Foreign Commerce

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XXIV....concluded

5. Foreign Commerce.

Many passages referring to the communication of Ireland with the outer world in ancient times will be found scattered through this book; but it will be convenient to collect here under one heading a few special notices bearing on the point.

In the native Irish literature, as well as in the writings of English, Anglo-Irish, and foreign authors, there are many statements showing the intercourse and trade of Ireland, both outwards and inwards, with Britain and Continental countries. To begin with early foreign testimony:—The island was known to the Phoenicians, who probably visited it; and Greek writers mention it under the names Iernis and Ierne, and as the Sacred Island inhabited by the Hiberni. Ptolemy, writing in the second century, who is known to have derived his information from Phoenician authorities, has given a description of Ireland much more accurate than that which he has left us of Great Britain. And that the people of Ireland carried on considerable trade with foreign countries in those early ages we know from the statement of Tacitus, that in his time—the end of the first century—the harbours of Ireland were better known to commercial nations than those of Britain. The natural inference from these scattered but pregnant notices is that the country had settled institutions and a certain degree of civilisation—with more or less foreign commerce—as early at least as the beginning of the Christian era.

These accounts, and others from foreign sources that might be cited, are fully confirmed by the native records. There are numerous passages in Irish literature—in the Book of Rights, for instance —in which are mentioned articles of luxury, dress, gold and silver ornaments, swords, shields, slaves, &c., imported from foreign lands. To pass over many other records, we know that in the great triennial fair of Carman there were three principal markets, one of which was "a market of foreigners selling articles of gold and silver," who sold "gold [ornaments] and noble clothes": so that the fame of this fair found its way to the Continent and attracted foreign merchants with their goods.

This commerce was not confined to the coasts. In the "Life of St. Kieran" it is related that on a certain occasion a cask of wine was brought by merchants to Clonmacnoise from the land of the Franks. The importation of wine is noticed also in the "Life of St. Patrick," and seven centuries later by Giraldus Cambrensis. The various articles mentioned here as brought from foreign lands were imported to supplement the home produce; in which there was nothing more remarkable than our present importation of thousands of articles from foreign countries, all or most of which are also produced at home. The articles anciently imported were paid for in home commodities—skins, wool and woollens, oatmeal, fish, salted hogs, otter and squirrel skins, &c. This trade increased as time went on. But in the seventeenth century laws were made by the English and Anglo-Irish parliaments to destroy Irish trade and commerce: a blow which at once reduced the country to poverty, and from which it has never recovered. (For these laws, see my Child's History of Ireland, c. lvi.)


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