Contributed by Adrian Grant
The second instalment of The Limits of Liberty started off by looking at the massive project that was the construction of the Ardnacrusha hydro-electric dam in County Clare. Here, Ferriter rightly commended Cumann na nGaedheal for what was a great achievement. There was no mention of the striking workers on the scheme though. However, it appears that this second part of the programme had another axe to grind and Ardnacrusha was an excellent way to begin the programme. This was a symbol of a new Ireland, a self-governing Ireland that could compete on the world stage. Ardnacrusha provided the electricity for 87% of the national grid. Ferriter then gave the information that allowed the viewer a glimpse of where the film was going next. The national grid only covered 10% of the population. In 1945, only 2% of rural Ireland had electricity, at a time when Denmark had 85% coverage and the Netherlands 98%.
Rural Ireland was central to this instalment of The Limits of Liberty and Ferriter made some very good points. The account of poverty on Tory Island could have come from any of the rural areas of the western seaboard in the 1920s but the point was well made here. The islanders did not pay taxes, they received no services, and they were ignored. The reality of Irish life was very different from the image of the new dam on the Shannon. The council in Macroom that threatened not to function was also ignored. Local democracy, it appears, was not a priority for either Cumann na nGaedheal or Fianna Fáil.
This brought the programme firmly back to its primary argument about the centralisation of power. The contempt for local government was shocking, especially Sean MacEntee’s comments about people who couldn’t look after their personal hygiene not being able to govern themselves. Ferriter’s response to this, standing outside a large house and saying, ‘but Sean MacEntee lived here’, had a great effect. There was also a very interesting piece of archive footage of Todd Andrews commending Cumann na nGaedheal for the Local Appointments Commission and ‘an incorruptible civil service’. The administrative successes of the local government reforms were then contrasted with the lack of success in actually improving the lives of ordinary people.
The examination of three grassroots interest groups was very interesting in how it demonstrated that people could not rely on central government to make things better for them. Perhaps there is a lesson in this for people who find themselves in a sorry situation today. Highlighting the role of women from the Irish Housewife’s Association and the Irish Countrywomen’s Association in modernising Ireland will be enlightening to many. The part on the Credit Union movement showed the class divisions that are often papered over in nationalist historiography. Banks were for businessmen, large farmers and professionals. Credit was not forthcoming to people outside of these occupations and many, who already lived in abject poverty, were forced to turn to money-lenders who charged extortionate interest rates. The Credit Union movement was one of the most important grassroots groups of the twentieth century and it is encouraging to see it get the recognition it deserves here. It appears that the concluding part of the series will be quite different and look at the second half of the century when the next generation was fighting for individual rights and freedoms.
Adrian Grant is in the final year of a PhD at Magee College, University of Ulster. His thesis, which is entitled ‘Irish socialist republicanism, 1909-36’, examines the Irish Labour, republican and communist movements in the period. You can read his review of part one of The Limits of Liberty here.