Urban Life, Crafts, and Industry from 1500 to 1690

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Urban Life, Crafts, and Industry from 1500 to 1690

At the outset of the sixteenth century the town was the center of economic activity in Ireland. There were about fifty towns of some size in Ireland around 1500, and they contained roughly 10 percent of the island's population. But the principal towns that supported small-scale manufacture of crafts and goods for export numbered no more than a dozen. Chief among them was Dublin, Ireland's only true city. In Dublin was concentrated the governing apparatus of the Tudor state in Ireland linking the regional capitals of Waterford, Galway, Cork, Limerick, and Carrickfergus—and other large country and market towns—to England. The majority of these towns were located on sites that had originally been settled centuries earlier by the Vikings, and they were situated at the head of important estuaries or bays. These ports, in marked contrast to the dispersed settlements common in old Gaelic districts, came to be modeled on the towns of southeast England and maintained a recognizably English form of political, social, economic, and municipal culture. Thus the early Tudors relied heavily on the Irish towns both as trading posts and as cultural and military bastions of Englishness against the independent Gaelic lordships that dominated the rural hinterland beyond the protective walls and fortifications that surrounded all major Irish towns.

Urban Life under the Tudors

Most town dwellers in sixteenth-century Ireland were English subjects and of English extraction. In an effort to create a stable economic environment and to stimulate trade and manufacture, however, the Crown had devolved considerable powers to its subjects in the major urban centers. The Crown's confidence in its urbandwelling subjects reached its highest form of expression in the royal charters that granted an unusual degree of political autonomy to certain towns. A two-tiered system of municipal government, varying in scale and complexity according to the size of the town or city, was thus allowed to develop. In Dublin the first, or upper, tier consisted of a mayor, two sheriffs, and twenty-four aldermen, and the lower tier comprised forty-eight so-called sheriffs piers along with a further ninety-six nominees of the city's influential merchant and craft guilds. Political power and influence in Ireland's towns were concentrated in those men who occupied the limited number of high offices of municipal government and the most prosperous merchant families dominated these key positions.

In the larger urban centers political power was shared between a large number of families, but in the smaller towns, such as Galway or Cork, only a dozen or so families had the necessary wealth to occupy what were unpaid municipal posts. Fifteen wealthy merchant families known colloquially as the "tribes," for instance, governed Galway for centuries. And a sixteenth-century observer noted that in Cork the ruling elite "trust not the country adjoining, but match in wedlock among themselves only, so that the whole city is well nigh linked one to another in affinity" (Sheehan, p. 103). Such clannishness, however, was not solely because of a provincial desire to concentrate power among a privileged and established few. Rather, it resulted from the wider difficulties facing the urban population in Ireland. Citizenship of a town was a much sought-after distinction and might be obtained only through apprenticeship in the guilds, marriage to a daughter of a citizen, heredity, or a special dispensation of the city council. People of Gaelic origin and women were restricted from becoming citizens, and Irish towns, particularly those furthest removed from England, often found it difficult to attract sufficient numbers of English immigrants either to enrich or to sustain their populations. Self-government was thus firmly entrenched in Ireland's large towns but was the exclusive domain of the rich. The ruling merchant families of Ireland's smaller towns had little recourse but to become closed and self-perpetuating entities in order to maintain uninterrupted self-government.

A testament to the effectiveness of self-government was the lack of internal challenges to the political and social hierarchy in the towns as the sixteenth century progressed. When external forces threatened the towns' autonomy—as happened during the Kildare rebellion (1534) and the Munster and Leinster rebellions (1579–1583)—the majority of Ireland's urban dwellers remained steadfastly loyal to the Crown. Behind their imposing walls the larger towns were mostly insulated from the political turmoil that characterized the extension of Tudor rule in Ireland, and urban life continued to revolve around the twin pursuits of religion and economic activity. The religious calendar dominated urban life with dramas and festivals staged to mark the passing of important religious occasions. These festivals nurtured a visible form of communal cultural identity that also manifested itself in the establishment of almshouses and hospitals as well as in the construction of primary and secondary schools. Significant advances in architecture under the early Tudors broke up the narrow, dark, and curving medieval streets that were common features of early Irish towns. Important religious sites, such as Saint Nicholas's Church in Galway, and secular buildings, such as the belfry tower and the city gates in Kilkenny, were either extended or re-edified in a more elaborate style known as late Irish Gothic (a subcategory of English Gothic).

It was economic activity, however, that most dominated the lives of Irish urban dwellers. Towns, but particularly the port towns, served as markets through which the raw materials produced in the hinterland might be exported to foreign markets. The export trade was an important source of income, and most towns held at least one fair annually. Not surprisingly, the power and influence of the merchant guilds increased sharply during the sixteenth century through the concurrent exploitation of the economic and political liberties that were enshrined in the royal charters, the flow of raw materials from the countryside, and the appetite for Irish raw materials in foreign markets.

On the other hand, the rapid rise in exports and the resulting growth of the merchant guilds tended to undermine urban manufacturing. Craftsmen represented by the guilds simply could not compete with a robust export market that sought only unfinished goods. Thus millers, tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, brewers, distillers, and other craftsmen produced their products for mostly local consumption. The demand for hats, gloves, household pottery, wooden tableware, or luxury items such as looking-glasses and playing cards was met through imports from England or the Continent.

In the late 1560s the government of Sir Henry Sidney attempted to curb the export of Irish raw materials and the reliance on foreign imports through the imposition of heavy duties on exports in order to stimulate the growth of an indigenous manufacturing sector. Sidney believed the towns to be the cornerstones of English rule in Ireland. He reasoned that the export of Irish materials to foreign markets ultimately limited the potential of Ireland's urban centers and unnecessarily strengthened the economies of rival countries, where unfinished Irish goods were processed before being re-exported to Ireland (at much higher prices) as luxury items. But because of nearly continuous Gaelic resistance to the imposition of Tudor rule, coupled with the outbreak of more serious rebellions in the early 1580s and late 1590s, the Crown sought to avoid alienating Ireland's loyal urban towns. The government's half-hearted efforts to reverse this economic trend failed to bolster the craft guilds, and the export of raw materials and the import of finished goods remained the dominant feature of urban life into the late sixteenth century. The nature of Tudor rule in Ireland, however, was changing: tensions had begun to develop between the large number of Protestant "New English" immigrants who dominated the increasingly centralized Tudor administration in Ireland and the preponderantly Catholic urban hierarchy that controlled municipal government and the export trade.

The Seventeenth Century: A Period of Transition

Unlike their Tudor predecessors, the Stuarts inherited a fully conquered Ireland in 1603 and were less willing to acquiesce in a quasi-autonomous English urban population. Lord Deputy Mountjoy set the tone for this new relationship in 1603 when a delegation from Waterford refused him and his troops entry into the town, citing the municipal privilege enshrined in Waterford's centuries-old foundation charter. Mountjoy rudely responded that "he would cut King John's charter in pieces with King James's sword and if he entered the town by force, he would ruin it, and strew salt upon the ruins" (Sheehan, p. 110). The preponderantly Catholic inhabitants of many of Ireland's towns—with the notable exception of Dublin—had vainly adhered to the hope that James VI's accession to the English throne would see their political autonomy respected and Catholicism restored. But it quickly became clear that the Jacobean government intended no such thing. The Crown began legal proceedings against Dublin, Drogheda, Waterford, and Limerick in 1607 to review the rights enshrined in their respective charters, and the result was the levy of government taxes on all the towns' exports, together with the appointment of royal officers to most ports by 1612. Efforts were also made, particularly in the newly opened districts such as Ulster, to loosen the grip of the established urban hierarchy through both the development of new urban centers, populated by new English Protestants, and the encouragement of indigenous manufacture.

The Crown's attempts to transform urban areas into loyal but politically and economically subordinate bastions of Protestantism were largely unsuccessful. The hope that the planted urban population in Ulster would replicate the cultural and economic successes that had developed naturally over centuries in the older towns was dashed as the tide of new English settlers gravitated toward the more lucrative rural areas. Craftsmen too were drawn to the abundance of cheap land and readily adopted the novel status of landowner. Thus the newly created towns struggled both to attract a sustainable population and to promote manufacturing; the established urban hierarchy in the older urban centers, meanwhile, maintained a measure of municipal control and continued to dominate the booming export trade that had lately come to rely more heavily on cattle. In Dublin, however, the long-standing urban hierarchy had been consistently losing ground to new English interests for decades. And as the city entered a period of rapid expansion in the early seventeenth century, it was the sizeable Protestant mercantile community that came to dominate urban life. This religious and cultural divide between Dublin and Ireland's other major towns was brought into sharp relief during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s, when much of the urban population outside Dublin supported the Catholic Confederates.

From 1649 to 1660 the Catholic urban population lost control of municipal government and, crucially, was no longer permitted to engage in trade. During the rebellion of 1641 gold, armor, arms, and other provisions had passed through the port towns to the rebels from Europe. In many urban centers the Protestant population had suffered intimidation, and in Wexford bibles were publicly burned. The Cromwellian council at Dublin in 1656 took measures to ensure that this would not happen again and ordered that all "Irish Papists" were to be removed from port towns and not to be allowed to reside within two miles of any town. But in the absence of sufficient numbers of Protestants to replace the Catholic population (particularly in the more remote towns), such proclamations proved impossible to enforce and many Catholics remained. Urban life, however, had been utterly transformed as new English Protestants occupied the key offices of municipal government and set about changing the physical and cultural environment of Ireland's urban centers.

This transformation was most obvious in Dublin, where the rapidly expanding population, two-thirds of which were estimated to have been Protestant by 1685, soared to 60,000. Inhabiting a bustling center of manufacture and trade and the seat of national government, the population of Dublin in the late seventeenth century had access to a university, a second cathedral, a college of physicians, a theater, and a philosophical society. But change was not limited to Dublin. Unfettered from the constraints of stone-built defensive fortifications, the new urban dwellers constructed more uniform towns with houses situated on streets that were wider, straighter, and less densely populated. The transformation of the physical environment in Irish urban centers mirrored the cultural changes consequent on the arrival of large numbers of Protestant immigrants in the mid-seventeenth century. By the end of the seventeenth century urban life in Ireland had been brought more closely into line with urban culture in England, and these once independent hubs of economic activity had become wholly subordinated to an expanding British commercial market.

SEE ALSO Economy and Society from 1500 to 1690; Protestant Immigrants


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Christopher Maginn

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Urban Life, Crafts, and Industry from 1500 to 1690

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