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Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright © 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter Ten

                     Secondary Sector: Factors of Production

Summary of chapter. Besides the agricultural sector the industrial sector was quite well developed in Ireland. In the towns on the East Coast it was on a par with similar towns in the north-east United States at the time. Machinery was becoming ever more important, and with it an accumulation of capital to finance development. The labour force of the period is described as well as combinations of workmen and trade unions.

(i) Power and Machinery

(ii) The Financing of Industry

(iii) Work and the Labour Force

(iv) The Guild System

(v) Combinations and Trade Unions


            The experience in Ireland of the Industrial Revolution was much the same as elsewhere in the world. Being close to England both geographically and politically meant that developments in that country were studied and rapidly copied so far as the different conditions in Ireland allowed.  

(i) Power and Machinery 

            Industry was concerned largely with the processing of food, drink, and clothing, though there were other industries. When a region was said to be 'industrialised' it meant that at least a 'cottage industry' was organised in it on the 'putting-out' basis, or that there were small water-powered mills or factories in it. Even at the beginning of the century Ulster was the most 'industrialised' part of Ireland in this sense. Most inland counties lacked an 'industry', i.e. they were not processing goods for sale outside their own borders. The 'industry' of Carlow in 1824 consisted of some breweries and tanneries (IFJ 20 Mar 1824).  

            Animal power was quite widely used to drive machinery and work pumps.     Waterpower was used extensively especially where the rivers fell off the central plateau near the coast. In Ulster one can still trace the remains of whole series of mills and factories along swift flowing stretches of river. Once constructed, a watermill could be used for different industrial purposes. At one time it could be used in the textile industry, at another in the manufacture of iron, or for paper-making process. As elsewhere in Europe the use of waterwheels in the textile industry, especially to lighten the very heavy work of fulling, was begun in the Middle Ages. Windmills were not nearly as common as watermills. The first large-scale factory in Ireland was a five-storey flourmill erected at Slane, Co. Meath, in 1763. 

             Steam had come at a relatively early date to Ireland for a Newcomen pumping engine was installed at a colliery in Queen's County as early as 1740. By 1850 it is likely that more factories were powered by steam than by waterpower, but waterwheels continued in use well into the twentieth century. The change-over to steam often, but not always, meant the abandonment of remote sites on rivers for more convenient locations in towns. As most fuel was imported this further concentrated industry on the coasts. 

            The introduction of machinery extended far beyond the bounds of the textile industry though we rightly associate the development of complex machinery with that industry. A machine is defined as an apparatus for applying mechanical power, consisting of inter-related parts, each having a definite function. It thus differs from the simple tool or implement. But the distinction is not always obvious in practice. For example a spinning wheel is clearly a machine, but the much larger weaver's loom is chiefly a frame and can hardly be called a machine until a mechanical interlinking of functions was achieved.  

            Implements like ploughs, wheeled carts, carriages, barges, etc. drawn by horses (or oxen) were not machines as defined, but were tools or implements harnessing animal power as opposed to human power. This harnessing of animal power, in the fields of tillage, transport, and even for driving machines, was an important part of development and is described under the appropriate headings, but it was not a development of machinery. The use of horses was to keep on increasing even after the introduction of steam and only declined when the light efficient internal combustion engine was perfected. 

            Both water and steam power could be used on the same site, the water providing the cheaper power, and the steam the more reliable power. Hence, when industry moved into the country to utilise the waterpower (and to take advantage of the cheaper wages, the absence of guild restrictions, and the strikes by members of combinations) it might stay on that site even after steam power was introduced. 

            Manufactory does not imply the use of machinery. One can have a factory filled with bootmakers or garmentmakers using only the simplest implements. The concentration of workers in factories was to some extent independent of the introduction of waterpower. The earliest cotton spinning and weaving factories antedated to use of the new machinery. The concentration of the spinners and weavers in a single building was preferred as it lessened pilfering. (A factory was originally the building where a factor or agent conducted the business of trade. A manufactory was where goods were manufactured. The terms have become confused.) 

            An advertisement for a woollen factory in 1783 listed a tuck mill, a gig mill, a dye house and a dry house as its components. Spinning was done in the cottages in the locality. Waterpower was presumably used for fulling. A cotton factory in Balbriggan at the same time is described as being a five-storey building with waterframes. 

            Industries, too, like the salting and packing of meat, brewing and distilling, or shipbuilding, as they grew in scale tended to be concentrated in large buildings or groups of buildings, though they were not called factories, as this term was restricted to places where goods were manufactured.  

            Early in the nineteenth century many of the manufacturing processes were seasonal. Slaughtering and meat-packing were naturally concentrated in the autumn and early winter. Brewing reached its peak shortly after the harvest. Spinning and weaving were naturally concentrated at the times of year when the raw material was ready, after the shearing of the sheep in summer, or after the flax was retted and prepared for the spinners. Waterpowered machines were liable to be short of water in summer. For this reason too it was felt advisable to site factories in rural areas where alternative work might be found. [Top] 

(ii) The Financing of Industry 

            As industry was being developed in the eighteenth century the usual way to raise capital was through the sale of debenture stocks.  The debenture bond was a loan at a fixed rate of interest and was a heavy charge on the companies. Towards the end of the eighteenth century those in charge of enterprises began to favour what are now called ordinary shares, which conferred voting rights, and entitled the shareholder not to a fixed income but to a share in the profits. In this way risk was spread as well as rewards. 

            Both kinds of shares could be bought and sold and this was often done through stockjobbers or stockbrokers. Sales of industrial shares were not common before the third or fourth decade of the century. 

            Individuals or partnerships carried on most enterprises and these raised money not by issuing shares but by borrowing from banks against the security of land. It was expected of great landowners that they should use their wealth productively for the benefit of the community by mining for minerals, reclaiming waste lands, constructing roads, quays, etc. and many of them did so. It was felt that in Ireland they did not do as much as their counterparts in England and Scotland. In the nineteenth century that the landed classes were among the foremost in promoting railways, usually taking the initiative to form local companies. But the ordinary small business such as was conducted by the masters of the guilds or in the newer industries like meatpacking and exporting were conducted not by the land-owning class but by the merchants. 

            In the eighteenth century almost everyone made a routine application either to the Irish Parliament or to the local county Grand Jury for assistance. Rumours of jobbery and malfeasance were so rife that in the following century both central and local governments were reluctant to advance public moneys except in extreme cases.[Top] 

(iii) Work and the Labour Force 

            Attempts to determine the amount of work done by an individual before 1850 are virtually meaningless. A self-employed person like a tailor, or an employed person, in industry or in domestic service might we expected to be present at work from dawn to dusk. On the other hand, in the eighteenth century especially absenteeism on Mondays, the 'feast of St. Monday' was rife. It does not follow that there was enough work to keep the workers continuously employed nor does it tell us the pace at which they worked, whether brisk or leisurely. In agricultural labour the pace probably varied with the time of year. In factories by 1850 machinery was becoming quite reliable, but with belt-driven machinery a belt was liable to fall off (and could be encouraged to fall off). In France the graphic word sabotage came from the application of wooden sabots to parts of machinery!  

            A 'swot' or 'sweat' was a piece-worker who worked hard to increase his earnings. But it would seem likely that from 1850 onwards the output of the 'swots' or 'sweats' became the norm for all, hence the term 'sweated labour' in our sense. How high a proportion of the workforce engaged in swotting or sweating before that is impossible to tell. The self-employed and those on piecework work harder for they have an immediate prospect of gain. When comparing working conditions over the last few centuries it is essential to recall that the speed of work was twice dramatically increased. The first was caused by the rise of 'swotting' or 'sweated labour' in the nineteenth century and the other was the introduction of 'Taylorism' and the 'production line' in the twentieth. But the adoption of these practices too was very uneven.  

            The population of Ireland was expanding rapidly and consequently the workforce was young and capable of great exertion where this was necessary or possible. In eastern Ireland there were many workers who possessed traditional skills and proved able to learn new ones. But in other parts of Ireland skills even in agriculture were notably lacking. Literacy too was uneven. By 1840 nearly 80% of the population of County Antrim, men and women, could read, while in Mayo scarcely a quarter of the population could do so. 

            There seems little doubt that the distribution of swotters or sweaters was similar. About 1820 an improving landlord, Mr Parnell of Avondale, noted that people of all walks of life in England worked harder than their counterparts in Ireland. Many observers at the time commented on the laziness of the Irish peasants and their total lack of care in their lazybed system of cultivation. Ladies and gentlemen, educationalists, and social improvers, deplored the fact that the Irishman would not clear the manure away from his doorstep, or his wife sweep the floor, make curtains for the windows, or mend her children's clothes. They, beginning with Arthur Young, stressed the obligation on the landowners to provide work, schools, etc. There was thus in attempts to develop education along with literary skills a theme of social improvement and the development of practical skills along with a moral emphasis on honesty, thrift and cleanliness. 

            Various people commented on the prevalence of petty dishonesty in every line of business. Watering the milk, pilfering yarn, adulterating flour or using bleach to whiten it, putting stones in bags of grain, keeping back some of the linen yarn, carefully concealing faults in horses, and fluffing out loads of hay, and even making tea from hawthorn leaves, were said to be common practices. 

            Over most of Ireland drinking alcohol does not seem to have been a major problem, if only because a weekly wage was rare. Even farm labourers might be paid only at the end of the quarter, or the end of the harvest, or their period of hire. But where cash was received regularly in small amounts, for example by fishermen or carmen, their proneness to spend it immediately on drink was noted. In the eighteenth century excessive drinking by all men who could afford it, and by many women, was taken for granted. But in the nineteenth century a new spirit began to spread, especially among the Protestants. Sobriety, industry, honesty, and truthfulness began to be esteemed. 

            The question therefore of the Protestant work-ethic arises. It is true that the area around Belfast, the most Protestant part of Ireland became the most developed and prosperous in the nineteenth century. But few conclusions can be drawn from this. Protestants were spread widely along the whole eastern coast especially in the towns and cities. Businesses, both manufacturing and commercial, were likely to be owned and managed by Protestants. Most of those engaged in medicine, the law, and in the printing and newspaper industries were Protestants. So it is difficult to attribute the outstripping of Cork by Belfast to the influence of religion alone. Also, when endeavour slackened in many fields in the second half of the century Protestants were still dominant in business and industry. Studies would need to be done to see if Protestants were more likely to save and to invest in capitalist enterprises rather than in land. Still it is hard to deny all influence to the Protestant emphasis on honesty, thrift, and industry. [Top] 

(iv) The Guild System 

            The organisation of industry and commerce in towns, and the development of towns themselves in the Middle Ages were bound up with the Guild System. Merchant guilds date from the 11th century and craft guilds from the 12th. The leading merchants in a town were given authority to regulate trade, and the leading masters in a trade or craft were empowered to regulate the affairs of that craft. Regulating a craft involved admitting new skilled tradesmen as masters, setting wages to be paid, and limiting the numbers of apprentices. Masters were referred to or addressed as Mister (Mr), but had not the title of esquire which belonged to those with rank of gentleman below the rank of knight. 

             In cities and 'corporate towns' the masters in the guilds were empowered to elect from among themselves a body called the town or city corporation which regulated the affairs of the town or city, and admitted new members to the freedom of the town, in effect allowing them to trade within the walls. Royal charter allowed them to have their own sheriff, and a chief executive officer called a mayor. This effectively exempted them from the jurisdiction of the local sheriff and the influence of the local noblemen. It was felt that these latter would stifle trade by excessive exactions, while the king wished towns, and especially seaports to develop, providing money, ships, and seamen in time of war. The building in which they met to decide affairs of trade or the town was called the Guild Hall. 

             A mayor, therefore, was chiefly concerned with the state of the markets in his town, checking weights and measures, the weight of bread, the freshness of fish, the cleanliness of the stalls, stamping out abuses like forestalling and regrating, licensing traders (or even strolling players and companies of comedians) and public cabs, fixing prices, especially that of bread, and the market tolls. In times of danger he repaired the city walls and acted as military governor. He might oversee the building of quays, bridges, and new streets, the deepening of the river channel or secure a supply of fresh water.  

            In the guild system in the skilled trades there were three grades of workers, the masters, the journeymen, and the apprentices. 

            The masters alone belonged to the guild or corporation of their trade. Each guild in a given city or corporate town provided itself with a building which was called, as the case might be, the Bakers' Hall or the Tailors' Hall. The authority of the Hall did not extend outside the limits of the city or town and the guilds in each town were totally unconnected with each other. Collectively the masters of each guild regulated their own branch of trade in their own city or town. They decided who was admitted to their guild (which was not the same as being made a freeman of the town). They set limits to the number of apprentices taken on. They set the wages of the journeymen and could raise or lower them to reward good workmanship or to punish idleness, but the journeymen could appeal to the mayor. At times they acted together to market their goods abroad, for example by chartering a ship for that purpose. Some of the master weavers were called undertakers apparently because they undertook to supply a specified quantity of cloth. This quantity could be obtained either from their own journeymen or from independent weavers in the countryside. The precise organisation of the weaving trade outside the towns is obscure. (Other aspects of the role of the guild masters in the town are dealt with under local government.)  

            Journeymen (from jour a day) were fully trained workmen employed by the masters. As their name implies they were free workmen, employed for periods of one or more days by the masters, fully skilled in the craft and so entitled to the full day's wage. They were not self-employed. They had contracts, legally binding on either side, for periods of service. The master could not summarily dismiss a workman, nor could he, without notice, either leave his master, or withdraw his labour. Combinations of journeymen to try to force up the price of their labour or to restrict the number of apprentices were forbidden by law. 

            Apprenticeship was the normal way of learning a trade or profession. A boy's father paid a sum to the master to teach the boy his trade. The master was bound to carefully instruct the boy, and the boy was bound to work for the master. The same principle was found in such professions as the study of law or medicine, and even, to some extent, in the navy. The quality of the instruction doubtless varied. When the apprentice had 'served his time' (up to seven years) he was given his 'ticket' as a qualified journeyman, and had to leave his master to seek work elsewhere unless his master happened to have a vacancy for him. 

            By the beginning of the nineteenth century the system had been weakened by many causes. As particular fairly simple skills like spinning and weaving were to be found more widely spread the 'putting out' system was developed. The raw materials were taken to workers outside the towns, and so outside the regulations of the guilds. (The country areas too were less likely to be affected by 'strikes' by members of combinations.) As new sources of power were developed, especially waterpower, mills and factories were built in the countryside. Even if new towns developed they did not necessarily get an old-style corporation. New industrial techniques might mean that complicated manufactures needing skilled craftsmen could, by the 'division of labour', be broken down into a series of simple actions which even children could do. (The manufacture of the ordinary pin is usually given as the classical example.) Masters, too, even in long established industries tended to employ unskilled labour for the simpler tasks, for example, using unskilled sawyers to saw logs into planks and deals, for use in the carpentry trade. As the scale of enterprises grew the accumulation of capital became much important, so that the 'capitalist adventurer' became more important than a master or guild of masters. Finally the Irish Municipal Corporations Reform Act (1840) abolished all powers of trade guilds to regulate trade in Ireland. (Regulatory powers given to other bodies by royal charter, such as the College of Surgeons or the Apothecaries' Hall were not affected.) [Top] 

(v) Combinations and Trade Unions 

            It is not easy in practice to distinguish these. Legally speaking one could say that associations of journeymen before 1824 were illegal and therefore were ‘combinations’ and legal after that and so were 'trade unions'. If one based the distinction on whether peaceful organisation and persuasion was used or intimidation and violence he would find that the former was also to be found before 1824 and the latter persisted after. As the trial of the so-called 'Tolpuddle Martyrs' in England in 1833 showed, a jury trial followed by a review by two Home Secretaries could not always distinguish the two in practice. 

            It is not clear when 'combinations' of journeymen were first organised in Ireland. Both canon and civil law in the Middle Ages had laws against 'conspiracy' i.e. a combination for any illegal purpose. Early in the eighteenth century it was felt necessary to pass special laws against combinations of workers. The regulation of trade was legally in the hands of the masters alone, and workmen felt they could get better terms for themselves by acting in concert. As such activity was illegal the members of a combination normally enforced an oath of secrecy. Combinations of workmen were specifically prohibited by an Act of 3rd George II (1730). A penalty of three months imprisonment was imposed for membership of a trade conspiracy or trade combination. A further statute, 17 George II made membership of a trade combination an unlawful assembly, and the members liable to the penalties for such. Towards the end of the eighteenth century assemblies of armed volunteers and of groups favouring the French Revolution made the Government and the masters even less favourably disposed towards combinations of workmen. There seems little doubt that journeymen in the linen industry in County Antrim were deeply involved in a plot to bring in the French in 1798. 

            Combinations (or protection rackets) existed also outside the guild system, notably among farm labourers, miners, and fishermen. Also there were groups who advocated the use of violence to secure independence for Ireland or the objectives of the Chartists side by side with other groups seeking the same ends by peaceful means.

            Journeymen shoemakers in Dublin formed a combination in 1794. They had a printed rulebook, so doubtless they intended their methods to be peaceful. Early in the next century the conversion of the old House of Commons into the Bank of Ireland was stopped by a combination of carpenters on strike. Sober industrious carpenters were brought over from Scotland to complete the work. The police raided the 'clubhouse' of the strikers and found their printed rulebook and the text of the oath they took. An Irish Act of 1799 forbade the administering of illegal oaths but not actual membership of an oath-bound society. This was rectified in 1823. (Presumably, before that date oath-bound societies like the Freemasons and the Orange Order had magistrates in their ranks to administer the oaths.) By their oath the journeymen bound themselves not to work for less than specified sums in specified areas, not to work with one who had no journeyman's ticket, and not to buy timber or other stuffs from one who employs a 'colt', i.e. one who had been punished by the members of the combination, or was not a member of the 'union'. . On the face of it these workmen were not employing violence or intimidation but were nevertheless sentenced by the Recorder of Dublin to terms of imprisonment not exceeding twelve months. In 1809 broadcloth weavers were given sentences of some months each. 

            However in 1801, at a different trial intimidation was alleged, and in 1802 journeymen tailors were convicted of assaults. The year 1822 saw widespread agrarian crime so it is no surprise to find violence being used by members of a 'trade union' in Cork. Those 'on strike' were paid nine shillings a week by the union from a forced levy from those still at work and from other sources. 

            Despite the law there was considerable sympathy for the view that journeymen ought to be allowed to combine against masters if masters combined against workmen provided no violence or intimidation was used. A Parliamentary committee chaired by Joseph Hume in 1824 reached the same conclusion. An Act permitting workmen to form trade unions was passed in 1824, but was followed immediately by a wave of strikes, and so had to be emended in 1826. Strikes with peaceful picketing were allowed so that strikers could persuade others to join them. All violence and intimidation was made illegal. A fortnight's notice of the intention to strike had to be given to enable the master to complete contracts already undertaken or to find alternative workers who would complete the contracts. 

            After 1826 the existing Irish unions seem to have taken on a legal existence and abolished the now illegal oaths. By 1845 most of the trades in Dublin had their own associations of operatives. But by that time too the guilds of masters had lost their regulatory power. It was an era of 'de-regulation', of the freeing of trade, and of rapid changes, and associations both of masters and journeymen had little power. 

            The trade union movement was not furthered in Ireland by an attempt, made chiefly by the unions in Dublin, to influence politics and to back O’Connell exclusively. (As O’Connell had virtually no support among Protestants we can conclude that these trade unionists were almost exclusively Catholics.) It was in 1830 when 'Political Unions' were being formed in England. In Ireland a National Political Union was formed composed of gentlemen and merchants, and a Trades Political Union composed of journeymen. The organiser of the latter was a man called John O'Brien who had been to America and had seen how unions acted there. It backed O’Connell in his petty quarrels with the Whigs, and even unwisely followed him by snubbing the Lord Lieutenant, the Marquis of Anglesey. This had the result that no express exclusion clause in favour of legitimate unions of workmen was inserted into the law suppressing O’Connell's associations. 

            The Trades Political Union revived when the law against O’Connell's associations lapsed, but then it did its own reputation no good by its campaign to get him elected in Dublin. He was duly elected but immediately a petition against the result was lodged. A large number of the votes cast for him were disallowed on the grounds of false registry, bribery, and intimidation. This was followed shortly afterwards by an outbreak of violence among trade unionists in Dublin. O’Connell's forthright condemnation of this violence led to a coolness between him and the unions. He was now relying more on the Catholic clergy and their relatives in rural constituencies. The unions themselves were growing disenchanted with John O’Brien's leadership and he fades from the scene. 

By 1845 the trade unions had concluded that they had been led into a blind alley by O'Brien. Another association called the 'Association of Regular Trades' was formed, and it confined itself to the immediate concerns of its members. A newspaper for trade unionists called The Dublin Argus was started in 1845. 

            In 1863 another attempt was made to unite the unions in Dublin, and the United Trades Association of Dublin was formed not merely to promote the interests of its members but Irish trade in general. Irish unions in the second half of the century tended to associate themselves with their opposite numbers in Britain and to accept the authority of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) when it was established in 1868. For the moment at least the claims of workers were regarded as more important than the claims of nationalism. An Irish Trade Union Congress was formed in 1894. The uniting of the labour and nationalist movements in the twentieth century was the aim of James Connolly, and once again the workers emerged the losers in the agreement.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.