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Social Authority and the Urban Environment in Nineteenth Century Cork

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The history of nineteenth-century Ireland has traditionally been understood in terms of resistance to state coercion imposed ‘at the point of a bayonet’. This thesis offers an alternative approach by shifting focus away from metropolitan centres of power (Westminster, Dublin Castle) and the state's formal apparatus, toward an understanding of power as environmentally constructed. Using the case of Cork, the thesis traces the emergence of a non-sectarian ethos of urban ‘politeness’ rooted in middle-class reactions to the violent upheavals of the 1790s. Here, I argue a range of new public spaces emerged to ‘moralise’ the masses, anticipating state legislation by decades. In chapters on the spread of time-keeping technology and the reform of market spaces, the thesis argues effective authority inhered as much in clocks and weights as ‘at the point of a bayonet’.

The corresponding rise of the ‘private sphere’, materialising the ideology of ‘separate spheres’ in the city’s first suburbs, provided an alternative pole of moral reform. Here, the invisible agency of pipes and sewers helped to privatize the burden of ‘healthy living’, severing the link between poverty and disease long before ‘Famine fever’ ravaged the city. And when it hit, John Stuart Mill was not alone in dreaming of a ‘tabula rasa’; the ‘Father of Temperance’ Theobald Mathew and his allies expressed precisely this view, ‘feminizing’ the catastrophe as a moment to ‘cleanse’ the city of morally ‘diseased’ prostitutes. Free from such ‘contamination’, new spaces devoted to recreation – parks, theatres, and racecourses – were engineered as arenas ‘free’ from state oversight, with citizens instead positioned to survey one another. The thesis concludes with a call to reinterpret resistance to the state in terms of the ‘rule of freedom’ as much as that of force.

The seven chapters and conclusion of the thesis are divided into three parts: ‘The Polite City’, ‘The Purified City’ and ‘The Liberal City’. These overarching themes provide a framework to the chronological and thematic development of the thesis as a whole. The first three chapters explore the rising ethos of ‘politeness’ as an ‘improving’ ideology which sought to engineer certain forms of conduct – domestic, social, and commercial – into the fabric of everyday urban life. Crucial to this was the notion of non-coercive governance aimed at securing ‘the right disposition of things, arranged … to a convenient end’. ‘The Purified City’ explores ways in which the Famine helped to ‘naturalise’ the alienation of certain classes of deviant from the ‘social body’ of the urban community. ‘The Liberal City’ looks at how mid-Victorian city also invited the consent of the governed by creating spaces where citizenship could be performed in acts of leisure and recreation. It was in this sense that fin de siècle cultural nationalists saw the greatest threat to a revival of Irish popular culture as arising not from police stations or military barracks, but from the respectable world of suburban ‘politeness’.





Biagini, Eugenio


Authority, Governmentality, Ireland, Cork, Enviornment, elites, Urban


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge