An Educational Charity | Charity Reg. No. NIC100280
+44 (028) 9066 1988 |
Charitable Objectives

Manufacturing & Mining

Textiles were the principal manufacture, and they were universal throughout Ireland. While luxury materials were manufactured in Dublin, with the support of parliament and the encouragement of the Royal Dublin Society, the principal textile industries were wool and linen.



A comparatively small silk manufacture, developed by the Huguenots at the end of the seventeenth century, had a moderate success at the beginning of the eighteenth. But it was a value-added industry depending on imported raw materials, producing a product for the luxury market, which was not only inelastic but fickle and attracted to foreign goods imported either legitimately from England or illegitimately from France. Silk manufacture was largely confined to Dublin, except for a small silk-weaving industry in Lisburn that operated throughout the century before it finally closed during the 1798 rebellion.

The industry's presence in the capital ensured that slumps were well publicised for, while the workers' distress attracted compassion, the potential for unrest among the unemployed was a matter of urgent administrative concern. In times of hardship attempts were often made to stimulate demand by social events at which garments of Irish material and manufacture were expected to be worn. For instance, Mrs Delany attended Court at Dublin Castle on the Princess of Wales's (George III's mother) birthday in 1745, and wrote that many of those present including the vicereine, Lady Chesterfield, were dressed in Irish materials. It was a period of great distress, as 'all trade has met with a check this year.' Those attending the King's Birthday Ball the following January were similarly attired, 'except 5 or 6 who wore [imported] silk, and they were not distinguished to their honour. The men were not so public-spirited as the ladies - most of them were in their foreign finery.' In 1780, another period of hardship, a doggerel verse of many stanzas was circulating to the effect that:

Nor richest squire, nor proudest peer,
Need scorn our humbler homespun gear;
No stuff on earth will wear and tear
Like Irish Manufacture282

The fluctuating fortunes of the industry make it difficult to assess its extent accurately over any length of time. In 1730 there were said to be between 300 and 700283  silk looms in Dublin, but in 1760, under competition from new fashion materials such as Indian muslins, the number was stated to have fallen to 53. Among the Catholic merchants known to be in Dublin between 1778 and 1782 there were seven silk manufacturers, two silk mercers and 12 silk weavers, making a total of 21: there were 27 wool weavers and a total of 53 people involved in the woollen industry as a whole, and the same number, mainly drapers, in the linen industry.284  In 1791-3 more than 20 members of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen were involved in the silk manufacture.285

In 1764 the Dublin Society determined to revive the industry. To assist in its marketing the Society opened a warehouse in Parliament Street, which, in 1776, offered a 3 per cent premium on Irish silks.286  This resulted in a temporary revival, but, as imported silks continued to be in demand, the industry declined again. Then, in 1779, an attempt was made to control the cost of labour by giving the Dublin Society, the de facto patron of the industry, the power to fix fair wages. But this gave the labour component a rigidity that did not fit with market forces, and when parliament inquired into the industry in 1784 it learnt that about half of the looms were idle and 3,000 people were unemployed. Finally in 1786 the silk warehouse was closed, with the intention of applying the money in other ways. Thereafter the industry, always responsive to the slumps and booms of the market, lingered on.287

The Irish silk weavers did have some success in developing poplin - an attractive material with a silk warp and worsted weft. Poplin and glove-making - 'they make mighty good gloves here; but I shall not be able to send you any; they are prohibited' - were part of a luxury market to which the mercantalist restrictions imposed by the British government gave an inherent inelasticity.288


The spinning of wool or flax, depending on the area, was almost universal throughout the country. However, the development of the two industries was very different and raises questions to which there are no conclusive answers. For instance, both were affected by the British mercantilist system and the industrial revolution. England, following the theories of the mercantilists, attempted to balance her own produce with that of her colonies and, through the Navigation Acts, to make England the entrepôt of imperial trade. Staples such as Virginian tobacco and West Indian sugar were encouraged and protected within the imperial market. From medieval times the woollen industry had enjoyed a pre-eminent place in the English economy: significantly, the Lord Chancellor sat on the woolsack, and Britain reserved for itself the export of wool and manufactured woollen goods.

In 1698, under pressure from the English government, the Irish parliament placed heavy duties on the export of manufactured wool in 10 Will. III, c. 5. A year later, in response to the continuing clamour of the English woollen merchants, who particularly feared the lower costs of Irish production, the English parliament passed an act (10 & 11 Will. III, c. 10 (Eng.)) specifically prohibiting the export of Irish woollen goods. The 1698 act had constitutional as well as commercial implications and produced an almost instantaneous reaction in William Molyneux's famous pamphlet The Case of Ireland being bound by Acts of Parliament in England stated (1699 ), which marks the first salvo in the eighteenth-century battle for Irish colonial nationalism.

Nevertheless, it was the export market, real or potential, that was in contention. The Irish home market for woollen goods was, and remained, unaffected throughout the century, and from time to time efforts were made to encourage it. Sometimes these bordered on the bizarre: for instance, in 1733 an act, 7 Geo. II, c. 13, was passed making it obligatory for corpses to be buried in a woollen shroud.289  However, the question remains that given the rapid development of the English woollen industry and the unforeseen impact of the industrial revolution in the second half of the century, could the Irish woollen industry have offered the English manufacturers effective competition outside the Irish home market anyway?290  The traditional argument that the woollen industry suffered because the governments in London and Dublin supported the linen industry is difficult to sustain.

Raw Irish wool was useful for mixing with French wool, and early in the century it was reputedly smuggled abroad - in quantities for which there are, of course, no reliable statistics - but, so far as can be deduced from the evidence available, the trade was probably modest in the late 1730s and very small before and after that time.291  By 1739 the early inventions of the industrial revolution, such as Kay's flying shuttle, were gaining recognition and the manufacturers of Yorkshire, Lancashire and East Anglia found that the production of the weavers was potentially in excess of the yarn available to them. Thus from about 1740 there was an elastic market in England for Irish woollen yarn,292  and in response to pressure from English manufacturers the British government removed the duties on Irish woollen and worsted yarn, leading to the absorption of any left over from home consumption. Imports of Irish wool and yarn had previously been restricted to Exeter and the south-west ports beyond Land's End, but further pressure in 1752 and 1753 opened ports that had previously been closed. Thus by the middle of the century Irish woollen exports had become complementary to the English woollen manufacturing industry. It is difficult to believe that this could have been prevented. Ultimately mechanisation was to have severe social effects on the traditional textile industry, but in its early eighteenth-century stages technological improvements actually increased demand for Irish yarn, thereby absorbing any surplus left over from home consumption.

In Ireland, the woollen industry was largely centred in the south, where it was dominated by the Quakers. 'The poor Catholics in the south of Ireland spin wool very generally,' wrote Arthur Young in the 1770s, 'but the purchase of their labour, and the whole worsted trade is in the hands of the Quakers of Clonmel, Carrick, Bandon, &c.' At this time more than £200,000 worth of wool was purchased every July at the great fair at Ballinasloe, Co. Galway. Raw wool was sent to Cork not only from Ballinasloe but also from other parts of the country; Young reported that as many as 500 cars (the small two-wheeled Irish carts) had been seen in a line. The manufacturers would collect it from Cork for putting-out to the local peasants, who spun it into yarn for the English market. Describing the organisation of yarn spinning as it had developed in the late 1770s in Co. Cork, Young wrote that:

Spinning is the general business of the women: they spin infinitely more wool than flax ... In the little towns of Doneraile, Mitchelstown, Mallow, Kilworth, Kanturk and Newmarket are clothiers who buy up the wool, employ combers in their houses, who make considerable wages and when combed they have a day fixed for the poor to come and take it in order to spin it into worsted and pay them by the ball by which they earn one penny three-farthings to two pence a day.293

Subsequently, most of the yarn was exported through Cork or Dublin to Manchester and Norwich. Young valued the export of woollen yarn from Cork at £300,000 p.a. Quantitatively, annual exports of worsted yarn rose from 12,849 stone in 1698 to 150,000 stone in the early 1760s (1 stone = 6.35 kg); although woollen goods had fallen from about 30 per cent to 7 per cent of exports as a whole, these figures give some indication of the expansion of trade during the period. By this time smuggling of raw wool had long been minimal; instead French agents bought up some of this yarn 'at a vast price ... but even this does not amount to £40,000 a year'.294

Wool for the home market was manufactured into friezes or serges. This was a cottage industry, and the weavers lived in cabins throughout the country. In some areas the women supplemented the family income by knitting stockings. From this they could earn from 12-18d a week. Woollen cloth was woven in narrow widths to suit the looms, usually 16-36 inches depending on the type of material. A more sophisticated manufacture of broadcloths and ratteens for the home market developed at Carrick-on-Suir. In the late 1770s, it was estimated that it employed 300-400 people.295  The Dublin Society was anxious to encourage the development of the industry, and in 1773 opened a woollen warehouse in Dublin to assist in marketing woollen cloth.


Under the mercantilist system linen was viewed as Ireland's contribution to imperial trade, and as such it received the support of the imperial government. The linen industry, like the woollen industry, was keyed into the demands of the English textile industry and benefited from its rapid development during the eighteenth century. For example, Ireland provided yarn for the Lancashire linen and particularly for the early cotton industry, where it was used to strengthen the weft. During the seventeenth century various attempts had been made to encourage the Irish linen industry, but none of them had succeeded in bringing it to the point of sustained development.

Traditionally much of its eighteenth-century success has been attributed to the part played by the Huguenot refugees in developing the industry, and especially to Louis Crommellin and the colony that he settled around Lisburn in 1698. In part this attribution has resulted from the convergence of three events: the English government's decision to encourage the linen and discourage the woollen manufacture in Ireland, the desire to encourage protestant settlers in general and Huguenots in particular, and the fortuitous arrival of Crommellin at this time. Anxious to encourage both Huguenot settlement and the linen industry, the Irish administration gave considerable financial support to Crommellin's settlement at Lisburn, where a ready source of motivated labour was available in the surrounding counties.

Crommellin's system was to establish colonies of weavers and control their production through supervision and the provision of raw materials. Enterprising landlords followed his example and introduced colonies of weavers into an area in the same way, thereby ensuring supplies and marketing and also instruction for their tenants. Throughout the century this supervised system existed along with the independent weaver. However, in 1707, Crommellin's community was scattered by the great fire at Lisburn, and thereafter local rather than Huguenot names predominate in the linen manufacture of the area. Nevertheless, the Huguenots' contribution was a quantum jump in the development of the industry, for their particular skill lay in producing fine linens. By 1736 when another Huguenot, de Joncourt, with the encouragement of the Linen Board, established a cambric manufactory at Dundalk296  the standard of weaving fine and often elaborately patterned linens was well established.297

In 1700 linen, hemp and flax accounted for 8.4 per cent of Irish exports, while wool accounted for 30.2 per cent. By the late 1790s the picture was startlingly different: 56.5 per cent of exports were of linen and related goods, while wool and woollen goods had fallen to 1.2 per cent. From a meagre base at the beginning of the century, the linen industry had come to dominate Irish textile manufacture by its close. It also became concentrated in the northern half of the island, and in particular in the north-east. Some landlords, such as Thomas Adderley at Innishannon and Sir Richard Cox at Dunmanway, established settlements of weavers in Co. Cork, and there was a small enclave of spinners and weavers who prospered there, exporting their linen through Cork. There was also a home market for linen, particularly for the narrow and coarser bandle types. Fine linens were produced in the 'linen triangle' - south Antrim, central and west Down and north Armagh.

The main linen spinning and weaving counties remained north of Dublin. The reason for the mainly northern location of the industry is unclear, for it came neither with the Scots nor with the Huguenots, although both made a substantial contribution to its eighteenth-century success. Certainly the Ulster landlords were supportive,298  but they were not unique in wishing to raise the incomes of their tenantry. Conditions of work and the reasonable assurance of markets may have suited the cautious, independent temperament of the Ulster people, while the woollen manufacture may have been more established in the other provinces and the peasantry more conservative.

The linen manufacture was organised within the family hierarchy. The father wove, did the marketing and any business associated with it, and trained his sons when they were of an appropriate age. The men also did some supplementary farming or fishing, depending on the locality and circumstances. The mother looked after the house, spun the flax, taught the younger children to prepare it for her, and in due course trained her daughters in her skills.299  Diverse family circumstances might modify this basic pattern, but in 1825 the Select Committee on the Linen Trade of Ireland was told that:

The linen trade is so constituted in Ireland and the capital so subdivided and spread abroad over the population ... [that] to alter it (were it even desirable) you must recast the state of society ... It is now a mixture of agriculture and manufacture, and I think it tends greatly to the health and morali­ty of the people.300

Despite its social virtues, the linen industry was not immune to the commercial imperatives of industrialisation. However, technological development delayed the recasting of society until the mid-nineteenth century, by which time the industry was resilient enough to survive it.

The Linen Board. The industry did not have the smooth beginning that its later success might suggest. In 1709 its condition had degenerated to such a point that parliament decided to investigate it. A Select Committee was appointed, and reported that 'It was in a declining condition, by reason the Acts already passed for the encouragement thereof have not fully answered the ends for which they were made.'301  As a result of this Report, parliament allocated funds for the encouragement of the linen manufacture, 9 Anne, c. 3. At the same time it established the Linen Board for distribution of the funds and for the general oversight of the industry. The Board is of particular interest because it is a very early example of a government encouraging commercial development by providing a supporting educational and regulatory infrastructure. The industry had many facets both in stages of production and marketing, and spinners, weavers, bleachers, manufacturers, and merchants at home and overseas all wished to see any group regulated but their own.

The Linen Board had 72 members, 18 representing each province. Membership was a much sought-after honour, and members were almost invariably members of one or other house of parliament. They were frequently deafened by assorted experts preaching contradictory theories. Attendance was, as with other public bodies, voluntary. The prestige of its members disarmed the unavoidable and sometimes justified criticism aroused by its activities, while the large membership allowed for the inevitably high rate of absenteeism. The quorum for conducting business was seven, and, given its unwieldy size and eighteenth-century conditions, the Board operated surprisingly successfully.

The large membership contained not only influence but expertise. For instance, from 1740 to 1763 the Board's legislation was drafted by Anthony Foster (0804 ), Baron and later Chief Baron of the Court of the Exchequer. Influence was useful in ensuring that legislation had an easy passage in both the Irish and British Privy Councils. To this end the Linen Board, in common with other eighteenth-century pressure groups such as the West Indian merchants, kept an agent in London to lobby in its interests and expedite its affairs.302

The educational duties of the Board involved the erection of spinning schools in areas that, it was hoped, would benefit from them. Usually the initial move to establish the school was made by the local landowner and the school was established under his or his wife's patronage. The request would be reviewed by the Board, which might send an inspector, known as an 'itinerant man'. For approved schools the applicant provided the building, a spinning mistress and the flax to spin. So long as there were 12 to 20 children to be taught, the Board supplied the school with spinning-wheels.303  In return the patron or patroness marketed the finished goods and was entitled to keep any profits from selling the yarn. For each child instructed the spinning mistress received 6s a year from the Board, while the child's parents received 6d a week for his or her food and clothing. To obtain these payments the schoolmistress submitted a quarterly return sworn before the parish clergyman or a Justice of the Peace. Furthermore, to prevent fraud, the itinerant man was expected to check on every school within his district once a quarter, varying the days of his visitation. He was to inspect the attendance register and note and discover the cause of any absences, for which deductions would be made, and he was to forward the register to the Board. This scheme had a built-in defect: it was in the interests of both parents and teacher to falsify the attendance roll. Children who could already spin were sent to or kept at school to get the child allowance and to augment the mistress's salary, and there were many more complicated frauds than this simple arrangement.304

Regulating a dispersed cottage industry, with no guild structure to fall back on, was difficult. Quality control involved not only the production of the linen but also its bleaching, with potential to injure the cloth. The bleaching season was from March to October and the bleachers were anxious to acquire a stock of webs for this period, during which the weavers were partly occupied in agricultural pursuits. Early in the century the webs were boiled in a mixture of potash (barilla) and buttermilk - this was replaced by diluted sulphuric acid in the 1760s. Finally, the web was rinsed in cold water. Labour-saving wash mills, rubbing boards and beetling mills (to give the linen a glossy finish) appeared in the 1730s.305

In both cultivation and preparation, flax was very labour-intensive and a task for the entire family. The ground required extensive preparation before flax could be sown, and when harvested it had to be hand-pulled by the roots. It was then soaked (retted) for about a fortnight in water-filled pits or dams to allow the fibres to be separated from the wooden core. As it retted it filled the countryside with a distinctive smell. Water-powered scutching mills to separate the retted flax were known from the 1730s, but not widely used until the 1760s.

The Linen Board drew most of its income from three sources: the proceeds of certain customs and excise duties or their commutation, annual parliamentary grants, and special grants for specific non-recurring purposes. Its original income came, appropriately, from import duties on calico and linen. These produced about £1,600 p.a. and in 1719, 6 Geo. I, c. 7, they were augmented by the more lucrative duties on tea, coffee, chocolate and cocoa. These, particularly the duties on tea and coffee, rose as the century progressed. Eventually they were commuted into an annual sum of £10,350 p.a. Income from the remaining duties was increased by a grant of the import duty on linseed oil and an export levy on untanned hides. In 1780 the bounty on imported flax-seed was similarly commuted for £7,250 p.a. The Board had other resources, as in 1723 parliament made a direct annual grant of £2,000 p.a., 10 Geo. I, c. 2. A decade later this was augmented by a further £2,000 p.a., specifically earmarked for encouraging the lagging industry in Leinster, Munster and Connacht, 7 Geo. II, c. 10. One-off grants to the Linen Board included £3,000 in 1721-3 towards the cost of erecting the Linen Hall in Dublin, and a further £540 in 1741  to purchase ground for its expansion.306

In 1788 the total income of the Board was £21,600 Irish p.a., with some minor additions. In 1800 this sum was computed as £19,938 sterling, and this was annually voted at Westminster until 1827, when it was reduced to £10,000 prior to the winding-up of the Board. By 1828, when the Board was dissolved, the parliament that created and sustained it had ceased to exist as a separate entity. The Board had gradually become moribund and the conduct of its business passed increasingly into the hands of its permanent officials. In large part this was because the industry had developed its own momentum; new marketing techniques had evolved and new technology had changed its methods. Nevertheless, the Linen Board was, despite its failures, a remarkably progressive achievement for an eighteenth-century government, particularly given the lack of infrastructure and experience that largely accounted for its problems. For instance, the problem of effective inspectorates was not successfully solved until the mid-nineteenth century.

Linen manufacturing and marketing. Although there was always a certain amount of 'putting-out' by middlemen, many of the weavers operated independently. They either grew and processed their own flax or purchased their yarn, selling their webs on the open market. In 1825 the term 'linen manufacturer' was explained to the Select Committee on the Linen Trade as one who 'does not work at the loom himself, but who buys his yarn and gives it out to weavers employed by him to be woven into cloth, which he sells himself in the public market'.307  At the beginning of the century the linen draper was the key figure in marketing. He bought the brown webs, contracted with the bleachers to bleach and finish them, and then arranged for their sale. By 1728, when the Dublin Linen Hall was built, the bleachers had begun to combine their finishing role with the marketing role of the draper; by the 1760s they dominated the industry.

The manufacturer's role was slightly different, as he was essentially a middleman who was willing to tie up his capital in yarn, whereas the bleacher preferred to use his to modernise or expand his bleach greens. As the century progressed the markets became increasingly specialised and centred on certain towns such as Banbridge, Lisburn, Lurgan, Coleraine and Ballymoney. This encouraged the development of another class of middlemen, who bought webs in outlying districts and resold them at the major markets. Once the cloth was bought, it was bleached and the impurities removed on the bleachers' bleach greens. This finishing process was concentrated in the east of Ulster, where it benefited from economies of scale and improved technology, particularly the use of chemicals for bleaching.

Merchandising linen required capital and credit and, because of the finance involved, for most of the century the finished white linens were brought from all over Ireland for sale at the Dublin Linen Hall. Young found that 'the linen manufacture is very general about Coleraine ... it is carried to Dublin in cars 110 miles, at 5s per cwt in summer and 7s 6d in winter.'308  In 1782, a serious and long-standing quarrel over the regulation of the manufacture finally erupted and ended the monopoly of the Dublin Linen Hall. No one quarrelled with the objective behind the dispute, which was to ensure the quality of the linen being offered at all levels to buyers. The dispute was over the means to achieve this end. The basic problem was that the marketing system did not allow adequate time to inspect the goods on offer, which could be fraudulent in measurement and defective in workmanship. The linen was brought to market by the weaver, who rolled it tightly except for a small showpiece known as the lap-yard. On the strength of this the bargain for the web was made, the draper's clerk writing the draper's name and the agreed price per yard on the cloth. Brown linen markets opened at 10 a.m. when a bell was rung, and closed at 4 p.m. - yarn sales began at 8 a.m. After the close of the market the webs were measured, the bargain finalised and the weaver paid in cash. Market prices fluctuated with supply and demand. But, as the bleacher or his agent might have bought as many as 60 webs, the cloth had often to be measured at such speed that the quality of the web was barely seen, let alone inspected. In 1796 De Latocnaye recorded that:

It is surprising to note the speed with which the linen merchants examine the cloth. They stand on a sort of platform with a little desk before them, while the peasants carry their webs past and stop for just a moment. The merchant looks, and immediately mentions a price; if it is accepted, he marks it on the cloth, and the peasant goes to the office for payment.309

The longevity of this system of independent selling through brown linen markets, and its persistence against the alternative of a putting-out system, is interesting. This preference for direct dealing possibly reflects the weaver's desire 'to be his own man', while it allowed the bleachers a greater freedom in price, selection and quality.

However, in an attempt to regulate the market at least to some extent, the Linen Board in 1733, 7 Geo. II, c. 9, 10, appointed lappers whose duty was to inspect the linen brought to market. An act of 1745, 19 Geo. II, c. 6, enjoined that cloth should be lapped (folded), rather like a table cloth, so that it could easily be opened for inspection. Both of these statutes created friction between the weavers and the linen drapers, and were allowed to lapse. But by 1759, rising complaints from English factors, and returned merchandise, indicated that the situation had become critical. The linen drapers pressed the Linen Board and parliament to make the 1733 and 1745 acts effective. The Linen Board responded by appointing brown linen seal masters, who were to inspect the webs before the market opened and, if they were of good even quality, to affix their seal. The seal master could charge a penny for every piece sealed. The northern weavers were furious, and when the law (33 Geo. II, c. 5) was to be enforced at the Lisburn market in May 1762, they rioted, beating up the drapers and damaging property.

However, popular opinion was against the weavers and the system was introduced but made more palatable by appointing respected weavers to be seal masters. This both appealed to the weavers' individualism and made the system self-policing, for the seal carried the seal master's name and reputation.310  Nevertheless, by 1782 corruption had again crept into the system. Part of the problem was that the War of American Independence had created a shortage of potash for bleaching and lime had been substituted. If lime was not to have a delayed destructive action on the cloth it had to be very carefully monitored, and this care was not always taken.311  In an attempt to restore the reputation of the manufacture, the Linen Board decided to withdraw the brown linen seals from the weavers and to make the bleachers responsible for sealing white linen. The bleachers were to accept the Linen Board's regulations and swear that they would not seal 'any linen that is mildewed, rotten, unmerchantable, or fraudulently made up, bleached or whitened, or ... any false length or breadth.' The bleachers were now furious, as they felt that if they had to affix their seal to all linens that were merchantable they could lose their individual reputations for supplying quality goods, built up over many years. Moreover, the northern drapers blamed the Dublin factors for the act (21 & 22 Geo. III, c. 35), and established their own white linen halls at Newry and Belfast.

In fact, the days of linen halls were virtually at an end. Many of the manufacturers no longer needed to trade through this intermediate facility. They had amassed sufficient capital to provide the credit required to trade directly with the English merchants. By the second half of the eighteenth century some bleachers, such as Thomas Christie of Moyallen, Co. Down, were wealthy. When Christie died in 1780 he left £2,000 to each of his five granddaughters, while his two grandsons inherited, in addition to various sums of money, 6,000 acres of land in North Carolina; finally, the core of his estate - the large bleach green and a considerable amount of property scattered throughout Ulster - was left to their father, his son-in-law. Another son-in-law and his children also received considerable legacies.312  Similarly, families such as the Clarks of Upperlands, Co. Londonderry were sufficiently prosperous to industrialise in the early nineteenth century. Industrialisation affected the linen industry comparatively late, although when it came, in the years after the famine, it brought the usual social and economic disruption - particularly to the weavers, many of whom rejected factory employment and turned back to farming.


In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a cotton industry flourished for a short period. Cotton started to be produced in Ireland around 1750. It developed out of a demand for mixed textiles, and initially it drew on the weaving and finishing skills of the silk and wool industries centred in Dublin and Cork. Although cotton ultimately led to the factory-based textile industry, originally it was spun on spinning-wheels designed for wool. By 1770 it had become the dominant industry among the women of Killarney, Co. Kerry, who spun for the Cork and Dublin manufacturers.313  From the late 1770s the Irish parliament gave increasing financial support to the development of Irish industry, and, encouraged by the Linen Board, cotton was established in Counties Dublin, Kildare, Meath, Carlow, Waterford and Cork before 1782.314

In the early and mid-1780s parliament voted considerable sums for industrial development: these amounted to £96,000 in 1785. Cotton shared in this largesse, and the continuing support of the Linen Board and the Royal Dublin Society produced funds to purchase spinning jennies and copy the use of the water-powered machinery developed in England in the preceding decades.315 Water-powered spinning factories began to appear in a number of towns and from 1790 to 1830 the cotton industry flourished, particularly in and around Belfast, where its expansion almost annihilated the linen manufacture - to which the rest of Ulster remained attached.316  In Belfast cotton spinning on jennies was initially supported by the Belfast Charitable Society, which, in 1777, decided to provide a trade for the children under its care.317  Thereafter Belfast made up for its slow start. Between 1760 and 1810 the number of linen looms in the town decreased from 400 to four, while the number of cotton looms rose from zero to 860. In 1800, 27,000 people in Belfast or its vicinity were estimated to be employed in manufacturing cotton. Moreover, it employed the new industrial technology effectively, as in the first decade of the nineteenth century there were 15 steam-engines driving 99,000 spindles, and in 1814 there were eight cotton mills.

The machinery required for a competitive cotton industry encouraged factory-based industrialisation.318  George Hamilton (0922 ) of Balbriggan, one of the Barons of the Exchequer, and Col. Talbot of Malahide introduced state-of-the-art machinery and induced migrants trained in the Lancashire mills to settle on their estates. At the same time Talbot encouraged weavers from Dublin to join his colony. The growth of combinations, and the ineffectiveness of the 1780 Anti-Combination Act, 19 & 20 Geo. III, c. 19, were causing concern to the authorities, who were justifiably worried at the potential excesses of the social unrest created by unemployment in the capital. The most elaborate and capitalised cotton development was Robert Brooke's mill in Co. Kildare, ill-named Prosperous in expectation of a success that did not materialise. He received a large parliamentary grant which carried the obligation to employ in and transplant to this rural development 2,000 city work­ers over a period of ten years.319

Brooke, an officer in the East India Company, stated that in setting up the enterprise he had mortgaged his own and his family's fortune to the extent of £40,000 and he received parliamentary grants amounting to £4,000, along with other support. He invested in a wide spread of related activities, including a textile machinery plant and housing scheme. These absorbed his capital without creating an adequate cash flow, although between 1781 and 1784 he sold 361 spinning jennies, with 25,750 spindles, that were widely used throughout the country. But, after the death of his brother and partner, he appears to have personally lacked, and been unable to acquire, managerial expertise in a highly competitive industry. For instance, Prosperous was hardly an ideal choice of site - it lacked a natural fall of water for the water-powered machinery. Finally, in 1786, the enterprise collapsed and Brooke went bankrupt.320  Early industrial history is full of similar stories, and Brooke's had a happier end than most, for he was speedily discharged out of bankruptcy, rejoined the East India Company and subsequently became Governor of St Helena.321

Other Industrial Ventures

Flour milling was a major industrial development,322  and between 1770 and 1814 large mills began to appear throughout the country. The most famous of the early ones was the water-powered flour mill at Slane, built between 1763 and 1770 and at a cost of £20,000 it represented a large capital investment. When Young visited Slane in 1776 it was owned by Col. Burton Conyngham (0303), MP for Ennis, in partnership with a Mr Jebb,323  who was also the mill manager, and another local landlord, Blayney Townley-Balfour (2094) of Townley Hall, MP for Carlingford.324  The land, on the Drogheda side of the bridge at Slane, had been leased from Lord Conyngham. Each partner had subscribed £1,500, and this £4,500 had been supplemented by £3,750 won on a lottery ticket. Further finance was raised locally, probably from landlords. Young also recorded visiting another mill of similar capacity, Captain Mercer's mill at Leighlin Bridge, Co. Carlow.325

Apart from their indication of an important stage in industrial development, mills like this also indicated an important stage in the commercialisation of flour milling and the marketing of both grain and flour. The early, smaller water mills had ground on commission, but the large mills now purchased directly from the farmers and traded to the local bakers, the Dublin market or wherever there was a demand. Thus corn was no longer ground in the lord's mill or at the baker's behest from his meal chest kept at the mill. Although grain and flour were not significant exports until the closing decades of the century, the Dublin market expanded with the city and these mills attracted investment from local merchants and landlords.326

Most towns had small-scale industries for local needs, such as breweries and distilleries. Malt was needed for both brewing and distilling. In 1785 there were 2,216 malt houses; by 1835 the number had reduced to 338 but production had doubled - economies of scale had increased productivity.327  In Dublin and Cork there were major enterprises such as Arthur Guinness's brewery in Dublin, founded in 1759,328  and Beamish & Crawford in Cork, and malt duty was an item of revenue (26 Geo. III, c. 3; 28 Geo. III, c. 21; 29 Geo. III, c. 25). The by-products of the brewery made valuable animal feed, particularly as keeping animals in urban conditions was a feature of eighteenth-century towns. Irish beer was subject to competition from English beer easily accessible by sea, and in the early 1790s the brewers campaigned to have the beer tax repealed for beer brewed in Ireland. The Irish parliament was supportive, and in 1795, 35 Geo. III, c. 19, the beer tax was repealed, although the malt tax remained. There was also a considerable sugar refining industry, particularly in Dublin. Edward Byrne, the richest Catholic merchant in the city, was a sugar refiner.

Minerals and Mining

Ireland was unfortunate in that it could not compensate for the diminishing woodland with alternative mineral discoveries and developments. This created a particular problem for the small iron-smelting industries. In the seventeenth century charcoal furnaces had been founded throughout the country, but these had virtually vanished by the late 1780s. As early as 1699 the House of Commons was considering a petition from the Dublin smiths on the scarcity of iron 'by reason of the small quantity thereof that is made here, but also that the little that is made is so extraordinary dear, and so very bad'. The blacksmiths were the jacks-of-all-trades, from shoeing horses to making pans. They requested an act to encourage the importation of pig-iron, pointing out that this would benefit not only them but the kingdom at large, by preventing the destruction of the remaining woods. Later in the century the Royal Dublin Society (founded in 1731 and incorporated in 1750), which was the channel for many parliamentary grants, offered premiums for both charcoal and bark substitutes, but satisfactory alternatives eluded them.

Turf and Coal

The Irish parliament was always anxious to encourage the discovery and development of viable mineral deposits. Apart from any industrial use, an adequate supply of fuel is a necessity of everyday life, and in Ireland its importance was further emphasised by the cold, damp climate. Ireland was chronically short of fuel; for example, Wakefield, writing about Co. Meath at the beginning of the nineteenth century, declared that:

Some parts of this country are very badly supplied with fuel. Each cabin requires at least twenty-five kishes [large wickerwork baskets] for the consumption of one winter ... one ton of coal is equal to fourteen kishes of turf at 4s 4d each and a ton of coal costs 34s.

Prices for turf were regulated by supply and demand. They appear high, but varied throughout the country; for instance, in Co. Westmeath Wakefield found that it was 2s 10d a kish at Mullingar, while at Reynella it was 1s. At Grange, Co. Limerick, the price was 1s 7d a kish, giving an average fuel bill of £2 per cabin per year. In Co. Fermanagh turf was delivered to the barracks at Enniskillen for 1s 4d a kish, while coal was shipped to nearby Ballyshannon for 31s 6d a ton (£1 11s 6d).331  Thus, when an estate included a bog, turbary rights were often a valuable part of the lease. Turf was usually cut from a bank332  and then stacked on the bog in such a way as to allow the wind to blow through and dry it. When it was dry it was brought home either in a kish on a man or animal's back or attached to a slide cart, which moved more easily over the tussocky surface of the bog. Turf burnt to a dusty ash with a soft glow and a pleasant smell, but no great heat. Throughout the century coal, readily available from England, was burnt on the east coast where a cash economy allowed its substitution for turf.

Quality, availability and marketing all enabled Britain to compensate for her diminishing forests with coal and iron. Irish coal seams had problems with both quantity and quality. The largest coal deposit in Ireland lies between Killarney and the Shannon estuary, west of Limerick. It is very difficult to mine and the mines are subject to flooding. In the late eighteenth century the Castlecomer coalfield, near Kilkenny, had an output of about 40,000 tons a year. Coal from it was transported via road to Athy and then by the Grand Canal to Dublin at a cost of just under 25s per ton. This was quite a large enterprise as the colliery employed 600 miners and a substantial number of overseers, carpenters and other support staff. Although the coal was actually extracted for about 10s per ton, Wakefield calculated that with the addition of freight and other charges the proprietors made less than £3,000 p.a. Furthermore, he considered that the coal's 'sulphurous quality renders it both disagreeable and pernicious to health', particularly for asthmatics, and he observed that old age was not common among the inhabitants of Kilkenny. But it was the local fuel, and 'the common people burn the coal in small grates of four bars and not quite a foot wide, and generally without a chimney.' Some of the citizens, including the Earl of Ormonde (who died at the age of 64), were reputed to be quite attached to this form of fuel.333

The two northern coalfields - Ballycastle, Co. Antrim and Coalisland, near Dungannon, Co. Tyrone - produced poor-quality bituminous coal. In 1736 Hugh Boyd, an able and energetic entrepreneur, acquired the rights to the Ballycastle coal-mine and, with substantial support from the Irish parliament, developed the town, building a glass furnace, an iron foundry, salt pans, a brewery and a tannery. However, despite the application of state-of-the-art technology, including the use of railroads to bring the coal out of the mine, it was only moderately successful. The parallel mines dug into the cliff face proved difficult to ventilate, and strong tides kept silting-up the harbour used for shipping the coal. By 1786 the town was described as 'decayed'. Nevertheless, the Boyd family were still mining coal in 1809, when Wakefield reported that Mr Boyd paid the miners 5s 5d per ton and sold it at the pit mouth for 10s 10d per ton - the measure worked by the miners being equivalent to 1.5 tons as sold at the pit entrance. Wakefield further calculated that the miners earned 1s 2d to 2s per day but they had perquisites of land at a moderate rent, grazing for their cows and fuel for their own use.334

The Co. Tyrone Coalisland colliery, which the Newry canal was originally planned to exploit, mined about 68,000 tons in 1809. This was sold at the pit-head for 16s 8d per ton. The Irish parliament, always anxious to find a local supply of coal for the expanding capital, offered a bounty for Irish coal transported to Dublin. The bounty covered the freight charge of 5s per ton - 4s from the pit to Newry via the canal, and 1s from Newry to Dublin as back cargo. The mine employed 140 miners who were paid £1 1s per week to work a five-foot seam approximately 210 feet underground. Unlike most mines, the Coalisland colliery remained operational throughout the century and beyond.335

The problem with Irish collieries was a combination of the quality of the coal and the economics of production. In some English collieries coal was delivered to the pit-head for as little as 3s per ton. Freight across the Irish Sea was comparatively cheap and many collieries, such as those in Lancashire and Wales, were within easy reach of the sea.


The Irish iron industry was essentially a fairly small-scale forge and foundry response to local needs. Its two main components, pig-iron and coal could be more cheaply imported than acquired locally. Arthur Young stated that in the 1770s there were foundries at Belfast, Newry and Dublin; although he 'believed there are no others in Ireland', this is very unlikely to have been the case. Young himself declared that Waterford had a foundry 'for pots, kettles, weights and all common utensils, while Messrs King and Tegent had a foundry, employing 40 hands, which produced heavy products including anvils and anchors'.336  At the end of the century there were three foundries in Cork and the environs. Smiths earned from 6s to 24s, while the more specialised nailers, for nails were handmade, earned from 10s to 12s a week.

Apart from such basic essentials as pots, pans, horseshoes and nails, iron was increasingly used in agrarian implements. The most universal of these was the spade, and there were innumerable variations of this common tool to suit conditions and customs. Spade manufacture was among the early beneficiaries of water-powered industrialisation, being undertaken locally in specialised spade mills.337  By the end of the century water-powered spade and splitting mills were fairly common. Despite attempts to produce iron locally, the pig-iron for the east coast foundries came mainly from Britain, where production costs were lower and sea transport cheap and convenient. Imported Swedish iron was used for work requiring high-quality metal.

Capital for the exploitation of mineral deposits was usually supplied by the local gentry and aristocracy. A fairly typical example of aristocratic entrepreneurship occurred at the beginning of the century, when Lord Shelburne had a number of small charcoal furnaces for smelting iron on his estate in Co. Kerry. Charcoal was the traditional smelting agent, for it contained only traces of minerals that might react disadvantageously with the iron ore. Water was essential for the forges to work the iron blooms and drive machinery. In 1701 Shelburne and John White erected two furnaces and a double forge at Blackwater, and in 1711 White sold his interest to Shelburne. By 1731 these ironworks and two others had yielded a profit of £27,000,338  but by 1755 they had all ceased to operate, probably because of deforestation.

In the early 1780s Young declared that the principal Irish smelting-furnace was at Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, and that:

Its produce annually, when at work may be about 300 tons ... there is another of the same sort at Mountrath, in the Queen's County, but from the great scarcity of charcoal it does not work above three or four months every third or fourth year; when this furnace is at work that at Enniscorthy is idle.339

The most capital-intensive attempt at establishing a viable smelting works in eighteenth-century Ireland was at Arigna, at the south end of Lough Allen. Here it was hoped that the combination of ore and coal might provide a suitable foundation for commercial success, and in the 1780s Mary Reilly and her sons installed a state-of-the-art plant at considerable cost. In 1789 they applied to parliament for a grant to offset at least part of the cost. The investigating committee reported positively, but lack of available funds forced the Chancellor of the Exchequer to quash the committee's recommendation. In 1793 the Reillys went bankrupt.340

At this point the Arigna enterprise was taken over by Peter La Touche (1207), MP for Co. Leitrim and a member of the famous Dublin banking family. He may have felt that the Reillys' failure had been caused by under-capitalisation and that they had been unlucky in the timing of their request for a parliamentary grant, or he may have been influenced by the potential of the uncompleted Royal Canal, since high transport costs had been a major factor in the Reillys' failure. Nevertheless, La Touche was equally unsuccessful and, before he handed the enterprise over to a Mr Roper, possibly lost as much as £80,000 on it, as he later claimed that the gates of Arigna iron on his estate had cost that amount.

The Arigna experiment was almost certainly doomed, but this is to view it in hindsight. To be commercially successful an iron industry requires, in addition to good quality iron ore, suitable fuel, an experienced workforce, and adequate markets and marketing facilities for a product of its weight and bulk. Apart from transport difficulties, there were probably major scientific problems resulting from fuelling the furnace with coal. Although iron ore is one of the commoner metals found on the earth's crust,341  it varies very considerably in type and quality and the presence or absence of ore is not necessarily an accurate guide to the potential success or failure of an iron industry. More importantly, iron is usually found in combination with other minerals, which blend with it during the smelting process and consequently affect the quality of the product. Coal also contains diverse minerals and, except under unusual circumstances, does not smelt satisfactorily without further treatment, usually coking, to remove unwanted elements. This chemical reaction was not fully understood at the time of the Arigna venture.

The Reillys probably felt bitter at the government's lack of support, for in May 1797 John Foster (0805), the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, received a letter warning him that:

The foundry which belonged to Mr La Touche at Rigna (some place in Connaught) ... they have settled principles of disloyalty there, and it is almost impossible to find a man in that quarter of the country who is not a United Irishman. Mr Reilly, who held the foundry before Mr La Touche, is most active in this business and gives the lower orders of the people every encouragement, and that he will, when it is necessary give them a cannon. It is understood he has eight pieces concealed. I hope the foundry has supplied him with no balls, of which care should be taken the men being all disaffected.342

Other Minerals and Exploration

The will-o'-the-wisp of potential mineral resources periodically revived by discoveries of coal, iron, copper, tin, lead, cobalt, manganese, and even silver and gold, has flickered through Ireland's economic development. Unfortunately, the seams of coal are flawed and the other mineral deposits have proved, often after repeated failures, not to have long-term commercial viability. The discovery of minerals is often circumscribed by their quantity, quality and ease of production. In this respect Irish mining ventures have had a more chequered career than those of many countries.

Wakefield, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, noted that there were formerly lead mines in counties Armagh, Down, Waterford and Dublin, and that mines were currently being worked at Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford and Glendalough, Co. Wicklow. The latter mine, he declared, 'amply repays the proprietors', Lord Henry FitzGerald and Lord Essex. The mining technology at Glendalough was state-of-the-art, using small trucks on railways for the miners to wheel the ore out of the mine, while the water flowing through the Glendalough valley powered the bellows of three coal-fired smelting houses producing 10 cwt of lead daily. The labourers were paid 10s per week for smelting crop ore, 12s for tail and 13s for sluggs or refuse. The lead was sent about 30 miles to Dublin in 1 cwt bars.343  Another lead mine was operated by Lord Leitrim near Errigal, Co. Donegal.344  An example of import substitution was the siliceous sand found in quantity at Muckish mountain. At the end of the century, it was being shipped to Belfast for use in a glass factory 'where it is substituted for that which used to be imported from England. It is supplied at the Bay of Ards for two guineas per ton.'345

Industrial development in England was closely watched not only by politicians, economists and businessmen but also by Irish landlords, who were as anxious to discover coal and other minerals on their land as their English counterparts. For example, in 1736 a search was made on the Abercorn estates in north Tyrone. It was supervised by an imported expert, Mr Ryon, who was not entirely welcome in that closed community. The agent reported initially that 'Andrew Gillbreath ... has found some small coals among the stones which look very well', but a month later, possibly with a wry satisfaction, he reported that 'the coals he [Ryon] took out of the pit were put in by some of the men employed in the work.' Nevertheless, Ryon persevered with his mineral exploration; the agent reported suspiciously that he 'still continues to work at the lead mine ... but as I and most people in this country are strangers to this affair, I can as yet have only his word for it.'346  In the event, no great mineral discoveries were made on the Earl of Abercorn's Ulster estates.

Copper was found in numerous small deposits throughout the country. In the 1720s Madame da Cunha wrote to her nephew, Lord Kenmare, that 'Lord Shelburne has found a copper mine of great value on his estate, and as it is in your neighbourhood who knows but you may have the same good luck.'347  Minerals seldom came singly; this could be advantageous or disadvantageous. In this case Lord Kenmare was fortunate and a copper mine, also containing cobalt, was opened at Muckross. It ceased to function in 1754, but at the end of the century Ross Island was leased from the then Lord Kenmare to mine copper. This mine was liable to flooding, but the company hoped to overcome this difficulty with the help of the most recent advances in technology. A 35 horsepower engine was purchased to pump out the mine, probably of a similar design to the Newcomen atmospheric engines then in use in South Wales and Cornwall. The pump was reputed to be capable of throwing up 1,000 gallons of water a minute from a depth of 72 feet, and it consumed 1.5 tons of coal in 24 hours, but as it worked in accordance with the amount of water in the mine its average running costs were difficult to calculate. When the Muckross mine was fully operational it produced 200 tons of ore a month.

Many landlords regarded their mines as they did their land and leased them to mining companies, thus avoiding the problems and expense of operating them.348  The mining company in turn contracted the working of the mine to small gangs of two or three miners working under a leader. The gang leaders agreed to mine the ore on a piecework basis, employing their own labourers and providing their mining tools. Arrangements about major equipment varied from mine to mine. In this case the company furnished buckets to remove the water from the mine and horses to draw up the ore, which was carried overland to Tralee and shipped from there to Swansea, where 30s to 39s per ton was paid for it. When the mine was working to capacity, about the end of the century, it was quite a large concern, employing 500 people, but when Wakefield visited it a few years later it was approximately £11,520 in debt, and by 1810 it had closed.349  In its sudden boom and equally sudden bankruptcy it was a typical early industrial enterprise.

Other minerals included gold, and there was great excitement in 1795 when a nugget weighing 22 ounces (624 g) was found in Co. Wicklow. A minor gold-rush ensued: De Latocnaye reported that 'thousands deserted their homes and occupations, all rural employment was at a pause; and had not harvest been gathered in at the time of discovery a famine must have followed.'350 Reporting the find to the Duke of Portland, Lord Lieutenant Camden said that he had arranged for it to be taken into the charge of the Revenue Collector of Wicklow, who had been given an adequate detachment of soldiers 'to prevent the plunder of the ore and preserve the peace of the county'.351  In the event the discovery did not prove a commercial proposition. De Latocnaye also mentioned that 'there is in this neighbourhood a very considerable copper mine. The first expenditure on it amounted to £60,000 sterling before the company had any return whatever. It is at present [1796] in a state of great activity and employs about 300 workers.'352


It has been argued that 'Prosperous, Arigna and the canals had an ominous significance ... exuberant economic ambition and optimism could be combined with inexperience and a dangerous lack of business acumen.'353  But such failures were also a part of early industrialisation in Great Britain. The industrial revolution was a totally new economic and social experience. England had a number of inherent advantages, not least a homogeneous society capable of surviving the enormous social stresses of early industrialisation. Furthermore, England had material assets in more developed financial institutions, marketing techniques, surplus capital and quality of raw materials, an advanced enclosure movement and agrarian reform. Metallurgical science and engineering skills were still in their infancy, and success often depended on an accidental combination of minerals or experience transferred from other activities. Contemporaries were largely unaware of the interrelationship of many scientific phenomena, and England was fortunate in the chemical composition of its raw materials, for example the low sulphur content of the coal that Darby used in his early smelting experiments. Ireland not only lacked the experience gained from previous large-scale development, but it suffered both commercially and psychologically from proximity to this industrial 'take-off', which was further, and rapidly, to widen the social and economic gap between the two countries.

Despite their limited success, many of the Irish mining and metallurgical entrepreneurs did employ state-of-the-art technology. Water was still the principal source of power, and in this respect Ireland was certainly well endowed. Water-powered mills were increasingly used to drive the machinery for a variety of industrial concerns, both textile and metallurgical. Furthermore, small industrial concerns were using steam-powered engines; for instance, in 1798 the Dublin merchant Henry Jackson had one in a foundry, another in a iron works for rolling and splitting iron, and a third was used to grind wheat.354  While simple agrarian implements continued to be made by blacksmiths, more sophisticated tools such as the two-shouldered digging spade, variations of which were commonly used in Ulster, were being made in spade mills using water-powered machinery.355

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