Ireland and the Enlightenment’s global history

17 April 2024

** This is the second in a series of three reviews of James Stafford’s The Case of Ireland: Commerce, Empire and the European Order, 1750-1848Each day this week one review will be published, and Professor Stafford will then respond on Thursday. *


By Anna Plassart

The Case of Ireland is an excellent book with a deceptive title: James Stafford’s wide-ranging monograph casts its net far beyond the shores of Ireland. It provides – as clarified by the subtitle – a wide-reaching account of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century European attempts to devise a stable international order that could accommodate both commercial modernity and political liberty. Its topic is, therefore, nothing less than the central concern animating the Enlightenment of Montesquieu, Hume, and Smith.


Yet The Case of Ireland is also an apt title. On the most obvious level, the book’s centre of gravity is provided by the Act of Union of 1800, a pivotal moment in Irish history which marked the formal incorporation of Ireland into the United Kingdom, extinguishing its independent parliament. The narrative therefore hinges upon a critical chapter of Ireland’s national story, a moment whose profound political, economic, and social ramifications contributed to the tensions that later fuelled movements for Irish independence. It can be read as a critical reappraisal of this seminal event – one that eschews nationally- or religiously-focused readings of Irish history. Instead it provides a fresh account of Irish debates about the Union, showing that both pro- and anti-Union positions were developed in dialogue with enlightened European and British discussions surrounding global commerce and the international order.


Stafford’s narrative spans over a century. Starting with the enlightened critiques of Empire developed by Molyneux and Smith, it follows campaigns for legislative independence, the issue of parliamentary union, the agrarian system which emerged during the Napoleonic war, and its destruction in the catastrophic famines of the 1840s. In Chapter 1, we are shown how economic critiques of Ireland’s exclusion from imperial and European trade became increasingly connected with the political exclusion of its Catholic subjects. Here it is Adam Smith who emerges as the central eighteenth-century figure, by turning suggestions for reforming the Anglo-Irish aristocracy into a novel and influential argument for parliamentary union. While Smith and others sought ways to strengthen Britain’s authority through the transformation of Irish society, Chapter 2 shows that the American Revolution opened up new perspectives for redrawing Ireland’s relationship with Britain, which (as explained in Chapter 3) unravelled amid the return of war against France, when the United Irishmen’s critique of mercantile empire and Irish Ascendancy led them to a radical embrace of France’s own imperial model, or at least of France’s alternative project for a republican European order. In response to the failure of the 1798 rebellion, Chapter 4 delves into the case for parliamentary union advanced by British and Irish pamphleteers. Union, Stafford convincingly argues, drew on the intellectual resources of the Scottish Enlightenment to propose economic and political regulation as a means to dissolve confessional and ethnic tensions – a strategy influenced by the successes of French revolutionary arms in continental Europe. In chapter 5, with Union now constitutionally enshrined, the book traces contemporary analyses of Ireland’s agrarian success during the Napoleonic Wars, and of the unraveling of Ireland’s grain export boom after 1815. Finally, Chapter 6 examines how this agrarian downturn led Irish, British and continental intellectuals to challenge British consensus surrounding the model of large-scale agriculture based on landed aristocracy, and shows how this challenge was partly inspired by European and revolutionary efforts to establish landed property as the basis of political society.


As the above summary should make clear, the book is constructed as a European-wide intellectual history of the ‘Irish question’, surveying a crucial period when British imperial institutions were increasingly challenged by revolutionary movements, and then reformed in response. It does remain, on one level, a history of Irish political ideas. As Irish political thinkers sought forms of autonomy first within, and then beyond the British Empire, they took sides in the commercial and military struggle that set Britain against France for the best part of the period. In doing so they also self-consciously inscribed their demands into the larger late Enlightenment debates about the nature of empires and their compatibility with global commerce, political liberty and economic improvement.


This internationally-minded recasting of Irish political thought is fascinating in itself, but it is only part of the story. The book’s deeper claim to originality lies in its two-pronged approach to the “case of Ireland” as both subject and object. Stafford not only refreshes our understanding of Irish political thought by recasting Irish pamphleteers, political writers and politicians as actors in wider European and Atlantic debates. But, and arguably even more interestingly, he also inverts the perspective by showing that the Irish question was an object of great interest to observers beyond the British isles.


On the face of it, these could be tricky perspectives to weave together. It is not immediately obvious that Irish political thinking would have much in common, or much interaction with, arguments developed by outside observers – continental intellectuals who inevitably tended to interpret the Irish question in terms of its significance to their own domestic or continental concerns. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that in practice the book does primarily (although not exclusively) focus on the Irish and British side of things. When it looks outside of the British isles, to the European commentators who analysed Ireland as illustrative of the positive and negative tendencies of Britain’s economic and political model, its protagonists tend to be French- and German-language writers more fundamentally concerned with the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars and the settlement established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Nevertheless: Ireland, Stafford demonstrates, became a focal point for European observers grappling with questions of political liberty and economic progress. Stafford explores these debates through the lens of the Irish question, weaving together the threads of Anglo-Irish politics and continental political economy in a context of European war and global commercial rivalries. He shows how Irish, British and continental debates about Ireland should be collectively read as a large-scale, European-wide, attempt to evaluate the reformability and escapability of empires in an era of global commerce. In doing so he demonstrates that Ireland represented a pivotal space, functioning as a testing ground for developing new forms of political and economic rule adapted to global commercial empires.


This is an ambitious approach, and it goes without saying that it comes with its challenges. As pointed out above, the book’s reach and originality is rooted in its consideration of the “case of Ireland” as both subject and object. This is somewhat unusual, because most intellectual history narratives tend to be formally constructed – apologies for the truism – around ideas: they reconstruct the thought of individual writers and cast them as protagonists in intellectual debates, in order to contextualise shifts in political discourse. The Case of Ireland does all of this and more, but what ties the book together is not – or at least not outwardly – a particular constellation of ideas, but rather a historical object, Ireland’s relationship with Britain. This anchors the book in a specific historical and geographical setting, which does provide a clear focus as well as a comparative standard for evaluating the perspectives of commentators writing from different intellectual, religious, political and national contexts. But from the perspective of intellectual history, it is also an amorphous topic whose significance only emerges through the interpretation of contemporaries, as it illuminates their own varied concerns, agendas, and preferred models of development for Britain and – by extension – Europe. The French revolutionaries who encouraged the United Irishmen-led rebellion of 1798 had their own agenda for a hegemonic European order of sister-republics built on a French template; they were hardly interested in the Irish patriots’ decades-long fight for legislative independence or in the complex roots of homegrown Irish radicalism, just as Hegel or Sismondi’s critique of Britain’s policy in Ireland arguably say more about their own commitment to equitable land ownership in Restoration Europe than it does about Ireland.


Of course, Stafford knows as much, and makes a virtue out of this multi-focal analysis as he uses the case of Ireland to illuminate the European-wide search for a free, stable and prosperous international order – or, as he writes, “the promise and perils of commerce in an era of global war and revolution”. The common thread that really unites his protagonists, then, is not so much Ireland (although they were all certainly interested in Ireland, at least as a case study) as a shared interest in debating agricultural and economic models in relation to Britain’s commercial empire.



Stafford calls this focus on political economy a “deliberate decision”, an experiment of sorts, enabling the historian “to explore what might happen if we adjusted our focus on Irish history to centre on questions of commerce and empire, rather than those of nationalism and religion”. If the book aimed to provide a comprehensive intellectual history of the Union, this could be read as an admission to selection bias. “Commerce and empire”, after all, cannot be neatly separated from “nationalism and religion”, if only because empires do not only function as economic frameworks, but also as conceptual and practical frameworks for state sovereignty. To his credit, Stafford does not suggest that the two can or even should be separated, and only claims to introduce much-needed balance to a historiographical field traditionally dominated by the latter. But readers might be left wondering where the argument ultimately leads: if we accept the surface claim that the book is about Ireland, then how can the focus on political economy be integrated into a more balanced, multi-faceted intellectual history of the Union? Conversely, if Ireland functions primarily as a case study at the service of a European-wide discussion about global commerce, then how are we to evaluate the nature and significance of its impact on this wider debate? Admittedly, this is arguably an unfair dichotomy between two related sets of research questions, which also reflects the book’s impressive ability to function across several historiographical planes and highlight new connections between heretofore largely unconnected fields of enquiry.


Historians of political ideas should certainly learn much from The Case of Ireland, both in terms of subject matter, and as an exemplar for the interdisciplinary strand of intellectual history that has long argued that Enlightenment politics were fundamentally shaped by deep concerns about the emergence of commercial Empires and global trade. For the best part of a century, Ireland provided contemporaries with a unique vantage point through which they could debate questions of crucial importance for the future of Europe, most notably the ability of imperial structures to foster both liberty and commercial prosperity. The Case of Ireland provides a genuinely fruitful, and historically authentic, way to discard the shackles of methodological nationalism: something Enlightenment intellectual history has sometimes done well, but rarely with this level of purposeful awareness. As Stafford traces Ireland’s unique trajectory within the larger context of Franco-British imperial rivalries, he demonstrates that the history of political thought was, in fact, always global.

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *