Exploring Economic History

with Palgrave Macmillan

Towards a History of Irish Taxation

The global financial crash of 2008 has provided an enormous stimulus to the study of financial and economic history. Scholars are more aware than ever of the ways in which politicians and policymakers have worked to create markets, shape globalisation, and distribute both the costs and the benefits of these processes through their management of public finance. In some cases, this renewed interest has prompted a critical re-examination of issues that had long been subject to not-so-salutary neglect.

The history of Irish taxation is a good example of this phenomenon. While the politics of taxation in Ireland was the focus of much historiographic discussion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Irish nationalists sought to refashion or repeal the Act of Union with Britain, by the 1930s the topic had come to be seen as passé at best, and irrelevant at worst. For the next several decades, tax policy was largely ignored by Irish political and economic historians. But the series of austerity budgets passed in Ireland following the onset of the banking and sovereign debt crises in 2008 underscored the centrality of taxation to modern Irish politics. Disputes over who should pay, how taxes should be levied, and the mechanisms by which they should be collected were suddenly, once again, at the forefront of both elite debate and popular discussion. Above all, it became clear that decisions about taxation were made on political as much as economic grounds.

As public interest in the politics of Irish taxation revived, historians also came to reconsider a nearly forgotten subject. While much historical analysis of the Irish financial crisis inevitably examined the short- and medium-terms, it also became evident that a long durée assessment was both possible and desirable. After all, since at least the seventeenth century, fiscal policy has shaped the Irish state, informed Irish national identity, and influenced Irish economic activity, electoral preferences, and conceptions of civic morality.

In Taxation, Politics, and Protest in Ireland, 1662-2016, we assembled thirteen contributors from six countries and three continents to explore these issues over a 350 year period. What we found was that taxation and debates over its forms, functions, and financial impact have been deeply contested subjects. The Anglo-Irish fiscal relationship, and the extent to which English/British policies should be extended to or impact on Ireland, provide one central theme of the book, with individual chapters looking at the making of the seventeenth-century Navigation Acts, the Act of Union (1800), and the ‘economic war’ of the 1930s. Elsewhere contributors revisit key episodes, including the fiscal reputation of ‘Grattan’s Parliament’ in the late eighteenth century and the fiscal dimensions of the Irish War of Independence – a neglected but hugely important aspect of the Irish Revolution. Subsequent chapters analyse how the newly independent Irish state established its fiscal institutions. Attitudes to taxation from Jonathan Swift’s sceptical and at times scatological views on the national debt through to nineteenth-century worries about over-taxation are also explored, showing how contemporaries have as often misunderstood as they have understood the fiscal burdens they have had to bear. In the age of austerity and backstops, we find that perceptions of the impact of policy changes often matter more than their real impact on the ground. Through studying the history of Irish taxation and its discontents at local, national, and imperial levels, our book shines new light on issues that continue to attract historical and contemporary interest both in Ireland and beyond.

Douglas Kanter is associate professor of modern British, Irish, and British imperial history at Florida Atlantic University, USA. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, he is the author of The Making of British Unionism, 1740-1848: Politics, Government and the Anglo-Irish Constitutional Relationship (2009).

Patrick Walsh is assistant professor of eighteenth-century Irish history at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. His publications include The South Sea Bubble and Ireland: Money, Banking and Investment, 1690-1721 (Woodbridge, 2014) and with Aaron Graham The British and Irish Fiscal-Military States, 1660-1783 (London, 2016).