Using economics to understand Ireland’s troubled past
Research into the economic, social and political history of the island of Ireland has provided important new insights and reached hundreds of thousands of people, enhancing understanding, prompting public debate and enriching the media landscape.
The defining event in Ireland’s modern history is the Great Famine of the 1840s, which resulted in one million people dying and one million people emigrating. A study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, led by Alan Fernihough (with Áine Doran as research assistant), explored the role of both poverty and population pressure in Ireland’s Great Famine. The study re-examined the Famine using digitised parish-level data from population censuses in Ireland, together with GIS data. Reflecting on the project’s findings with Cormac Ó Gráda from University College Dublin, Fernihough found that poverty was a major contributor to the severity of the Great Famine.
A key output of the study was the creation of an interactive digital map of the island of Ireland, which drew on the data to graphically demonstrate the impact which the Famine had on the population during the nineteenth century, and which also illustrated subsequent population density changes in the twentieth century. This helped to shed light on the uneven spatial distribution of the Famine’s impact.
After the Famine, Ireland’s economy grew rapidly between 1850 and 1911. Chris Colvin led a study which aimed to contribute to explanations as to why this growth occurred. The other members of the research team were Matthias Blum, Laura McAtackney (Aarhus University) and Eoin McLaughlin (University of St Andrews). The researchers examined detailed prison records from the nineteenth century to ascertain the numeracy of prisoners at that time. They found that the advent of state schooling improved numeracy in the population, and that this improvement was particularly pronounced in the case of women. Their evidence ultimately suggests that human capital played a very important role in the post-famine growth of the Irish economy.
The 1918 UK General Election in Ireland coincided with the rise of the previously obscure Sinn Féin party. This revolutionary republican party secured 73 of Ireland’s 105 parliamentary seats in that election. For 100 years, most observers had believed that this dramatic rise was due to the electoral franchise trebling in size, following a major extension of the franchise in 1918. However, this view was challenged in 2020 by the findings of a study, funded by the British Academy, which was carried out by Alan de Bromhead, Alan Fernihough and Enda Hargarden (University of Tennessee). The research team implemented an analysis which drew on digitised data from the 1911 population census in Ireland. They found little evidence that the franchise reforms benefited Sinn Féin. New female electors appeared less likely to have supported Sinn Féin while new male electors were no more likely to have voted for Sinn Féin than the existing electorate. The researchers concluded that Sinn Féin’s electoral success was more likely to have been driven by a change of heart by the Irish electorate than by a change in its composition.
The 1918 election result presaged further civil unrest which led to Ireland’s independence from the UK and, in 1921, to the partition of the island of Ireland into two self-governing entities, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. While the latter opted for independence, resulting in the creation of the Irish Free State (later Republic of Ireland), Northern Ireland remained a devolved entity within the UK. Graham Brownlow has charted the impact of devolution and continuing civil unrest in Northern Ireland on its industrial policy from 1920 to the present day. He highlights the fact that the region’s industrial policy was very reliant on government grants between 1945 and the early 1990s, and questions the value of some of the inward investment attracted as a result of this policy focus.
In a further study, Brownlow throws the spotlight on one particularly controversial example of this issue; the infamous DeLorean Motor Company which received generous government funding in return for locating its car manufacturing plant in Northern Ireland in the late 1970s, but which ultimately collapsed a few years later. Brownlow rejects two common explanations for the ultimate failure of the firm; namely, John DeLorean’s psychological flaws or the limitations of “activist” government policy. Rather, Brownlow argues that the pressures created in Northern Ireland in the late 1970s by civil unrest help to explain why DeLorean’s proposition was an attractive one at the time for local government officials.
Enriching community TV programming
Between September 2018 and March 2019, four of the researchers drew on the research to contribute to four different programmes in the long-running History Now series on Northern Ireland’s NVTV channel, which reaches 300,000 households. The presenter observed that Colvin “provided some interesting perspectives which were not well-known to history audiences”, when he discussed his team’s research on prison records. Meanwhile, another episode of the show, in which Fernihough discussed his research on the Irish Famine, “brought a new economic-based perspective on the Famine”, according to the presenter.
Enhancing public understanding of the Great Famine
Fernihough’s interactive digital map, charting the population impact of the Irish Famine was covered in a feature article by one of Ireland’s leading national newspapers, The Irish Times, with an estimated 11.9 million monthly online users.
The project also excited local interest around Ireland. County Kerry’s local newspaper, The Kerryman, highlighted the study’s specific findings with regards to Kerry.
In Northern Ireland, leading regional newspaper the News Letter carried a feature on the research which highlighted a further finding, namely that the province of Ulster was not as badly affected as some other parts of the island, due to a more egalitarian system of land tenure.
In addition, the research reached tens of thousands among the Irish diaspora community in both Britain and the United States. The project was featured in the Irish Post, which is the largest-selling newspaper aimed at the Irish community in Britain; with a print circulation of 80,000 and an online presence of 2 million visitors monthly. It also featured in the Irish America magazine and website.
The project reached its widest audience through a feature on the Newsweek website which has a global monthly audience of 72 million, and claims to be read by one in five Americans. The article commented that Fernihough’s map “helps to bring this important period in Irish history to life”.
Another Centre for Economic History study which reached a wide audience was de Bromhead et al’s analysis of census and election data to reassess the factors behind Sinn Féin’s success in the 1918 UK General Election. In December 2018, The Irish Times, with an estimated 11.9 million online users monthly, ran a feature article on the study’s findings. Another major Irish national newspaper, the Irish Examiner (print circulation 25,000) also published an article about the findings. The study was also covered by the News Letter.
Prompting public debate and engagement on industrial policy
Brownlow’s research on DeLorean reached a large audience in the island of Ireland and in the United States, prompting debate on government industrial policy in the US. In August 2016, the influential Wall Street Journal, which has the largest print circulation of any newspaper in the US (combined 2018 print and digital circulation: 2.6 million), published an opinion piece on Brownlow’s study which the author described as “a fascinating revisiting of the DeLorean case”. The article prompted a lively online debate on the newspaper’s website, with 664 comments over four days. Much of the debate focused on whether, in the light of the DeLorean case, the US government should provide subsidies for Musk’s electric car company, Tesla.
Brownlow also drew on his DeLorean study and his wider research on Northern Ireland industrial policy to contribute to two podcast series. His research formed the subject of a podcast in the US Apple podcast series, Economic Rockstar, in June 2016. The series, which ran until 2019, was designed for economists, financial analysts, students and teachers. In May 2020, Brownlow was interviewed for a podcast on the Northern Ireland economy, as part of the Irish economics podcast series, At the Margin.
In November 2014, the findings from Brownlow’s study were also covered in articles in The Irish Times and in two of Northern Ireland’s leading newspapers, the Belfast Telegraph and the News Letter.
REF 2021 case study