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Remarks by Ambassador Mulhall delivered at the 'Honoring Joe Lee' seminar

Joe Lee and the modernisation of Irish society, remarks made at the 'Honoring Joe Lee' seminar at Glucksmann Ireland House, New York University, 22 May 2018

I arrived at University College Cork in September 1972 and signed on to study History and English. I had entered secondary school just after Education Minister Donogh O'Malley's landmark decision to introduce free secondary education. Thus, when I arrived at UCC five years later, I was part of an expanded cohort of university students, many like me being the first members of their families ever to go to university. I can still recall the sense of excitement I felt on arrival at UCC at being in this new environment, surrounded by my peers from all over the province of Munster and beyond. 

In general, we were well served by the standard of tuition available at UCC. The University had some prominent academic figures - the composer, Aloys Fleischmann in the Music Department, Des McHale, a gifted teacher of mathematics who was already renowned for his best-selling joke books, and poets Seán Lucy and John Montague in the English Department, among others.

The History Department had the colourful early Irish historian, Donnchadh Ó Corráin, the medievalist, Kenneth Nicholls and the modern Irish specialist, John A. Murphy, author of Ireland in the 20th Century. In my first couple of years at UCC, modern European history was taught by Professor Oliver MacDonagh. He was known for his excellent 1968 short study, Ireland, a book still worth reading which covered the period since the Act of Union of 1800. MacDonagh would later distinguish himself as the biographer of Daniel O’Connell. 

When MacDonagh left for the Australian National University, Joe Lee was recruited from Peterhouse College, Cambridge, and turned out to be an outstanding addition to the academic community in Cork. He hit the UCC History Department like a whirlwind. I can still remember his effervescent lectures on modern European history, which brought the subject vividly to life. Delivered with verve and humour, they were a highlight of my undergraduate years. 

I also remember Joe's ability to get things done. I was among a group of students who complained about the poor quality of a course on the renaissance that had been taught by a temporary lecturer in the interregnum prior to his arrival in Cork, and Joe responded by arranging for Professor James Joll to come over from the LSE in London to give an excellent, intensive weekend course on the renaissance. 

I had the privilege of having Joe Lee supervise my M.A. thesis and retain vivid memories of the stimulating exchanges I had with him during those 2 years of post-graduate study. My thesis explored the evolution of nationalist Ireland through the lives and work of the writers, W.B. Yeats, George Russell (AE) and Seán Ó Faoláin. They were modernisers of a kind and sharp critics of what they perceived as the failings of independent Ireland in its first, fledgling decades. I suppose that I, a product of the 1960s and early 1970s, broadly shared their critique of the preponderant, conservative ethos of the Ireland of their time and mine. Without in any way ignoring its deficiencies, I now look with greater indulgence at the early record of independent Ireland, valuing its attainment of political stability in the troubled, tempestuous world of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. But I was always aware of Ireland's economic frailties and one of my earliest memories of Irish public life is of hearing on radio about the Second and Third Programmes for Economic Expansion. The titles of those documents had a certain ring to them and offered the heady prospect of economic advancement to an Ireland unaccustomed to such vistas. 

Joe Lee's 1973 volume in the Gill History of Ireland, The Modernisation of Irish Society, 1848-1918 was, if my memory serves me well, the first Irish history book I ever bought. I now realise that an impressive four of the ten volumes from that groundbreaking series were produced by UCC historians, by whom I was taught there in the 1970s. 

The first thing to note about Joe's book is its title and how it differs from the other volumes in the series, most of which have purely chronological titles - Ireland before the VikingsIreland before the NormansIreland in the Eighteenth CenturyIreland before the Famine, and Ireland in the 20th Century. Joe Lee's title contains within it the gist of the book's thesis, for it views those decades as ones during which Irish society was, for all of its many travails, successfully modernised. 

He begins with a pithy summary of the disastrous effects of the Famine, the scale of mortality it caused through hunger and disease, and the further reduction of Ireland's population because of Famine-induced emigration. It is striking how quickly his focus moves away from the Famine itself and on to an account and an analysis of the underlying trends that helped transform Ireland during the decades that followed the Famine. He makes the point on the book's very first page that it was not the Famine that was unique as there had been similar cataclysms in the past (what was unique and extraordinary about the Great Famine, in my view, was that it occurred during the mid-19th century) but rather "the long-term response of Irish society to this short-term calamity". The result was that Ireland became a "demographic freak" characterised by declining population and low rates of marriage coupled with the frequent deferral of marriage until family farms had been safely inherited. 

Another notable feature of the book is that its opening chapter is not about politics as might have been expected, but about the 'economy and society'. This reflects Joe's priorities and preoccupations. His analysis is gently subversive of established views.

Bucking a then emerging liberal academic consensus, he relieves the Catholic Church of responsibility for "the unnatural marriage patterns in post-Famine Ireland". Priests and parsons, "products and prisoners of the same society", were, he argues, "powerless to challenge the primacy of economic man over the Irish countryside".  This use of the description 'economic man' with application to 19th century Ireland was in its own way daring! 

It is in his analysis of the failure of the Irish economy to fire during the post-Famine half-century, however, that Joe Lee is at his most persuasive and provocative. His argument is that Ireland failed to industrialise not because it was held back, but because there were not enough talented Irish people willing to commit themselves to the joys and tribulations of a life in business, preferring as they did the social status associated with entry into the professions. 

In 2016, when I was preparing a collection of essays for publication as The Shaping of Modern Ireland: a centenary assessment, I noticed that the original 1960 collection of the same title had neglected to pay any attention to economic factors in shaping modern Ireland. My co-editor, Eugenio Biagini, and I asked Joe to contribute an essay on the Guinnesses and the Jacobs, in which he returned to the puzzle of why those families were exceptions to the rule of Irish underperformance in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. His conclusion was that the Guinnesses and the Jacobs were exceptional because those families had the good fortune to have one member in each generation endowed with an aptitude for business. 

In The Modernisation of Irish Society, Joe concluded that the failure to stimulate economic growth more effectively was due “more to intellectual irresponsibility than to political ill-will.”  Ireland was afflicted by policies that had proven successful in Britain and were therefore deemed invincible by British politicians and administrators. These were simply unsuited to the very different circumstances applying in Ireland. In a phrase characteristic of Joe Lee’s inimitable style, he observed that: “Not the malevolence of the English mind, but the irrelevance of its preoccupations, impeded Irish progress.”  

On the spectrum that divided revisionists from traditionalists between whom open warfare reigned during my undergraduate years, Joe Lee occupied an interesting place. He did not enter fists flying into the debate about whether, in James Joyce’s words, “history is to blame” for the troubles that had just commenced in Northern Ireland.  He approached our history wars from an oblique angle, suggesting that it was bad economics based on shallow thinking that was to blame for Ireland's ills. In the 19th century, a lack of independence of mind was perhaps more debilitating to Ireland than the absence of political independence. It could, of course, be argued that political independence might have spawned ancillary virtues of the mind, but that's an argument for another day! 

Failure in Ireland, therefore, was presented as an intellectual rather than a moral phenomenon. It wasn't that we were too Catholic or not Catholic enough, or too oppressed, or not oppressed enough as some advocates of coercion undoubtedly believed, rather that both sides of the political divide were too blinkered and inhibited in their thinking processes. The British Government was too thoroughly blinded by a unique British experience of economic development to pursue the right path in Ireland. For its part, the rising Irish middle classes were too imitative of British models to be able to conjure up an economic dynamic that might have transformed Ireland’s circumstances more fully and made emigration less of an imperative than it came to be in the minds of the post-Famine generations. 

Despite these notable impediments to economic advancement, Joe Lee argued that “Southern Ireland modernised as quickly as any other European society” during the period under scrutiny. And he identified some unlikely modernisers, among them Cardinal Paul Cullen, “the Pope's chief whip in Ireland”, or "Paul the Prudent" as he calls him, to whom Joe attributes a degree of pragmatism and even a liberal Catholic outlook at variance with his domineering 'Prince of the Church’ image and the contemporary criticisms of him as a 'hard Italian monk'. This benign assessment of the leading Irish churchman of the late 19th century was somewhat out of tune with the zeitgeist of the early 1970s, but Joe always liked to stir up his readers and listeners. 

The Fenians and the Land League are also credited with modernising roles, an assessment that would not, I suspect, have been widely shared at that time or since. The Fenians, he describes as "the first nationwide lay secular society" who "helped broaden the petty horizons and foster a sense of national political consciousness." The Land League is viewed as "a major milestone on the road to modernisation", on account of the way in which it translated an economic crisis in the west of Ireland into "a political problem for the government." 

His analysis reminds me not a little of the critiques of that pugnacious Irish Irelander, DP Moran, who in the opening decades of the 20th century had let fly at what he termed the 'English mind in Ireland'. Moran's 'Irish Ireland' recipe for success was for the country to turn away from English influences and pursue a more thoroughly Gaelic and Catholic ethos combined with a self-reliant economic outlook. In Joe Lee's case, however, he attributes equal blame to the inadequacies of the Irish mind, but on account of its economic illiteracy rather than its lack of Gaelic pedigree. 

The Modernisation of Irish Society was published in 1973, the year when Ireland joined the European Union which turned out to be a game-changer for us, although that was not fully apparent at the time.  In Joe's analysis, there was at least a hint of warning about the need for Ireland to get a more vigorous grip on itself and embrace those virtues that were so sadly lacking during the late-19th century. 

Fast forward to the publication in 1989 of his great work, Ireland, 1912-1985. Here his critique of contemporary Ireland is sharper and more explicit. That was because by that time Joe was older and more assured in his analysis, but it was also the case that the circumstances in which he wrote were dramatically more negative than they had been in the early 1970s.

I returned from a career break early in 1987 and recall that the country was in a parlous situation at that time, which was just about when Joe would have been putting pen to paper on his magnum opus. The economic backdrop was alarming. While preparing this speech, I came across a National Economic and Social Council report from 1990 entitled A Strategy for the Nineties. While its main focus was on setting out a vision for Ireland's near future, it also contained a review of its then recent past. It makes for salutary reading. 

Between 1980 and 1986 Ireland's average annual GNP growth had been barely above zero, while employment had fallen by 75,000 (at that time the workforce was much smaller than it is today, probably around 1 million which means that this represented a serious reduction in the employment available in the Irish economy).  The unemployment rate in 1986 was a whopping 18.1% and there was also significant net emigration. In a country now accustomed to running significant trade surpluses, it comes as a shock to realise that in 1981 Ireland had a current account deficit of almost 15%. This was gradually reduced in the succeeding 5 years, but our trade did not go into surplus until 1987. 

At the same time, the public finances were in serious strife. The Exchequer Borrowing Requirement in 1986 was running at 13% of GNP and the Programme for National Recovery aimed to reduce this figure to between 5 and 7% in order to stabilise the debt/GNP ratio by 1990. So things were not at all good for Ireland when Joe was at work on Ireland 1912-1985

Joe set out his stall in the book's opening pages. He sought to focus "more on the relationship between the potential and the performance of sovereignty" and to evaluate "the performance of a sovereign people". His point, I think, was that sovereignty is not something to be admired for its own sake, rather something that requires a degree of performance to give effect to sovereignty in the form of outcomes for the benefit of society. This focus on performance is characteristic of Joe Lee's thinking. I recall another essay of his in which he reflected on the lack of a 'rat race' in Ireland prior to the 1960s/70s. It was not, he said, that there was any dearth of rats in the country, but that they were unable to race!  

In Ireland, 1912-1985, Joe Lee offered some "meditations on mentalité."  We are back, therefore, to a critique of the Irish mind, but this time with a more trenchant and more clearly contemporary edge. His key point is again an economic one - that independent Ireland had "a most unusual economic history", recording the slowest growth rate of any European country in the 20th century. 

The most compelling part of Joe Lee's 1980s analysis comes in Chapter 8, which offers reflections on 20th century Ireland under the headings of Performance (that word again), Potential, Institutions, Intelligence, Character and Identity. He showed that Ireland had the slowest population growth of any comparable country between 1919 and 1984 and pointed out that the country had in 1910 been slightly wealthier than Norway and Sweden, and way ahead of Italy and Finland. By 1985, we were well behind all of those countries. 

His question was why? Joe Lee puts Ireland’s inadequacies down to inertia rather than a lack of potential. He points to "an absence of an adequate performance ethic in the society" and a lack of respect within Government and in society for intellect and innovation. A conspicuous feature of his analysis is his desire to make comparisons with European countries other than Britain. This was a very valuable approach, an antidote to a perhaps understandable tendency to measure ourselves with reference to our nearest neighbour. 

Ireland 1912-1985 acted as a kind of wake-up call for an underperforming Ireland. It is always difficult to judge the impact of a single publication on the society to which it is addressed, but Joe's book was widely read and its analysis attracted serious attention.  

As it happens, it was not long before the gloomy scene he sketched with his usual vigorous candour began to change. By the mid-1990s, Ireland was growing and changing at a rate of knots, a process that continued until 2007. Looking back, it seems to me that this overhaul of our economy and society had a great deal to do with a more committed embrace of EU membership. The expanded EU structural funds and the advantages of the single market gave Ireland opportunities that had not been available to previous generations. The Maastricht Treaty and its provision for the creation of an economic and monetary union involved an irrevocable commitment to EU integration, one that our nearest neighbour felt unable to make. (I wonder if Joe would agree with me that Brexit, unwelcome though it is for all kinds of reasons, may come to be seen as a significant milestone in the Europeanisation of the Irish mind?)

When the tsunami of the Great Recession hit Ireland in 2009, there were those who believed that we were destined to be hurled back into our underachieving past, but that turned out not to be the case. The rapid development Ireland had experienced during our 10-year boom insulated the country to some extent from the worst effects of the downturn and, for example, our population continued to grow during that crisis, which was quite unlike what occurred in the 1950s. Stoicism rather than despair characterised the public mood. Especially after Ireland entered the EU-IMF bailout programme in 2010, there was, I think, a strong, collective determination to extract ourselves from its restrictive, embarrassing grip. 

Almost a decade on from the traumas of 2009/2010, and nearly three decades since the publication of Ireland, 1912-1985, I suppose that our challenge today, now that we have found an economic model that has worked well for us, is to cope with changing circumstances and not to succumb to lazy assumptions that things will automatically continue to work in our favour, or to fatalistic prognoses to the effect that we are powerless in the face of the grand global forces at play today. 

Neither complacency nor resignation will work for us. We need to be smart, diligent and flexible in the way we go about our work as a nation and a people. So it always has been and so it will always be. Today, we have more to lose than was the case either in the era surveyed in The Modernisation of Irish Society, or in the straitened economic circumstances of the late 1980s that formed the backdrop to Ireland, 1912-1985. But we also have more resources, human and material, with which to gird ourselves for an always uncertain future. 

It seems to me that the qualities Joe Lee found wanting in post-Famine Ireland and during the first few decades of Irish independence - relevant, intelligent policies, pursued with an appropriate performance ethic - are the ones we continue to require "now and in time to be" as W.B. Yeats wrote in a different context. And might I make a Jonathan Swift-like modest proposal, that Joe consider devoting part of his retirement to casting his critical, eagle eye on Ireland, 1986-2016! 

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in Washington and was Professor Joe Lee's first research student at University College Cork. 

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