Commercial Disabilities

Eleanor Hull
Commercial Disabilities

If anything could have been added to complete the ruin of the country it was by the imposition of heavy and disabling trade regulations at the moment when the industries of the towns were being crippled by the loss of the industrial midde-classes of their inhabitants.

The Penal Laws were the work of the ascendancy party in the Dublin Parliament, inspired, not so much by actual questions of religion as by the jealous determination to retain all authority and all property in Protestant hands, for which the difference of religion formed a convenient excuse; but the Trade Laws were the action of the English Parliament, urged on by the constant appeals of English merchants, who thought they saw in the growing prosperity of Irish trade and industries a challenge to their own supremacy in the mercantile world.

In consequence of the constantly increasing concentration of all manufactures and trade in Protestant hands, owing to the Penal restrictions imposed at their own request, it was on this new industrial class that the Trade Laws fell most hardly.

It shows into what a position of helplessness the Dublin Parliament had drifted, that though it was the close borough of a small Protestant minority, even this favoured minority was unable to influence the operation of English laws directed to the limitation or destruction of those industries by the preservation of which in their own hands against Catholic competition they had hoped to grow rich.

Up to the time of Henry VIII, and even of the Stuarts, Irish trade had been encouraged; all trade regulations passed in the English Parliament applying equally to Ireland. Incidentally this shows that from an early date Irish industries were of sufficient importance to demand the attention of the English legislature.

Several commercial statutes were passed in the reign of Edward III regulating the importation of woollen cloth and permitting Irish merchants to bring their merchandise to the staple of England without paying any but Irish customs.

In the same reign all clothworkers of whatever country were invited equally into all parts of the British Isles, including Ireland, and such prohibitions as were imposed in the sixteenth century aimed at the encouragement of the home woollen manufacture by limiting the export of the raw material, though in the end this tended to the decline of the industry.

During this period there was a considerable volume of merchandise even with the independent parts of the country. The roads were good, and produce was brought to market in numberless centres all over the country, either by carts or by the river waterways. Provisions, vegetables, fish, and woollens were freely distributed to town-dwellers by the country people of the surrounding districts. Corn, barley, and oats were in plenty, and flax was grown for the linen industry.

The people were well and solidly clad in the excellent friezes and mantles made by their own kindred, and the new staples founded in several important centres during the years 1616–17 gave employment to many workers and attracted English capital into the country. Wealthy landowners, like the Earl of Cork in the South, the Duke of Ormonde in Kilkenny and Clonmel, and Sir T. Roper near Dublin encouraged spinning and weaving on their estates and opened works that gave employment to their tenantry.

During the Stuart period the settlement of numbers of French Huguenot weavers in the country gave a great stimulus to weaving, especially of silks and hosiery, while others of these refugees set up factories for the woollen manufacture or founded banking businesses. But these industries underwent many vicissitudes.

Wentworth, during his Viceroyalty, saw in the discouragement of the woollen and clothing trades a means to hold the Irish dependent on the Crown by forcing them to resort to English markets to supply the needs that had hitherto been met at home. He feared that if the Irish continued to manufacture their own wool they would beat their English rivals out of the trade by underselling them, “which,” he says, “they were well able to do.”[1] But he encouraged the exportation of raw wool, which not only aided the English clothiers, but brought in double customs to the Crown, the wool exported being returned in the form of manufactured goods; “a reason of State” which commended itself to the Viceroy, whose main desire was to increase the King’s revenue.

During the long anarchy of the Rebellion of 1641 and the ensuing years the woollen industry, as also the linen industry so carefully fostered by Wentworth to take its place, were almost extinguished. Had the former had a fair start after the Restoration, it would probably have revived. But the exportation of woollen cloth to England was still prohibited by the high duties imposed, and the colonial markets were closed by the Navigation Acts.

High duties were placed even upon the exportation of raw wool into England and the hardship of these regulations was further increased by the passing in 1663 and 1666 of the Cattle Acts, which prohibited the exportation of Irish cattle into England under pressure of the English breeders, who complained that Irish competition was bringing down the prices of live-stock in England. In the second Bill sheep and swine were included, the importation of either fat or lean stock being voted “a public nuisance,” destructive of the welfare of the kingdom.

This disabling Act was followed by others extending the prohibition to the provision trade, thus prohibiting the introduction of Irish mutton, lamb, butter, and cheese. At this time the Irish cattle and provision trades amounted to three-quarters of the whole trade of the country.

In three years after the Restoration an average of 61,000 head of cattle had been annually brought over from Ireland to England, and a considerable part of the landlords and farmers devoted themselves to cattle-breeding on a large scale.

The whole country was suddenly plunged into poverty and discontent. Ormonde, who was one of the worst sufferers, opposed the Bills at every stage, pointing out that Ireland was only just recovering from a long period of war and that the prohibition on the export of cattle meant practically a universal cessation of industry. But Ormonde’s great estates were regarded with jealousy by English land-owners, and in spite of the resistance of the King to the measure, it passed into law.

The immediate effect of the Cattle Acts upon the woollen industry was to keep in the country large flocks of sheep which had formerly been sheared and then sold for food. How to get rid of the accumulating stocks of wool became a problem for the Irish farmer and he only partially solved it by a number of devices, such as a clandestine trade with foreign countries, and the revival of the home clothing trade. A certain quantity of wool was still sent into England in spite of the high licensing duties.

But all false laws affecting commerce, whether the result of wrong theories or of provincial and trade jealousies, must in the end defeat their object. Even in the present day, Governments are still debating what are the soundest principles of world trade, and a great variety of opinions is held regarding them; in the seventeenth century theories on the subject had hardly begun to be considered at all.

The whole colonial system was new. Hitherto commerce had been a matter of private adventure rather than the concern of the State. The farmer’s idea that open competition will capture his markets is natural enough, even if it is erroneous; “protection” is still daily being debated on both sides of the Irish Channel.

England in the seventeenth century was neither before nor behind the rest of Europe in her belief that in protecting her own farmers from competition, she was carrying out an obvious duty. But while for the moment it seemed that these laws would ruin Ireland, they had an immediate adverse effect in England.

The impoverished Irish farmers could not pay their rents and, in consequence, landlords could not meet their taxes. The King’s revenue at once went down, and the effort to make Ireland self-supporting by customs and excise came to an end.

The Irish began to turn their attention to foreign avenues of export, and a flourishing trade with Holland in fat cattle and butter sprang up, which threatened to rival the English exports in value and pushed the produce of the English farmer out of the market.

A revival of Irish shipping followed and Irish ships were seen at Dunkirk, Ostend, La Rochelle, and Nantes, laden with provisions, while Irish ports were busy with trade and ship-building.

France took clandestinely all the wool with which Ireland could supply her, and in 1679 it was said that this trade had almost ruined the English industry. The English were purchasing back through France and Spain at an advanced rate the Irish goods that they would not allow into the country direct.

A new trade of some importance sprang up between Ireland and the West Indian Plantations, which deprived England of much of her provision trade with her own colonists. This fresh opening helped to tide the country over its period of distress; and had no further impediment been placed in the way there was every sign that the initiative of the Irish farmers and merchants would have secured permanent markets abroad. But again the jealousy of English traders stepped in and the rising volume of Irish commerce was crushed by the Navigation Acts of 1670–71, which prohibited a large number of commodities, comprising practically the whole available produce of the Plantations, from being imported direct into Ireland. They had to be first landed in England and so pay double dues and charges at the ports; this checked the entry of goods from abroad, and in consequence the profits on goods sent out from home.

As, after the Revolution, these Navigation Laws were reinforced in a still more prohibitive form, they eventually shut Ireland off from her best foreign markets and proved disastrous to her chances of commercial progress.

The Navigation Laws were not passed with any direct intention of applying them to Ireland. They were consequent upon the immense expansion of the known world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by the discovery of the West Indies and of North and South America.

The formation of the East India Company to open up the vast resources of India at the beginning of the seventeenth century brought about new commercial relations in every direction and called upon the Governments of the day to pass legislation to regulate the conduct of navigation and commerce in every part of the world.

England had emerged from the position of an island-state into a world power; and as the enterprises of Spain and France over-seas began to decrease, those of England and Holland took their place. It was against Holland that the first Navigation Laws were framed, these two powers being in a position to dispute with each other the carrying trade and the mastery of the seas.

At the same time a colonial policy was gradually formed, by which, in return for protection by the navy of England, the colonies were bound only to encourage such industries as ministered to the needs of the mother country and did not interfere with her home industries.

As England defended these colonies, which had no navies of their own, by revenue from her home industries, it was urged that it was only just that nothing should be done by them to diminish those industries. The over-seas possessions were to exist simply as feeders to the motherland; all trade with other countries being strictly forbidden.[2]

Hitherto, Ireland had usually been treated as part of the British Isles in regard to trade regulations, but with the new conception of a colonial policy accepted as part of the considered policy of the country, it began to be argued that as Ireland was, like the colonies, defended by the British navy without any charge to herself (for Ireland had never been taxed for naval defence) she stood towards England in the position of a colony and should come under the same laws as regards navigation.

Like America and the West Indies, she must accept a subordinate position in all industries likely to be adverse in their results upon English manufactures. It seemed but just to the great mercantile interests of Britain that they should so regulate the trade of their dependencies that these should not interfere with their own existing home industries.

Such was the theory, and it was on this theory that on June 9, 1698, the Lords, and on June 30 the Commons of England presented addresses to King William III, praying him “in the most public and effectual way that may be, to declare to all his subjects of Ireland that the growth and increase of the woollen manufacture there hath long and will ever be looked upon with great jealousy by all his subjects of this kingdom,” and the King, against his own wishes and judgment, made the reply:

“Gentlemen, I will do all that in me lies to discourage the woollen manufacture in Ireland.”[3]

By the Act of 1698, passed for the carrying out of this policy, an additional duty of 20 per cent. was imposed on broadcloth and of 10 per cent. on all draperies except friezes.[4] Even this did not satisfy the English traders, and the practical monopoly obtained by subsequent regulations would have entirely crushed the Irish chief manufacture, but for an extensive smuggling trade henceforth carried on with France, Germany and Spain.

The promise of William to discourage Irish woollens was accompanied by an engagement that in place of this industry the weaving of linens should receive every encouragement. This manufacture, one of the oldest in the country (for linen cloth was exported into England at least as early as 1430), had always been looked upon with favour, for it in no way interfered with English prosperity.[5]

Wentworth’s Dutch instructors had so much improved weaving, and the private funds he had poured into the industry had so well supported it, that he had expected to be able to undersell France and Holland. Manchester was buying Irish yarn in large quantities.

After the Confederate Wars, Ormonde brought in five hundred families from Brabant and workmen from La Rochelle and Jersey and with the support of the Irish Parliament a great advance was made both as to quantity and quality. The industry was at first not confined to Ulster but distributed over the country. But the better land laws of Ulster and the greater sense of stability combined with the perseverance of the people to make it flourish there.

Yet, even in the North, when Crommelin arrived in the country in 1705, he found the linen business still in a primitive condition and much ignorance prevailing about the growing of flax and its preparation. Encouraged by William, he imported a thousand looms of better construction and founded the Lisburn works. He gave a premium for every loom at work, and his energy and the better methods employed led to a great increase in the spinning and weaving of improved linens. Lurgan followed Lisburn, and in 1735 the Belfast Linen Hall was opened.

In spite of certain restrictions and Scottish and English competition, linen took its place as the leading textile industry of Ireland, and by 1773 Irish linens imported into Great Britain amounted to the annual value of £17,876,617. Cotton-spinning formed a minor branch of the textile trade which at one time employed a fair number of hands, and glass for household use was a manufacture which started with considerable success after the Revolution; but like other industries it suffered under the trade prohibitions.

After the withdrawal of the trade restrictions in 1780 it revived and progressed rapidly. The glass was excellent, and various special kinds of fine glass and pottery began to be developed in different parts of the country, of which the now rare and beautiful Waterford glass is the most famous.

Nevertheless, the first thirty years of the eighteenth century was a period of acute distress all over the country, especially in the North. Large voluntary emigrations began to take place from Ulster where, in addition to the hampering restrictions on their trade, the inhabitants were shut out from all civil and municipal offices as Dissenters, and had no legal freedom of worship.

There had been bad harvests between 1725 and 1728, and these years saw some 4,200 men, women and children shipped off to the West Indies alone. The tide of emigration had already begun in 1718, when many hundreds of families left the kingdom, and it continued up to the middle of the century. These were chiefly Presbyterians, the Catholics having at this period a great dislike to emigration other than to take service on the Continent.

Large numbers of these Presbyterians settled in the New England states, and were, in time to come, to wring from England the independence of America. Their brethren in the North of Ireland, who stayed at home, and went under the harrow of restrictive laws alike in religion and commerce, were to be the leaders in the struggle for free trade and political independence at the close of the century. From them were formed the bulk of the Irish Volunteers, who demanded from England Parliamentary freedom.[6]

Nor was the population of the country districts more prosperous. The growing of corn practically ceased, and the land was increasingly turned into great cattle and dairy farms for the export of beef and mutton or dairy produce.

The towns profited by the increase in trade and the large landowners and middlemen grew rich, but the mass of the peasants fell to the status of cottiers, unable to subsist by agricultural labour; in some districts they were turned out wholesale to be “miserably starved, or obliged to pay greater rents for worse lands than it is possible to pay.”[7]

These wholesale evictions were the immediate cause of the Whiteboy risings in 1761, for the landlords were everywhere forbidding their tenants to plough, as they needed the lands for grazing purposes. Tillage, which had never been in an advanced state in Ireland, decreased, and the poor cultivation of the country struck every traveller.[8]

Even the old system of ploughing by the tail still continued, in spite of the efforts of Wentworth to put an end to it. The land yielded poor crops and in 1776 or later Arthur Young thought the Irish farmers, in general, still five centuries behind the English in knowledge and skill. Many of the large farmers, especially about Dublin, were Catholics.

The foundation of the Dublin Society in 1731 did a good deal to encourage agriculture by introducing improved machinery and offering premiums for better methods of farming, and bounties were also granted by the Dublin Parliament; but no real revival took place until Foster’s Corn Laws were passed in 1784. These stimulated the exportation of corn and did much to turn Ireland again from a pastoral into an arable country.

This great extension of tillage brought about an increase in labour, a rise in wages, and an advance in the value of land; and the repeal of the most severe Penal Laws in 1778 encouraged the Catholic tenants to make fresh efforts. But high rents and short leases militated against the proper cultivation of the soil, and even in 1788 Grattan describes the condition of agriculture as “miserable and experimental,” and speaks of slovenly methods, mouldering fences, weeds, and scanty crops; only the natural richness of the soil gave crops where such lack of industry prevailed. Horses and oxen still were yoked together at the plough, the rotation of crops was not understood, and the constant subdivision of property did not tend to self-reliance and foresight.

The Irish peasant has always been backward in adopting new methods and using improved machinery; and this, combined with uncertainty of tenure, lack of payment for improvements, and the constant possibility of eviction, retarded progress and left him far behind the agriculturists of competing countries.