“Checking my notes on Tom Garvins book with the help of my grand daughter, Ophelia”
“Checking my notes on Tom Garvins book with the help of my grand daughter, Ophelia”

Ireland 1760 to 1960

I have just finished reading “The Evolution of Irish Nationalist Politics” by Tom Garvin.

Tom is a distinguished Irish historian and political scientist.

The book was published in 1980, and covers the period from 1760 to 1960.

It traces the organisational development of political groups agitating for change in Ireland during that long period.

On one side ,  there were parties agitating for control  of agricultural land to pass  from the legal owners (the land lords) , to the tenant farmers (who did the actual work on the land). This struggle  for control of the land was most intense from 1879 to 1903 , ending with a victory for the tenant farmers.

 Essentially, the UK taxpayers bought out the landlords.  It was good that this issue was settled before Irish independence came in 1921. The new democratic Irish Free State, created by the Treaty of 1921, had more than enough financial and other problems on its plate in the 1920s and 1930s, without having had to deal with a huge land transfer programme as well.

In close alliance and overlapping with those looking for land reform, were those agitating for a greater degree of independence of Ireland from Britain.

Demands here ranged from

  • Home Rule (devolution) within the UK,
  • a dual monarchy (whereby Ireland and Britain would be separate states but have the same King) to a third option,
  • a completely independent Irish Republic.

In opposition to all moves towards independence this were Irish Unionists.  Irish Unionists were divided on the land issue, but strongly united in insisting that they would not be ruled by a Nationalist majority parliament in Dublin, whether it be a Home Rule Parliament, or the Parliament of an Irish Republic.


Another big controversy about acceptable methods to be used to achieve political goals.

Should the methods used be confined to peaceful and parliamentary agitation,  or should physical force ( involving the taking of human life) also be permissible?

There were strong practical arguments in favour of using exclusively peaceful methods

The Land Reforms were, after all, been achieved by exclusively peaceful by methods.

Home Rule was also achieved by peaceful methods in 1914. This is forgotten nowadays because of the subsequent, and to my mind ill advised, celebration of the violence from 1916 onwards.

Home Rule within the UK was voted into law in September 1914. Implementation was deferred until the end of the World War which had started a month before Home Rule became law.


There was one big  outstanding issue

Should Home Rule would apply to all 32 counties of Ireland as one unit , or could the  6 predominantly Unionist counties in the North East be excluded, temporarily or otherwise? 

Behind this demand   for exclusion was a threat of the use of military force by the Ulster Volunteer Force,  and even of a mutiny of pro Unionist officers in the British Army.

In this, it could be said that it was unionism which introduced the threat of violence into Irish politics, although it was a faction of nationalism that actually fired the first shots  at Easter of 1916.

Tom Garvin’s excellent book crams a range of fascinating material into 137 pages. He covers  the sociology, the competing ideologies, the role of secret societies, of mass political agitation , and organisational methods, and their cumulative impact on the course of Irish history.


Garvin also shows the impact of changes in the right to vote on who would be the MPs representing Irish constituencies in Westminster.

 The Franchise was very limited in 1860. Only significant property owners had a vote. If that had persisted, there would not have been a majority for either Home Rule or Land Reform. The successful British agitation ( by groups like the Chartists) for a wider franchise across all parts of the UK was a huge help to Irish causes.

From 1867 on the property qualification for the votes was eased. In 1872, the right to vote in secret and this stopped landlords attempting to control how their tenants voted.

These changes had immediate effects.

In 1868, 69% of the 105 Irish MPs in Westminster were landlords, but by 1874, that percentage had fallen to 49%, and proportion who came from the professional classes had risen from 10% to 23%.

Thanks to a further extension of the franchise introduced during World War One ( abolishing property qualifications and giving the vote to women for the first time) , the electorate in Ireland who had a vote in the 1918 Election was three times the one that had a vote in the previous election of 1910.


Garvin also describes the close linkage between the development of the GAA and that of physical force nationalism as represented by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the IRB). As an oath bound secret society , the IRB was under a ban by the Catholic Church.


Garvin also compares the political parties active in the independent 26 county Ireland, at the time of his writing in the 1970s, with the range of parties active in the earlier period. 

An edition updating Garvins’s book to include changes that have occurred since the 1970’s would a very worthwhile project.


One of the ongoing problems of Irish Republicanism was a preference  for political symbols in the promotion of the ideal of an Irish Republic. The decision to use violence blotted out the time and space in which practical issues might have been explored before the shooting. The use of violence required the over simplification of the issues at stake.

Symbols got priority  over explanations of how the Republic might be structured, how relations with Britain and other countries might be organised and how minority rights might be protected .

The neglect of a debate of these questions meant that sections of the electorate was disappointed by what was actually be achieved. They were not ready for the necessary compromises.

Sean O Faolain, who took the anti Treaty side in the Civil War ,and was its Director of Publicity, admitted that in 1922

“ We had no concept of the State we wished to found” .

So Irish Republicanism tended to be defined more by what it was against ,  rather than by what it was for.

This remains so to this day.


Since Garvin finished this book, Ireland has experienced huge economic, demographic and political change.

Population had been declining up to 1960, but has been growing since then. Over 7 million people now live on the island.

 While the birth rate, which peaked in 1980, has fallen substantially, emigration had been replaced by immigration. This is how the population has risen.

Economic growth has been rapid. There were debt crises in 1980 and again in 2010, but these were overcome quickly because the the underlying productive base of the Irish economy is modern and flexible.

In terms of party politics, Sinn Fein has emerged as the largest political party, thanks to its ability to exploit the debt crisis of 2010. Its advance has been mainly, though not solely at the expense of Fianna Fail.


Sinn Fein continues to defend its support for the IRA campaign of bombing, murder and torture from 1968 to 1998.

Sinn Fein assures us that the IRA no longer exists.

But it is hard to give weight to that assurance while Sinn Fein justifies past IRA activities and the political assumptions which underlay them.

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