A brief look at a year (1754) in Ireland’s trade: Part 1

This is the first in what will be a series of occasional brief notes on Ireland’s trade from the 1680s up until the 1820s. It uses the sources of CUST15 and trade ledgers from the 1680s which are currently being digitised. The idea behind this note is to take a random year and detail what Ireland’s external trade was at that point in time, thus show just what can be done with the digitised data. Other notes may look at other years, explore trends in individual ports or look at the trends for a particular commodity or market over the 140 years.

 What was happening in 1754?
To provide something of a context for the patterns of trade in 1754 this section will give a quick overview of what was happening in Ireland in that year. In terms of external trade the total value of Ireland imports and exports amounted in 1754 to £3.685 million (or very roughly €875 million in today’s money). The balance of trade was negative as the value of imports exceeded that of exports by £21,000. The economic backdrop was that Ireland was in the midst of one of those periodic recessions which regularly hit, with several bank closures occurring that year and complaints about a lack of coinage. There were low prices for agricultural produce and textiles and emigration to the American colonies from Ulster was on the increase.

The population of the country has been estimated for the year before as between 2.2 and 2.57 million people. The year 1754 marked the end for some of these and beginning for others. One of the famous ‘poets of the Maigue’ (County Limerick), Seán Clárach MacDomhnaill, originally from north Cork and composer of Mo Ghile Mear, died; while William Drennan, different from MacDomhnaill in almost every way except a shared poetic interest, was born in Belfast. A changing of the guard, perhaps.
Politically 1754 was dominated by the Money Bill Crisis and the outbreak of hostilities in the American colonies between the British and the French, who were supported by some of the Indian nations. The political crisis over payment of part of Ireland’s national debt and who had the final say on this is a good example of how a minor, quite technical, quibble can become a major constitutional point. It also showed the potential for Anglophobia among large portions of the Irish population, both Protestant and Catholic. The hostilities in America probably seemed much less pressing in 1754 but the French and Indian War was eventually to become something of a global war, becoming known as the Seven Years War (1756-63).

Exports of goods from Ireland
In 1754 Ireland exported £1.83 million in goods. Figure 1 shows how this export trade was then dominated by two categories (Textiles & Clothing, and Livestock and Livestock Products), which account for 96% of total goods. Within the two dominant categories there was a significant amount of specialisation. Textiles & Clothing really meant linen cloth (£800,000), linen yarn (£130,000) and woollen yarn (£140,000) – these make up 99% of the total in this category. When Clothing is referred to there is very little of this actually exported – for example shoes were weighed by the pound and 1,354 pounds were exported with a value of £168:3:9, less than 0.01% of the total in this category.
In terms of Livestock the £670,000 is a much more varied category – £252,000 in butter and £170,000 in barrels of beef accounting for 63% of the category but hides, pork and various types of skins (especially calfskins) were also important. Horses were another ‘good’ that was exported: 842 of them in 1754 estimated to be worth £6 each.

Figure 1: Categories of goods exported from Ireland in 1754


The other categories may have had much smaller shares of the overall total. However, the value would have been important to the producer or, less often, manufacturer. For example, in 1754, over £10,000 worth of Fish (more than half of this was salmon with some mackerel and herrings) was exported. Then there was £13,353 in the broad category of ‘Foods’ – made up mostly of oatmeal and bread – and just over £4,300 between Wood Products and Metal Products. The ‘Other’ category, a catch-all taking in everything from books to seeds accounted for less than £27,500 with much of this coming from candles (41%), soap (6%) and kelp (4%).
Perhaps one surprise to people reading this is the very low level of Drinks exports. Only £1,649 or 0.1% of the total exports came in this category, almost all from beer. The legend is that Arthur Guinness came on the scene in 1759 and all was transformed. In 1754, certainly, most Irish alcohol, mainly beer and porter, was both brewed and drunk locally. An interesting story to be followed up in further notes from the statistics.

Imports of goods into Ireland
In 1754 imports of goods coming into Ireland were valued by the Revenue Commissioners at £1.85 million. Figure 2 shows a lower level of sectoral concentration in the imports with the two largest categories (Textiles & Clothing and Drinks) coming to less than half (42%) of the total. The next three largest categories have a 38% share between them and the other seven 20% or so.
While Ireland was exporting a huge amount of linen cloth and yarn and some woollen yarn it was also importing £345,000 in various woollens, linens, lace goods and silks with another £120,000 in shoes, haberdashery and clothing, including over a thousand hats, although only one from France! Interestingly, there was a significant amount of raw silk being imported as well as over £37,000 in dyeing materials (19 varieties of these). Indigo was the favourite colour of dye in 1754 followed by one called Cochanille (which apparently gives you crimson or scarlet)! These are cases where imports may have been used for the manufacture of goods for the Irish market or, perhaps, for exports. This is probably similar for some of the metals and wood products being imported which might make up barrels for beef or various wires and ores for finishing products.
Food and drink was another key category of imports – perhaps a third of the total. Take groceries which covered 29 goods from almonds to white sugar and had a value of almost £150,000. Muscovado sugar, alone, accounted for £108,000 and sugar was certainly one of the commodities that was to rapidly increase during the 18th century as a consumption good in its own right and an input to both the drinks industry and Ireland’s growing sugar bakery sector. In 1754 muscovado imports were worth £30,000 more than imports of coal! In the world of alcoholic drinks brandy, especially French wines and brandy were the kings with port and rum distant followers. Ireland’s love affair with tea had begun by 1754 (to the tune of almost £50,000 in imports) while coffee was far less popular at this stage. With £30,000 in tobacco being imported for the wealthy in society many of what we see as today’s vices were certainly available in Ireland by the mid-eighteenth century.

Figure 2: Categories of goods imported from Ireland in 1754
In a follow-up blog I’ll look at the destinations for Ireland’s exports and the sources of imports, as well as the activity in its ports.