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Irish Society A History Of Class Struggle

We welcome contributor Proinsias Barrett, who writes objectively here, in reference to a previous post on thurles.info entitled “How To Cast Your Vote In A Dysfunctional Ireland.”

To introduce Proinsias to our readers, he is a Thurles town native, who now lives in Galway City. He has worked in Sound Engineering and Event Production for some fifteen years, until encouraged by friends and family to further develop his keen interests in history, human geography, sociology and political science. He now attends NUI Galway studying for a Bachelor of Arts honours degree. Proinsias still retains his love of  music, particularly alternative non-mainstream progressive styles from the 1960’s to present. He is also interested in Irish Folklore, Celtic Christianity, Heraldry, Irish Surnames and Place Names, Environmental Issues, Travel, Vintage Motor-Scooters and Classic Cars, and offers regular comment through National Press and on this site.

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’

You may recognise these words as the opening lines of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles ‘ Communist Manifesto, (Written incidentally at the same time as the Chartists movement were calling for change.)

Karl Marx

It is interesting that since the ‘fall ‘ of Communism in the former Soviet Union, circa 1989-1991, and the ‘softening‘ of China’s interpretation of Communism in the last ten to fifteen years (Although, a Communist state run by Capitalists, which is what China has evolved into, is far more frightening than modern Russia’s interpretation of democracy.) has re-kindled, especially here in the west, an interest in the political philosophers of old. It has become socially acceptable to discuss Marx’s vision of society, own a copy of the manifesto, and theoretically apply his reason in a contemporary contexts.

When Barack Obama was accused by U.S. Republicans of been a ‘Socialist‘ over his health care reform bill proposals, millions of Americans, with an interest in politics asked ‘What is a Socialist ?,’ ‘Is that Communism ?,’ and so with the disintegration of the former USSR, and Communism no longer a threat to the USA, censorship on certain publications had been lifted (Seemingly there were no moreCommies under the bed‘). Information and literature on leftist political philosophy were for the first time since 1946 available in America, which led surprisingly to many Americans researching Socialism and then saying ‘Well, you know, old Marx has some good points here.

But I was led to believe as a boy growing up in Thurles in the 1980’s that Class distinctions had been abolished, and people or society were no longer to be categorised in relation to class. The trains removed first-class carriages and airline companies simply re-named first-class to executive class thus side-stepping the issue.

But where was this coming from?  Was it a European attitude or was it emanating from our more influential neighbours in England and America? I’m not sure, only in hind sight America had Ronald Reagan and later, George Bush senior, England had Iron Maggie and later John Major (Not the most Liberal of individuals) however it is (In my estimation) only recently, a little before the global financial crisis, that media and print again began categorising individuals into neat class distinctional boxes.

But what defines class, is it status and power (Beware the ides of March,) that gives power and status, is it wealth? As we have seen recently, wealth is fickle, and vast amounts of wealth can be lost overnight in the world of investments and speculation. Is it the ownership of property ?  Property does determine power, so long as the rights of property are respected. But there are times when power comes first. The Norman barons of England and Ireland were not powerful because they owned feudal property, they owned property because they were powerful, or, in more realistic terms because they had conquered these countries and taken it. Later in the nineteenth century, Europeans acquired property all over the continent of Africa, and it seemed to make them powerful. They dressed this up with all kinds of legal pretences, but the true basis of their power was expressed by Hilaire Belloc in the words: ‘We have the Maxim machine-gun, and they have not.’

In Ireland during the Land Division process, conducted by the Land Commission, latter carried out its divisions of property during a Civil War, thus ensuring that anyone who did not support partition and limited autonomy (The Treaty) got nothing. Could this be a reason for the almost habitual tendency of Irish farmers to vote Fine Gael? Many anti-Treaty supporters, ‘Dev men,’ particularly in counties like Tipperary, Cork and Clare were forced as a result, into urban centres of towns and villages to look for work. What did they get ?.  Not much, for some it was almost ten years unemployment until (in Thurles) 1932 a Sugar factory was commissioned so that the ‘new’ farmers could grow sugar-beet (Heavily subsidised) and the landless workers could produce the sugar, simple. How did that pan out? Well all the sugar we consume in Ireland today originates in Germany, but I suppose subsidising beet growers kept money circulating in the local economy, certainly a better use of public funds than subsidising rash decisions by Euro investors in Irish banking, as we are now doing with no return and no visible or monetary benefit on the ground.

But there are also issues I feel strongly about in relation to the beneficiaries of the land division in 1920’s Ireland. Have the sons and daughters or grandsons and granddaughters of recipients of land, from the commission, the right to sell this land to the highest bidder? As we witnessed in the property boom or as some call it the ‘money disease ‘ boom. Green fields, the envy of farmers around the world, perfect for cultivation and food production are sold off for exorbitant amounts to ‘developers,(I love that word, it makes it all sound alright.) who in turn, hired a ‘lad with a van and a cement mixer‘ to create thousands of the most grotesque, impracticable, cheaply constructed, energy inefficient boxes ever seen on this island. Undertaken with the help of course of unscrupulous councillors with no experience in planning or sustainability backed up by developer-friendly legislation, emanating from government.

Every where one looked over the last twenty years there was destruction and robbery, every village and town has been lumped with an ‘estate’ or estates of badly build eye-sores, with no facilities or space or quality of life, just bills, debt and isolation. But nowadays, of course, it is fashionable to say that we all saw it coming and we’re all sorry it got out of control.

Experience has also shown that people do not always vote for others of their own class or according to their class interest. In the time of the Chartists, the British middle classes continued to vote for landowners, and the British workers later on were to vote for members of the middle class, so much so that by the later twentieth century even the Labour party was hard pressed to find working-class candidates.

Marx knew that the vote did not of itself determine political power. But he believed that property did.

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1 comment to Irish Society A History Of Class Struggle

  • I boarded a Dublin train in Thurles last year.
    A guy in the carriage said to me, ” Sorry, this is first class only,”I asked him to direct me to second or 3rd class carriage. He said,”We don’t have second or 3rd class”. I said, “I’ll walk then”. — I went down the train to a low class carriage. I got to Dublin the same time as the First Class crowd.

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