role in processing and then distributing the produce of the south Munster region to the wider Atlantic world. In turn, the form taken by this trade was dictated by English Parliamentary legislation. The Navigation Acts of 1663 and 1671 insured that Ireland could not trade directly with English colonies or effectively engage in the re-export of colonial goods, while the Cattle Acts of 1665 and 1667 blocked the previously lucrative sale of live cattle to England. Ultimately, in 1699 the export of woolen cloth was banned. Thus "shaped" by English economic interest, south Munster increasingly focused on the production of three primary goods--salted beef, butter and woolen yarn. The first two of these became great trans-Atlantic commodities, in turn, dramatically affecting the socio-economic evolution of the entire region. Simply put, more and more land was dedicated to pasturage for the cows on which the trade depended, and less was available for tillage. Hence, those able to capitalize on the new market opportunities via the medium of cattle rearing thrived, while others less fortunate were increasingly marginalized.
The primacy of the Atlantic provisions trade to the regional economy is strikingly confirmed by statistical evidence. Already by 1680, south Munster shipped some 80 percent of its pastoral goods to the Caribbean, primarily in the form of salted beef and butter, with the remainder going to northern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula. In the second decade of the eighteenth century, French sugar islands swelled the pre-existing trade to the English colonies. A resultant, remarkable story is told: 50,000-80,000 of the cattle raised each year in rural Munster was moved to Cork City, where they were butchered, barreled and placed on board ship. Transported, sometimes after switching hands in France, across the Atlantic, the beef was unloaded in places such as Martinique and Jamaica, where it fed planter and slave alike. Completing this cycle, slave-produced sugar and tobacco made their way back to Cork City and were distributed via market fairs throughout the region. With noteworthy clarity, then, Dickson confirms the centrality of trans-Atlantic trade to the economic development of south Munster. Yet, while the opportunities created by participation in this trans-oceanic trade brought tremendous wealth to planters and merchants on both sides of the Atlantic, it also helped shape the fate of tens of thousands of Irish peasants. As Dickson observes, land values in south Munster rose between five and six times between 1690 and 1810, largely as a result of "real changes in the agrarian economy and in the market for the region's goods in the world outside" (p. 83).
The brief second section of Old World Colony addresses the latent tensions which underlay the period of the Protestant Ascendancy. Dickson successfully, albeit indirectly, challenges the still prevalent historiographical interpretation that views the period as one of equipoise in which the bulk of the regional population accepted an ancien regime. The third and concluding part of this work is, in terms of political history, the most groundbreaking. Here, the author argues persuasively that the south Munster region, or at least the City and County of Cork, was heavily influenced by the phenomenon of Atlantic revolutions. Dickson utilizes a broad range of primary source material to establish the presence of the United Irishmen in south Munster from 1793, when the society's first club was founded in Cork City. Moreover, a number of pivotal figures in the national movement were natives of the region. Efforts to politicize the population of south Munster dated from the early as 1790s with the publication of the radical Cork Gazette. Indeed, by 1796, Dickson shows that the Republicans in Cork, unlike their Dublin counterparts, turned their efforts to politicizing the rural poor by distributing propaganda that fed on pre-existing socio-economic and sectarian grievances. The United Irishmen successfully merged traditional agrarian concerns, over issues like tithes, with new radical concepts such as universal manhood suffrage (p. 468). In reality, by the end of 1797, the region had a sizeable, well-organized, and highly motivated cellular United Irish military structure in place: "in the first quarter of 1798, when there was both leadership and optimism among Cork United Irishmen, the movement did indeed represent a formidable challenge" (p. 468). In summing up the political status of south Munster during these key years, Dickson affirms that "a robust revolutionary movement had developed a military capability in the course of 1797; the pivot was the Cork City organization.... It is irrefutable that across at least half of Munster there was a high level of popular disaffection evident by the early months of 1798.... We have seen that the circulation of printed propaganda from Cork and Dublin was most impressive and not by any means confined to the urban Anglophone world" (p. 472). Pointedly, then, the region failed to rise in May 1798, not because of an absence of popular enthusiasm, but because of the success of the government's preemptive disarmament campaign that spring, a heavy regional military presence, and the loss of vital leaders on the eve of the rebellion. In fact, "five years later when news of Robert Emmet's Rebellion broke a number of leading United Irishmen in the city were detained ... there were grounds for suspicions" (p. 472).
Furthermore, Dickson offers an in-depth analysis of the dramatic socio-economic transformations that occurred in the region between 1770 and 1830. Underlying these alterations was a demographic explosion on a scale unparalleled in early modern western European history. From mid-century, south Munster's population rose from roughly a third of a million people to 1.1 million in 1831. Dickson attributes this rise primarily to "a food supply that was reliable," the potato. Increasing social stratification corresponded to population growth between the 1770s and the 1820s. This process rapidly accelerated from the 1790s, and by 1800, coinciding with an "increasingly complex class structure," was an "exceptionally unequal distribution of income" (p. 496). The winners were large farmers producing for the market; alternatively, the landless laborers and small farmers were trapped in a classic example of the economist's "price scissors," featuring rising rents and stagnant or declining wages as well as chronic underemployment. The uniquely Irish phenomenon of multi-layered tenancies further exacerbated the situation. In 1780, laborers were already suffering real decline in wages. By 1830 most lived on an acre or less and had no livestock except a pig, which was their only tie to the market. Finally, the failure of earlier industrial efforts, coupled with the absence of coal deposits in the region, insured that no substantial industrialization would occur in the region after the 1820s. Thus, the overwhelmingly Catholic, rural underclass, described by Dickson as the true proletariat of pre-famine Cork, was by 1830 dangerously underemployed, devoid of alternative economic opportunity, living outside of the market economy on less than 5 percent of the region's land, and utterly reliant on a single root crop for their existence. Moreover, they constituted the absolute majority (over 60,000 of some 100,000 households in County Cork) of south Munster's population. We know only to well the looming implications of all this. Dickson concludes the book with an analysis of the means by which the Protestant Ascendancy was undermined by 1830. Along with the familiar story of Daniel O'Connell's Catholic Emancipation movement, which ultimately succeeded in 1829, Dickson identifies the increasing wealth and status of Catholic merchants, professionals, and big farmers as successfully challenging the socio-political and cultural domination of the Protestant landowning gentry.
New World Colony is so finely nuanced and meticulously researched that it effectively raises the historiographical bar for Irish regional history. Indeed, the study is mandatory reading for historians of early modern and modern Ireland. Those working on the Atlantic World will also find the book to be of tremendous utility, for David Dickson has firmly placed south Munster in an Atlantic context.
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James Patterson. Review of Dickson, David, Old World Colony: Cork and South Munster, 1630-1830.
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