Economy and Society from 1500 to 1690

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Economy and Society from 1500 to 1690

At the beginning of the sixteenth century there existed in Ireland separate Gaelic and English political and cultural communities that, taken together, formed something approaching the modern notion of a collective economy and society in Ireland. Though the latter community claimed lordship over the entire island, its political power by 1500 was concentrated in the fertile eastern region between Dublin and Dundalk (known as the English Pale), east Munster, some fifty scattered port and market towns and their hinterlands, and several isolated outposts in Connacht and Ulster. The remainder of Ireland was dominated by scores of thinly populated independent Gaelic lordships unified by a common language, legal system, and social structures, but devoid of any political or administrative cohesion capable of surmounting traditional regional differences. The largest and most powerful of these lordships were those furthest removed from English areas, such as the O'Neill or O'Brien lordships in Ulster and west Munster respectively. The native Gaelic elite looked upon the English community as Gaill, or foreigners, with varying degrees of hostility, while English administrators contemptuously referred to the Gaelic clans living outside the "civility" of the Tudor state as "wild Irish" or the Crown's "Irish enemies." The sixteenth century witnessed the struggle between these two societies for dominance in Ireland.

Separate but Dependent Economies in Sixteenth-Century Ireland

Markedly different forms of economic organization reinforced Ireland's inherent political and cultural divisions. The Gaelic economy was primarily pastoral in nature, with milk-related products, such as butter and sour curds, forming the staple diet of the population; pigs and especially sheep were raised for additional food. Cultivation of oats and wheat existed in most lordships as a dietary supplement, and corn was regularly harvested in several lordships, but the extent of these practices varied greatly and was dictated by the quality and location of the land. The pattern of earlier English settlement in Ireland meant that Gaelic lordships tended to be located in terrain unconducive to widespread cultivation. Gaelic wealth was more often manifested in cattle (moveable property) than fields, and chiefs amassed vast numbers of four-footed chattel. Cattle, usually small and black, were well-suited to this environment, and the migration of communities from winter grazing lands to summer pasture, referred to as "booleying," was common in the purely Gaelic areas of Connacht and Ulster. This, coupled with a natural aversion to nucleated settlement, lent an impermanence or transience to Gaelic society that was often mistaken for nomadism by outside observers. Commercial activity was limited by the absence of a widely circulated native coinage, and with few Gaelic urban centers or sizeable port towns available to export surpluses, trade remained generally localized. Gaelic society, moreover, did not produce an identifiable merchant class, and the responsibility for trade was left to chiefs who rarely built their own ships and relied instead on the English infrastructure to carry their goods over long distances.

By contrast, the English economy at the same time was founded on a system of extensive tillage in which the town was the principal economic outlet for agrarian surpluses, mainly wheat and barley, produced in its hinterland. English areas of Ireland normally employed a three-crop rotation system: two fields in use in the growing season and the third left fallow. All towns held annual fairs with the purpose of selling their goods and attracting commerce, but it was the older quasi-autonomous, walled port towns, of which Dublin and Waterford were the largest, that fostered regular trading links abroad. Although Dublin was Ireland's most prosperous trading town, earning mainly through its trade with England about £80,000 annually, commercial traffic was distributed among over a half-dozen of these port towns. The southern and western ports—Waterford, Cork, and Galway—exported fish, beef, tallow, and animal hides to the Iberian peninsula and France, where wine, iron, salt, and other luxury goods were purchased to be sold in Bristol. Commerce, both internal and external, was further facilitated by the ready availability of specie: a mint in Dublin produced native coins in the king's name until its closure in about 1506; afterward, the English community imported its coinage from England. Barter was not uncommon, especially in areas removed from urban centers. Taken together, the independent economies of the counties and towns underpinned English society and government in Ireland. But the settled conditions implicit in this decentralized economic organization also forced English areas to adopt a defensive posture against neighboring Gaelic clans, whose tendency to prey upon the wealth of English settlements was long established. Thus the different forms of economic organization contributed to the development of a siege mentality among the English, who regularly erected physical barriers—castles, towers, and ditches—in an effort to protect their property from their Gaelic neighbors.

Yet these ostensibly separate economies were in fact linked. Neither Gaelic resentment of the upstart Gaill, nor repeated English legal measures prohibiting Englishmen from interacting with the Gaelic population, entirely succeeded in keeping these neighboring societies apart. Economic forces in sixteenth-century Ireland made commercial as well as cultural interaction unavoidable and led to a symbiotic relationship. The declining English population during the fifteenth century created a labor shortage on farmlands, and a greater proportion of Gaelic peasants were thus attracted to English areas to replace English tenants. This inroad into the lower levels of English agrarian society strengthened Gaelic customs and language in areas hitherto dominated by English culture, while concurrently introducing English agricultural methods to the Gaelic population. Overseas demand for animal products (such as skins, hides, and wool) and the lucrative taxes they yielded, united the English government, the port towns, and the Gaelic hinterland in a common economic interest. Similarly, demand for timber and other raw materials in English areas formed an important internal export from Gaelic areas. To meet this demand Gaelic chiefs traded in English coinage (they became quite adept at discerning the precious metal content of various coins following the Tudor debasement after 1534), and they routinely chartered English ships to carry their goods through English port towns. In areas where the Gaelic economy was inherently weak—urban and maritime trade or the production of coinage, for instance—the Gaelic population appropriated English economic channels in order to rise above traditional restrictions.

But Gaelic reliance on the English infrastructure adversely affected the development of independent growth within the Gaelic economy. There was no internal redistribution of these profits, and for many Gaelic lordships adjacent English settlements represented an irresistible and limitless source of goods and money from which they might exact tribute (known colloquially as "black rents") through the threat of depredation. More often, however, Gaelic clans would simply take by raiding what they did not produce. The Tudor administration, together with the local English gentry, responded by launching sporadic punitive expeditions into what they believed to be predatory or recalcitrant Gaelic lordships. This destructive aspect of Gaelic-English interaction bred unsettled conditions that limited the potential of the English economy in Ireland, while stunting economic growth in most Gaelic areas. The English population looked to the Crown to intercede on its behalf and repeatedly pointed to the economic benefits that would flow to England if the Crown's "Irish enemies" were fully subjugated.

The Tudor Conquest: The Catalyst for Economic and Social Change

By the mid-sixteenth century conciliatory efforts to integrate the Gaelic polity, both politically and economically, into the Tudor state had met with only limited success. The resort to coercive methods committed the Tudors to an unprecedented level of military expenditure, reducing the opportunities for capital investment or commercial development. Instead, the Tudors grudgingly financed an increasingly large standing army and a number of expensive military garrisons to protect and further English interests. Subventions from the English exchequer to support the army in Ireland had risen from negligible amounts prior to the Kildare rebellion in 1534 to £196,000 per annum by 1599. Gaelic lordships responded in kind and organized their economies to sustain a state of perpetual war. In the 1560s it was reported that Shane O'Neill had broken with Gaelic convention and armed the peasantry within his lordship. O'Neill's repeated confrontations with the Crown reveal also the strong economic and social links between Gaelic Scotland and Ulster, and the proclivity of chiefs in the latter to import large numbers of Scots mercenaries. In these unsettled conditions normal economic development was almost everywhere eclipsed by military necessity. The Tudor administration in Dublin recognized this and at the 1569–1571 Irish parliament enacted legislation encouraging the manufacture of processed commercial goods for export. Henry Sidney, as lord deputy, even attracted a group of Flemish tanners to relocate to Swords in north County Dublin in the 1570s. In the main, however, English attempts to diversify the economy at the local level were hampered by the predominance of soldiers and soldier-settlers over skilled craftsmen and artisans. In a society subject to bouts of political instability this was perhaps unavoidable; yet seen in a wider context, the Irish economy was displaying signs of improvement in the later sixteenth century.

Imports from England grew steadily, indicating greater domestic wealth and demand in Ireland, and the government's tax receipts also reveal an increase in profits from exports. This can be attributed to the fact that the walled port towns—the engines of the English economy in Ireland—were insulated from much of the political instability that plagued inland areas. And as inflation soared in England, Irish prices remained comparatively low, thus allowing Ireland a competitive advantage over its principal trading partner. For the Gaelic polity the increasingly militarized political environment, coupled with deteriorating relations with the Tudor state, brought about closer contact with continental powers and continental economies. Importation of supplies and ultimately arms and munitions from abroad, however, at once bolstered the economic strength of the English port towns and contributed to Irish resistance.

The suppression of broad-based Gaelic opposition in 1603, and the resulting extension of royal authority throughout Ireland in subsequent years, enabled the new Stuart monarchy to begin a gradual process of demilitarizing Irish society. Tudor observers had long agreed that the destruction of what they believed to be the tyrannical Gaelic noble class would liberate the allegedly tractable and hard-working Gaelic "churl," or peasant, allowing him to assimilate more fully to English culture. But the arrival of a mainly Protestant New English settler class, originally intended to serve as a model for its Gaelic neighbors, proved provocative instead. By 1600 significant amounts of land formerly held of Gaelic lordships had been transferred or mortgaged to English settlers, and as the threat of Gaelic rebellion seemed to recede, this trend accelerated.

The Ulster plantation, begun in 1607, followed the example of earlier, less extensive Tudor plantations in the midlands and in Munster, but reflected English dominance in this once purely Gaelic district. The aim of plantation was to effect swift economic and social change in Gaelic areas. The extension of a standardized English system of landholding and property rights ran concurrently with the transfer of land, and English cultural norms like primogeniture replaced the Gaelic custom of partible inheritance. In some respects the transfer of land from native to newcomer was more apparent than real, for many Gaelic lords in the late sixteenth century had voluntarily adopted the English system of landholding and stayed on as landowners. In other cases, English landowners were absentees, and the native population continued to live and work on their traditional lands without interruption. As Irish society was demilitarized after 1603, the English economy became dominant, destroying the remnants of an independent Gaelic economy and many of its social foundations.

The Unification and Growth of the Irish Economy in the Seventeenth Century

The early seventeenth century was characterized by steady population growth and substantial economic expansion. The population of Dublin alone grew from less than 10,000 people in the late sixteenth century to nearly 50,000 in 1690. The southern and western port towns underwent similar, though less dramatic, expansion. A large labor supply allowed exports of hides, yarn, and particularly unfinished wool to increase significantly. In the late 1580s Ireland exported between 1,400 and 2,800 pounds of wool a year; in 1639, more than 93,000 pounds of wool were exported. Local merchants established commercial fishing centers in Munster to begin harnessing this lucrative natural resource that had long been dominated by foreign interests. Increasingly, large numbers of trees were felled for export in Ireland in dwindling forested areas in Wicklow, south Derry, and parts of Munster. It was, however, the export of cattle and other livestock that became the dominant feature of the Irish economy in the early seventeenth century. More than 15,000 animals were being exported annually to Chester alone by the 1630s. Compared with the negligible amount of livestock exported in the sixteenth century, and taken together with marked increases in population and exports, the Irish economy appears to have undergone a substantial transformation. But the economy was not so much transformed as unfettered from the political instability and economic divisions that had limited its potential in the previous century. The extension of royal authority and the integration of the Gaelic economy had allowed for more efficient exploitation of Ireland's existing resources, while the continued absence of an Irish mint ensured that trade outstripped the production of money. This created a deflationary and, in effect, competitive economy.

The outbreak of war in 1641, however, revealed that the ethnic and religious differences thought to have been permanently resolved by military conquest in 1603 were still capable of causing serious political unrest and vast economic damage. The rebellion, originally conceived in Ulster as an armed protest over property rights and religious freedom, resulted in the sectarian massacre of several thousand settlers there before spreading slowly throughout Ireland. In the half-century following the destruction of the Gaelic hierarchy, with its emphasis on armed personal followings and communal landed possessions, individual ownership of land within the English legal system had become the primary measure and source of wealth. Rumors of a future confiscation of lands by the increasingly anti-Catholic English parliament pushed the predominantly Catholic Gaelic and Old English populations toward making common cause with royalist supporters in the English civil war. The following decade (1641–1655) brought war-induced plague, famine, and depopulation; trade was brought to a near-standstill, and the Irish economy was devastated. Such political and economic instability provoked the subsequent Commonwealth government to undertake an even more extensive land redistribution scheme in 1652–1655 than any witnessed hitherto. It has been estimated that in 1641, 61 percent of profitable land was in the hands of Catholic landowners, but that by 1688 the figure had fallen to a mere 27 percent. A major turnover in population, however, did not occur, for it was difficult to attract large numbers of English settlers to a war-torn and dangerous Ireland. Many Gaelic inhabitants either remained on their lands or drifted back to them after a few years. Yet the significance of the transfer of land from Catholic landowners to mostly English Protestants should not be underestimated. The land settlement utterly transformed landownership and laid the foundation for the estate system that survived intact until the late nineteenth century. On another level the concentration of Ireland's landed interests in a class closely affiliated with the Protestant administration in England caused Ireland to become more fully integrated into the English economy after 1653, allowing for a speedy economic recovery in the decades that followed.

The dependence of the Irish economy on the English market in the 1650s and 1660s was clearly reflected in exports: in 1665, 75 percent of Irish exports were directed toward England. Cattle remained the principal export, but English cattle-breeders, disadvantaged by the favorable trade conditions extended to Irish imports, successfully lobbied Parliament to place restrictions on the number of cattle and sheep imported from Ireland. The resulting Cattle Acts, passed in 1663 and 1667, hastened a trend already underway toward the development of more diversified exports such as barrelled beef, wool, and butter. The English parliament's willingness to support these restrictions, however, highlights the subordination of the Irish economy to the English polity. Irish merchants and landlords, many of whom were English-born Protestants, had little choice but to practice economic diversification in the face of restrictions on livestock. The diversification of Irish exports, and the regional specialization that was required to furnish the market with more labor-intensive products such as butter or wool, prompted a reorganization of the economy as merchants relied more heavily on inland market towns to direct their goods for export from expanding urban centers like Dublin, Cork, and Belfast. Diversification was also evident in the destination of Irish exports after 1667. A flourishing trans-Atlantic trade developed to the West Indies and the American colonies. Ireland exported barrelled beef and livestock and imported large quantities of tobacco. In 1665 Ireland imported 1,818,000 pounds of tobacco; and by the mid-1680s an average of 2,850,000 pounds were arriving annually. The continental market was also developed, and France in particular imported large amounts of Irish butter. By 1683 only 30 percent of Irish exports were directed toward England. Thus by the 1680s the Irish economy had sufficiently reorganized itself both internally and externally to meet a changed economic relationship with England and was showing signs of unprecedented prosperity. Though the outbreak of the Williamite wars in 1689 served as a reminder of Ireland's continued political subordination to England, physical destruction and depopulation were not extensive, and the Irish economy emerged largely unscathed.

In the two centuries after 1500 the economy and society of Ireland underwent an important transformation. The Tudor conquest ended centuries of political uncertainty and paved the way for the integration of the Gaelic economy and society into a developing British state that stretched to the New World. The Irish economy responded positively to the more settled political conditions ushered in by the extension of English rule. Merchants, both Gaelic and English, could now draw upon Ireland's once separate economies and channel their resources toward a single commercial goal. After 1641, however, it was clear that the conquered Gaelic society, and to a lesser extent the Catholic Old English community, had become marginalized in an increasingly commercialized Irish economy that revolved around the possession of land dominated by British Protestants. As Aidan Clarke has noted, the economic gains of the seventeenth century "accrued to individuals, while the social cost was borne by the conquered community" (p. 186). This calls into question the extent to which economic and social change penetrated Irish society. In the 1680s the Irish economy continued to be almost exclusively pastoral in nature, with 80 percent of outgoing trade emanating from livestock. Where once an Irish farmer sold his cattle to be fattened on English pasture, now he simply slaughtered them to sell as barrelled beef at home. Similarly, dairy products and wool were wholly dependent on livestock. In 1683, a good harvest year, grain and other crops contributed less than 4 percent to Ireland's total export trade. Sharp differences between English and Gaelic society also continued to be apparent into the 1680s. It was more likely for people of British descent to occupy the more fertile districts, to participate in local government, and to own land. The native Irish, moreover, were still dismissed by British society as a barbarous people lacking civility. Thus in some respects the Irish economy and society in 1690 bore a striking resemblance to conditions in the early sixteenth century. This qualification, however, should not overshadow the profound changes that had occurred during this crucial period when Ireland became fully integrated into a developing British state.

SEE ALSO Agriculture: 1500 to 1690; Protestant Immigrants; Urban Life, Crafts, and Industry from 1500 to 1690


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