An opportunity lost

Notes from the Western Periphery

Cottage of Martin Greavy, Ballintubber.  Pics: National Library of Ireland, Congested Districts Board Photograph Collection.

The rise and fall of the Congested Districts Board

John Bradley

When a colonised country is engaged in a struggle for independence, efforts sponsored by the colonial power to alleviate poverty and promote development are unlikely to be well received. So it was when the Congested Districts Board was set up in 1891. Many considered it to be merely an insidious form of Constructive Unionism.
In the 1890s the Great Famine and its horrific consequences were still recent memories. A bitter land war had produced an uneasy stalemate with only modest reforms won by the Land League. But to people like Quaker philanthropist James Tuke, the isolation and deprivation of the western seaboard was a historical legacy that cried out to be addressed with practical policies.
Under the influence of Tuke and Horace Plunkett, Gerald Balfour (then Chief Secretary for Ireland) established an organisation that sought to be nonpolitical – that is, independent of the Castle and of Westminster, with control over its own budget – in an era when that was well-nigh impossible.
An account of that organisation’s 32 years of activity is available in ‘The Congested Districts Board of Ireland, 1891-1923’, by Dr Ciara Breathnach. The book gives an extraordinary insight into how development in the west was tackled at a time when political struggle was all absorbing and deflected attention away from urgently needed regional policies.

Assistance to counterbalance isolation
The historical isolation of the CDB region from the rest of the island, stretching from Donegal down to Kerry, was quite extraordinary. Knowledge that the standard of living in Ireland as a whole at that time was high relative to other European states ignored that the west had been forced into a ghetto-like existence since the Penal Laws. Even Professor Joe Lee, writing about the 1920s, mocked that ‘agriculture, with at least two-thirds of gross output sold off farms… was already predominantly market orientated, however determined visiting anthropologists might excavate communities reputedly frozen in time’.
The reality was very different. Dr Breathnach quotes historian John de Courcy Ireland, saying that ‘it is very difficult to induce an unlettered populace suddenly to alter its diet even to save its life’. An 1846 report observed: “When impending famine was certain and deaths from starvation had occurred, large supplies of fish were allowed to rot on the shore or were spread on the adjacent fields as manure.”
When administration of Poor Law relief was both cruel and corrupt, the wide range of practical guidance and support provided by the CDB was impressive, even by modern standards. Not only did it assist small-scale production in agriculture, fishing and textiles, it also guided the formation of markets that would yield fairer prices and escape the clutches of gombeen men and disadvantageous barter.
An example of isolation was the absence of good transport infrastructure and the limitations of the Irish rail network in the west. While it cost 70 shillings to send a ton of eggs from Cavan to London, it cost only 20 shillings from Canada to London. The CDB carefully identified where barriers to markets and development existed and then designed practical schemes to address them. Examples included improving the quality of egg production and marketing, a crucial part of subsistence farm income generated mainly by women. Or assisting fishermen to acquire larger boats that could work safely further offshore than currachs. Unlike State planners today, they did not articulate a ‘vision’ of a prosperous western seaboard and propose hundreds of fanciful ways of achieving it.

East-west imbalance
I find it extraordinary that modern historians like Professor Lee still assert that if ‘capital invested in uneconomic projects in the west had been invested in the east it would have transformed emigration into internal migration’ (Breathnach, page 167). It is no wonder that ‘five cities’ thinking still dominates Project Ireland 2040!
The Saorstát Éireann government shut down the CDB in 1923 immediately after coming into office. The then Secretary of the newly minted Department of Industry and Commerce, Gordon Campbell, later Lord Glenavy, stated: “It was not the function of (my department) to relieve congestion and if we begin to subsidise one industry out of public funds we shall ... set an undesirable example.” His successor, Patrick McGilligan, said in the Dáil in 1924, “People may have to die in this country and may have to die of starvation.”
Dr Breathnach’s book concludes with the letter written to the CDB by Patrick Hogan, Minister for Agriculture, on May 7, 1923. Minister Hogan thanked the organisation for its services and terminated it. The functions of the CDB were dispersed across different ministries: Agriculture, Industry and Commerce, Fisheries and others.
The western regions were no longer singled out for special assistance. The east-west imbalance that had been created by history was destined to be perpetuated and deepened by policy indifference and neglect.
A Dublin-centric government, which had observed with equanimity the prospect of starvation in the west, continues to starve it of resources for strategic development.

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.