March 28, 2016
Cemeteries are wonderful places to assess the demographic and ethnic ebb and flow of a place.
Kensal Rise cemetery in north west London is fascinating for a variety of reasons. However, one thing that strikes you is the huge number of Irish people buried here.
Huge swathes of the cemetery have Irish names on the headstones and in the vast majority of these are newish graves where Irish people were buried in the 1960s to 1990s.
These people are the demographic echo of the hundreds of thousands of Irish people who emigrated to Britain after 1916 and the eventual establishment of this state.
Independence precipitated a massive flight of people from this country.
This weekend as we celebrate 1916 and ultimately the foundation of the independent Irish State, maybe it is worth having a look at the economic balance sheet of independence.
Don’t get me wrong, I would not swap my passport for any other. However, sometimes we get dewy-eyed about the reality of the Irish state and the fact that if you break the past 100 years down into four segments of 25 years, the first 75 were not the most impressive – at least from a human perspective.
Did you know that in 1913, far from being poor, Ireland was actually quite a rich country – one of the richest in Europe. Income per head was on a par with Norway, Sweden and Finland.
In 1991, 75 years after the Rising, Irish income per head was half the income of the Scandinavians. What happened?
The last time I checked, you couldn’t buy bread with slogans, speeches and flags, so isn’t it a good idea to ask what actually happened to living standards and economic opportunity after the Rising?
What was the economic and financial backdrop to the Rising? And what economic policies were followed to ensure that the pledge to “cherish all the children of the nation equally” (which was intended to refer to Unionists rather than the poor) was underpinned by financial reality?
The story of our revolution, as I was told in school, is one of rich Britain subjugating poor Ireland. This sounds good, but it’s not entirely accurate.
In fact, the cold economic data suggest that the decades leading up to the Rising were a period of relative prosperity for those people who stayed in Ireland. They were decades of rapid social improvement.
I know it sounds counterfactual, but it appears to be true.
Take, for example, the lot of Irish skilled workers and tradesmen, such as carpenters and fitters.
During the Famine they earned about 90 per cent of what their English counterparts did. This ratio remained more or less unchanged, but in those decades leading up to 1913, both English and Irish tradesmen saw rapid increases in their wages.
The Empire project enriched all of Britain and Ireland. In the later part of the 19th century both Irish and English tradesmen got richer together.
However, we see much greater upward mobility in the wages of unskilled Irish workers and farm labourers, which actually rose rapidly after the Famine.
This goes against the national narrative. I am not saying that our people weren’t poor, but we were beginning to get richer.
In 1845, Irish unskilled workers earned half of what their counterparts were earning in Britain – by 1913 they were earning three-quarters.
This seems counterintuitive because these were years of natural catastrophe and mass emigration – and surely that should be the key metric for any assessment of economic viability.
But the fact is that those workers who stayed in Ireland did well after the Famine. When there are fewer workers to do the work, their wages tend to rise, and that’s what happened.
Therefore, strange as it may sound, the typical economic reasons for a Rising, which traditionally might be a deterioration in the plight of the local people ahead of the Revolution, were not present in Ireland.
In addition, wealth, which in agricultural Ireland primarily stemmed from land ownership, was also undergoing a transformation.
The various Land Acts from 1870 to 1909 began the mass transfer of land from the Anglo-Irish aristocracy to the local farmers.
This too would have had a profound positive impact on the wealth of the local population.
Finally, the Irish stock market, which if the country had been an economic basket case would have been falling, actually doubled in the late Victorian era.
During this period, politically, we had an Irish Home Rule party that held the balance of power in Britain and could therefore extract concessions from British imperialists who were looting the globe at the time.
As a result, large-scale sanitation and infrastructural projects were undertaken such as bringing clean water to Dublin from Roundwood Reservoir. (By the way, there is a statue of the forgotten man behind that initiative, which saved the lives of thousands of poor Dublin children – more than Jim Larkin ever did – situated just behind “Big Jim” on O’ Connell Street. Can you name him?)
So think about this again, in 1913, on the eve of the Rising, Irish income per head was on a par with the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Finland.
In 1986, 70 years after the Rising, Irish income per head was half the income of the Scandinavians.
Did our population expand rapidly so that our income per head fell – which would have been the inverse of what had happened between 1850 and 1900, when wages rose because the population fell? No, in fact the Irish population kept falling up until the 1970s.
Emigration remained at ridiculously high levels. As I walk around Kensal Rise cemetery, I see these people’s final resting place.
Consider this: in the 1950s, we know that 450,000 Irish people emigrated to England alone. That is not taking into account the people who went to America, Canada or Australia. And we are talking about a decade when the rest of the world boomed.
In the 1980s, again, when our major trading partners – the English-speaking world – boomed, we went backwards. This is hard to do.
Since the late 1980s, things have got much better.
In fact, since the mid-1990s, even despite the crash, Ireland’s living standards have increased dramatically.
However, the fact remains – the first 75 years of this state could be termed economic disaster, with the 1950s to the late 1960s and the whole 1980s being particularly bleak.
I am talking here about the ability of the new state to look after its own people, to match the rhetoric of nationalism with some semblance of achievement.
Two out of three people born in the country in the 1930s – the first real generation of the new state – ended up living abroad. Just take that in.
Like you, I presume, I am tremendously proud of this country. But in terms of the economic performance, I am glad I was born in the second 50 years of this state’s existence rather than the first, unlike these Irish people here in Kensal Rise cemetery