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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 31November 1993

Class Struggle and National Liberation

Counter-revolution in Ireland


by Erna Bennett

XVIII – An Under-developed Economy

But unlike France in 1848, there did not exist in Ireland’s 26 counties in 1932, any more than in 1922, a powerful bourgeoisie, nor was there any great prospect of one. Apart from a dispersed handful, the Irish bourgeoisie was concentrated in Belfast and its hinterland, and was integrated into the British and not the Irish economy.

In 1920 partition excluded the northeastern industrial enclave from any future involvement in the national economy, just as it limited the latter to a severely limited hinterland. Under other and better circumstances, in a united country with a revolutionary government committed to a social transformation favouring the welfare of the rural and urban working class, the concentration of industry around Belfast would have provided machinery and capital goods for a well-balanced even if initially cautious process of independent economic development.

Instead, a middle-class provisional government had steered the southern rump of the emergent Irish bourgeoisie safely through a revolution. These, a “mixed assortment of banker, industrialists, upper-tier farmers and the backing they can attract,”108 had little choice in 1922, given the political weakness of their class, but to be content for now with the limited opportunities of the domestic market, small as it was. This was a half-loaf they were prepared to accept as a preferable alternative to losing the battle with social forces which might easily have left them, as they saw it, with no loaf at all.

Economic policies in the 1920s positively discouraged industrial activity. Although for the moment the provisional government halted the danger of revolution, the southern bourgeoisie was increasingly perturbed, as it came to realise that their part of the Free State cake was a great deal less than they had anticipated in the frothy days of the counter-revolution. As a result, “between 1921 and 1928 over a hundred native factories ceased operations, and thereafter the process accelerated”.109

As far as the bourgeoisie was concerned, whatever tax concessions a sympathetic Free State government extended them were not sufficient to prevent their exporting capital to Britain, where inducements to invest were more attractive. Banks, business and the rentier class in general still retained pre-independence economic links with London, and at least £200 million, a very substantial sum in those days for a small open economy, derived both from the post-war boom and accumulated war profits which nevertheless probably understates the total,110 was invested abroad.

The lack of home-produced manufactured goods imposed a heavy import strain on the emerging economy. In 1926, imports amounted to 40 per cent of Gross National Income, against the 27 per cent for the same period in the United Kingdom, itself heavily import-dependent. These imports had to be paid for by exports which, in the absence of manufacturing industry, had to come from the land. Yet the level of agricultural productivity was “deplorably low”.

In spite of a succession of land acts – the last of which, in 1923, saw 97.4 per cent of the country’s land finally transferred to its farmers by 1929 – distribution of land ownership was still grossly unequal.111 Almost half a million, or 72 per cent, of those working on the land worked on small family subsistence tillage farms, using only the most basic machinery.

A severely regressive taxation system accentuated the economic gap between these family farms and the seven per cent who employed, on average, two labourers each, mostly on large holdings devoted to extensive low-input cattle grazing farms.

And yet yields of tillage crops in Ireland compared favourably with those in other countries. The reason for Ireland’s low agricultural output lay not in its poor subsistence tillage but in the extensive grass farms of the rich ranching class. In spite of this, the first Free State government decided to base its vital export program on cattle raised by the ranchers and middle to large farmers on low-input grasslands. The reason for this is not hard to find.

The government which emerged victorious from the civil war’s trial of class strength was a government of the middle classes, drawing its greatest support from the most prosperous elements in Irish society, the ranchers and large farmers, who dominated the economy.

The bourgeoisie did not play a significant part in this alliance. Agriculture, which supported 70 per cent of the population directly or indirectly, was therefore not “burdened” by state expenditure on the protection of industries. The strengthening of industry by the use of protective tariffs which, naturally, the bourgeoisie wanted, was opposed by the farmers – and the farmers “were good friends of both the national exchequer and the governing party”.112

Griffith had dreamed of a capitalist Ireland vibrating with native industry directed by a national bourgeoisie, flourishing behind protective tariffs. His heirs now shifted their sights to the less ambitious objectives and the easier allegiance offered them by the class whose support held them in power. And so they reduced land taxes, favouring large rather than smaller farmers, and less rather than more efficient holdings. What matter if, at the same time, this had the effect of lowering, not increasing agricultural output?

Gross output from the land, therefore, fell in this period, but the incomes of ranchers and large farmers increased – “the principal aim” of the government’s agricultural policy, after all, said one of its more vehement supporters, was “the maximisation of the farmers’ income, and not ... the provision of food for the urban population, or the solution of the unemployment problem.”113

Far indeed from solving the problem of unemployment, which stood at more than 130,000 in the early 1920s, such policies aggravated it. The encouragement of extensive, low-input cattle raising, and the deliberate neglect of intensive tillage, drove labour from the land to cities unable to absorb it. It also had a disastrous effect on the agricultural production, which accounted for more than 80 per cent of the country’s exports.

The dairy industry, which could have provided work for many thousands, declined. Milk yields fell to very low levels as farmers concentrated on beef breeds, whose calves could be sold to ranchers and cattlemen.

Flight from the land led to the further steady fall of agricultural output. By 1925, tillage had fallen by 34 per cent, cattle by seven per cent, poultry by seven per cent and pigs, a reliable indicator of rural habitation, by 26 per cent.

For those sons and daughters of large farmers who would not inherit their fathers’ farms, O’Tuaithaigh observes, “dowry, church or the higher professions saw the non-inheritors well set for life”, but the chances in Ireland for the children of small-holders and landless labourers were so slim that they left the country in their thousands – voting with their feet, to use a popular expression – ineffectively, it must be said, if desperately, against the regime. But exasperation is no substitute for political action, and many anti-popular governments in Ireland have been let off the hook by the safety valve offered by emigration.

Those who tried to stay on looked for work as labourers or domestic servants. Many thousands of them found that the demand for work was greater than the supply and they-remained unemployed: Too late they then discovered that agricultural labourers and domestic servants, the largest categories of male and female workers respectively, were not covered by social insurance and so were excluded from unemployment assistance. Others who went to the towns in search of work found that most of the work there was uninsured, and that they. too, were not eligible for unemployment assistance.

Even insured workers were not entitled to receive unemployment assistance for longer than six months. In 1926, of a total of more than 100,000 unemployed only 11,000 were entitled to unemployment assistance.

Next Section: XIX – Penalising the poor
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  1. O’Donnell, Peadar. An Phoblacht, 7.2.1931. loc. cit.
  2. Greaves, C. Desmond. Partitioned Ireland. Epilogue to T.A. Jackson, Ireland her Own, Seven Seas Edition. p.447.
  3. Daniel, T.K. (1976) Griffith on his noble head. Irish Economic and Social History. vol. 3, p.57.
  4. O’Neill, B. (1933) The War for the Land in Ireland. London. Martin Lawrence. pp.139-143. But see also Rumpf and Hepburn, Appendix 1, where it is noted that 25 years later, in 1950, 150,000 tenant farms were still not the property of their cultivators.
  5. Rumpf and Hepburn. loc.cit. pp.74, 75.
  6. O’Brien, G. (1936) in Studies 25, cited by Meenan p.303.

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