‘The squeezed middle’: the Irish middle-class under Fianna Fáil, 1932-1948
This Friday (December 4th) our speaker is John Porter, a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin. John is an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland postgraduate scholar and his research explores the history of the Irish consumer in the period 1922-1958. You can read more about his work here: https://tcd.academia.edu/JohnPorter
The seminar will take place at 4pm in 01/005, 22 University Square.
John has kindly provided us with a short piece on the elusive character of the Irish middle class:
It has become almost a cliché to say that class has been left out of Irish history. There is a narrative on the rise of the Catholic middle class in nineteenth-century Ireland, and some discussion of the class issues raised by the War of Independence and the Civil War, but largely this vanishes as the new state emerges; as if the founding of an independent Ireland also means the ending of class divisions within society. In recent years we have seen an increase in research into the working class in Ireland, with various works on workplace identity, leisure, and poverty.[i] Largely, however, historians have ignored the Irish middle class, leaving analysis of bourgeois identity to literary critics. Of course, many problems are presented to historians of the middle class. For one thing the term itself is deliberately constructed to be ambiguous and amorphous in nature. One commentator using the phrase ‘middle-class’ could have a very different group in mind to another, and the carefully fabricated vagueness can serve vastly divergent political ends. If the indistinctness and fluidity of ‘the middle-class’ as a concept is perpetuated today by historians of class what impact does this have upon our understanding of class in Ireland? The only monograph on the middle class in twentieth century Ireland is Tony Farmar’s Ordinary Lives, an inter-generational account of middle class life in Dublin.[ii] This book was published in 1991 but then re-published largely unchanged in 2010, merely with the new title Privileged Lives.[iii] This might seem like a small matter, after all these books were intended as popular readable accounts rather than strictly academic works, but this apparently simple name change raises critical and troubling questions. Are the middle class in Ireland ordinary, the majority, commonplace, or are they instead privileged, exceptional, advantaged? Can the name change be explained by the changed economic circumstances from 1991 to 2010, moving into a period of recession? Does our historical understanding of the Irish middle class come from modern experiences or ideas, rather than historical research and analysis?
In an effort to redress the imbalance and seek a path of least resistance it is worth considering class languages that, at least on the surface, appear more easily understandable. One such example is the rhetoric of the ‘squeezed middle’, as I have described it, which is visible in newspapers, journals, and even official reports throughout the 1930s and 1940s. This discourse presented the Irish middle-class as the backbone of society, but one that was being ignored or even unfairly targeted by the state. It should appear immediately comprehensible to us today, as we continue to hear about the trampled-upon middle class. The focus on the 1930s and 1940s is not to suggest that such representations began or ended in this period. They do, however, become peculiarly commonplace and widely deployed in this era. In particular, the rhetoric of the squeezed middle is deployed at key moments in which the middle class appears under some potential threat or increased burden. For example, the rhetoric is especially evident in the years 1932-1936; the initial years of Fianna Fáil government, and also appears forcefully again towards the end of the Emergency, a period of wage freezes and huge price increases. Again, however, the rhetoric of the squeezed middle was used repetitively throughout the 1930s and 1940s. It wove its way through not just right-wing newspapers and journals, but also left-leaning publications, and can even be seen in official reports.
What underlies the rhetoric of the squeezed middle? Repeatedly when the rhetoric is deployed we encounter the implicit or overt suggestion that the middle class has the right to a certain standard of service, or product. Whether this is expressed as a demand for a middle class cost of living figure, a certain standard of housing, or the wage to cover a certain level of entertaining, the rhetoric claims for the squeezed middle a standard of consumption above that of the working class and poor. Yet consumption, almost as much as class, has not received adequate consideration in Irish historiography. This is despite the fact that often it is through acts, or dreams, of consumption that we see class articulated. Even the division between white collar and blue collar, is a workplace, or production division, but also one of clothing, one of consumption. Potential pathways of analysis are presented by a number of consumption topics. Housing, for example, appears ripe for research. Not merely are class divisions evident in the type of house inhabited, for example, a two-roomed tenement or a country manor home, but also by the geographical location of that house; there was and is, for example, a tremendous difference between a home in Ballsbridge and one in Crumlin. It is through pathways such as these that we may approach a new history of class in Ireland.
[i] David Toms, Soccer in Munster: a social history 1877-1937 (Cork, 2015); Miriam Nyhan ‘Narration and memory: the experience of the workplace of a Ford Plant, in Irish Economic and Social History, xxx (2006) pp 18-34; Olwen Purdue, ‘Poverty and power: the workhouse in a north Antrim town 1861-1921’, Irish Historical Studies 148, (2011).
[ii] Tony Farmar, Ordinary Lives: a generational history of the middle class in Dublin (Dublin, 1991).
[iii] Tony Farmar, Privileged Lives: a generational history of the middle class in Dublin (Dublin, 2010).