George O’Brien

Life
1892-1973; b. Dublin, ed. UCD; appointed Special Director of the Abbey when it was co-opted as a funded National Theatre by Cosgrave’s Free State Government, 1924; objected to The Plough and the Stars in view of the presence of the prostitute Rosie in the pub with the Tricolour in stage; appt. Prof. of Economics, UCD 1926-61; issued Labour Organisation (1921), An Essay on the Economic Effects of the Reformation (1923), Agricultural Economics (1929), The Four Green Fields (Talbot 1936), The Phantom of Plenty (1948), and The Economic History of Ireland, 3 vols. (London/Dublin 1918-21) - his best known work; elected Chairman of Friends of the National Library of Ireland, 1967; there is a life by James Meehan (1980). DIW FDA OCEL

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Commentary
Stephen Gwynn: History of Ireland (Talbot 1923]), Preface: Gwynn: ‘In the later part of the work, nothing has been of so much service for my purpose as Mr George O’Brien’s three volumes on the Economic History of Ireland from the seventeenth century to the great famine’; also writes that Douglas Hyde’s Literary History of Ireland, though a less definite influence, ‘has affected my whole outlook’ in common with works by J. R. Green.

D. H. Akenson & J. F. Fallin, ‘The Irish Civil War and the Drafting of the Free State Constitution', in Éire-Ireland, 5, 2 (Summer 1970), pp.42-93, note that O’Brien was called in as a consultant to the Irish Provisional Government during the drafting of the Free State Constitution.

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Joseph Lee, Modernisation of Ireland, 1850-1918 (Dublin 1973), NOTE that Lee’s conception of George O’Brien is radically different from that in Hutton & Stewart’s collection (Separate Histories, 1991). ‘O’Brien’s classic obituary of Hogan [who was killed in a car-crash in 1936], the gifted young professor at UCD who would grace many Free State committees of enquiry. (Ftn. James Meehan has painted a memorable portrait in George O’Brien, a memoir, Dublin 1980.) The obituary appeared in Studies 25 (Sept. 1936). O’Brien outlines Hogan’s policy and the theory on which it was founded, ‘the touchstone by which every economic measure must be judged was its effect on the prosperity of the farmers [...] the only thing the govt. could do was to reduce his costs of production [...] The money for social services must come out of revenue, the country had to increase its wealth before revenue was available.’ Lee comments, ‘But Hogan’s policy, despite the coherence of its conception, enjoyed only limited success. [113]. FURTHER later however, responding to O’Brien’s justification of Hogan’s policy as quoted in Meehan, Irish economy (Liverpool 1970; sect. on Hogan 303-14), Lee is less enthusiastic, ‘Utilise to the maximum the physical and geographical resources’ is little better and vacuous rhetoric. [116] Later again, Even George O’Brien found himself compelled to concede that ‘it would appear that the market provided by the agricultural population of the free state is abnormally small.’ [117] By p.129 Lee is speaking of him with undisguised irony, ‘The Cumann a nGaedheal programme purported to envisage movement towards equality of opportunity in education. Clauses tending in this direction even crept into the draft constitution until that vigilant liberal conservative George O’Brien, a consultant on the constitution, exposed so subversive a threat to the existing social order. This was one field where reality was too important to make concessions to rhetoric.’ [129] Later still, O’Brien is sardonically associated as a ‘safe’ associate with the ‘increasingly conservative reality behind the still radical rhetoric gradually becom[ing] clearer.’ [199] Later again, at 350 O’Brien’s conservatism is imprinted on the Economic Review’s response to the Economic Development First Programme. [350] The full extent of Lee’s critique of O’Brien comes out in this, ‘The Finance mind shard many of the assumptions of George O’Brien who devoutly believed he represented an ‘intellectual’ approach to Irish economic problems in contrast to an emotional approach of his critics, “Ever since the Treaty I have ranged myself with the economists who accepted Ireland as it was rather than those who wished it to be in some way different. I accepted the facts of geography and history [...] I was among the physicians who prescribed the hard diet [...] [and] recommend[ed] a painful operation, not among the faith healers and the Christian scientists. This was the intellectual rather than the emotional approach [...] every country needs a corrective, an antidote against the hysterical outbursts of screaming fanatics. There must be a sane section in every society ...’ (Quoted in Meehan, George O’Brien, pp.139-40). Lee’s commentary concedes that O’Brien stood courageously against irresponsible decisions; but he also reads in the discourse of his economics a rigid, class-bound professionalism, a tendency to ignore the ‘social consequences’, espousing ignoring the partisan social perspective of High Finance. O’Brien suffered from coming to economic history as static and subject to unchanging laws. [571]

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A. N. Jeffares, W B Yeats, A New Biography (Macmillan 1988), George O’Brien, government appointee to the board of the Abbey, had strong reservations about the prostitute’s language in Act II of The Plough and the Stars, feeling it would but the subsidy at risk. (p.283).

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Anthony Butler, ‘The Abbey Daze’, in Sean McCann, ed., The World of Sean O’Casey (Four Square 1966), writes that O’Brien professed The Plough and the Stars ‘excellent’, but insisted to alterations after discussion with the highly antagonistic M. J. Dolan, actor-manager of the Abbey. (p.96.)

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David S. Johnson & Liam Kennedy ‘Nationalist Historiography and the Decline of the Irish Economy: George O’Brien Revisited’, in Ireland’s Histories, Aspects of State, Society and Ideology, ed. Sean Hutton & Paul Stewart (1991), pp.11-35: George O’Brien, b. 1892, of Catholic Unionist family; ed. from 1904 at Weybridge, England; intended for TCD, but enrolled at UCD in anticipation of Home Rule; there he knew Patrick McGilligan, Kevin O’Higgins, Patrick Hogan, and others who later formed the Free State government and administrational practised law for 3 years but suffered a nervous breakdown over a botched case, going to Glasgow in 1917 for treatment; giving up law, he turned to an academic career, and wrote Economic History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century (Maunsel 1918), followed the year after by The Economic History of Ireland in the Seventeenth Century (Maunsel 1919), followed soon by The Economic History of Ireland from the Union to the Famine (Longmans 1921), and An Essay on Medieval Economic Teaching (Longman, Green & Co. 1920), an unrelated work. He later admitted that his motive for writing these books was to secure a post at UCD. His books were an elegant and lengthy expression of the conventional nationalist economic teaching, stemming from Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin policy of protectionism, which argued that the Union had depressed the Irish economy, and that the period of Grattan’s Parliament had been a period of growth, and a harbinger of what an independent Irish economy could do. This theory is carefully reviewed and refuted by the authors. They show that the figures he uses are partial and unrepresentative, and that the causes he assigns to changes in the economies of southern and northern regions of Ireland, entail features of both rural and industrial economies, were occasioned by other forces than those of Grattanite protectionism; and that no such protectionism was in fact enforced in that period, while the growth of certain industries depended to the contrary on the availability through British connexion of the markets of the Empire; and finally, that the government of Ireland after 1921 immediately abandoned the protectionist philosophy, later suffering catastrophically when it was imposed on them in the de Valera’s Economic War. O’Brien’s manner of writing is not celebrated with any enthusiasm. The authors write, ‘Unionists tended to attribute the province [of Ulster’s] industrialisation to its Protestant heritage and to its inhabitants character. Naturally nationalists scorned this explanation. “The only way in which the special character of the Ulster people influenced the industrial development of the province,’ O’Brien scoffed, ‘was by hastening the introduction of the factory system on account of their dishonesty in dealing with the yarn in their own homes.’ (Foreword to E. J. Riordan, Modern Irish Trade and Industry (Methuen 1920). Johnson & Kennedy cite James Meehan, George O’Brien, A Biographical Memoir (Gill & Macmillan 1980). FURTHER, In fairness it should be said that George O’Brien was not alone in performing intellectual somersaults. Ministers prominent in the new Free State, such as Hogan and O’Higgins, who had come to power apparently adhering to Sinn Féin views on protectionism, became noted free traders once in office. Timing and political context, as well as opportunism, are no doubt important in explaining these gyrations. The period 1918-21 were years of heady nationalism. The solution to Irish problems seemed straightforward. Once the British were banished, the millenium would dawn. The civil war and the realities of self-government led many into a painful reappraisal of cherished notions. [14]

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Liam Kennedy, ‘The Union of Ireland and Britain, 1801-1921’, in Colonialism, Religion and Nationalism in Ireland (IIS/QUB 1996): ‘But the best known, and by far the most influential work of scholarship from this period was by George O’ Brien. Soon to become professor of national economy at University College, Dublin, O’ Brien may be said to be the father figure of modern Irish economic history. (This image is not without irony: George never married and seems to have had a mysogynistic streak in his make-up. ) O’Brien’s The economic history of Ireland from the Union to the Famine, which appeared in 1921, was the third volume in a trilogy of works on the Irish economy from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century. (Economic History … from the Union to the Famine, 1921.) Undoubtedly coloured by the political passions of the time, these works represent the highest statement of the traditional nationalist interpretation of Irish economic history. In his treatment of the Union, O’Brien may be said to bridge the world of nineteenth-century polemical writings and the emerging world of academic historical scholarship. The historiographical significance of the trilogy lies in the fact that much of the writing in Irish economic history during the new era of the 1960s can be seen as a reaction to O’ Brien. And, as enacted symbolically in Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, there may even be an element of father-slaying in the historiographical revolution which later engulfed O’ Brien’s work. (p.60.)

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References
Hyland Books (Cat. 214) lists An Essay on Medieval Economic Teaching (1920); The Economic History of Ireland in [...] the Seventeenth Century (1919)

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