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

Chapter Six


Summary of chapter. The internal trade and its mechanisms, as well as foreign trade are here described.

(i) Internal Trade: Fairs, Markets, and Shops

(ii) Foreign Trade: Imports, Exports


(i) Internal Trade: Fairs, Markets, and Shops 

            A fair  (Latin feria) strictly speaking was a non-working day, other than a Sunday or holy day, on which the people could assemble. The local chief or lord held court and gave judgements, sports and athletic contests were held, travelling entertainers performed, goods were bought and sold, and no quarrels or warfare were allowed. It is difficult to say which, if any, of these activities predominated in ancient Ireland, but from the Middle Ages onwards fairs became places where goods, chiefly livestock and wool, were bought and sold. The Donnybrook Fair outside Dublin which survived into the nineteenth century was a curious example of the entertainment side persisting long after goods ceased to be bought and sold. In the nineteenth century in Ireland the fair was the usual place for buying and selling livestock, horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs, and to them the cattle merchants connected with the provisions industry would go to buy what they needed. 

            Linen and woollen fairs were held annually in various places for the sale and purchase of wool, thread, and cloth. In addition, in the eighteenth century linen halls were established for the sale of linens. Fairs were more infrequent, larger, and more important than local weekly markets  

            Markets as their name implies were places and times for merchants (Latin mercatores) to congregate. As the goods were carried by pack ponies goods traded in markets were dear in proportion to their bulk. Jewels, precious metals including tin, metalwork, silks, jade, salt, furs and wine were objects carried by merchants from an early date. But the market proper arose when fixed places and times were appointed for the merchants to attend. Markets, unlike fairs, tended to have stalls on which goods could be displayed and often too were covered with a roof. But often too, the stalls were only covered with canvas sheets on the market day itself. Merchants too we would perhaps describe as pedlars or packmen. One notices how tiny the covered medieval markets were in towns like Chichester in England, and each merchant probably had not more than a square yard of space. Even in places like London the weekly market remains very popular. Selling is still done from temporary stalls or from the backs of lorries, and merchants are still allowed to shout aloud to attract attention. In the nineteenth century a town like Newry could have several 'markets' for different products like potatoes, cattle, corn, hay, and butter. 

            Markets did not happen by accident, but were established by authority, usually royal authority. Markets were appointed for different days in the week in a given region so that the merchants could make a circuit of them. Newry has had a market on Thursdays since the Middle Ages. As the amount of goods a merchant might sell in each of them was likely to be trivial he had to attend several of them in the week to make a living.  

            In England, in the Middle Ages, most local markets were established at the request of a local lord who was anxious to improve the economy of his estates and to increase his revenues. In Ireland in the eighteenth century improving landowners took the lead in establishing or reviving markets and market towns with a view to developing the economy and promoting peaceful activities. This was done by means of a writ called Ad quod damnum from the Lord Chancellor. Some places in Connaught had neither convenient markets nor fairs in the nineteenth century. Tenants in such cases were dependent on the landowner (or middleman) or worse still the gombeen man (moneylender) to buy their produce. Such could never get a fair price. 

            It would seem that at an early date local produce like butter, cheese, and eggs, were brought to the markets from the surrounding countryside. But wool was bought and sold at fairs. Corn seems to have been bought originally by those who intended using it, especially by the local brewers. Cornmarkets existed in eastern Ireland, but there were many parts of Ireland where there were no cornmarkets. 

            Every market was strictly regulated. The owners of the market, usually the municipal authorities, had to summon a market jury or similar body to regulate it, to see that order was observed, the market kept clean, that the goods were of marketable quality, that proper weights and measures were used, and such like. Where there was a mayor he was personally responsible. It was permitted to charge market tolls on goods carried in and out of the market. This duty was usually 'farmed out' i.e. the right to collect the tolls was given to an individual in return for a fixed annual payment. There were many complaints about the charging of tolls early in the nineteenth century. Corn merchants in Dublin in 1815 got the right to establish a 'Corn Exchange' in which corn could be bought after the inspection of samples only. In this way the paying of a double toll, on corn coming into the market and going out again was avoided when the corn was purchased for export. 

            In cities and corporate towns the market jury was different from the grand and petty juries, though all were selected from the ranks of the forty-shilling freeholders. Almost certainly market juries existed (or were supposed to exist) in other towns as well for this was the normal medieval system of doing business. In 1826 there were 2,016 market authorities in Ireland charging on average 20 different tolls each. By an Act in 1830 it was forbidden to charge for the use of the official market steelyard for the weighing of potatoes. The exception indicates another source of revenue for the market owners.

            Outside fixed markets goods were carried and sold by pedlars, chapmen licensed by the local Revenue Collector. Hawkers and chapmen possessed horses. They were the original distributors of newspapers until the Post Office took this over. As shops developed in rural areas they became less important but never quite disappeared. A chapman could carry lengths of cloth, ribbons, thread, writing paper, playing cards, washing blue, combs, spices, sugars, liquorice, flints, sulphur, and such like. 

            A shop is a permanent fixed premises in which goods are bought and sold. More exactly nowadays we regard as a shop a premises in which the shopman sells goods that he has himself bought. Thus a miller selling flour or a brewer selling beer does not exactly run a shop. Originally a shop seems to have been where the craftsman both made and sold his goods as in workshop, union shop and shop steward. 

            In the Middle Ages shops could only exist for the sale of goods purchased abroad. The reason for this was that prices were fixed by the local lord (or in towns by the mayor) and following one of Diocletian's edicts the buying and selling price had to be the same. Consequently, a hat-maker, for example, could sell his own products in his own premises, or a merchant who purchased more cheaply abroad could have fixed premises in which to sell the goods at the local price. But the merchant was more likely to sell in markets. Nevertheless, in a country like Ireland where manufactured were mostly imported shops became important in the towns and cities at an early date. Most shops however, partly because of restrictions on pricing, and partly because of the influence of the trade guilds, would sell only one line of goods, hats, footwear, ironware, and so on. As restrictions on prices were relaxed towards the end of the Middle Ages the possibility of opening 'general stores' became possible. These were more likely to be found in villages and small towns selling everything from the proverbial pin to an anchor. The smaller and poorer the village the less goods would be stocked, and the shopkeeper was likely to have another source of income as well. By the year 1800 all the large towns in Ireland were reasonably well provided with shops. The most numerous kind of shop was that selling alcoholic beverages, the ‘public house.' (It should be noted that in the eighteenth century the prices of bread and coal were still fixed by the mayor.) 

            With regard to shops in country areas William Carleton gives an interesting description of the origin and growth of a small country shop in Ulster at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The wife of a small tenant farmer opened a small shop at a crossroads for the sale of whiskey and tobacco. She then purchased a cartload of crockery of the sort she could afford, and which she could sell to farmer's wives. Next she stocked salted herrings, and then salt itself. To augment her earnings she also sold some of her stock in the local market on market days. Next she added stockings, soap, starch, blue, potash, candles, tobacco pipes, tapes and thimbles, biscuits, bread, and children's books. From crockery she progressed to delft, pottery, and hardware, and from the woollen Connemara stockings to linen and woollen drapery. She purchased for her son an inn in the local town, re-decorated it, and called it an 'hotel' as everyone else was doing at the time. This was in an area in the subsistence economy and reflects the gradual change to a commercial economy. 

            Manufacturers promoted their wares by means of 'riders' or commercial travellers (nowadays company representatives). These were sent out by English and Scottish manufacturers as well as Irish ones. English manufacturing firms allowed longer credit than Irish firms could match.[Top] 

(ii) Foreign Trade: Imports, Exports 

            Irish foreign trade from the Middle Ages onwards had been subject to some restrictions imposed by English Acts. This was not derived from any authority of an English Parliament over Ireland, but from the rights of the common monarch to regulate the external trade of his various dominions. For example, the monopolies granted to the English East India Company and the Africa Company excluded Irish ships. These exclusions became hard to justify when the armed forces of the crown (drawn from both kingdoms) began to be used in the defence of India and Africa. There were also the general restrictions imposed by the English Navigation Acts concerning trade with the English colonies. There were particular restrictions on the export of woollen goods. Most restrictions were removed towards the end of the eighteenth century, except those concerning the monopoly of the East India Company.

            Irish trade figures are notoriously difficult to compute. Firstly, we do not know how much of the trade was not registered, i.e. smuggled. Secondly, records were kept at official prices, not actual market prices. Thirdly, the value of the Irish pound fell sharply during the War and rose again when banking credit stabilised. Fourthly, after 1825, figures for trade with the rest of the United Kingdom were not recorded. Fifthly some records were kept of quantities and other of values so a coherent picture is difficult to put together. 

            With regard to the volume of Irish trade as a whole, if all the figures or estimates between 1665 and 1914 are plotted on a graph a reasonably smooth rising curve emerges. 

1665    1698    1738    1751    1755    1772    1800    1811    1821    1840    1912

£0.8     £1.5     £2.2     £3.4     £3.7     £5.7     £9.5     £13      £14      £40      £112 in millions.


            Only the figures for the period after the Napoleonic Wars are lower than a smooth curve would predict. There was a post-War slump. An Irish economist in the nineteenth century noted that Irish exports, after stagnating for over a century, began to grow after the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. We can see that Irish exports were growing at about £20,000 a year in the second half of the seventeenth century, and somewhat more slowly in the first forty years of the eighteenth century. Just before 1751 they were growing at a rate of £90,000 a year, and then slightly more slowly at £70,000 for a few years. The rate of increase had risen to an annual rate of £120,000 before 1772, of £136,000 between 1782 and 1800. The rate of increase slackened to £100,000 a year between 1811 and 1821, after which the rate soared to a rate of £1.4 millions a year before the Famine, before settling down to an increase of £1 million a year between the Famine and the First World War. 

            To express the figures as percentages we find an annual growth of about 2% in the 17th century, falling back to 1% in the early part of the 18th century. After 1748, for no obvious reasons, it soared to 3% a figure that was only with difficulty sustained and was beginning to decline by the end of the century. The opening of the British markets, and the cutting off of foreign suppliers during the Napoleonic Wars caused an annual rate in increase of 4%, while a rate of 5½% was attained before the Famine. After the Famine the rate of increase fell to about 1½%. This last increase in trade probably corresponded to some extent with the increase in Gross National Product (For the reasons given above these figures should only be regarded as indications, and as expressing orders of magnitude.) The figures do not confirm the traditional nationalist belief that Ireland was unusually prosperous during the period of Grattan's Parliament, and suffered commercially by the Act of Union. 

            As noted earlier, if the figures are plotted on a graph a relatively smooth curve is obtained from start to finish with the exception of 1821. Post-war conditions in Britain can explain the low figure and the development of steam transport on the Irish Sea the remarkable recovery. The figures are confirmed by others concerning the export of livestock. 

            Increase in trade does not imply increase in output of GNP. The basis of trade in a free trade area is that each country will specialise in producing what it produces best and will purchase what it cannot produce so well or so cheaply from those who can. Therefore the increase in output of some goods will be matched by a decrease in output of others. But as each region is producing those things which it can produce most easily and cheaply the consumer benefits from cheaper or better goods, or cheaper and better goods. Marmion noted that tonnage of shipping entering and leaving Irish ports between 1816 and 1840 had increased by only 68%. This would seem to imply that much of the increase in value was accounted for by an increase in the trade of higher-priced goods. We know for example that flour was being substituted for unmilled wheat, and livestock for grain. 

            In the first half of the eighteenth century the principal exports were linen from the north of Ireland and salt beef, pork, and butter from the south. The medieval export of hides continued while the traditional export of wool, though illegal, remained considerable. After mid-century the export of livestock was resumed to the dismay of the 'patriots'. Many of these disliked the idea of exports maintaining that they caused shortages and high prices at home and were thus bad for the consumer. This view was often forcibly restated about the time of the Famine. 

            Figures for some individual articles of export have already been given. Grain exports rose from 459,000 quarters in 1801 to 2,834,000 in 1841 (The Pilot 11 May 1842.) Linen exports rose in the first half of the century from 44 million yards to 100 million yards (Marmion). Cattle exports, averaging about 15,000 a year at the beginning of the century, rose to 80,000 during the War, fell off again after 1815, reached 200,000 by 1850 and a peak of 750,000 by 1914. Pig exports were around 11,000 at the beginning of the century but reached 390,000 by 1839. The trade was badly hit by the Famine, only 68,000 being exported in the worst year. A peak of 620,000 was reached at the beginning of the twentieth century. Sheep exports rose from about 15,000 to 342,000 in 1848, not being badly affected by the Famine, and to 869,000 in 1900. Remarkably, Connaught did not share in this development in the first half of the century, the sales of cattle and sheep at Ballinasloe showing no marked increase (The Pilot 28 Oct 1842). The export of eggs stated from virtually nothing to reach 50,000 by mid-century. Whiskey exports were around 423,000 gallons in 1827, 1,259,000 in 1853 and 8.5 million gallons in 1907 (Marmion, Lyons. As noted earlier these figures should only be taken as indicating orders of magnitude). 

            One of the great aims of the Irish eighteenth century mercantilists was to reduce or prevent the importation of goods like wheat or fish that could be produced in Ireland, and in this aim they had considerable success. The development of the Irish cotton manufacturing industry was aimed at reducing imports from India. 

            The total of imports rose in proportion with Ireland normally having a slightly favourable balance of trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. The balance was probably met through the remittances of rents but there are considerable difficulties in calculating the flows of cash between the islands. It is also unclear if the remittances of rents helped or hindered the Irish economy.

            The import of wine reached a peak in the eighteenth century when 1,238,000 gallons were imported. This figure had declined to 512,000 by 1848. Irish merchants had close connections with Bordeaux and some imports of French wines continued throughout the Napoleonic Wars, presumably through third countries. During the Peninsular War Spanish sherries became popular for a while, but never became as popular as the ports from Portugal. They were all taxed heavily during the War.

            At the beginning of the century there was a large import of distilled spirits like rum, brandy and gin. Not until the century was well advanced did the consumption of the native whiskey exceed that of the imported spirits. The Irish distillers had switched to using malted grain in the meantime. The tax on rum and brandy was so high that imports virtually ceased during the war. The import of sugar from the West Indies, mainly in the raw state rose from 325,000 tons in 1800 to 600,000 in 1848, and provided the basis for the Irish sugar refining industry. (The size of the West India fleet with ships not exceeding 300 tons can be gauged.)  The imports of tobacco rather surprisingly fell off from 5,806,000 to 5,101,000 in the same period. (Marmion, who notes the difficulty of getting correct figures after 1825.)

            Imports of tea rose in the same period from 3,342,000 pounds to 5,101,000 pounds all of it from China. Not until the East India Company's monopoly was ended in the 1830's did ships sail directly from Ireland to the Far East. Tea however continued to be imported through British ports. Irish participation in the East India trade was the subject of hard bargaining at the end of the eighteenth century. Ireland was allowed minor concessions but does not seem to have had the goods to export by the shipload. Similar proposals to trade with Africa, which was allowed, came to nothing. It was suggested that Ireland could export textiles, provisions, firearms and gunpowder in exchange for tropical timbers, ivory, palm oil, gum, and gold. But it was easier and more convenient to get these from London. 

            With regard to volume most of the trade was in heavy and bulky goods like coal, timber, flaxseed, and raw sugar, the raw materials for industry. All raw cotton had to be imported. Imports of coal rose from 360,000 tons in 1800 to 800,000 by 1826 (Chart). 

            No system of coppicing woodland had ever been developed in Ireland. So when all the woodlands were cut away for fuel (the role of the British Government was minimal) coal had to be imported from England. This caused much hardship to the poor in towns. But it was often easier and cheaper to obtain coal from Cumberland than to get turf from the Irish bogs or coal from Irish mines. Reducing the dependence on British coal was a great aim of legislators in the eighteenth century and was the chief reason for developing the canals. But imports of coal grew and grew.



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