© Irish Journal of Sociology. The dominant perception is that Irish society has responded to the current economic crisis in a relatively muted, moderate and passive fashion. How can we explain this apparent absence of political contestation or protest in Irish civil society? Various cultural and historical explanations can partially explain this apparent passivity; the approach here complements these explanations by exploring the institutional nature of the Irish state as an explanatory factor for the nature of the Irish civil society response to the crisis. Having first defined civil society and explored the scale and scope of Irish civil society, the article focuses on whether, or to what extent, the relative absence of a progressive civil society or movements can be partially attributed to the institutional nature of the Irish state. Five institutional or state-centred rationales are offered: the populist nature of Irish political parties; patterns of interest group formation; clientalism; corporatism; and state strategies to silence dissent. The impact on civil society of the increased marketisation of public goods is briefly discussed. The article argues that more critical awareness in civil society of how populist state institutions influence civil society will open up new possibilities for civil society strategies. It concludes by examining how institutions, interests and ideas might change. Society needs to develop a greater public sphere where cross-sectoral progressive alliances can demonstrate popular support for alternatives.