Book Review Modern Ireland 1600-1972

Modern Ireland 1600-1972 by R. F. Foster. Published in 1990 by Penguin Books

This book is a concise review of the growth of modern Ireland from 1600 to 1972 that could be divided into two separate books. The first half is an economic and social study of an agricultural society and the second half is a review of how Eamon DeValera shaped Irish history.

In the first half of his book, Foster explores the creation of modern Ireland through the lens of class warfare and property rights. While he admits that the invading force was predominantly Protestant and invaded with the goal of conquering what could be a fifth column of Catholics, he argues that economic tensions fed into the religious tensions and not vice versa. He argues that the creation of the Protestant Ascendancy was based on land seizure and redistribution, providing them with large swarths of land in which to build a fortune. They also had the benefit of protection from the crown, whereas the lower and middle-class Catholics owned smaller domains of land, received infrequent protection, and suffered from an immigration crisis. Foster argues that, while England had a restless and innovation middle class that helped spark the Industrial Revolution, Ireland’s restless middle class left for England and the Americas, taking their innovative ideas with them. This left the largely Catholic population still reliant on agriculture and whatever money was sent home while the Protestant population relied on their property’s worth, rent, and industry.


In the second half of his book, Foster argues that it was the issue of land rights that led to O’Connelism and Parnellism, which eventually led to Home Rule and Easter Rising 1916. Like other historians, Foster argues that Protestant minority was threatened by Home Rule and created Ulster Defense Leagues to protect their land. This led the creation of defense leagues in southern, predominantly Catholic Ireland, and convinced men like Paidraig Pearse that self-rule could only be won through sacrifice. Foster chronicles Easter Rising, the Anglo-Irish, and Civil War well, but with less of his keen insight he provided in the first half. He also sweeps from 1950 to 1972 in rapid chapters, providing the lack of detailed analysis found in the first half. DeValera’s policies are covered in some detail, but the resurgence of the IRA is covered in passing, there is minimum mention of the constricting of women’s rights, the strengthening of the Church’s position in Ireland is a given, and there is little conversation about how Ireland’s leaders were different from DeValera.


Pros: The first half of this book is a fascinating look at the development of Ireland from an economic and social level. While the personalities are brushed over, Foster provides enough information to make the reader want to learn more about Ireland pre-1800s. He also places Ireland in an international context, presenting Ireland’s various rebellions as responses to continental events as well as to internal affairs. His study of migration patterns and land redistribution was an interesting look into how the Protestants were able to ‘ascend’ and stresses the importance of land ownership in context of invasion. This is something that come up frequently, especially during the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe during and after WWII.


Cons: This is a rapid overview of Irish history, so someone who knows nothing about Ireland may be lost or confused. There are times when he assumes the reader knows what happened in Ireland in the 1970s or the 1880s and doesn’t provide complete context. The personalities are frequently brushed over which I, personally, found disappointing. I would have loved to have learned a little more about Wolfe Tone, Daniel O’Connell, and Richard Mulcahy. It would have given us a better idea of Irish culture at the time and these men often define their epoch, so knowing them on a more personal level would have helped us understand why men in the 1900s were still naming societies after Wolfe Tone and why Parnell is still an honored name in Ireland. The second half is not as strongly put together as the first half and the level of analysis is not the same. It is an even faster overview of Irish history and could have used with more time spent on context. While he provides an interesting explanation as to why Ireland was the way it was prior to the 1920’s, this explanation falters after the Irish Civil War and we are left with only a fuzzy understanding of how partition and DeValera’s politics affected Ireland’s development during the latter half the 20th century.


Rating: 3.5/5

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