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

Chapter Three

                   The Irish Economy

Summary of chapter. This chapter deal with the general aspects of the Irish economy in the first half of the nineteenth century. Most detailed studies of particular aspects of the economy are given in the succeeding chapters.

(i) General Observations

(ii) Geographical Aspects

(iii) Levels of Economic Development

(iv) Agricultural Regions

(v) Questions of Population

(vi) History of the Irish Economy

(vii) Overview of the Economy in 1800


(i) General Observations 

In a free market economy such as Ireland possessed a Government does not interfere in the decisions of individual farmers or manufacturers. Nevertheless it pays close attention to the state of the markets. Many aspects of the economy such as conditions of land tenure, banking and the availability of money and credit, freedom, ease and safety of commercial passage at home and abroad, the promotion or restriction of trade by means of tariffs, licenses, or monopolies, are matters for Government intervention and regulation. 

A developed economy is not essential for happiness or for the expressions of culture such as poetry and song. And indeed to this day there are those who advocate a simple 'rural life' based on the use of sustainable resources. But if a country wishes to allow its population to grow, to provide more and better housing, clothing, and food for it, to produce great works of art like cathedrals, to obtain luxuries from India and China, to eradicate illiteracy and provide more education for its people, to promote learning and science, to support artists and writers, to produce books and newspapers, to provide for informed political debate in a democratic society, to develop sport and leisure activities in place of drinking and brawling, and so forth, then the economy must be developed. Expenditure on health, education, poor relief, and policing expanded in the nineteenth century and the ever-expanding economy made the increases possible. 

The Irish economy is analysed in this book under the conventional headings of primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors, with financial institutions included in the tertiary sector. [Top] 

(ii) Geographical Aspects 

Ireland is situated on the margin of Europe, but across the main trade routes between Europe and much of America. There were therefore great hopes (and nationalist dreams) of developing Ireland into a great centre of commerce, hopes which were never realised. 

The island is 306 miles in length on its northeast-southwest axis, and 185 miles in breadth at its widest point. As measured by the Ordnance Survey it contained 20,808, 271 statute acres of which 630,825 were under water, 374, 482 were under woods and forests, 42,929 were in urban areas, 13,464,300 were cultivated, and 6,295,735 were waste and bog (Marmion). 

Physically the country is a worn-down uneven plateau mostly of carboniferous limestone between 150 and 300 feet (50 to 100 metres) above sealevel. The edge of the central plateau reaches close to the coast in most places. Most of the mountainous land, composed of still older harder rocks, rising to over 2000 feet lies along the coasts. Devonian sandstones with the east-west Armorican folding are found in the south. The north east-south west Caledonian folding prevails over the rest of Ireland and provides the basic grain of the country which rivers and routes must either follow or cross (Freeman). Ordovician and Silurian rocks are found along the east coast while very ancient metamorphic rocks prevail in the north-west. Granitic intrusions are found in various places, and there is a famous plateau of basalt in county Antrim 

Almost the whole of the country is covered with glacial drift or till, deep in some parts but shallow in others. In some places the drift has weathered to soils exceedingly fertile and suitable for ploughing; in other places the shallow soils over the moisture-soaked clays produce very good grass even in the driest seasons. The soils are often podzolic in structure, but acid brown soils are found in the east and boggy soils in the west. These soils promote the growth of bogs. In other places it is shallow, acid, and boggy (Bellamy). Boggy acidic soils required heavy dressings of limestone, which however is normally available locally except in parts of the west. In the early nineteenth century the high cost of road transport of bulky materials was an important factor. Quarrying and burning limestone were carried on almost everywhere.  

Surface drainage was often poor, and where the underlying rocks came close to the surface, almost impossible. In such places Ireland's famous boglands formed. Towards the north of Ireland the clay had been moulded into small steep-sided hills usually described as resembling the surface of a basket of eggs. This is the drumlin belt. Drainage, and so communications, was poor in this area, and it was one of the last in which agriculture improved. In the west the rainfall over much of the region is so high and leaching of the soil so great that bogs form the natural surface cover of even limestone soils provided the slope is not too great. Even in the far west much fertile land is to be found. Almost everywhere in Ireland drainage was of the utmost importance. Surface drains between plough ridges and lazybeds, undersoil drainage, and large-scale regional drainage were all important. Though the improving farmers in the nineteenth century studied the literature produced in England and Scotland they had to experiment themselves to see what worked best in the wetter cloudier conditions in Ireland. 

In some areas west of the Shannon the drift was thin over the porous limestone rock and provided excellent grazing for sheep. They corresponded in this respect to the chalk downs in England. In parts of the Midlands long gravel eskers stood above the bogs and formed routes for travel through the region. 

The rainfall is abundant, but the rivers tend to flow outwards towards the sea, and are mostly quite short. They may have insufficient water for navigation or power in dry summers (Freeman p.53). A much greater problem lies in the fact that they fall off the edge of the central plateau quite close to the coast, and so are of little use for navigation and commerce. On the other hand, as waterpower was developed, the swiftly flowing rivers provided many sites for mills near the coast. As steam power for factories was substituted coal was easily imported into the same areas. Ireland then tended to be more developed in the maritime counties than in the inland ones, a state of affairs that still persists. As roads, railways, and canals were built they all faced an initial steep climb inland from the coast for some miles. 

As Freeman (p48) notes the variability of the rainfall, especially excessive precipitation during the autumn in some years, impose restrictions on tillage. Potatoes, oats, and grass cope better with the climate than wheat or barley. Like most of Western Europe Ireland belongs climatically to the temperate Atlantic province whose natural covering is oak and birch forest. 

Climatically, Ireland was on the limit for the profitable cultivation of wheat, taking bad years with good. Indeed, it has been since the Middle Ages at the limit of profitable tillage. It was noted that the Anglo-Norman families occupied only those parts of Ireland suitable for their system of tillage. It was very suited for the production of grass. Up to 1845 the policies adopted by the Irish, English, and British Governments tended to produce an expansion in wheat production. The adoption of the principles of free trade in corn after 1845, the growth in the size of ships, and the development of the wheatlands in the colonies led to a decline in the production of wheat in the British Isles which continued until 1939. Since then both British and Irish governments have taken steps to reverse the trend. The reduction in the cultivation of wheat led in Ireland to a development of the more profitable production of cattle. There was a drawback in this. The production of fresh meat for markets in Britain was the most profitable crop on most Irish farms. But as the cattle were exported live to be slaughtered close to the markets, there was less corresponding development in the industries of slaughtering, curing, packing, coopering, tanning, leather goods, glue and soap manufacture, and so on, such as occurred around Chicago. All these industries were developed but not to the extent that they might have been.

Ireland proved to be poor in minerals. Considerable efforts were made to find them and to develop mining, but the pockets located were invariably small, and often exhausted by mid-century (Freeman).[Top] 

(iii) Levels of Economic Development 

There has been in recent years a controversy about the extent of the cash economy in Ireland in the early nineteenth century as contrasted with the subsistence economy. I prefer to see three levels of economic development. It should be noted that the divisions are not sharp but rather statistical and the distances goods for sale are transported to markets depend largely on the expected prices which can change. 

The first I call the commercial economy. This used cash and credit and depended on good means of communication. In 1800 it was therefore confined to the counties around the seacoast and as far inland as the short canals and stretches of navigable river extended. The region probably extended thirty or forty miles inland from a seaport. These ports were fairly numerous on the north and east coasts from Londonderry to Cork, but rare on the west and south coasts. On the latter stretch were Sligo, Westport, Galway, Limerick, and Tralee and around these improving landowners and merchants had developed trade. This involved producing a crop, usually wheat or flax, for export in bulk, and the consequent import of fuel, timber, raw sugar, wines, spirits and tobacco, and manufactured goods. Other cash crops were salted butter, salted meat, wool, and leather. Most goods for sale were still produced locally, but there was a quite extensive trade with distant places.  

Further inland was found what I would call the subsistence economy. The word subsistence can be taken generously to imply a reasonably abundant production of the necessaries of life, rough clothing, plain food, abundant but poor quality whiskey and beer, rough furniture, adequate but poorly finished housing. Farmers tended to be largely self-sufficient but there was still sale locally of barley for brewing, wool for weaving, or timber for housing. Markets were poorly developed. The owner of the brewery bought the barley; the owner of the sawmill bought and felled the trees. Some external trade in items like wool and butter was carried on to procure luxury goods like tobacco, tea, gin and rum, lace and other finery, and so on, especially for the upper classes. Rents could be paid in cash or kind. This sector covered most of the inland counties around 1800. 

The third sector may be called the cottier economy. It was to be found in the remoter parts of the west and south especially where subdivision of property was unchecked. Life was reduced to the barest essentials. Potatoes provided the bulk of the food. Sheep kept on wasteland provided coarse wool that was spun, woven and tailored into rough garments. Housing was provided on the wedding day for the young couple by cutting sods and building a mud cabin. Few attempts were made to improve (or even clean) the dwellings which resulted in accusations of laziness being made. Travellers were astonished at the extraordinary display of poverty, but it seems that as long as the potato lasted the population of the region was very happy and insouciant (IFJ 23 Mar 1822). Cottiers like these were to be found in every county in Ireland, but only in the far west and south did they form the bulk of the population. It was through these regions that travellers at the time of the Famine spoke of seeing endless plots of rotting potatoes. Later in the nineteenth century the cottier class was to acquire an almost mystical significance among the nationalists as the true custodians of the national Geist. But in the economic sense they were not typical of pre-Famine Ireland.

Those who wished to see social improvement in Ireland strove to extend the commercial sector by the construction of roads, canals and railways.[Top] 

(iv) Agricultural Regions 

This section deals less with the level of output than with its nature, but naturally where cash crops were being produced trade was greater, cash more abundant, and imports more widespread.

  The statistician Wakefield, early in the nineteenth century, tried to determine and describe the agricultural regions of Ireland. The material supplied to him by his correspondents was not always complete or accurate. However, taking into account the need for water transport in the 'commercial sector' and the somewhat limited use of the pack-pony in the 'subsistence sector' we can determine the chief agricultural regions with more accuracy. 

With regard to the transport of goods the following figures should be kept in mind. A pack-pony could carry an eighth of a ton on its back, a draught-horse could haul five eighths of a ton on soft ground and two tons on Macadamised roads. A horse towing a barge on a river could pull thirty tons, and on canals fifty tons. The conditions set for the Rainhill trials of steam locomotives in 1829 were to haul loads of between fifteen and twenty tons at ten miles an hour on the flat. Soon locomotives were hauling loads of over thirty tons at end-to-end speeds of fifteen miles an hour up and down gradients. 

The droving or driving of live cattle over long distances was feasible in some circumstances. In Scotland and America the cattle could graze on the wayside but this was less practicable in Ireland. Besides the drovers' costs there was also the fact that the animals lost considerable weight. Consequently they were driven to the fatteners not the packers. 

Until the Grand Canal reached the Shannon from Dublin in 1804 almost all trade was perpendicular to the coasts for Ireland lacked navigable rivers. An outlet to the sea was important for inland chieftains and it has often been noted that all Irish dioceses touch the sea or navigable inlet at some point. 

These regions were those in existence at the beginning of the century but were being progressively modified with every improvement in transport. The fully developed road, rail, and water transport systems in the twentieth century were to produce the different regions described by Freeman. 

The first clearly distinguishable agricultural region was Ulster (in a wide sense). This was bounded on the south by a line running from Drogheda on the east coast to Westport on the opposite coast but curving northwards through Cavan or Monaghan. This was the great region of flax cultivation and of the linen cottage industry. During the course of the nineteenth century the region of flax cultivation gradually contracted towards Belfast and Londonderry. The seaports of Louth, Sligo, and Mayo ceased to be linen and flaxseed ports. Spade cultivation was universal in the region, and the standard of agriculture was the lowest in Ireland. Even as late as 1850 the prevalence of weeds in parts of Ulster was said to equal that in Connaught. But even early in the century there were signs of agricultural improvement and in places Ulster farmers were regarded as equal to the best Scottish farmers. As flax growing contracted towards the eastern part of Ulster mixed farming developed around Londonderry, resulting in a growing export of agricultural produce through that port. The region as a whole was prosperous and the economy based on cash. But because of the dense population in the region and the small size of the holdings most of the population was very poor. Because it was a cash economy it was less affected by the failure of the potato. 

South of this region, on the east coast, was the wheat-growing belt. The cultivation of wheat on a large scale for export requires water-borne transport. The region extended along the coast, and inland for some distance along the rivers Boyne, Barrow, Nore, and Suir, and along the two canals from Dublin. Most of the soils in this region are suitable for tillage. In the eighteenth century Meath, Westmeath, and Kildare were considered the great corn-growing counties. In 1819 two thirds of the cereals sold in the Dublin markets came from this region. 

This region extended itself inland especially across north Munster towards Limerick up to the Famine as roads and water-transport improved. It was the region of the improved river navigations and canals. It was also the region of the great water-powered mills for flour. Co-incidentally, it was also the great mining region of Ireland, a fact that also contributed to the development of the canals. 

The next region was east Munster centred on the city of Cork. It was the region of fat livestock, and Cork city was the centre of the provisions trade. Cattle were kept both for butter and meat; pigs were kept for pork. Mutton could not be salted satisfactorily, so the numbers of sheep were not great. Like the preceding region this one also expanded westward and by mid-century included the fertile soils around Limerick. In the immediate vicinities of the cities of Dublin and Cork were farms where livestock was held for fattening. This region was to become perhaps even more prosperous than the preceding. 

All through the Midlands east of the Shannon and extending as far as towns like Bantry in West Cork was the butter-producing region. Butter, like wool and linen yarn, could be fairly easily carried on pony-back, but as I noted earlier I prefer to place this region in the area of the 'subsistence economy' as the butter produced for the market was only a fraction of total produce for local needs. (The same observation can be made regarding the production of linen yarn in Mayo and Sligo.) The best butter in Ireland was said to come from Carlow. A certain amount of wool for market was also produced in this region and there was a market or fair for woollen yarn at Mullingar. As noted earlier improved transport caused the spread of tillage into the region, and in the post-Famine period it became famous for its fat cattle. 

West of the Shannon on the great limestone plains of east Connaught was the region of sheep-rearing, or of sheepwalks as the sheep farms were called. The focus of the plains was at Ballinasloe, and at the great fair of Ballinasloe, one of the greatest in Ireland, up to 80,000 sheep might be sold annually. Until the middle of the nineteenth century most Irish sheep were kept on the lowlands. There was clearly are large amount of cash in the economy of eastern Connaught. Sales of black cattle were much less, around seven or eight thousand. It was noted that little butter was made in Connaught (IFJ 5 Oct 1822). Naturally Ballinasloe was made a terminal point for the Grand Canal extension.  

The keeping of sheep on the Wicklow Mountains was noted as an exception. It was more usual in Ireland and Scotland to run the cattle on the mountains in the summer. It was the Marquis of Stafford who showed conclusively that sheep would be more profitable. The promoters of tillage wished to see the end of both the sheepwalks and the export of live cattle. For this reason too they wished to see the canals developed. 

The prosperity of Connaught seems to have reached its height during the Napoleonic Wars. Later, the linen industry failed, and the east coast woollen manufacturers preferred to import better quality wool from England. Nor did the steamships stimulate the production of poultry as happened in other areas. The Government was well aware of this economic decline in Connaught, accompanied as it was by an enormous growth of the cottier class. Immense sums were spent developing roads, harbours, and waterways, as we will see in a later section. But the result was that when the potato failed Connaught, unlike Ulster, was scarcely able to cope with those seeking relief, even if there had been the will locally to make the attempt. The bitter diatribes of Archbishop MacHale must be seen against the background of a failing regional economy. 

In the residual areas along the western and southern coasts there are extensive tracts of mountains and bogs, but there is also much good land and fertile soils. Farming therefore was either of the subsistence kind or the cottier kind, as described earlier, the production of crops for market being slight. 

Where there was a reasonable proportion of good soils and a mix of large and small farms a fair degree of prosperity was obtainable. In Kerry, for example, where there were many resident gentlemen, and subdivision was less rife, and all pulled together to administer famine relief, the effects of the Famine were much less severe than in neighbouring areas in south Cork and county Clare. From figures given by Marmion we can conclude that small ports in this region like Tralee and Skibbereen cleared inwards and outwards (presumably the same ships) about one vessel of between 200 and 300 tons on most days of the year in the 1840's. This tonnage was about a fifth or a sixth of that of Drogheda or Dundalk that were themselves secondary east-coast ports. 

In these southern and western counties, in what were later known as the congested districts there were enormous concentrations of cottiers. Many of these concentrations were on reclaimed bogs, reclaimed perhaps by squatters in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But some of the most notorious concentrations of cottiers were on fertile lands in county Limerick where subdivision had been unchecked for several generations. On a county by county comparison it would seem that Clare had the highest proportion cottiers to the total population at the outbreak of the Famine. (The most densely populated county of all, Armagh with its linen industry, could be counted as semi-industrialised.) [Top] 

(v) Questions of Population 

There was not the slightest prohibition in Ireland against anyone marrying and having as many children as they wished. A man had no need to seek permission of his lord, or his clergyman, or to show that he could support a family. When the potato was introduced any boy who could get a small patch of ground on which to grow potatoes went and got married.  

Very little is known about the demographic patterns in Ireland before the Famine apart from the broad outlines of total growth of the population. We have little idea of the total number of births, marriages, and deaths, or the extent of emigration. We do not know which classes were expanding most rapidly. We do not know if the growth of the poorest classes resulted from natural increase within them or from the impoverishment of wealthier classes. The poorest classes undoubtedly grew numerically, but we do not know if they were increasing as a proportion of the population. Was there social mobility between classes? If a small tenant farmer, for example, became impoverished, did he become a cottier, or a beggar, or did he normally emigrate? We know little of the dynamics of the population in pre-Famine Ireland. 

It should be noted that despite the enormous increase in population the Gross National Product per capita and therefore the standard of living was slowly but surely increasing. There was great improvement in agriculture and development of trade. The number and frequency of markets increased and market towns developed out of hamlets. Roads were improved and bridges built. Observers noted that the poorer classes were better clad and shod than in the previous century, and more houses had chimneys and windows. During the Famine itself it was not the shortage of food but the breakdown of organisation which caused the huge mortality.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Rev. Thomas Malthus began to express concern about the unprecedented growth of population occurring in Europe. His theory was that if no attempt was made to curb the unrestricted growth the population would grow in geometric progression (1,2,4,8,) while the reclamation of waste land could only proceed in arithmetic progression (1,2,3,4,). Therefore the population was bound to increase to a point where everyone starved to death. The remedy he proposed, and indeed practised in his own case, was that nobody should get married until he had the means of supporting a family. There was much common sense in this though it was easy to pick holes in the theory in detail. One could point to the possibility of developing manufactures to pay for agricultural imports, the reclamation of waste lands, and improvements in agriculture, such as the production of artificial fertilisers. 

The Catholic priests and bishops made no attempt to counsel prudence in marrying, and the clergy of all denominations felt it shameful to preach any kind of restrictions regarding the procreation of children. But an MP in 1818 called the potato 'the curse of Ireland' for it allowed people to marry and bring up families who had no land, no trade, no employment, no capital, and no skills (IFJ 9 May 1818). 

Greater densities of population were found elsewhere in Europe. The land, if properly cultivated, could have supported a much denser population. The subdivision of lands into tiny holding militated against proper improvements through drainage and weeding and it was considered that the fertility of the potato patches was only a quarter of that of the nearby improved lands in the landlord's demesne. (Curiously, in the mid-twentieth century the Irish sugar company found a similar disparity between the best and worst producers supplied with the same seed.) As many felt at the time, if the subdivision was ended, and the consolidated holdings were given to the better farmers who would employ the others as farm labourers, a much higher standard of living would be obtained by all. But that would have involved loss of status for very many. 

Even in the Partry Mountains in Mayo where cottier settlements were most dense, and potato-culture most intense, there was still abundant bogland to be reclaimed. Had the peasants sown more vegetables, cabbage, carrots, turnips, peas, beans, barley and oats, kept more sheep on the hills, and organised fishing on a larger scale, the Famine would never have occurred. 

When the potato failed the problem of feeding the people was not insoluble even in the regions of the most intense cottier cultivation, as the example of Scotland shows. But the organisation of famine relief broke down in many places in Ireland. What seems to have triggered the crisis was the flight of the wealthier rate-payers who sold their land and stock and carried off the rents and rates to America. With no Poor Rate being collected, no work provided, and no food distributed in several Poor Law Unions the very poorest crowded into the towns and the lethal fevers spread rapidly among them and among the population at large (James).

The strange thing is that after the Famine the people in rural Ireland spontaneously set about controlling population growth by delaying marriage until a holding of land was actually obtained, or by the enforced celibacy or emigration of those who could not get a job or a piece of land. 

The greatest densities of population were to be found in Ulster, but this was explained by the extensive cultivation of flax. As this was a cash crop with a good return it was possible, even with subdivision, to maintain a reasonable standard of living. Despite its great density of population Ulster suffered comparatively little from the Famine and relief of the poor was always within the means of the Poor Law Unions. The comparable densities along much of the western seaboard were the result of the spread of the cottier culture. In most of Leinster and Munster, farm sizes were mixed, with the large farms interspersed with smaller farms, and cottier holdings. There was little difficulty about providing famine relief in these areas, unless there was local neglect, which happened on occasion. From 1820 onwards many landowners were enforcing the clauses against subdivision in their leases and consolidating the holdings; from this time the rate of population growth began to slacken. 

Immigration, especially from Scotland, was important in the seventeenth century, but in the following centuries was negligible. Emigration began in the eighteenth century that has continued to this day. Though the emigration of Protestants from Ulster to the Americas was the cause of much concern. Blame was placed on absentee landlords, rackrenting, tithes, the lack of tillage, the underdeveloped manufactures, excessive imports, restrictions on trade, the Hearth Money Tax, short leases, or leases with restrictive covenants. (This list of complaints was to be adopted by the Catholic nationalists over a century later in their campaign against the Protestant landowners who controlled Parliament. It would be interesting to establish in what century the list originated.) Though the greatest concern was expressed over the emigration of Protestants from Ulster, it would seem that there was also an extensive emigration of Catholics from Munster to France and other Catholic countries. The really massive outflow had to await the arrival of the steamship. 

An estimate of the population of Ireland in 1732 put it at 2 millions. Another in 1762, assuming five persons to the household, put it at two and a quarter millions. Dr Beaufort, the Rector of Collon, and scientific adviser to John Foster of Collon the Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer, made an estimate of the population of Ireland in 1791, assuming an average of six persons per household including servants, and arrived at a figure of 4,000,000. In 1805 Newenham estimated the population to be 5,395,000. From the incomplete returns of 1813 a figure of 5,938,000 was arrived at. Shaw Mason's census in 1821 produced a figure of 6,801,000 and that of 1831 a figure of 7,967,000. The highest figure ever recorded was in 1841 and that was 8,175,000. The figure in 1851 was 6,552,000. Inspection of the figures and the drawing of graphs leave undetermined whether the highest actual figure was before or after 1841. So the exact population of Ireland at the outbreak of the Famine remains unknown. 

The first proper census of Ireland was taken in 1821. Because of the disturbed state of the country Ireland was excluded from the first British census in 1801, and again, for no good reason, in 1811. Sir John Newport insisted on an Irish census and the enumeration was entrusted to the baronial constabulary, such as it was then, in 1813, but was never completed. In 1821 the census was entrusted to an able statistician, William Shaw Mason, who made the most elaborate preparations, but had to rely on enumerators recruited for the purpose. For various reasons few people were satisfied with the accuracy of any of the pre-Famine censuses. The actual errors would not have been great, perhaps not more than 10,000 out in either direction, but such inaccuracy makes fine calculations impossible. 

The most significant demographic event was the Great Famine. Its onset marked various watersheds but whether it caused them cannot be proved. About this time the population began to decline, and unlike earlier declines proved irreversible. In many parts of Ireland the age of marriage rose, as did the proportion of the population that never married. There was still a huge excess of births over deaths. Emigration became a notable social fact, but may rather have been caused by steamship travel and the opening of new lands to settlers. Increased agricultural exports, a switch to more profitable livestock, and a fall in the population, combined to raise the per capita income.

The actual number of recorded deaths from starvation was relatively small, being of the order of about 20,000 out of the 500,000 actual deaths. This half million includes those who would probably have died of natural causes in any case. Most of the deaths were recorded as being from fever. In a way this was academic for fever attacked those weakened by hunger. But it also attacked those of the richer classes who were normally sheltered from fever and had less resistance to it. It is estimated that between 1841 and 1851 at least 1,000,000 people emigrated (Edwards and Williams). 

Quite early on in the Famine Archbishop MacHale announced that from reports reaching him from his priests he had concluded that already two million people were dead and called for a Government enquiry. His diocese was admittedly hard hit but his statement provoked a not unmerited retort in a Protestant newspaper. MacHale was compared to the Yorkshire man who said to the Quaker 'This is the road to York, is it not?' To which the Quaker replied, 'Friend. first thou tellest a lie, and then thou askest a question'. MacHale's preliminary estimate has stuck in the nationalist consciousness ever since, a sure sign that they blame the British Government and not themselves for the calamity. (It could be argued that if MacHale and the Catholic clergy had fully co-operated with the Protestant landlords and clergy and saw that the Poor Rate was collected, and denounced those of his flock who fled to America to save themselves, there would have been no Famine.) 

Exact figures for anything concerning the population trends are hard to find, but if we take it as roughly correct that there were half a million deaths from famine and fever out of a population of eight million then a mortality rate of about 6% can be attributed to the failure of the potato. 

It is often noted that the Great Famine virtually wiped out the cottier class, but this is only a statistical figure arrived at by counting the number of tiny holdings in 1841 and 1851. We have no idea what proportion of the cottiers died, what proportion emigrated, and what proportion ceased to be cottiers by taking over the holdings of those who had fled.

The Great Famine has been such an emotive issue in Ireland with a desire to apportion blame elsewhere so prominent, that it is only in recent years that historians are beginning to approach the questions with professional detachment. But very much detailed research at the level of parishes and Poor Law Unions must first be done before definite conclusions can be reached. [Top] 

(vi) History of the Irish Economy 

In the earliest times Ireland, like much of northern Europe, had a forest economy, with considerable herds of cattle, some tillage around the homesteads, and an export trade of forest products like furs and hides in exchange for luxuries like wines. This latter was for the benefit of the ruling classes only. 

In the Middle Ages there were two main economic regions, one based on plough-tillage largely under the control of the Anglo-Norman families, and the other based on cattle rearing still under the Gaelic-speaking chiefs. Productivity was much higher in the tilled areas, and so the value of the lands. Much of the Middle Ages was passed in a struggle by the heirs of the old Gaelic ruling families to recover these now more valuable lands. As the Middle Ages advanced tillage, even of cash crops like linen, seems to have spread into Gaelic-speaking parts. 

Ireland was racked by wars during the Middle Ages and failed to develop an extensive foreign trade. Likewise, at the time of the Renaissance it failed to found trading colonies of its own (and develop a navy to protect them.) It was excluded from trading with other people's colonies, as was the rule, and when, in the seventeenth century it tried to develop its commerce it was blocked by the mercantilist policies of other countries. Wool had been the great staple of trade in the later Middle Ages, and Ireland too tried to develop an export trade in wool. Her belated attempt to undercut the English merchants was naturally fiercely resented by them. In the fifteenth century (20 Henry VI) the English Parliament claimed the right to regulate Irish exports and shipping. Flax began to be cultivated with a view to the export of linen yarn. Imports now tended to be manufactured goods. 

When tribal warfare was stamped out in the early seventeenth century, the economy under the guidance of the Earl of Strafford began to grow. Strafford himself tried to establish direct trade with Spain but the trading ship he sent out was not profitable. Others later developed this trade. There was a setback caused by the English civil war in which the Irish involved themselves. After the Restoration trade began to revive again until the English Navigation Acts and protests by English wool and cattle merchants again caused restrictions on growth. The English markets were always the easiest for Irish merchants to break into. 

The second half of the seventeenth century brought an unexpected benefit to the Irish economy. The wars and consequent confiscations of land resulted in the clearing off the land of great numbers of swordsmen with their hangers-on, the priests and poets. (This benefited religion as well.) The lands were properly surveyed and the new owners given definite legal titles to their estates. Old complications regarding rights and obligations were swept away. Whatever about the political justice or wisdom of the confiscations the result was that the new owners had clear titles to their land and could let farmland also with clear titles and leases. 

William III was asked to adjudicate between his two kingdoms, and he allowed the English exclusive freedom to develop their woollen trade while the Irish were allowed exclusively to develop the linen trade. Many Irish patriots felt that they had obtained the worst of the bargain especially as Irish wool was being smuggled into France in return for smuggled wine. Nor did the development of the linen industry prove as easy as was expected for the Belgians and Dutch were constantly refining and developing their techniques. Some Huguenots who fled from France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes were invited to Ireland to establish the industry on modern lines, but not until the mid-eighteenth century did the Irish industry manage to reach the level of that in the Low Countries. 

Virtual free trade was established with Britain by a series of Acts passed by Lord North in 1780 that removed Ireland from the restrictions of the Navigation Acts. Each country was allowed still to impose selective tariffs against imports from the other, and the system remained in force for many years after the Act of Union. Ireland was allowed to trade freely with any country that did not impose restrictions on her, and also with British colonies, except those reserved to the East India Company. Ireland could send only one shipload of goods each year to these latter, but only in the Company's ships, which made the trade unprofitable. Ireland was not included in the Asiento and so could not trade with the Spanish colonies. In general, no country allowed outsiders to trade with its colonies, so the benefit of being able to trade with the British colonies was an important one. It was however included in the Methuen Treaty with Portugal. 

William Pitt wished to extend the principle of free trade between the two islands, but his 'Commercial Propositions' were rejected by the Irish Parliament in 1785. The Act of Union (1800) had little to add to Lord North's concessions, except to provide for the gradual phasing out of tariffs and other restrictions. [Top] 

(vii) Overview of the Economy in 1800 

As we have seen, the commercial development of the Irish economy may be said to have commenced with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. From then onwards there was a sustained attempt to produce goods like wool, fresh and salted meat, and linen, for export in order to purchase a wide range of foreign products. 

Through the eighteenth century extensive efforts were made to improve all branches of agriculture. A Society, the Dublin Society, had been formed about 1730 to study all aspects of Irish agriculture and industry, and to advise the Government and individuals. The latest techniques in the growing of flax and the production of linen on the Continent, for example, were studied, and published for the benefit of Irish producers. Competition in the European linen industry was intense, but by 1800 linen producers in northern Ireland had forced themselves into the first rank. The same cannot be said of the woollen industry. Though in theory production of wool was confined to what was needed in the country, yet the domestic market was, by European standards, quite large. Considerable efforts were made to produce fine wool and fine cloth, but by 1800 they still could not compete with English broadcloths and the like. From early in the eighteenth century close attention was paid to experiments in neighbouring Britain, and improved breeds of animals like horses and cows were imported. By the year 1800 in much of eastern Ireland the quality of livestock was not inferior to that in Britain. 

By 1800 those engaged in farming and industry particularly in the eastern half of the island had become orientated towards markets and exports. The cash income to farms had increased, rents were put up, leases were granted for shorter periods, and many landowners turned towards improvement. 

In manufacturing and commerce the same close attention had been paid to trends in Britain and on the Continent. In most cases, every new invention in England was pirated and copied in Ireland within very few years.  

Improvement of transport had been another priority. From early in the 18th century the improvement of waterways was studied, and Ireland has reasonable claims to have constructed the first long-distance commercial canal in the British Isles. Attention too had been paid to the improvement of roads. The turnpike or toll-booth system had been accepted for long-distance roads, while the medieval system of forced labour to maintain local roads was ended and their care had been entrusted to the county Grand Juries. Stagecoach services had been introduced between the principal towns early in the century. But the state of even improved roads did not permit high-speed travel with galloping horses, corners being too sharp, bridges absent or unsuitable, and surfaces uneven. They were adequate for pack ponies and light carts. Manufacturing and food processing industries on a considerable scale had arisen along the eastern roads and waterways especially. 

Banking services too had originated in the first part of the eighteenth century. Ireland's dependency on foreign gold coins like the Louis d'or or moidore had disappeared by 1800 and banknotes or letters of credit and banknotes had taken their place, and for the most part proved satisfactory.  

In common with other countries Ireland early in the eighteenth century had accepted the mercantilist theory of economics. But this fallacy was noted as early as 1737 in the Dublin Newsletter where it was observed that countries with gold and silver mines like Spain and Peru were poor, whereas countries with industries like England and Holland are rich. It was gradually realised that a small country like Ireland could only lose in a tariff war with other countries, and that it needed to belong to a larger free trade area. Many groups which had been protected protested strongly especially in Dublin. (Nationalists maintained their belief in the effectiveness of tariffs to promote prosperity, but time was to demonstrate the fallacy and Ireland was forced to join the European Community.) 

Economic development was far from even over the island in 1800, and the unevenness is only partly explained by geographical factors. Naturally those parts of the island nearest the coasts, with reasonably good roads or with water transport and fertile soils, had the best chance of prosperity. We find, in fact, that a strip of land all along the east coast could be considered reasonably industrialised by contemporary standards. Yet the linen industry was established in north Connaught on the western coast, and despite all the efforts of the Government and the Dublin Society it failed to take root in Leinster and Munster. For the most part the inland counties were unaffected by improvements in agriculture and by the growth of manufactures. Education or lack of it may have had something to do with this. So too may the presence or absence of written and spoken English. The groups which were rooted in the past and the least affected by the spirit of improvement were the cottiers on the west coast. 

From about 1770, Ireland, like most other European countries had experienced a surge in population. But its density of population was not excessive and it always produced enough food to feed its population. There was dependence by the poor, as in most parts of western Europe, on the potato for sustenance at least during part of the year. During the Great Famine, following the partial failure of the potato crop, it proved necessary to provide food for at least three eighths of the population. The danger that this might happen was obvious to many in the middle and upper classes. Reforms such as, for example, the provision for universal primary education had the social and economic welfare of the children in mind.

In most sections of Irish society from 1800 onwards there was evidence of a determination to improve in all kinds of ways, in industry, agriculture, transport, education, the penal system, the Christian manner of life, the organisation of society. To a very considerable extent these efforts were successful. By the year 1850 large parts of Ireland could be counted as one of the most advanced economies in Europe and the world. Attention in the past has often been so focussed on those parts of Ireland which were backward that the prosperity (by contemporary standards) of the rest of the country was overlooked. 

In the following chapters the various aspects of the Irish economy will be examined in detail.



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