chapter
14 Pages

Introduction

ByTOM BOYLAN , RENEE PRENDERGAST AND JOHN D . TURNER

The present work is the first substantial attempt to survey the history of Irish economic thought from the late seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. It builds on the foundations provided by R.D.C. Black’s Economic Thought and the Irish Question as well as more recent contributions by Boylan and Foley (1992), Brewer (1992), Daly (1997), Johnston (1970), Murphy (1983, 1986) and Moss (1976). The approach taken is both thematic and focused on the contributions of individual economists, with the work organised into four chronological parts. The first of these, entitled ‘Ireland and the birth of political economy’, relates to the Irish contribution to pre-Smithian classical political economy. The second covers the rise and fall of laissez-faire in the century following the publication of the Wealth of Nations. The third part is devoted to the contributions of four individual economists who made pioneering contributions to modern economics in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The final part surveys the development and contribution of political economy in the context of twentieth-century Ireland. In attempting to delineate the scope of a work on Irish economic thought, two main approaches were considered neither of which is entirely satisfactory. One is to focus on the work of Irish political economists designating as Irish those who were born in Ireland and/or those who worked mainly in Ireland. The other is to focus on the work of those whose writings in political economy were concerned primarily with Irish issues. While there is something to be said for both approaches, the view taken here is that an exclusive focus on Irish issues would fail to take adequate account of important contributions to the more abstract parts of the subject. Consequently, our survey of Irish economic thought is based on the consideration of the work of significant Irish political economists and this is supplemented by an issues-based approach. In determining who should be regarded as ‘Irish’ for this work, we have opted for an inclusive approach. We regard as Irish those political economists who were born in and educated in Ireland regardless of where they subsequently lived. We also include settlers such as William Petty, an Englishman who first came to Ireland as Physician General to Cromwell’s army in 1652 and became interested in ‘political anatomy’ in the course of surveying the country in preparation for the confiscation of Irish lands. Richard Cantillon and Arthur O’Connor

were Irish born and bred but spent much of their lives in France. Johnathan Swift and George Berkeley, both of Anglo-Irish stock, were born in Ireland and educated in Trinity College Dublin, but they were at home in England as well as Ireland. Francis Hutcheson, on the other hand, was the grandson of Scottish immigrants. A dissenter, he received his university education at Glasgow to which he eventually returned as Professor of Moral Philosophy. Francis Edgeworth and Terence Gorman were both educated at Trinity College, but spent most of their careers in British universities. Whilst decisions about the designation of individual contributors as Irish or not-Irish provides a means of identifying the potential subject matter of a work on the history of Irish economic thought, it runs the risk of neglecting the contribution of British political economists such as John Stuart Mill who were deeply engaged with Irish matters particularly issues relating to land tenure. The same applies to the more peripheral contributions to Irish issues of Ricardo, Malthus, Senior and McCulloch. Just as it was natural for British economists to consider Irish matters especially during the two centuries in which Ireland formed part of the United Kingdom, there was no necessity for those born in Ireland to focus on purely Irish matters especially if they made their careers elsewhere. Edmund Burke was not primarily a political economist and his work features only peripherally in this volume1 but he provides a good example of someone whose contributions bore traces of his Irish upbringing but whose writings on political economy related to Britain and France and Britain’s relationships with Ireland, America and India. As far as the abstract contributions of Cantillon, Edgeworth and Gorman are concerned, there is no discernable connection with the birthplace of their creators. The same also holds for some of the contributions of the likes of Berkeley and Geary, whose main body of work was primarily motivated by concerns about Irish conditions. The view taken here is that this makes the work in question no less Irish. Rather, it shows that Irishmen and, at times, groups of Irish men have made important contributions to the wider development of the discipline. A focus on the work of significant theoreticians is by no means the whole story. As Oliver MacDonagh (1962) pointed out with reference to nineteenthcentury Ireland in his review of R.D.C. Black’s Economic Thought and the Irish Question (1960), there were issues on which ‘the theoretical economists limped behind – and often a considerable distance behind the native agrarian philanthropists and agitators in the development of economic thought’. What MacDonagh has in mind is the work of men such as William Conner and Frank Lawlor whose contributions were examined in some detail by Black. While important historically, the contribution of these authors is not primarily economic and is only briefly discussed in the present work. According to Cliffe Leslie, the historical political economist, ‘political economy is not a body . . . of universal and immutable truths, but an assemblage of speculations and doctrines which are the result of a particular history’ (Cliffe Leslie 1870). If Leslie’s relativist hypothesis is correct, a study of Irish political economy would be expected to uncover some

specifically Irish characteristics either in terms of problems addressed, institutional assumptions made or approaches adopted. The work presented here demonstrates that there is some truth in Leslie’s proposition. At various points in the development of Ireland’s political economy, the questions which preoccupied its practitioners were the product of the particular conjuncture which included Ireland’s complex and varied relationship with Great Britain and British political economy.