What is social history? In this introduction we refrain from offering an analytical and systematic concept of the discipline for two main reasons. The first is that this book is a collective endeavour and the authors whom we have gathered here reflect a variety of approaches and methods. We affirm and celebrate such plurality of voices, believing that there is much to learn from listening to one another, for the age of the ‘grand theories’ is happily over. The second reason is that, for us, social history – and particularly this book – is not a point of arrival, but a point of departure. It is open-ended, it is a programme, a springboard for the rewriting of the history of the Irish. It is methodologically eclectic, open to cognate disciplines (geography, sociology, demographics, economics), and, if not histoire totale, it is at least interested in grasping the totality of human experience in society. Its totalising quest of meaning is a project, rather than a narrative.
Why do we start with the central decades of the eighteenth century? Though any chronological starting point would be more or less arbitrary, 1740 is significant for Ireland's social and economic history because it marked the beginning of a devastating famine. It was a catastrophe. It is not as well remembered as the one which started in 1845, partly because it did not have any immediate or long-term political consequences and was never incorporated into the grand narrative of national struggle. However, it deeply affected large numbers of people in a more direct and drastic way than political events such as the 1800 Act of Union.
Irish historiography, whether ‘nationalist’, ‘revisionist’ or ‘post-revisionist’, has traditionally been dominated by a concern for political history, with a focus on the national question. To an extent, the latter has affected also the way historians have explored social and economic topics, for example by stimulating excellent research on the Great Famine, emigration and the Land Wars. While there has long been a parallel scholarly interest in less obviously ‘political’ issues – a tradition spearheaded by historians such as Connell, Cullen and Akenson – it is only in recent decades that there has been a substantial development in the study of a wider range of social and economic formations and phenomena.