Catholic Merchants and Gentry from 1690 to 1800

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Catholic Merchants and Gentry from 1690 to 1800

Although the penal laws passed from 1695 to 1728 appear severe, the reality was that Catholic gentry and merchants enjoyed wide tolerance in the practice of their religion, their conduct of affairs and commercial activities, and their freedom of association and expression.


About 80 percent of the land of Ireland changed hands in the seventeenth century, so that at the outset of the eighteenth, outside of Counties Galway and Mayo and a scattering of pockets elsewhere, Catholic ownership of land was minimal, with the Province of Ulster having no Catholic landed class. Propertied Catholics survived, prospered, and from 1750 increased in number. The proportion of land in Catholic hands increased over the century if the definition of ownership is broadened to include converts and leaseholders. The oft-cited statistic of the decline of such ownership from 14 percent in 1702 to 3 percent in 1776 is misleading, for it does not include those Catholic landowners who converted to the Anglican Established Church but who, for all intents and purposes, retained an allegiance to Catholicism. Nor does it take account of the considerable Catholic leasehold interest that in some cases amounted to substantial holdings. By law Catholics were prohibited from holding leases in excess of thirty-one years or for lives, yet their holdings increased largely because they benefited from preferential treatment in lease renewals. In most cases the wealth of these substantial Catholic leaseholders (e.g., the Scullys, Keatings, and McCarthys in County Tipperary, the O'Connells in County Kerry, and the Nagles in County Cork) exceeded that of the few Catholic landowners. Their wealth was created through extensive pastoral farming, which benefited from the demand for cattle in the provision trade and in dairying.

Political Activity

Catholic exclusion from political influence has been assumed because Catholics were deprived of the vote between 1728 and 1793. Yet there was an active Catholic lobby that contested many anti-Catholic measures in the Irish Parliament. There were also attempts from the 1720s to formulate a special oath whereby Catholics could express loyalty to the state, though this did not materialize until 1774. Taking of the oath was voluntary and occurred most in those areas (Counties Cork, Kilkenny, Tipperary, and Waterford) where the Catholic interest was strongest and where there had been sectarian tension in the 1760s. From the mid-1750s onwards, Catholic merchants were active in the Catholic Committee, a conservative lobby group that supported neither the Jacobite cause nor the United Irishmen. Rather, the committee viewed their role as seeking relief from the penal laws, especially those dealing with property, trade, and the professions. Such efforts bore fruit with the Relief Acts of 1778 and 1782. Locally, the remnant of those landowners, the large leaseholders, and the converts could influence the voting patterns of Protestant tenants. This was especially the case in Galway, Mayo, and Tipperary.

Catholic Merchants: Domestic Affairs

The argument of Maureen Wall that the decline in Catholic landownership caused an exodus to the towns where former proprietors reestablished themselves as a prosperous middle class is now dated. The experience was more complex and regional in its dimensions. Certainly, from the mid-seventeenth century foreign trade was no longer mainly in the hands of Catholics in the ports of the east and southeast: that is, in Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, and Cork. In these ports and other hinterland towns in the region a Protestant dominance was probably in place by the 1690s, with the wholesale trades and guilds becoming Protestant dominated. Catholic mercantile interests from these centers either became reestablished on the Continent or experienced downward social mobility at home.

However, as early as the 1720s a Catholic majority had reestablished itself in Cork, Dublin, and Waterford owing to an influx from the rural areas of unskilled persons (as opposed to dispossessed proprietors) able to secure employment in the growing provision trade, construction, and service industries. This trend was to form the basis of a subsequent Catholic middle class of traders and merchants, as opportunities in retailing and manufacturing stimulated upward mobility. In 1780 about one-third of Dublin's merchants were Catholics, though the volume of trade in their hands was less. In Cork city there was a two-to-one Catholic majority in the 1730s, and by 1800 this figure was four-to-one, though in 1758 only 20 percent of the city's foreign traders were Catholic. Limerick and Galway retained a Catholic majority, whereas in Waterford the trend replicated that of Cork, though on a smaller scale.

In Dublin at mid-century Catholics were to the fore as bakers, distillers, brewers, carpenters, grocers, skinners, tanners, woolen drapers, and distillers. By contrast, their representation in the roles of apothecary, cooper, goldsmith, butcher, shoemaker, surgeon, and physician was moderate or low. With the exception of Galway, banking continued largely in Protestant hands until the early nineteenth century. Urban Catholic wealth was a distinct reality, but it may have remained static relative to the increase in overall wealth by the end of the century. An index of Catholic mercantile wealth is that after the relaxation of the ban on their purchase of land by the act of 1782, many Catholic merchant families in Dublin and Cork purchased large rural properties.

Legal restrictions imposed on Catholic merchants, such as those relating to the number of apprentices and to quarterage or guild membership payments, were irritants rather than real restrictions. Catholic participation in the different trades and occupations administered by the guilds was only possible as quarter brothers through payment of fees called quarterage. Catholics lobbying to have it declared illegal succeeded in 1759. The role of the guilds in relation to the trades they regulated was on the decline after 1760, and by the 1790s was irrelevant, thus making the guilds' political function more critical. After 1793, Catholics could be freemen of the guilds but were still excluded from key administrative offices in Dublin and other cities. Catholics were effectively excluded from membership of town corporations until 1840. The ban on their purchase or leasing of urban property was the most tangible disability. Catholic merchants were also constrained by church teaching from taking interest on money loaned, though this is unlikely to have affected the larger merchants unduly.

Catholic Merchants: Foreign Affairs

Overseas, an Irish Catholic diaspora of mercantile communities, established largely as a result of the property changes of the seventeenth century, continued to function and expand in the eighteenth century as outlets for family members who were unable to retain their social position in Ireland. Thus Catholic Irish commercial houses in the ports of Bordeaux, Cadiz, Nantes, Bruges, Rotterdam, and London maintained kinship links that worked to advantage in the Atlantic, European, and Caribbean trades. Former landowning families (particularly from the hinterlands of Waterford and Galway) established commercial centers or built upon existing trading links overseas in France, Spain, and Portugal, as well as developing new centers in the Atlantic trade—thus a flow of aspirants into foreign commerce continued.

Irish Catholic gentry families, especially in the hinterlands of the ports of the Province of Munster, were deeply involved in the placement of their sons in trade through overseas connections as well as in the law (through conversion), the army, and the church. By such means a complex web of career strategies evolved which, when coupled with the significant surge in Catholic proprietorship, served to buttress the Catholic interest in key areas.

SEE ALSO Catholic Committee from 1756 to 1809; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1690 to 1714—Revolution Settlement; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1714 to 1778—Interest Politics; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1778 to 1795—Parliamentary and Popular Politics; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1795 to 1800—Repression, Rebellion, and Union; Primary Documents: An Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery (1704)


Connolly, Seán J. Religion, Law, and Power: The Making of Protestant Ireland, 1660–1760. 1992.

Cullen, L. M. "Catholics under the Penal Laws." Eighteenth-Century Ireland 1 (1986): 23–36.

Fagan, Patrick. Catholics in a Protestant Country: The Papist Constituency in Eighteenth Century Dublin. 1998.

Power, Thomas P., and Kevin Whelan, eds. Endurance and Emergence: Catholics in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century. 1990.

Power, Thomas P. Land, Politics and Society in Eighteenth-Century Tipperary. 1993.

Wall, Maureen. Catholic Ireland in the Eighteenth-Century: Collected Essays of Maureen Wall. Edited by Gerard O'Brien. 1989.

Thomas P. Power

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Catholic Merchants and Gentry from 1690 to 1800

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