The Spatial Politics of Agriculture & Energy in Robert Kane's Industrial Resources of Ireland (1844)

James Stafford (Columbia U)


Robert Kane’s Industrial Resources of Ireland (1844; 2nd edn. 1845) was a scientific bestseller in nineteenth-century Ireland: a sprawling analysis of the island’s geology and topography, alongside the chemical properties and technological potential of its coal, turf, lakes, rivers, tides, soils and metal ores. This paper offers a new reading of Kane’s Industrial Resources  as a work of nationalist political economy. Kane used his geological and chemical expertise to challenge a contemporary near-consensus that Ireland was both overpopulated and–due to its comparative lack of flammable coals–incapable of ‘industrial’ development. Central to his argument was a set of geographical claims about the superiority of pre-Famine Ireland’s dense and even pattern of agrarian settlement, as compared to the rural depopulation and rapid urban expansion of early Victorian Britain. Kane’s work is suggestive of the neglected, but significant, role played by the natural sciences in the history of Irish political economy; and of Ireland’s importance to what Pierre Charbonnier has recently termed the ‘environmental history of political ideas’.

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Biographical Note

James Stafford (Columbia University)

James Stafford is a political and intellectual historian of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe.

His first book, The Case of Ireland: Commerce, Empire and the European Order, 1776-1848 (Cambridge, 2022), offers a fresh account of Ireland’s place in European debates about commerce and empire during a global era of war and revolution. Drawing on a broad range of writings from merchants, agrarian improvers, philosophers, politicians and revolutionaries across Europe, the book shows how Ireland became a field of conflict and projection between rival systems of political economy, associated with the warring empires of Britain and France.

Current research interests include the ‘system’ of bilateral free-trade treaties constructed by Britain, France and other European states in the 1860s and 1870s, as well as the politics of energy and natural resources in nineteenth-century Ireland.

He co-convenes the University Seminar in Modern British History, and is also a member of the New York-Cambridge Training Collaboration in Twentieth-Century British History (NYCTC). He is a contributing editor for Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy.