For much of Ireland’s modern history, its supposed ungovernability was proverbial, at least among British and continental European observers. Yet Ireland was in fact an intensely governed space: law, property, welfare, religion, and the landscape itself were forcibly remade through repeated exercises of coercive and others forms of power. By 1850, Ireland had one of the most advanced railway systems in Europe, and some of the most detailed maps. Public authority interacted with more diffuse networks of kinship, religion and ‘civility’ to produce an unusually resilient society by the close of the nineteenth century.
In recent decades, Irish historians of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have characterised public authority in Ireland as a kind of hybrid regime, at once ‘colonial’ and ‘European’. Building on the work of Patrick Carroll-Burke, David Fitzpatrick, Joanna Innes, K. T. Hoppen and others, this conference is concerned with the implications of this judgement, seeking to locate it more securely within a broader historiographical and theoretical framework. We want to understand how political agency and political coalitions developed in Ireland; not only in the usual narratives of constitutional, sectarian, and national conflicts, but in broader, less-studied fields of social and economic regulation, cultural transformation, intellectual history and mentalities. We also seek to bring together early modern and modern scholars of Ireland, too often separated into their respective academic silos.
Through this investigation, we believe that we can develop a perspective on Irish political development that does not define it as a set of divergences from a British (or continental European) model of historical evolution. In both European and global history, hybrid regimes of various kinds are the rule. Sovereign nation-states and stable market economies are the exception. The study of Irish history can be viewed as an opportunity to examine a set of variations on this universal theme of political complexity. It can help us to perceive the conceptual inadequacy of common analytical categories, and to develop better ones.