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News From A New Republic: Ireland in the 1950s by Tom Garvin

Reviewer: Tim McCarthy*

In the present political and economic uncertainty it is easy to romanticise times past as offering certainty and hope. The 1960s, and the era of Lemass and the rising tide that would lift all boats, are often cited as the golden age of Irish life. By contrast the 1950s have been very much portrayed as the darkest of times, when Ireland fell further and further behind the rest of the developed world, emigration reached an all-time high and many people were questioning if the struggle for independence had been worthwhile. As late as March 1957, T.K. Whitaker, in a submission to the Minister for Finance on the failure of economic policy and the general sense of hopelessness pervading the populace, warned that, in the absence of brave new policies, the country should consider reincorporation into the United Kingdom.

In his own inimitable way Garvin forces a rethink of 1950s Ireland which he points out worked reasonably well for the majority of the people. Nevertheless change was underway. “The idea of a virtuous Ireland surrounded by economic and ideational walls of tariffs and censorship was dying” but it was not clear what would take its place. The grand rhetoric of the national project was being gradually replaced by the emergence of technical, managerial solutions advocated by a new breed of civil servant and politician who took over the mantle of power from the revolutionary leaders. Chief among this new breed were men such as Lemass and Whitaker. Garvin casts Lemass as Sancho Panza to de Valera’s Don Quixote. For the author the emergence of the practical Lemass from under the wing of the idealistic de Valera marked both continuity and a clear breach from the past: political discourse that had hitherto revolved around the exploits and dreams of dead generations would now focus on the practical everyday problems of the present generation. For Garvin that was “perhaps the major political achievement of the decade”.

Most of the credit for that achievement is attributed to Lemass, and it certainly could not have happened without him. Somewhat surprisingly Garvin claims Lemass as a ‘free trader’ since the 1920s whereas most historians portray him as both the author and enforcer of protectionism. However, by the late 1940s Lemass was realist enough to realise that protectionism might no longer be the best option. In 1947 he introduced the Industrial Efficiency and Prices Bill which attempted to reconcile the dilemma of improving efficiency and productivity as a prelude to re-examining the tariff policy. The bill never became law because of the change of government in 1948 but it shows Lemass at his most pragmatic and unfettered by ideology. His real political skill was that, on the return to power of Fianna Fáil in 1957, he succeeded in getting his party to abandon this core belief in self-sufficiency and protectionism which it had held since ascending to power in 1932. Garvin gives little credit or acknowledgment to the work of the inter-party government of 1954-7 which introduced some imaginative changes and encouraged foreign investment. The same government also appointed Whitaker as Secretary of the Department of Finance, universally viewed as one of the most important appointments ever made by the state, but the contribution of Whitaker gets very limited coverage.

Those familiar with Garvin’s Preventing the Future (2005) will see much that is familiar in this book: the overarching influence of the Catholic Church, particularly in the field of education, where a supine Department facilitated a deepening involvement and control by the Church; a continuing emphasis on agriculture when it was obvious that the economic salvation of the state could not be found in that quarter; the power of interest groups to influence government policy; and the turpitude of industry that had been cocooned by protectionism.

While this book bears Garvin’s undoubted stamp it marks a departure from his previous work. Written largely in Boston College, immediately after retiring as Professor of Political Science at University College Dublin, there is a distinct lack of political theory and use of primary sources. Rather he mixes some personal memories of growing up in that time with a search of the popular press. (The Irish Times is sometimes confusingly referred to as the Times). One of the disadvantages, and indeed frustrations, of the latter is that context is often lost. A perusal of the notes to establish a source just gives the name and date of publication: it requires further research to ascertain if this was a report of a meeting, a Dáil debate, a political rally or, as was very rarely the case, an article by the quoted author. A more rounded view of new ideas circulating throughout the decade would have been obtained through inclusion of journals such as Studies, Administration, and the Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland.

The mirror that Garvin holds up to the Ireland of the 1950s reflects a foreign country but with many clearly familiar features: emigration of the young, despair of the old, economic failure, a realisation that independence is a myth, and a political leadership that seems devoid of ideas or solutions. The book finishes somewhat depressingly on the note that we are not that much different from our ancestors in that we now place our faith in different superstitions. But for all of that there is the realisation that Ireland did emerge from the stagnation of the 1950s and enjoyed many years of prosperity and growth.

Hope springs eternal.........