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History of SSISI

This introduction is taken from "The Spirit of Earnest Inquiry" by Mary E. Daly, 1997.

The Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland holds a unique place in the study of the Irish economy and Irish society. Since its foundation in the autumn of 1847 the Society has analysed the major changes that have taken place in population, employment, legal and administrative systems and social services. The one hundred and fifty years since the Society's foundation span the closing years of the famine, the transformation of post-famine society, the years when the land question was resolved, and the entire history of the independent Irish state. Seventy-five years of this history relate to Ireland under the Union, the remaining seventy-five are concerned with the experience of a native government. Through the Journal of the Society we can chart how major issues such as emigration, crime and the management of the economy have been evaluated by successive generations of members. No other single source provides such a comprehensive picture of social change over such a long period.

The period since 1847 can be neatly summarised in one phrase: Ireland since the Famine, and the Society affords an unparalleled window on this critical phase in recent Irish history. Many of the earliest papers set out to analyse the causes of the Famine and to make recommendations as to how the Irish economy could be transformed in the future. The founders of the Society believed that statistics and economic analysis would provide scientific answers to the major problems of the time. If this seems naively optimistic, it is important to note that no political grouping provided a coherent plan that would have protected Ireland from the consequences of the potato blight, and that by the 1840s Irish society was deeply divided by politics and religion. The supposed scientific nature of statistics, and their apparent ideological neutrality seemed to offer a better way forward. The Society's constitution precluded discussions of any topics that related to politics or religion. During its early years the reforming agenda was extensive: changes in land law, reforming the poor law, more humane treatment for needy children and promoting temperance. In many respects the Society can be seen as an Irish variant of the many moral and social reform movements that were so typical of mid-Victorian England. It maintained a relatively low profile: insofar as it lobbied for changes in the law, it did so through direct contacts with senior politicians and administrators, or by sending leaflets to all Irish MPs, as opposed to organising mass petitions or public meetings. In the early years this was an effective way of working. The political complexion of the government of Ireland was determined by the electorate of England, Wales and Scotland, rather than the Irish voters. Many of the key decisions relating to Irish legislation rested with a small group of politicians and senior officials based in Dublin Castle; men, who were often members of the Society, or their close acquaintances.

Most papers read to the Society until at least 1870 were in favour of assimilating the laws and practices in Ireland to those applying in England and Wales. There is little doubt that until the 1920s the overwhelming majority of members were much more in sympathy with the British administration in Ireland than with the movement for Home Rule or the more radical wing of Irish nationalism. By 1924 however the Society had begun to enrol a substantial number of senior officials from the new Irish civil service. One of the most interesting aspects of its recent history has been its close relationship with the administration of the new Irish state. The Journal of the Society provides one of the few opportunities to penetrate the official anonymity of the Irish public service. Senior civil servants have spoken more freely on crucial aspects of government policy at its meetings than in any other public forum. The most significant papers in this regard were undoubtedly given by T.K. Whitaker during the late 1940s and the 1950s. Through these it is possible to trace the evolution of the key ideas that evolved in the 1958 publication, Economic Development. For many civil servants the Society has provided perhaps the only forum where they could discuss their work openly with academics, businessmen and interested members of the general public. However there were undoubtedly limits to this freedom of speech. In 1932 Joseph Brennan, chairman of the Currency Commission, withdrew a proposed paper following the return of a Fianna Fáil government. From the 1960s most of the papers presented by civil servants have tended to concentrate on technical statistical matters, though often the comments made in the course of discussions following such papers can prove extremely enlightening about the broad direction of government policy.

When the Statistical Society was founded in the mid-nineteenth century, societies that used statistics as a mechanism for investigating social questions were very much in vogue in Britain, continental Europe and in the United States. Most of these no longer exist; others have evolved into strictly professional bodies which tend to be dominated by full-time academics. The Statistical and Social Inquiry Society has not only survived but thrived, partly because until recently the small size of Ireland and the relatively undeveloped nature of professions such as economists and sociologists precluded the emergence of specialist representative organisations. On the whole the papers presented to the Society have been concerned with practical problems, such as crime, poverty and economic progress, and by a common concern with the condition of Ireland. The Society has thrived as a result of the perennial fascination with critical aspects of post-famine Ireland, such as population decline, emigration and the state of the Irish economy.

During the nineteenth century it frequently provided an important platform for people who were concerned about major social problems, such as the care of orphans and neglected children. Indeed the key figures associated with the founding of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1889 were prominent members of the Society. Many of the topics that were of concern to members in the mid and late nineteenth century, such as law reform, the treatment of young offenders, adoption and child welfare are now handled by more specialist agencies, and by trained professionals as opposed to interested amateurs. Yet the investigative methods that the Society members employed during the nineteenth century: the emphasis on statistics and on empirical research, and the tendency to base recommendations for administrative and legal reform on precedents derived from other nations, remain the basis of modern social policy.

The modern Society is dominated by statistically-minded economists and sociologists, many of them employed within the public service and private business. Although academic members have always been prominent it is ranks, the Society has provided a particularly useful platform for people from outside the universities who are interested in research. The growing technical complexity of the papers read to the Society, their use of elaborate econometric and statistical methods, reflect the evolution of the economics profession within Ireland, and the more professional approach adopted to economic and social inquiry. Regrettably the membership of the Society and its concerns have narrowed. There are few interested amateurs among the members in the 1990s. Lawyers were prominent until the 1920s and numerous papers focused on legal reform; such topics have since disappeared. Until the 1940s the Society provided an important forum for investigating public health matters; such research is more likely to be presented in a specialist journal. While there are benefits from this growing professionalisation, the loss of an interdisciplinary audience is regrettable, and the major challenge for the Society is to find a mechanism for maintaining and strengthening this dimension.

In his introduction to the centenary history of the Society, Roy Geary, its president, noted that 'it is fascinating to observe how in each generation the studies under Society auspices reflected the public interests of the time'. While acknowledging the merits of Geary's remark, it is important to understand that the Society presents us with an unconventional insight into the history of Ireland since the Famine. The Journal says little about nationalism, republicanism, unionism, the Ulster question, the role of the catholic church or the revival of the Irish language, the topics that dominate most historical narratives. The Society's constitution precluded it from discussing matters that related directly to politics or religion, and a historian who was solely dependent on its Journal as a source would be unable to explain the reasons for the success of a grass-roots movement such as the Land League. However the Journal provides an invaluable insight into the thoughts of a professional and intellectual elite on some of the most important aspects of Irish society. It is extremely informative on topics such as emigration or rural economy and it enables us to explore many neglected subjects such as the early history of social work in Ireland, or comparative mortality in rural and urban areas in the 1940s. Many of the views expressed in its Journal on emotive subjects such as emigration and population decline provided a valuable corrective to the popular rhetoric of the time. One case in point is Roy Geary's 1935 paper which showed that it would be utterly impossible for the Irish population to return to its 1841 level of 8.1m. during the twentieth century. His assessment was correct, but he was roundly criticised at the time for his pessimism. Papers such as this, and earlier papers by Charles Oldham (Oldham 1013, 1016, 1018) and Chart (Chart, 144) on Irish industrial history deserve to be ranked among the classic revisionist texts in Irish history, despite the fact that they predate the founding of the journal Irish Historical Studies, which is generally regarded as the beginning of the revisionist movement. The Journal also published data on agricultural prices since the famine, compiled by Richard Barrington, (Barrington, 39, 40) Thomas Barrington, (Barrington, 42) and Hans Staehle, (Staehle, 1161) that remain a vital source for modern scholars and the key papers by Austin Bourke (Bourke, 83,84) relating to the potato crop in pre-famine Ireland.

Writing a history of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland presents a number of difficulties. The surviving sources consist of the minutes of the Council of the Society from 1863, together with the Journal and some other published papers. Although the minutes provide occasional glimpses of ideological and personal differences, they often conceal more than they reveal. It is regrettable that the practice of summarising the main points made by discussants following each paper did not begin until the 1920s because these occasions provide a rare record of debate. In an ideal world it would be possible to supplement these sources with the private papers and correspondence of members, and with more direct evidence of the Society's impact on policy from official files. Neither source is available to any significant extent, so that at times were can only infer the extent of the Society's influence. Anybody who is interested in the history of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society owes an immense debt to Professor R.D.C. Black. His centenary history, published in 1947 provides a narrative of the first hundred years, together with invaluable profiles of the most important members. The flavour of the Society is best captured by dipping into the cumulative author and subject index of the Journal compiled by Helen Litton.

Author Acknowledgements 

My thanks to Dermot McAleese the Society's current president, and to his predecessor Padraig McGowan, who asked me to write the history of the Statistical Society. Donal de Butleir has played a vital role in seeing the project to fruition. Kieran Kennedy and Tom Linehan read the entire text. I am grateful to Bill Keating for placing the minute books of the Council of the Society at my disposal and to Claire Devaney for locating some missing volumes. Brendan Whelan, director of the ESRI and John Roughan the secretary gave me access to the Institute's archives. My thanks also to Frank Barry, David Dickson, Garret FitzGerald, Paddy Lynch, Louis Smith and Jonathan Williams; to Helen Litton for compiling the index, and most especially to Tony McNamara for overseeing the production. last but not least, to P.J., Paul, Elizabeth, Alice and Nicholas for sustaining me through yet another book.

Sources on the History of the Society

Black, R.D.C. (1947) Centenary Volume with a History of the Society, 1847-1947. Eason & Son, Dublin

Black, R.D.C. (1987) Measurement, Measures and the Millennium: The Society's Activities in a Long Perspective. JSSISI, Vol: XXV, Pt 5, pp 163-183.

Daly, M. E. (1997) The Spirit of Earnest Inquiry: The Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, 1847-1997. Institute of Public Administration, Dublin.

Daly, M.E. (1998) Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland. In Kennedy (1998)

Kennedy K.A. (Editor) (1998) From Famine to Feast: Economic and Social Change in Ireland, 1847-1947. Lectures on the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland. Institute of Public Administration, Dublin.

Millin, S.S. (1920) Historical Memoirs of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland. Ponsonby, Dublin.

SSISI Council (1881) What the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland has Effected (1847-1880). JSSISI, Vol. VIII, pp 146-153.

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