This second article on Berkeley’s protectionism is to highlight his influence on the country’s contribution to economic writing. This is a syndicated piece with permission from the writer Aistí Ó Chraobh, following the previous article on the subject.
‘Mr. de Valera has but lately quoted that phrase “wall of brass” and the instinct at the bottom of our modern Separatists’ complaint of our economy is I think of Berkeley rather than of [Frederich] List.’ (Murphy, 77)
In this essay I seek to demonstrate the vast influence of Berkeleyan economics, elaborated upon in his famous Querist (1735-37). That work, which advocated trade protectionism, cultural frugality and economic sovereignty, has gone on to shape the economic discourse of the moderate unionism of Isaac Butt, to the radical agrarianism of Mitchel and Young Ireland all the way to the 20th Century Republicanism of De Valera’s Fianna Fáil.
The Querist Influence on Republican economics
Firstly, it’s worth situating the Querist in the wider context of post-18th Century Irish political thought. The academic Joseph Johnston, whose son Roy should be infamous for those interested in Republican history, encapsulated Berkeley’s influence rather well:
‘The secret of Berkeley’s influence on his fellow-Irishmen in his own day and on national leaders in later ages is to be found as much in his personal character as in his intellectual achievements.
John Mitchel, Thomas Davis, Isaac Butt, and in our own day Arthur Griffith, George Russell, and Eamon de Valera, have frankly recognised the debt the nation owes to the heart as well as to the head of this great Irishman.’ (Rashid, 13)
The list of influences is quite remarkable, especially considering the range of moderate and radical patriots. In many senses, Berkeley can be considered part of the central nucleus of the school of Irish political economy. To reject his thought is to reject a central component of this nation’s contribution to economic science. As the Cambridge History of Ireland Vol. III phrases it, Berkeley can be related to ‘a late flowering of an Irish school of political economy dating back to the 1720s, which was expressly concerned with matters of trade and money.’ Thinkers of the 1730 ‘Dublin School’, like Bindon, Dobbs and Madden reflected the Anglican elite vision of benevolence which was foundational to how the Bishop understood his views.
Isaac Butt & Irish Toryism
Similarly, Isaac Butt can be understood in this tradition of anglo-irish economic thought. Through founding the Irish Conservative Party, Butt represented a notably moderte form of Irish politics. Both a unionist and a Tory, it’s interesting to note that despite how much he contrasts with Fenians like John Mithel (whom I will cover later), he shares the influence of Berkeley. Speaking of the bishop’s Querist, Butt argued:
it is ‘a work marked by more shrewdness than almost [all] with which I am acquainted.’ and wondered ‘Whether questions are to be repeated by some Irish bishop, priest or laymen of the next 120 years?’
Despite being a supporter of the Tory Peel government – which oversaw the beginning of the Great Famine – Butt’s economic views do demonstrate a type of counter-mainstream way of thinking. While taking influence from the Ricardian Liberal tradition, he felt it a necessity that the state build up native Irish industry and public credit, before becoming wholly reliant on the global financial system of the City of London. In his speeches collected as ‘Protection of Home Industry’ (1846), Butt repeats the point continually that ‘in every case the mere fact of exportation is in its own nature an evil — it is the act by which the country parts with its wealth.’ While a Listian developmentalist may take issue with Butt’s extreme opposition to exports, his emphasis was always on economic self-reliance, the core principles of Griffith’s Sinn Féin.
Butt went so far as to write ‘The Irish Querist’ in 1867, a direct reformulation of the original 1740s work for the 19th Century. Comparing the agricultural crises of yesteryear with the debate over the Corn Laws, he suggested the perennial themes of the Irish economy: undervelopment and reliance on foreign commerce.
Of course, critiques can be levied at Butt’s – and arguably Berkeley’s – worldview for the notion that Protestant boot-strapping can cure all social ills. When your nation is victim of a foreign financial power, the common worker attempting a larpy stiff upper lip is a bit of a cope. A Fenian synthesis is necessary to de-anglicise it for Republicanism.
Mitchel, Young Ireland & Fenianism
Naturally, the Young Ireland movement, contemporary with Butt though drastically different in approach, commonly practiced this synthesis. Firstly, John Mitchel, ever the scholar of Irish social thought, recognised the importance of both Butt and Berkeley’s protectionism. He made it so that Butt’s lectures on Home Industry be readily available in Repeal reading-rooms, and described The Querist ‘as a valuable manual of Irish Political Economy’ in his pamphlet of the same title (Murphy, 71). Mitchel, at the height of the Famine in 1847, sensed the necessity of highlighting the Querist’s place alongside Swift’s ‘A Short View of the State of Ireland’ (1728) in the Irish protectionist tradition, publishing both ‘in the smallest space, and cheapest form possible’ in his pamphlets to insure wide access (Rashid, 25).
Mitchel, like Butt, identified the perennial warning of Irish economics – that of foreign reliance – being elucidated well in the Querist:
‘The clearness and force with which he exhorts his countrymen to self-reliance and enterprise, make his “Querist” a valuable manual of Irish Political Economy; and it is quite as well suited to the year 1847 as it was to 1741. These questions have never been practically answered in Ireland yet.’ (Rashid, 26)
Finally, Thomas Davis of the Young Ireland movement also took note of Berkeley’s autarkic prognostications. In his review of the influential study ‘The Industrial Resources of Ireland’ (1844) Davis noted the author ‘[Robert] Kane had answered Berkeley’s question as to whether Ireland could be self-sufficient in “the affirmative”’ (Murphy, 71). Interestingly, this review was published in a collection of Davis’ writings in 1945, which De Valera provided the preface for. Historian William Murphy points out the utility of Davis’ economic writings for the time: ‘This volume could have been compiled as a justification of Fianna Fail policy, so in accord with Fianna Fail’s rhetoric were most of the pieces selected.’ (Murphy, 71)
De Valera’s Fianna Fáil and the Querist
Naturally, this brings us to De Valera and Fianna Fáil in Ireland’s economic tradition.
Following the Irish protectionist tradition, Cormac Ó Gráda has speculated that Berkeley-influenced writers like Mitchel and Butt ‘may have been an important influence upon Fianna Fail’s tariff policy’ (Ó Gráda, 410). When it comes to the influence of Berkeley, there is no reason to speculate – at least in terms of rhetoric. On the bi-century of Berkeley’s death in 1953, De Valera and Seán Moher vistsed Cloyne and dedicated the policy of ‘emphasising the need to develop native industry and utilise the fertility of Irish soil through increased tillage’ as emanating from Berkeley (Murphy, 79).
The Irish Press’ report of the event lead with De Valera’s pronouncement that Berkeley was ‘the first economic Sinn Féiner.’ and that he provided the foundation for Fianna Fáil’s protection of sugar, clothing and wheat industries (Murphy, 80). In his post-mass speech, he highlighted the Querist’s contentions on self-suffiency and foreign reliance:
‘we asked these questions in Fianna Fail as we had done in Sinn Fein, and when Fianna Fáil came into office in 1932 we set about giving the answer in concrete form. Mitchelstown and Rathluirc are supplying the cheese that Berkeley thought should be produced here. The hat factory has not yet gone back to Athlone but hat factories have come to Castlebar, Cork and Galway; and Arklow has once more its factory of earthenware, a companion to those at Carrigaline and Galway, and George Berkeley has been justified.’ (Murphy, 80)
While the wholesale support for industry may be exaggerated – as Ireland’s thoroughly undeveloped manufacturing sector paved the path for Lemass’ late 1950s liberal reforms – the trade protectionism in the consumer market is hard to argue. There was a strong cultural and economic deployment of Berkeley’s principle of frugality, scepticism of foreign luxury imports and emphasis on local businesses. In particular, De Valera took heed of Berkeley’s warning about women’s consumption:
‘In 1933 at the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis he said, “it is the duty of a woman to go out and boast that from head to foot she is clothed in Irish manufacture, and she ought to be ashamed of the fact that she has got foreign clothes.”’ (Murphy, 68)
In a sort of nationalist virtue signalling, clothing and women’s spending habits became a core cultural battleground. The fight was also taken to children’s eating habbits, with particular rhetorical flair by The Catholic Bulletin, edited by Fr. Timothy Corcora. It’s children’s page, ‘Nead na nÓg’, had an author named Méabh argue:
‘what a lovely warm feeling it gives one when one has just bought Irish goods and put another nail (or even tiny tack) in John Bull’s coffin’.
Arguing in another article that if children ‘bought only Irish sweets you would KEEP 3,200 IRISH PEOPLE FROM STARVING’ and supplying the slogan – ‘Every British sweet you eat/Deprives an Irish mouth of meat.’ (Murphy, 75)
In many ways, early Fianna Fáil’s Ireland represented an actualisation of Berkeley’s ‘wall of brass’ ideal. In a 1928 Dáil speech, only a year after Fianna Fáil’s first election campaign, De Valera deployed Berkeleyan terminology to defend his protectionist agenda:
‘if the wall were around the country, you would have to have your own fashions. Your own latest fashions might be just as good, and the possibility is that they would be much more appropriate.’ (Murphy, 68)
De Valera continued to use the ‘wall of brass’ concept up until the 1950s, arguing that the party’s tariffs were ‘as effective’ as a physical fortress (Murphy, 80). For the more economically liberal opposition of Cumann na nGaedheal, the ‘Brass wall’ became a ‘punching bag for Kevin O’Higgins, Patrick Hogan, Ernst Blythe, Farmer’s Party. For the Capitalist right, De Valera’s closed off autarkic Ireland represented stagnation, as in 1943 ‘Fine Gael’s Daniel Morrisey bemoaned the lingering ‘brass wall around Ireland mentality’‘ (Murphy, 69). One can see shimmers of the later Liberal cosmopolite assault on De Valera’s Ireland as ‘too cozy’ as Ó Faoláin found it. As Berkeley in his own era attacked the union of high finance usurers and decadent cultural consumerism, the laissez-faire Right can be interpreted as working with liberal progressives.
All that being said, De Valera’s Ireland did lack a crucial element of the Berkeleyan recipe, namely: national banking. Of course, the Central Bank and O’Connell’s national bank existed, but none were state-controlled in the way the bishop envisioned. A similar outlook was expressed in pamphlet, ‘The New Querist’ punlished anonymously in 1933 by Candle Press most likely written by Bulmer Hobson. In it, Hobson advocates for an active National Bank, which would circulate coin, invest in industry and prohibit usury as well as debt slavery. Similar polocies, like money printing, was advocated by H. Neville Roberts and Joseph Johnston. Perhaps most notably though was Fianna Fáil TD – and former chief of staff for the IRA – Frank Aiken, who upon witnessing the loans private Irish banks were providing the government in the late 1920s declared they had started ‘an act of undeclared war upon our people’. He went on to propose his own vision of a national bank.
A whole third article could be written about the theoretical alternatives. The only definite truth is that De Valera did not indulge in radical monetary policy, preferring to rely on private British banks. One wonders what fate the Irish economy would have faced had it achieved monetary sovereignty.
It’s undoubtedble that Berkeley’s Querist has had a momentous influence on the rhetoric – if not policy also – of Irish economic thinking. Whether in the moderate unionism of Butt, the radical agrarian Fenianism of Mitchel and Young Ireland or the Protectionism Republicanism of early Fianna Fáil —- Berkeley cannot be disregarded for those interested in reviving Irish protectionist economics. His Querist is the thread which binds the multifarious iterations of the Patriot School of Irish political economy. The Irish battle for self-suffiency, frugality and state-protetion that Berkeley established with his work in the 1730s was revived by Butt in the 1800s with the ‘Irish Querist’, revived again by Hobson in the 1930s and one wonders whether the flame will remain alit for our century, with a Querist of our own.
Murphy, W. 2005, “COGGING BERKELEY?: “THE QUERIST” AND THE RHETORIC OF FIANNA FÁIL’S ECONOMIC POLICY”, Irish economic and social history, vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 63-82.
O Grada, C. 1994, “Ireland: A New Economic History”, Oxford, pp. 410.
Rashid, S. 1989, “Berkeley’s Querist and Its Influence”, University of Illinois.