The cover of ‘Saorstat Éireann - Official Handbook’, published in 1932,
Official handbook shows the historical origins of regional imbalance
I greatly missed the freedom to browse in bookshops during the lockdown. One makes exciting discoveries while rummaging through books, new and old.
A few years ago, while examining second hand books in Westport’s charity shop, Curiosity, I happened upon a rather tattered copy of Saorstát Éireann: The Official Handbook, published in 1932 to celebrate the first decade of our newly won independence.
It had never occurred to me to consider what it was like to be in the shoes of the founding government convened in 1922 with responsibility for mending the shattered nation after a destructive war of independence and a corrosive civil war. The administration was populated by grey men who had to govern in prose after the poetry and drama of the struggles that had consumed most of the heroic revolutionaries.
Our knowledge of that period comes mainly through comforting 20/20 vision of historical hindsight. However, what was it like in the years 1922–32 when the future was shrouded in a fog of uncertainty? Perhaps the handbook would show what people thought they had achieved after a decade in charge.
Although my copy was dog-eared, the original book was magnificent, with a cover of Celtic beauty and filled with evocative woodcuts by many of our best artists. The introduction was written by Bulmer Hobson and the thirty-three chapters, written by leading experts of the day, ranged over history, culture, society, the economy and Irish language and folklore.
Setting the context, Hobson explained that ‘the government assumed control of an entity reduced by war and misgovernment to a state bordering on chaos. The foundations have been laid on which the future security and prosperity of the country are being built’.
There was great reluctance to refer to the damaging impact of the civil war. Indeed, outsiders would think that the new State had emerged directly from the war against the British. However, there was a lament that the Saorstát constitution had been established ‘at a time of upheaval instead of national rejoicing’. The handbook had been commissioned by the Cumann na nGaedheal government but was actually published by the Fianna Fáil government that replaced it in March, 1932. Reticence was understandable.
The public finances of the state were in a precarious situation, exacerbated by the fact that 30 percent of total expenditure went to defence in 1923–24 and only slowly declined after that. This government took no financial risks, and with respect to the Irish pound, took pride in the fact that ‘no currency in the world is so well protected’ by sterling holdings in London.
Treatment of industrial progress was grim and realistic, noting that ‘the history of Ireland exhibits the most remarkable example of industrial repression of one nation by another’. There was a realisation that the failure to industrialise in the previous century doomed Ireland to massive emigration rather than rural-urban internal migration as in many other European states. So rural depopulation in Ireland became national depopulation.
It was frankly admitted that the limited manufacturing was on the east coast and in Cork and that ‘the rest of Ireland is industrially backward and contains no manufacturing of importance’. However, the conservatism of the government was revealed in their reluctance to foster native firms by introducing protective tariff barriers. That would come later with the Fianna Fáil government.
In many ways, the handbook was an account of the new state seen from a Dublin perspective. The closest it came to examining regional inequalities was a two-page chapter on ‘The Economic Problem of the Gaeltacht’ (Irish literature was allocated twelve pages!). An approving quote from a 1908 Commission of Enquiry described the inhabitants of the Atlantic seaboard as ‘to a large extent the wrecks of past racial, religious, agrarian and social storms and famine catastrophes’, adding that ‘in a bad year they are saved from extreme privation only by relief measures and so constitute a serious financial danger to the Nation’.
Helpful, if merely palliative, supports to the west were described, but without any sense of urgency about the need to rebalance the economy. Indeed, there was almost no reference to the Congested Districts Board, set up in 1891 under British rule, whose activities constituted an embryonic and reasonably effective regional development strategy. The CDB had been terminated by the government in 1923 and its integrated activities scattered across many government departments where they still languish in the absence of any coherent regional strategy.
In spite of its conservative tone, the handbook is refreshingly honest about the challenges to be faced by the newly minted Saorstát. It did not go so far as Winston Churchill in 1940 and declare that there was nothing on offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat, but that is where everything was pointing. Beneath our impressive cultural achievements lay an impoverished state struggling to develop and grow.
John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.