Expanding our understanding of Irish landlordism

Roy Johnston reviews Parnell and his Island by George Moore, introduced and edited by Carla King, UCD Press (Classics of Irish History series), ISBN: 1-904558-16-X€17.00 £13.20

THIS SERIES of edited reprints includes PS O'Hegarty's Victory of Sinn Fein (1924), my father Joe Johnston's Civile War inUlster(1913), Arthur Griffith's Resurrection of Hungary (1918), and Ed Hagan's recent evocation of Standish O'Grady's To the Leaders of our Working People, published originally by James Larkin in 1914.

I had encountered echoes of George Moore in Mayo in the 1960s, when walking over the remains of his Moore Hall estate (the house was burned in the civil war) in the company of politicising republican colleagues, and picked up a positive local folk-memory.

I had read one or two of his novels, and picked up the feel for Zola naturalism which according to Carla King he consciously pursued, but had not seen him as a contributor to the unerstanding of Irish political and social history. This book fills that gap in my understanding. It is indeed a serious contribution to the understanding of the Land League period; it has been neglected hitherto because, like Horace Plunkett's ill-fated 1904 Ireland in the New Century, it did not comfortably conform to the nation-building mythology.

Moore was living in Paris in the 1870s on the rent from his estate, collected by his uncle acting as his agent; he was an aspirant artist and poet, cultivating the company of Verlaine, Manet and others. In 1879 he was advised to come home and deal with his own affairs, as his uncle found the serving of eviction orders uncongenial, and was concerned to preserve his life.

This book is a fictionalised version of Moore's ensuing cultural shock; it served to re-orient his career towards writing, at which he subsequently earned an honest living, in the Zola tradition. This book, and another, A Drama in Muslin are serious contributions to our understanding of Irish landlordism, the Land League movement, and, indirectly, some of the social and political pathologies of the Irish national movement as it subsequently emerged.

The totally parasitic nature of Irish landlordism comes over as the main message. It gave no service to the tenants in return for the rental. The tenant farmers for their part, were also exploited by the small-town gombeen-men, who sold them provisions retail, and bought their raw intermediate output products wholesale to sell on. Home Rule politics was dominated by small-town gombeenism, and Moore depicts insightfully the characters concerned.

In the environment as described by Moore there is no way in which surplus value generated by local agriculture could be transformed into capital for investment into local industry based on adding value to local food production, as happened in Denmark thanks to the co-operative movement. This movement, initially promoted by a tiny handful of more enlightened landlords, like Plunkett and O'Grady, who saw this as the way forward, was widely rejected because of gombeen political influence and perceived landlord leadership.

Moore does not allude to this, because the Mayo picture he saw was totally parasitic; this no doubt influenced Davitt in his rejection of Plunkett. But in order to understand the intrinsic weakness of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS) and Davitt's rejection of it, and the failure of Irish development economics to follow the Danish path, it is useful to have read Moore.

Carla King has done us a service in helping UCD Press to resurrect this book, which incidentally was originally published in French, and then subsequently translated into English, in a bowdlerised version, which was rejected by Irish critics. His description of the clergy and the local Land League leadership is earthy and worthy of Zola, while his treatment of the landlords and agents is scathing. He saw no good in the scene, and chose to distance himself from it, being now remembered mostly by his authorship of books such as 'Esther Waters' (1894). George Russell in his obituary (1933) of George Moore hailed him as "...one of the most talented and unfilialof Ireland's children...".

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2004-10-05 14:41:25.
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