SPIRITUAL STEREOTYPES: Rethinking religion in Irish economic history

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29 Mar 2016

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Irish Catholicism was not a barrier to Irish development. That is the conclusion of new research by Stuart Henderson, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s annual conference in Cambridge.

Looking at the relationship between Roman Catholicism and various measures of development for the Post-famine period (1871 to 1911), the study argues that Irish Catholics and Protestants were not that different in socio-economic terms.

This challenges the traditional stereotype that Catholicism was inimical to advancement – a notion popularised by Max Weber’s famous ‘Protestant-ethic’ thesis (1904/05) and echoed in Horace Plunkett’s work Ireland in the New Century (1905), where this influential Unionist politician bemoans the economic tendencies of Irish Catholics.

Specifically, the research counters Plunkett’s claims concerning the ‘non or anti economic’ nature of Irish Catholicism, and the inferior industrial character of its adherents – renewing a debate that seems to have waned in the ensuing decades due to sensitivities surrounding the religion question in Ireland.

Using statistical methods, Henderson’s work analyses the association between religion and a wide range of indicators (including literacy, professional occupation, saving propensity, company formations, and bank branching) across the 1871 to 1911 period.

This analysis reveals patterns of religious indifference and convergence, consistent with the idea that Catholicism was not an impediment to progress. Indeed, by the turn of the century, the only respect in which the two Christian denominations appear to have differed was in their savings behaviour: areas with more Catholics saved significantly less.

Given this amelioration of differences through time, and in light of Catholic historical disadvantage, Henderson’s study suggests that the Irish Catholic experience might have been more correctly described as an ‘embourgeoisement’.

In particular, it points to historical evidence concerning the increasing role of the Catholic Church (especially in education) and the modernising aspirations of Irish nationalists as important forces in socio-economic improvement and the spread of middle class values.

In proposing this alternative narrative, the contribution of this new research is twofold. On one hand, it sheds light on the important historical question of the role of religion in Irish development, and in doing so downplays the traditional stereotype that Catholicism was an impediment to advancement.

On the other hand, by adopting a quantitative approach, it presents a dynamic relationship between religion and economic outcomes, which accounts for factors such as time, geography and inequality.

Commenting on his work, Henderson suggests:

‘My findings present Catholicism and the Catholic Church in a more favourable light – downplaying religious differences and instead raising questions about the conditions that contributed to a cultural convergence in economic outcomes’.


‘Religion and Development in Post-Famine Ireland’

Stuart Henderson

PhD Candidate in Economic and Financial History at Queen’s University Belfast

Email: shenderson14@qub.ac.uk

Phone: +353 86 391 4635

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