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THE
MODERNISATION
OF IRISH
SOCIETY

1848–1918

JOSEPH LEE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I ndíl-chuimhne m’athar agus mo mháthair.

 

 

 

CONTENTS

Cover

Title page

Dedication

Preface to the 2008 Edition

Preface

Chapter 1: Economy and Society

Population

Economic change

The role of the State

Chapter 2: Land, Religion, Nationalism 1848–79

The Encumbered Estates Act

The Tenant League

The Independent Irish party

Cardinal Cullen’s Church

Orangeism

Fenianism

Justice for Ireland

Home Rule—the first phase

Chapter 3: The Land War 1879–82

Economic crisis

‘The West’s awake’

The New Departure

Parnell

Agitation

Concession

Chapter 4: The Significance of the Land War

Deference

Consciousness

Town and country

Economic consequences

Chapter 5: Home Rule and Unionism 1880–1914

Parnell and his party

The Liberal alliance

The Plan of Campaign

The fall of Parnell

Moral force unionism

Physical force unionism

Chapter 6: Anglicisation or Modernisation? 1892–1918

‘The necessity for de-anglicising Ireland’

Pearse

Connolly

The Rising of 1916

Sinn Féin

The general election of 1918

Epilogue

Bibliography

References

Copyright

About the Author

About Gill & Macmillan

 

PREFACE TO THE 2008 EDITION

A vast amount has been published on this period since this book originally appeared in 1973. Although more recent work by no means always supersedes earlier studies, much of it is likely to prove of enduring value. I have nevertheless decided to retain my original text except for the correction of some factual errors. These do not require specification, but changes in interpretation do. There are four places in particular where I would now revise my treatment.

The very first sentence in the original reads ‘At least 800,000 people … died from hunger and disease between 1845 and 1851.’ The figure of 800,000 was derived from the most thorough scholarly research available at that time. The ‘at least’ qualification implied that I thought that any revision was likely to be upwards. That has proved to be the case. I would now write that ‘at least 1,000,000 people’ died, a figure also derived from the most scholarly subsequent research. But I would still retain the ‘at least’ because I think any further revision is likewise likely to be upwards.

Secondly, my discussion of Douglas Hyde (here) fails to locate him adequately in the comparative global context of cultural history. Language conflict tends to be much more about power than about language in itself, and I now believe that the essence of Hyde’s argument concerning distinctive national cultural personalities, however much he could luxuriate in a romanticised perspective at times, belongs far more to modernity than I allowed. (See my article, ‘The Legacy of Douglas Hyde’, in Breandán Ó Conaire (eag.), Conradh na Gaeilge: Céad bliain ag obair (Comhairle Chontae Roscomáin, 1994), pp 12–26).

Thirdly, I shared the standard view, still widely held, that by arming through the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1913–14, Orangemen were responsible for ‘bringing the gun back into politics’. This conveyed the impression that somehow Irish politics under the Union were conducted without regard to the power of the gun. In fact Irish politics were conducted within the framework prescribed by the power of the gun—the British gun. The presence of British troops in Ireland was the precondition for British rule, and therefore, in the circumstances, for the nature and conduct of politics. The sentence should instead convey the fact, not that Ulster unionists brought the gun back into Irish politics, but rather that the arming of the Ulster Volunteer Force ‘brought an alternative to the British gun into Irish politics’.

Fourthly, I have revised my view on the effect of the executions of the leaders of the 1916 Rising in transforming public attitudes towards the rebellion. Whereas I then accepted the standard interpretation that ‘It was the executions, not the rising, that worked a sea change in public opinion’, I now think that this seriously over-simplifies public attitudes, which were far more complex than this simplistic assertion suggests (see J. J. Lee, Ireland 1912–1985: Politics and Society (1989), pp 28–36).

A more general case of over-simplification was the manner in which I used Scotch-Irish too loosely as synonymous with Ulster unionist at various places in the text, and which I have accordingly corrected.

 

PREFACE

This study was originally conceived more as a work of reflection than of research. Unfortunately, despite many splendid recent contributions to the history of the high politics of the period, the present state of knowledge precludes an interpretative essay of the type envisaged. Scholars regularly and rightly lament the neglect of Irish economic history. Several other fields lie equally fallow, scarcely sprouting even a crop of weeds. Intellectual history, the ultimate key to our understanding of both economy and society, has hardly impinged on scholarly consciousness. The history of education has been treated virtually exclusively as a mere branch of the diplomatic history of church-state relations. Voting patterns have been widely ignored; not a single general election has been studied in adequate local detail. The present essay cannot, needless to say, fill these gaps. It burrows tentatively in a few unfamiliar directions, but neither time nor space permit more than a prolegomenon to a sustained study of the modernisation process in Ireland.

Despite the revised concept of the work, I have, perhaps rashly, retained the original title in the hope that, as a term widely, if ambiguously, used in international scholarship, modernisation may prove immune to the parochial preoccupations implicit in equally elusive and more emotive concepts like gaelicisation and anglicisation. Modernisation is defined as the growth of equality of opportunity. This requires that merit supersede birth as the main criterion for the distribution of income, status and power, and this, in turn, involves the creation of political consciousness among the masses, the decline of deference based on inherited status, and the growth of functional specialisation, without which merit can hardly begin to be measured.

It is a vulgar error to confuse terminology with thought. New terminology may merely mean glossier, and perhaps shoddier, packaging of familiar products. I hope, therefore, particularly as references are confined to original sources, that the bibliography indicates my heavy obligation to other scholars. More specifically, I have accumulated immense debts to Margaret MacCurtain, who has indulged the idiosyncracies of a wayward contributor with true Dominican resignation to the inscrutable designs of providence. Paul Bew, Gearóid O Tuathaigh, E. D. Steele and John Vincent have not only set several trains of thought in motion but brought many others grinding to a timely halt. They must not, of course, be held responsible for derailments due to drunken driving. My wife, Anne, has been a constant support, whether in typing at short notice into the small hours or rescuing me from the infuriating clutches of uninvited guests!

I am grateful to the Master and Fellows of Peterhouse for sustaining an atmosphere conducive to amiable reflection on the nature of Irish identity.

JOSEPH LEE

PETERHOUSE

CAMBRIDGE

 

 

01

ECONOMY AND SOCIETY

POPULATION

At least 800,000 people, about 10 per cent of the population, died from hunger and disease between 1845 and 1851. But there was nothing unique, by the standards of pre-industrial subsistence crises, about the famine. The death rate had been frequently equalled in earlier European famines, including, possibly, in Ireland itself during 1740–41. Despite death and emigration the population in 1851, 6·6 million, was still among the highest ever recorded. Population had, moreover, usually recovered rapidly from earlier famines. But, far from recovering after 1851, it fell to 4·4 million by 1911. What was peculiar, therefore, was not the famine, but the long-term response of Irish society to this short-term calamity.

Six main factors influenced post-famine demographic development: the changing rural class structure, rising age at marriage, declining marriage and birth rates, a static death rate and emigration. The combination of these six factors was unique to Ireland, but they did not combine within the country in precisely the same manner from decade to decade or from province to province, resulting, as can be seen from the following table, in marked regional fluctuations in the pace of population decline.

 

Rate of Population Decline (%)

  Leinster Munster Ulster Connacht Ireland
1841–51 15·3 22·5 15·7 28·8 19·9
1851–61 12·9 18·5 4·8 9·6 11·5
1861–71 8·1 7·9 4·2 7·3 6·7
1871–81 4·5 4·5 4·9 2·9 4·4
1881–91 7·1 11·9 7·1 11·8 9·1
1891–1901 3·3 8·3 2·3 10.1 5·2
1901–11 +0·8 3·8 0·1 5·6 1·5
1841–1911 41·2 56·8 33·8 57·0 46·4

 

The enumeration of many farmers’ children as labourers in the census of 1841 complicates calculation of the precise number of landless labourers, but even a rough estimate shows that the famine initiated a transformation in rural social structure.

 

  Labourers Cottiers (under 5 acres) Farmers (5–15 acres) (over 15 acres)
1845 700,000 300,000 310,000 277,000
1851 500,000 88,000 192,000 290,000
1910 300,000 62,000 154,000 304,000

 

Between 1845 and 1851 the number of labourers and cottiers fell 40 per cent, the number of farmers 20 per cent. During the following 60 years the number of labourers and cottiers again fell about 40 per cent, the number of farmers only 5 per cent. Within the rural community the class balance swung sharply in favour of farmers, and within the farming community it swung even more sharply in favour of bigger and against smaller farmers.

These striking shifts in rural social structure may help explain one of the most intractable problems to perplex students of nineteenth-century Ireland, the apparently abrupt reversal of demographic direction involved in converting the Irish from one of the earliest marrying to the latest and most rarely marrying people in Europe. Between 1845 and 1914 average male age at marriage rose from about 25 to 33, average female age from about 21 to 28. The decline in crude marriage rate (the number of marriages per 1,000 of the population) from about 7 in the immediate pre-famine period to about 5 by 1880, and the increase in the proportion of females in the age group 45–54 never married, from 12 per cent in 1851 to 26 per cent in 1911, distinguished Ireland as a demographic freak.

Such striking changes appear to indicate an entirely new mentality among the survivors of the holocaust, to represent a sharp reversal of existing patterns of behaviour. The change has been widely associated with the switch from sub-division of land among all sons to inheritance by only one child. According to this interpretation, land was subordinated to people before the famine: henceforth people were subordinated to land. Sub-division meant inheritance for all sons, young marriages, large families. Consolidation condemned the younger children to the emigrant ship or the shelf. For the inheritor it entailed postponing marriage until the parental farm became available. This interpretation, though partially valid, greatly exaggerates the scale and speed of the transformation. Age at marriage in pre-famine Ireland probably varied more or less directly with the value of the farm. Within any given region, labourers and cottiers married earlier than small farmers, who in turn married earlier than larger farmers. Sub-division was largely confined, for a generation before the famine, to already small farms in the far west. In the rest of the country even small farmers generally insisted on a dowry from the daughter-in-law and rarely subdivided. A disproportionate number of famine survivors belonged to classes with above average age at marriage, already unaccustomed to sub-divide. Even had age at marriage remained unchanged within social groups, the reduction in the proportion of earlier marrying strata would have raised average age at marriage. The sizes of strata changed more than their behaviour. Age at marriage within groups gradually increased, but the overall change did not require the whole peasantry to revolutionise their attitude under the cathartic impact of the tragedy, but rather required the surviving labourers and cottiers, who previously had little to lose from early marriage, to adopt the existing attitudes of more prudent calculators. However much these attitudes hardened and sharpened in the congenial post-famine circumstances, they were inherited rather than created by post-famine man.

As the rungs on the social ladder widened, as the cottier disappeared and the average size of farm increased, it became increasingly difficult to marry a little above or a little beneath oneself. The range of social choice for bidders in the marriage market narrowed. Mixed marriages, between farmers and labourers, were considered unnatural. Farmers’ children preferred celibacy to labourers. The increasing longevity of parents reinforced the drift towards late marriage. In 1841 only 6·3 per cent of the population were over 60, by 1901 eleven per cent. Sons, more patient in waiting for a farm than daughters for a man, became relatively older than their brides. This widening age gap meant that a larger number of wives became, in due course, widows. Wives and widows, victims of largely loveless matches, projected their frustrated capacity for affection onto their sons, and contemplated with dread the prospect of a ‘rival’ daughter-in-law who might supplant them in their sons’ affections. The farmers’ wives gave a grimly ironic twist to Parnell’s famous warning ‘keep a firm grip on your homesteads’. To farming mothers the daughter-in-law posed a more pernicious threat than the landlord, and many a mother devoted her later life sapping her son’s will to relegate her to the end room in favour of another woman. As a result the proportion of female farmers, frequently widows refusing to make over the farm to a son, rose from 4 to 15 per cent between 1841 and 1911.

The Churches, particularly the Catholic Church, are frequently criticised for contributing to the unnatural marriage patterns in post-famine Ireland by treating sex as a satanic snare and exalting the virtues of celibacy. The Churches, however, merely reflected the dominant economic values of post-famine rural society. ‘The average Irish peasant’, it was observed, ‘takes unto himself a mate with as clear a head, as placid a heart and as steady a nerve as if he were buying a cow at Ballinasloe Fair’. Few societies anywhere, rural or urban, Christian or Confucian, refined the marriage bargain to such an acquisitive nicety. The integrity of the family was ruthlessly sacrificed, generation after generation, to the priority of economic man, to the rationale of the economic calculus. Priests and parsons, products and prisoners of the same society, dutifully sanctified this mercenary ethos, but they were in any case powerless to challenge the primacy of economic man over the Irish countryside. Clergymen played useful roles as psychological safety valves by helping to reconcile the celibate to their condition. Protestant illegitimacy rates, though slightly higher than Catholic, were distinctly lower than in the rest of the United Kingdom, or, indeed, than in most continental Catholic communities. In the comparative context, the similarities between the sexual and marital mores of Irish Catholics and Protestants were far more striking than the local differences on which polemicists loved to linger. It seems probable that only the consolation offered by the Churches to the celibate victims of economic man prevented lunacy rates, which quadrupled between 1850 and 1914, from rising even more rapidly.

Increasingly late and rare marriage resulted in a fall in crude birth rate (the number of births per 1,000 of the population) from over 35 before the famine to 28 by 1870 and 23 by 1914. Most European societies reduced their birth rate in the late nineteenth century, generally through limiting the size rather than the number of families. In other countries, however, falling death rates helped offset the decline in birth rate. Ironically, this process occurred much more slowly in Ireland, which had one of the lowest normal death rates in Europe, due mainly to a remarkably low infant mortality rate. The pervasive breast feeding of babies, and the nutritious potato diet kept the proportion of deaths among infants in their first year below ten per cent, compared with about twenty per cent in most European countries. The graphs illustrate the exceptional nature of Irish birth and death rates.

A death rate of 17 subtracted from a birth rate of 23, the usual situation between 1890 and 1914, should result in a population increase of 6 per 1,000. Emigration, however, siphoned off more than this natural increase. Close on 2,000,000 emigrants fled between 1848 and 1855; another 3,500,000 followed by 1914. Until 1851 the exodus consisted predominantly of small farmers in family groups. As the number of agricultural holdings stabilised after 1851, farmers’ children and agricultural labourers leaving as individuals replaced family groups as the main source of emigration. The flow declined after the mid-1850s, fluctuating according to the relative prosperity of America and Ireland. Numbers rose to over 100,000 in 1863 and 1864 following bad harvests, fell as low as 30,000 in 1877, when American slump coincided with Irish prosperity, and rose steeply to 96,000 in 1880 when American recovery coincided with Irish depression.

 

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Emigration among labourers reflected more a revolution in their subjective mentalities than in the objective realities of their standard of living. Average weekly agricultural wages rose from 5/- in 1845 to 7/- in 1870 and 11/- in 1914. The crux of the matter was that the rise in the labourer’s standard of living lagged behind the rise in his aspirations. The agricultural labourer who told an enquirer in 1894 ‘I don’t like the work on the land. It is very laborious and does not lead to anything. I have seen men who have worked all their lives as badly off as at the beginning’ expressed the sentiments of thousands of emigrants no longer satisfied with a traditional existence. That the emigration of small farmers was also as much a psychological as an economic phenomenon, that it constituted an aspect of the modernisation of Irish mentalities, can be seen from the persistence into the post-famine period of pre-famine patterns of regional population movements. Emigration was lowest in Connacht, where the survivors, still too poor and backward to contemplate alternatives to traditional existence, lacking both the means and the will to leave, clung tenaciously to their holdings or eked out new ones from waste lands. Connacht emigration rates gradually caught up with the national average by 1870, but not until the agricultural depression after 1877 did the heavy emigration, which has since characterised the province, begin. Between 1871 and 1881 the population of Connacht fell only three per cent, two-thirds the national average, whereas between 1881 and 1891 it fell twelve per cent, one and a half times the national average.

 

ECONOMIC CHANGE

The flight from the land became widespread throughout western Europe in the late nineteenth century. Irish experience was peculiar mainly because it involved higher emigration, and lower internal migration, than the European average, and because it was the only European country whose rural population actually fell. Why did Ireland, outside the Lagan Valley, fail to create her own Bostons and Birminghams? Why did the population of Belfast increase from 100,000 to 400,000 between 1850 and 1914, while that of Dublin only managed to creep up from 250,000 to 300,000?

The root of the problem in many backward economies lies in agriculture. Food supply constitutes a serious bottleneck because productivity is so low that a sufficient surplus to feed a substantial non-agricultural population cannot be generated. This was not the case in Ireland, which remained a substantial net exporter of food throughout the period. Nevertheless, agriculture made nothing like its potential contribution to economic growth. This failure has been traditionally explained in terms of the switch from tillage to pasture after the famine as ‘the landlord and the bullock drove the people off the land’. The debate on the relative merits of livestock and tillage tends to obscure the fact that both sectors contributed to considerable agricultural progress between 1750 and 1860. Rotation, revolving primarily around the potato, stimulated increases in corn and root yields, which generally compared well with European averages. Density of stocking increased sharply between 1840 and 1860, but it stagnated subsequently. Commercial farming had superseded subsistence agriculture over three-quarters of the country by 1850, when Ireland had one of the most commercially advanced agricultures in the world.

After the famine farmers responded promptly to price movements, which generally favoured livestock more than grain. Profit margins in the livestock sector benefited not only from rapidly rising prices, but also from the fact that production costs rose more slowly in labour-extensive pasture than in labour-intensive tillage. Cattle numbers doubled from 2·7 million in 1848 to 5 million in 1914: sheep numbers, fluctuating violently, rose from 2 million in 1848 to 3·6 million in 1914: poultry numbers, though temporarily decimated in the famine, rose from less than 10 million in 1841 to 27 million in 1914. In 1845 potatoes, grain and livestock each accounted for about one-third of the value of agricultural output. By 1914 the livestock sector contributed three-quarters of the total value. Climate and soil, in contrast to continental experience, allowed the farmer to move exceptionally easily between tillage and livestock and although his gross income from pasture was lower than had he concentrated on tillage, his net income—his prime consideration—fell only slightly below what he could have achieved through a great deal of extra effort. The Irish farmer behaved as a rational economic man, and, after the wave of famine evictions ebbed, it was he, not the landlord, who drove his children and the labourers off the land. But while the farmer behaved rationally within his terms of economic reference, those terms frequently proved dangerously restrictive. As the age of inheritance and the proportion of widows gradually increased, the likelihood of the ‘young’ generation proving receptive to technical progress diminished. The range of efficiency among farmers appears to have been exceptionally wide, and even within the livestock sector the difference between the actual and potential output—had all farmers reached the existing ‘best practice’ standards—seems to have been substantial. The farmer showed more commercial than technical alertness, and it remains unclear to what extent his high leisure preference reflected conscious choice. The propensity for livestock production reduced both the potential rural demand for labour and the potential size of the agricultural market for goods and services; the propensity for inefficient livestock production reduced them still further. A combination of climate and soil on the one hand, and the peculiar family structure on the other, made the potential divergence between individual and collective rationality exceptionally wide in Irish agriculture.

Labour supply posed as few problems as food supply. The supply of unskilled labour obviously exceeded demand, and the supply of skilled labour responded quickly to demand. Scottish and English workers were imported into Belfast to instruct the locals in the mysteries of the machine age, but the natives proved apt apprentices. There is little reason to doubt that the same would have been the case had businessmen attempted to establish major industrial enterprises in other areas. In some sectors, indeed, cheap labour, as James Connolly rightly argued, deprived employers of the stimulus of rising labour costs to increase efficiency.

Recent research has not substantiated the once fashionable belief that lack of capital frustrated industrialisation. In comparison with the requirements for even large-scale manufacturing enterprises, ample amounts of capital were invested in government bonds and municipal loans, or left on sterile deposit in banks. Bank deposits rose from £16 million in 1859 to £33 million in 1877, then stagnated until 1890, before rising to £60 million by 1913. Deposits provide, however, a deceptive index of savings. The increase in the number of branches from 170 in 1845 to 569 in 1880 allowed banks to tap hitherto hoarded savings. Some of the increase in deposits before 1880 simply reflected a transfer of savings from the mattress to the bank safe. Although the average standard of living increased sharply between 1848 and 1877, the actual standard of living rose only slowly. The increase in per capita incomes reflects the artificial impact of the disappearance of the poorest quarter of the population, whose presence had depressed pre-famine averages, without resulting in a remotely comparable increase in the income of the survivors. Bank branches continued to increase to 809 in 1910, but the doubling of deposits in the twenty years before the First World War represents a genuine increase in savings, as new branches were by this stage established mainly in existing banking centres. The alacrity with which Irish purchasers, urban and rural, bought encumbered estates in the 1850s to the value of £20,000,000 pointed to the substantial reservoir of capital seeking outlets in landed property. Capital flowed into railways, gas companies, insurance and shipping firms, and bank shares; but usually only after English investors had borne a disproportionate share of the initial risks and demonstrated to their timid Irish brethren that investment opportunities did actually exist. If Irish industry suffered from a shortage of capital, this was due to the type, not to the amount, of capital available in the country.

Had there been an objective lack of capital the £3–4 million annually abstracted by the Churches, might have deprived the economy of essential capital. However, little potential risk capital found its way into clerical coffers. The clergy probably performed a minor economic service by mobilising otherwise totally unproductive capital and providing some ephemeral employment for local builders.

Shortage of coal and iron precluded imitation of the English pattern of industrialisation, but not industrialisation itself. Population fell, but its increased purchasing power and growing consumer consciousness actually led to an expansion in the size of the market. The railway integrated the west into the market economy, for though few had been unaffected by, or unfamiliar with, market values in 1845, much of the west lacked sustained exposure, primarily due to prohibitive transport costs, to market influences. Ireland, one of the first European countries to rail-roadise, had 65 miles of track in 1845, 1,000 in 1857, 2,000 in 1872 and, with 3,500 by 1914, boasted one of the densest networks in the world. The railway permitted far greater diffusion of information through the tele-post and the rapid distribution of newspapers. It increased the range of small, personal wants by distributing imports and Dublin goods throughout the countryside, breaking down the stifling barriers of physical and mental self-sufficiency. Between 1861 and 1911 the number of commercial travellers, superseding local pedlars, rose from 500 to 4,500.

Ireland was already a remarkably literate society by 1841, when forty-seven per cent of the population aged over five claimed to be able to read. This proportion rose to fifty-three per cent in 1851 and eighty-eight per cent in 1911. Real literacy fell below these rates, for people exaggerated their reading ability. Nevertheless, the spread of literacy allowed more people to understand advertisements and mail order catalogues, use the parcel post, shop more ambitiously, and generally become more receptive to new consumption patterns. The number of newspapers and periodicals rose from 109 in 1853 to 230 in 1913. The post office distributed twenty million letters in 1914, compared with five million in 1851, a seven-fold per capita increase. Ireland was already predominantly English-speaking on the eve of the famine, but the complete triumph of English in the post-famine decades helped spread familiarity with market conventions.

The five-fold increase in imports, from about £15 million to £75 million between 1850 and 1914, reflects the growing market orientation of the Irish consumer. Some of the imports, like tea and coal, could not have been supplied domestically, but there was no apparent reason why a substantial proportion of clothing and footwear imports, which amounted to £12 million per annum by 1914, and a host of miscellaneous consumer goods, ranging from stationery to furniture, could not have been supplied by domestic producers. Virtually the only major expanding market dominated by Irish businessmen was drink. The number of public houses increased from 15,000 in 1850 to nearly 20,000 by 1911, when about £15 million per annum was spent on liquor. Consumption, contrary to Irish reputation, fell slightly below per capita English levels. As is customary in gradually urbanising societies—thirty-five per cent of the population lived in towns in 1914 compared with fifteen per cent in 1841—beer gained at the expense of whiskey. Beer consumption per capita increased four-fold, from 40 to 160 pints per annum, while whiskey and poteen consumption probably fell about fifty per cent.

If adequate supplies of food, labour and capital existed, if the size of the market was increasing, to what then can the responsibility for the disappointing rate of economic growth be attributed? Both the success of Belfast, and the failure of Dublin, suggest that considerable importance must be attached to the quality of businessmen. It has become increasingly fashionable among economic historians to denigrate the importance of the entrepreneur, on the grounds that opportunities create businessmen rather than vice versa. The growth of Belfast exposes the inadequacy of this argument. As the expansion of the linen industry slackened after the end of the American Civil War in 1865, when cotton recaptured many of the markets it had lost to linen during the war, Belfast’s prosperity came to rely increasingly on shipbuilding, which grew from virtually nothing in 1850 to pay £20,000 in weekly wages to 12,000 men by 1914. And yet the success of Belfast shipbuilding was largely accidental. Edward Harland came to Belfast in 1854 to become foreman in Robert Hickson’s recently established shipbuilding firm, and was on the point of leaving in 1858 to establish his own yard on the Mersey when his harassed employer, who had achieved little success, sold out to him for £5,000. Harland transformed Hickson’s struggling yard into one of the greatest in the world, through a combination of technical skill, pioneering new designs in iron ships and in engines, and brilliant salesmanship. His successor as chairman, William James Pirrie, whom Harland made a partner in 1874 at the age of twenty-seven, proved an even more effective salesman, who, as Professor Black puts it, ‘not only seized opportunities where they occurred, but as often made them by convincing shipowners of the need to add to their fleets’. Only brilliant entrepreneurship permitted Harland and G. W. Wolff, who became partners in 1860, to overcome the problems that plagued Robert Hickson. Their success in turn paved the way for the rise of another large yard, Workman and Clark, established in 1879 by Frank Workman, who served his apprenticeship in Harland and Wolff, and for the Belfast ropeworks, established in 1878 under G. W. Wolff, which soon became the biggest in the UK. Had Edward Harland not received Hickson’s offer before finalising his plans to transfer to the Mersey in 1858, it seems highly unlikely that shipbuilding and its subsidiary industries would ever have grown to dominate the Belfast economy, and later historians would doubtless dismiss Hickson’s yard as a brave but futile venture predestined to collapse by ‘lack of opportunity’ due to the shortage of raw materials and markets.

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