On Thursday, Senior Staff Writer Meeral Tashfeen attended a panel hosted by the Heyman Center on the newest book of Professor James Stafford, The Case of Ireland: Commerce, Empire, and the European Order, 1750-1848.

In May 2011, James Stafford was working in Ravenscraig, a village that was the site of former steelworks in Glasgow, Scotland. At the time, he was working for a Scottish Labour Politician when the party suffered a stunning upset defeat against the Scottish National Party. The victory of the SNP was important because it ultimately led to a referendum in 2014, which called Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom into question. It also led to Great Britain leaving the European Union in 2020, a move which threatened the conditions for peace in Northern Ireland, through the creation of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland.

It was this anecdote and explanation of key moments that Stafford, a professor of European intellectual history at Columbia, used to begin the panel. The Case of Ireland responds to this catalyst of events by shining a light on the central happenings that have marked the history between Britain and Ireland and how this relationship has impacted the broader European and Atlantic world. Stafford remarked that Ireland was a “curious case,” for it was defined by the reinvention of the British Empire in the 18th century, where the loss of the American colonies placed the British-Irish federation into the limelight. The concept of a union between the two nations was supported by British politicians, who saw it as a counter-revolution to the Enlightenment, as modern aristocratic society attempted to defend Europe from Napoleon.

Isaac Nakhimovsky, a History Professor at Yale, joined the panel, applauding the depth and richness of speculation that Stafford introduces in his book and the fabulous fashion through which he establishes a cast of characters to help readers better understand Britain and the world. As a historian of political thought, Nakhimovsky struck a comparison between Stafford and Italian essayist Franco Venturi for their joint insistence on past ideas and concepts as not abstract philosophy, but as creating a practically engaged debate based on real problems which confront historical actors. In this sense, The Case of Ireland explores the predicament of the nation as a conquest and colony of Britain and the social and economic results of this issue.

Nakhimovsky commended Stafford for remaining practical when envisioning the concept of a British imperial system, while also determining alternatives that could have succeeded in providing Ireland with a measure of autonomy and prosperity. As a result, he has succeeded in emphasizing how this debate is not relatively schematic in terms of success and failure, while still making a serious effort to make it intelligible. There are many nuances to the issue of Ireland, and questions regarding whether legislative independence was the best solution, or whether greater integration with the British commercial system was ideal to create the conditions for prosperity in the nation.

Stafford treats the issues facing the nation with ‘specificity and concreteness’ according to Nakhimovsky and resists the temptation to impose a preconceived opinion into his examination. The resulting account stretches well beyond the case of Ireland, which was also an insight touched upon by Professor Susan Pederson. She described the book as useful not only for telling the history of Ireland but also of the British Empire, where the former plays the roles of both a subject and a troubled agitator. Stafford leverages a persuasive framework to write the country, treating it as a colony where religion was attacked and lands were appropriated. 

Pederson also drew from her own experiences teaching British history, touching on Ireland’s improper place as a part of Great Britain’s past. Ireland is only ever taught in a college classroom when an event inadvertently involves England, such as the Great Famine or the movement of Home Rule. Metropolitan Ireland is rarely taught as a single analytical subject, which makes Stafford’s book even more important and groundbreaking. While he takes a nationalist approach to examining Ireland, this approach does not restrict Stafford’s ability to expand the canvas and position the nation as both an optic and a participant in the Europe-wide debate over republicanism and aristocracy.

Pederson commended Stafford’s vision to dig deep into the debate over Empire and colonial rule through the neglected case study of Ireland, where the country’s independence acted as a vehicle for national rule and a more equitable European order. It also introduced the novel concept that Britain and Ireland were perhaps united on economic grounds, where commerce was central to the progress of Britain and her empire. At the same time, Pederson highlighted that Stafford could have dug deeper into the extent to which Ireland was a vehicle for commerce and empire when compared to other factors to understand the full picture of this debate. However, she did not frame this as a criticism. Instead, she phrased it as the price of making a compelling argument where questions will inevitably come to mind.

Nadia Urbinati was the final speaker on the panel and offered an alternative reading of the book through her expertise as a professor of political thought at Columbia. She praised Stafford for writing what appears to be a history of time that provides a compelling thematic picture of the inviolable conflict between economic models and a people’s claim to self-govern their land. Through linking exploration to exploitation, he is able to construct a history of the empire from the point of view of Ireland.

Stafford explained the reasoning behind this vision with the explanation that Ireland was a compelling nation to write about because everyone understood the power of Britain. The purpose of the book is to reveal how Britain’s regime was more vulnerable than its elite class believed further emphasizing how commercial strength was just as important in judging a nation’s prowess as political power. In sum, political economy was the key to judging the influence held by a nation, which The Case of Ireland highlights by positioning the nation as the battleground between the rival empires of Britain and France.

Editor’s Note: Update, February 8, 2023, 2:22 pm: This article was updated with a correction in the first paragraph to indicate that Stafford was working (not residing) in Ravenscraig in 2011, and a correction of the name of the author Franco Venturi mentioned in the third paragraph.

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