Economy and Society in South Ulster in the Eighteenth Century...

W.H. Crawford

in Clogher Record viii no 3. (1975)

The publication in 1972 of Professor L M Cullen's pioneer study of An Economic History of Ireland since 1,660 marked the beginning of a new era in the study of the economic and social history of Ireland. As a result it was possible to divide Ireland into a number of regions based on socio-economic developments. One such region in the eighteenth century would comprise the counties of Fermanagh, Monaghan and Cavan with south Armagh and might be designated as South Ulster. . As part of the province of Ulster it had retained Gaelic rule until the seventeenth century and because of its comparative inaccessibility to the British colonists it, unlike almost all other parts of the north-east, continued to retain its Gaelic culture into the eighteenth century. 

The seventeenth century had seen the wars and plantations replace the autocratic rule of the leading native families with a new elite controlled from Dublin Castle. Their authority and power was granted to individual British landlords in their patents. If the British landlords were to make their patents effective and to secure their estates, it was necessary for them to attract British tenants and tradesmen who would recreate in this Irish wilderness a British way of life. If they failed to attract and retain sufficient settlers they would be unable to transform the traditional subsistence economy of the native Irish into a more commercial pattern represented by towns, markets etc. If this happened, either through native pressure or actual raids by tories and rapparees, the dispossessed and angry natives, the disheartened tenants could easily retreat to a safer home among their kinsfolk in other parts of Ulster or emigrate to the new world of North America. 

Whenever there was a severe shortage of British tenants offering to take leases, the landlord had to offer terms which appear extravagant to us today. In an extreme situation, he had to make fee farm grants of large tracts of land thus giving away potential wealth in return for a regular and secure return. (Indeed, it was to prevent a landlord from granting away the livelihood of his family in return for immediate cash, that the family settlement was devised in the late seventeenth century with its trappings of entails, estates for life and family charges.) Very similar in effect to these fee-farm grants were the leases granted for three lives and renewable for a fine of one years rent. The rent was fixed in perpetuity. They were often called 'freeholds’. Further down the social scale were those who got three life leases which were determinable on the death of all three lives named in the original lease. At the expiration of such a lease, the tenant could negotiate the terms for a new lease but the new rent would be fixed according to the current value of land. The lowest tenant had a lease for a term of years, usually twenty-one, or thirty-one.

Not many tenants wanted leases at the beginning of the eighteenth century. A lease was a contractual arrangement set out on a pair of indentures and therefore either party could sue the other for breach of covenant . If there were no buyers, as often occurred in early eighteenth century Ulster, the tenant would have to request the landlord to allow him to surrender the lease even if this meant that the landlord would have property on his hands. A tenant who owed the landlord money was liable to disappear.

Usually it was the individual who took a lease but throughout the eighteenth century we find partnerships of lesser men combining to take over a substantial property . In law they were called 'joint-tenants'. Since such tenants held the lease in common. The landlord bound them all for the payment of the rent and on renewal such a property would be often split among the tenants granting each individual his own lease. In practice therefore, the lease in partnership was often a transition between the property leased by a substantial tenant in the role of a middleman, and the group of individual farms each held by lease directly from the landlord. It may have been the only means whereby the tenants were able to save themselves from being outbid by more substantial farmers intent on buying more land.
Changes in the pattern of leasing often reflect changes in the economy. The growth of the trade in linen yarn came about around 1715 when the families of small cottier farmers took up the spinning of yarn to obtain extra money to compete with the graziers for land. In the southern counties of Ulster, handloom weaving on a commercial scale had first been promoted by landlords who,established colonies of Protestant weavers in their towns. The industry was still confined to Protestants by the 1740s This is not to say that the native Irish did not weave linen . Irish 'bandle' linens (half a yard wide) were a traditional product woven in many households for themselves and local markets, but not commercially for sale in the English market which required wider linens. The reluctance of the Irish to weave for the commercial market may be attributed attributed to the native antipathy to the British way of life. 
It is not clear why this was the case but it may be linked with the success of the cattle trade which gave the inhabitants a comfortable living without much labour. After 1750, however, there was a heavy demand from Scotland to replace the stock it had lost from cattle murrain(eg foot and mouth disease) and then in I759 the embargo against the import of Irish cattle into England was lifted. As a result the export market in both processed and live cattle thrived. The demand for grain also grew to feed the Dublin market since the population of Dublin is reckoned to have doubled to about 130,000 during the first half of the century. Demand from all these sources was certainly stimulating the economies of the counties of South Ulster.

By 1760 it is safe to say that the old subsistence economy of South Ulster had given way to a commercial economy. From dealers and merchants the landlords' agents purchased the bills of exchange drawn on the great firms in Dublin or London and paid them in the cash they had collected in rents from the tenants: in this way they kept a supply of specie (gold and silver coins) in the countryside. In the linen trade all bargains were in cash but cattle dealing relied to a great extent on paper credit. The whole credit system was fragile and confidence was shaken on many occasions by the collapse of several Dublin banks, especially in 1754/5 AND 1759 .There are other indications of the development of a cash economy in this region. In 1760 we find that tenants were liable to perform six days work each year on the roads were proposing to pay the over-seers one penny an acre according to their respective holdings in lieu of their six days. It was the enforcement of the compulsory six days' labour which caused the Oakboy disturbances at this time in Counties Armagh and Tyrone. As a direct result payment was shortly afterwards accepted in lieu of such compulsory labour.

Evidence of the prosperity of South Ulster in the late eighteenth century has been preserved until the present day in the appearance of the towns with their market houses, public buildings, shops and workshops as well as in the landscape with its great network of roads.The value of this road network should not be underestimated. In the first place new roads opened up fresh tracts of land for colonisation so that land which had been used only for rough pasture could be fenced, drained and tilled: the new tenant was encouraged by the convenience of transporting fuel, lime and marl, timber and stone to his farm. It was the exploitation of waste land in Ulster which so greatly increased the value of estates in the first half of the eighteenth century and produced the initial rise of rents. In the second place the construction of the road network allowed merchants from other regions to move through the countryside and to create new economic opportunities. Pedlars and hucksters, the typical characters of the old subsistence economy, now rubbed shoulders with the new regime of graziers, horse dealers, linen drapers and carriers. The importance of these carriers has too often been overlooked in the Irish economy because the English four-wheeled wagon and the Scotch cart were so rarely seen in eighteenth century Ireland. In 1746, for example, the agent of the Earl of Abercorn in Strabane, County Tyrone. informed the Earl: 'The merchants of this town commonly pay in the winter six shillings per hundred from Dublin to Strabane, and in the summer five shillings and some times less for goods carried by the car." These rates were for a journey of one hundred and thirty miles each way. In South Ulster it was the carriers who opened up the region and related it to the east coast ports of Drogheda, Dundalk and Newry.

The prosperity engendered by the linen industry had very important and far-reaching consequences for the society of South Ulster. Because so many weavers were able to pay rent for their holdings,landlords were prepared to allow them enough land to occupy their families. These substantial weavers had been benefiting from their sales of linen yarn and cloth and of young cattle and there was a strong incentive for them to take leases because they gave security of tenure and because even those who could not make the rent from stock knew that they could sublet or improve their farms by taking on cottiers who would work for them in return for a holding. Linen weavers were able to outbid farmers for small farms, about five to ten acres in extent, convenient to the market towns. The whole historical progress of the rise of the Catholic tenantry was analysed exactly in 1766 by the contemporary commentator, Charles O'Hara of Collooney:

... the present great price of land is principally owing to the cottage tenants, who being mostly Papists, have long lived under the pressure of severe penal laws and have been enured to want and misery. The linen manufactory in its progress opened to these such means of industry as were only fitted to penurious economy. Three pence a day, the most that can be made by spinning, was an inducement fit only to be held out to women so educated. The earning was proportioned to their mode of living and became wealth to the family. Contemporaries noticed an important change in the composition of families. Whereas the poverty of many families in the past had compelled them to send away their adolescents to look for work, families were now encouraged by prospects to keep their children at home in remunerative employment.Children, from being a liability, became a source of wealth for the family of a weaver. A child learned to spin about the age of five and a boy to weave by the age of fourteen. The wish for a father to retain the services of his children tempted him to set off to the small parts of his own holding and thus subdivide the holding into even more minute portions... This left the children and their families even more dependent on their income from the linen industry. 

In the first half of the eighteenth century weavers had usually been independent and this had been encouraged by the gift to deserving tenants of spinning wheels and reels and looms sponsored by the Linen Board. In this way the industry was recruiting labour from down the social ladder to include the cottier class whose numbers greatly increased. They lived originally on oatmeal and potatoes and when they got a little money spent it on drink, tobacco and material comforts. However they knew they were completely dependent on the domestic linen industry for survival.

The prosperity of the industry also altered the whole structure of land tenure . Where weavers and small farmers could afford to pay rent regularly, landlords were prepared to grant leases . They preferred to lease their property directly to the actual occupiers instead of to a single tenant, who would often set it again in small parcels to some other poor people at a rack rent. To prevent this happeningthe landlords, inserted new covenants in their leases. Since landlords by 1800 found it increasingly difficult to enforce the covenants in leases (especially against alienation) they began to realise that leases were of little value in maintaining discipline over the tenants. As a result fewer leases were made after 1800 and for shorter terms.This made it easier for the landlord to deal with a tenant but as long as a tenant behaved, his 'tenant right' was rarely challenged and he could sell his interest in the property at the current market value. A cottier or sub-tenant had no such security.

By the 1790s the rising cotton industry was becoming a rival of the linen industry .Its main effect was to prevent the wages of linen weavers from increasing. The competition for land however, continued to push up rents while the price of provisions rocketed during the wars with France, which lasted until 1815. More people became dependent on the potato as they sold their butter and bacon to get money to get their hands on a little more land in spite of the rising cost. As labour became cheaper, the cooperative effort of the whole family became was necessary to survive. If this situation was bad, worse was to follow because in the first twenty years of the nineteenth century the hand spinning industry was undermined by the new machines spinning flax in England. The wages became quite uneconomic and so one prop of the economy of South Ulster was removed.

Within the following twenty years the other prop, handloom weaving, also collapsed outside the Lagan Valley and North Armagh. The inhabitants of South Ulster were left to face the increasing prospects of a widespread failure of the potato crop with a population which depended on it for its very life There was widespread emigration of textile workers to Britain during the thirty years before the Great Famine. By 1800 the economy of South Ulster had been changed from a subsistence economy into a commercial one, although the region had some signs of grandeur there was no prosperity. The money which the region had earned was dissipated in the proliferation of tiny farms, where the population density was amongst the highest in the country. When domestic industry failed, there was no reservoir of capital to fall back on. More and more poor people sank back into a subsistence economy dependent on the potato. Perceptive men feared the consequences of harvest failure but they had no solution to offer except emigration in what was becoming a hopeless situation.