Agriculture: 1690 to 1845

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Agriculture: 1690 to 1845

Between 1690 and 1845 a number of European regions experienced massive transformations from rural-based economies toward urban industrialization. The Irish economy, on the other hand, was still as strongly based in the countryside in 1845 as it had been a century and a half earlier. By the eve of the Great Famine the economy had changed utterly in its intensity and efficiency, supporting three or four times as many people as it had in the seventeenth century. However, it was still essentially a supplier of its own subsistence and an exporter of food to industrial Britain. Outside the textile center of the northeast, Ireland had no identifiably industrial regions.

Unstable Growth: 1690 to 1745

Like the rest of Europe in the 1690s, Irish agriculture was beginning a recovery from nearly a century of political and economic instability, war, depressed prices, and lackluster growth. The new colonial property system set in place during the course of the previous century, under which Scottish and English settlers owned approximately 80 percent of the land, was still taking root. The political upheaval of the previous century had left the native commercial classes in a shambles, with market and credit systems in an undeveloped state. According to William Petty, a trustworthy observer during this period, over 90 percent of profitable land was under grass in the 1680s. The production of crops was largely restricted to a region in the southeast of the country that had supplied wheat to Dublin and abroad. The mass of the rural population was still occupied in a pastoral, livestock-based economy that had not fundamentally changed for centuries.

The 1690s saw a promising resurgence of the agricultural economy, particularly in tillage, a trajectory of development that continued into the early eighteenth century. This modest growth was strongly influenced by the incentives and constraints of a framework of trade legislation that included the Cattle Acts of the 1660s, the various Navigation Acts passed in the second half of the seventeenth century, the Woollen Act of 1699, and the legislation of 1705 placing bounties on Irish linen exports. The Cattle Acts, which banned the export of livestock to England, and the Navigation Acts, which banned imports from the new world directly into Ireland, skewed Irish agricultural and industrial development. Although the livestock export trade was shut down, the Irish were allowed to supply beef for the provisioning of Atlantic trading and war vessels. Prohibited from exporting either live sheep or woolen goods, Irish graziers responded by exporting raw wool. The textile industries in Ireland were largely suppressed by this legislation, with the crucial exception of linen. The legislation of 1705 allowed linen exports not only to England but directly to the American colonies and the continent as well.

The effect of this legislative framework was to create hothouse conditions for provisions and linen goods in the Atlantic economy. Rapid commercialization and increased specialization ensued. Linen production developed rapidly, with flax producers and importers supplying a far-flung network of rural hand-spinners whose output in turn supplied the growing ranks of farmer-weavers in the north. The business of cattle rearing saw rapid specialization and commercialization as well. A wide variety of producers—dairymen selling young cattle, small farmers who raised young cattle but also engaged in tillage farming, spinning, and/or weaving, and larger graziers buying two- or three-year-old cattle for maturing and final fattening for market—all interacted in a mushrooming network of markets and fairs. However, until the 1740s the countryside still proved to be tragically vulnerable to the type of subsistence crises that historians associate with a primitive economy. The high level of emigration to the New World, particularly by the Protestant population of the north, is additional evidence of this economic fragility.

The Atlantic shipping trade also fuelled the relentless deforestation of the Irish countryside to meet the demand for barrels, staves, and other equipment. The process began in the early seventeenth century but greatly increased in pace in the first half of the eighteenth, so that by the early nineteenth century Ireland had been almost completely denuded of its forests.

A Great Acceleration: 1745 to 1815

The second half of the eighteenth century saw a tremendous expansion of this commercial agrarian economy. Two interrelated factors were important. First, Ireland began to play an important role in supplying food to the rapidly urbanized and industrialized British economy. By mid-century, food prices were rising sharply across England. By the 1770s Britain had become a net importer of food, and much of those imports came from Ireland. By the end of the century Ireland was supplying over 40 percent of Britain's imports of grain, meat, and butter, and by the 1820s this figure had reached 75 percent. Secondly, the liberalization of trade legislation removed the straightjacket constraining the economy in the first half of the century. The restrictions on Irish cattle exports were lifted by legislation in 1758. The Navigation Acts were mostly removed in 1778, though exports of crucial industrial products such as wool, woolen manufactures, and cotton were still prohibited. And in 1784 the Irish Parliament passed legislation consolidating a system of export bounties on agricultural products.

Expanding pastoral production was an important component of the great acceleration of the late eighteenth century, but the real driving force was an explosion of tillage and textile production from the small-farm sector. Linen remained the leading export. Unlike wool and cotton, its production methods remained labor-intensive and suited to cottage hand production throughout the eighteenth century. Most linen producers, whether they were flax growers, spinners, weavers, or all three, also tilled the land, producing oats or wheat for distant markets and potatoes and other garden crops for local consumption. To these may be added a third key component of small-farm land use: the quasi-agricultural activity of harvesting turf. Turf cutting and saving, worth nearly £2 million a year in 1840, provided not only cheap energy but opened up new cultivable land. Successive crops of potatoes prepared former bog for grain cultivation, and potatoes then became a permanent part of the rotation of grain cultivation, simultaneously providing subsistence and renewing the soil. Together, these activities formed an interlinked microeconomy that fuelled not only a great increase in output but also demographic explosion and a massive expansion in land use. The period of the Napoleonic wars, by artificially increasing and sustaining food prices in England, fanned the flames of an already roaring productive and demographic acceleration.

Productivity and Distribution: 1785 to 1845

Between 1785 and 1845 the fruits of the agricultural economy were unevenly distributed. From the early eighteenth century on, profits flowed overwhelmingly into the hands of landowners, middlemen, and the large graziers and stockholders. The three decades after 1785 were golden years for substantial farmers, but the benefits trickled down even to the lower reaches of society, with real wages for farm and construction labor rising. Irish rural life in this era was crowded, dirty, and short of luxuries, but the inhabitants of the countryside were relatively tall, well fed, and long-lived. Though the nature of agricultural and hand textile work was often backbreaking and monotonous, Irish workers had considerably more leisure time than their counterparts in industrial Britain.

Research published in the 1980s shows that, by comparison to the rest of the United Kingdom, Belgium, and France, Irish agriculture before the famine was reasonably productive. But the nature of its productivity was peculiar and impoverishing. Ireland lacked a number of crucial features of agricultural efficiency obtaining elsewhere: centuries of farm enclosure and rationalization, strong urban industrial development to soak up excess rural populations, strong incentives for capital accumulation and a well-developed system for its circulation. Nevertheless, the Irish climate gave rural producers unique endowments, and they were generally exploited effectively. Though its soils were poor, Ireland's climate gives it a natural advantage in grass, and therefore in livestock, production. Though lacking in capital intensity, Irish agriculture made very effective use of cheap labor and capital-poor techniques (such as better weeding, more intensive spadework, and more intensive seeding) suited to rocky and wet soils.

The decades after Waterloo saw a reversal in the upward price trend in agricultural products that lasted until the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856. In addition, technical advances in the mechanical wet spinning of linen yarn in the 1820s and the beginning of a shift in demand away from linen to lighter textiles painfully undercut the rural hand-spinning and weaving trades. While the corn law of 1815 offered some protection to Irish farmers from the prevailing trend in grain prices, the mass of the peasantry lacked access to sufficient land to produce grain and livestock efficiently. This scenario caused poverty and inequality to increase dramatically in the 1830s and 1840s. Grain producers with access to land were able to capitalize on a flooded labor market and produce crops profitably. Landless laborers, on the other hand, were faced not only with declining money wages but also with rising prices of land offered by farmers in "conacre," on a short-term arrangement that allowed laborers to produce a subsistence crop of potatoes. These developments left a growing population in a position of heightened risk of impoverishment. Although Ireland was certainly not careening toward a Malthusian apocalypse in the 1840s, the structure of the economy, and the political and legislative circumstances that governed it, left the countryside completely vulnerable to the terrible shock of the potato blight in the late 1840s.

SEE ALSO Banking and Finance to 1921; Family: Marriage Patterns and Family Life from 1690 to 1921; Great Famine; Land Questions; Migration: Emigration from the Seventeenth Century to 1845; Population, Economy, and Society from 1750 to 1950; Population Explosion; Potato and Potato Blight (Phytophthora infestans); Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Rural Life: 1690 to 1845; Subdivision and Subletting of Holdings; Transport—Road, Canal, Rail; Primary Documents: On Irish Rural Society and Poverty (1780)


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