Conditions in Early Eighteenth-Century Ireland

By 1729 political, economic and religious struggles both within Ireland and between English and Irish interest had reduced Ireland--which in 1199 had been passed to King John to hold as a sister-kingdom to England--to a virtual colony of the latter. In 1720 Swift broke nearly 20 years of silence to develop rapidly into the strongest voice of protest against this trend, which had all but reached its perfection. His "fierce indignation" at the deplorable state of the nation led him to condemn both the arrogance and greed of the English and religious fanaticism, short-sighted self-interest and political despondency which prevented the Irish from presenting a united front against disastrous exploitation: He once remarked, "We have just religion enough to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another."

One hardly knows where to begin in discussing the complex roots of the exasperations of 18th-Century Ireland, but the religious divisions seem as good a place as any for a launch. In any case we shall have to limit ourselves here to sketching only a few facts in order (hopefully) to at least suggest the tangle of frustrations which nearly strangled that country.

The overwhelming majority of the population was Roman Catholic, but the immigrant Protestant minorities had united with the English to force through Parliament a series of discriminatory inheritance laws which effectively broke up large Catholic estates and put them at the mercy of rapidly consolidating Protestant landowners, with the result that the Catholics, who in 1641 had held 59% of the land, in 1703 held only 14%. Some twelve years before, the Protestants had found--at what great cost we shall see--legal means to deprive Catholics of any right to serve in Parliament or administration. The hierarchy of the Roman Church was banished, along with all priests who would not swear that they no longer recognized the claims of the Catholic Stuarts to the two thrones. Catholics were excluded from practicing law and forbidden to purchase land or even to hold a valuable lease. Nor were they allowed to possess arms or to own a horse above the value of 5. In 1627 there were denied the right to vote.

However, the suppression of Catholics was practically the only issue capable of pulling together the Protestant Dissenters, most of whom had come from Scotland a century earlier to make Ulster a center of zealous Presbyterianism, and the Church of Ireland, the Irish arm of the English Establishment Church. Economic and doctrinal motives, along with a Tory English administration, enabled the establishmentarians in 1704 to exclude dissenters from civil and military position, though not from Parliament. Indeed this act is of special interest for the light it throws on the priorities of the dissenters themselves: the clause which guaranteed this exclusion of non-establishment Protestants was tacked as a rider to a bill which promised further hurt to the Catholics, so the Presbyterian Members of Parliament (MPs) went along with it. (It was not repealed until 1780.) Finally the dissenters as well as the Catholics were required by law to furnish financial support to the "episcopal curate" (see n. 10 to the "Proposal,").

So far then, it might seem that the country belonged to the so-called "Anglo-Irish," people of English descent who lived in Ireland and for the most part supported the Established Church--Swift himself was an example. But this group found itself continually at odds with the government administration in Dublin, the posts of which were largely filled with English appointees of whatever political party happened to be in power, hence in debt to certain supporters, whom it repaid with offices in which irresponsibility and incompetence would not be politically costly but which offered opportunities for accepting comfortable bribes.

But snobbery and corruption were not the most forceful goads to Irish resentment of the English presence and policy. The Irish Parliament (itself habitually split between a Tory Lordship and a Whiggish House of Commons) had no autonomy anyway. Ever since the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509) "Poyning's Law" had ordained that the Irish Parliament could be convened only by decree of the English King (through his lord lieutenant) and could pass no law without the approval of the Kind and his Privy Council, to whom it send "Heads of Bills" for deletion, addition or outright rejection with full discretion. If a bill were returned, the Irish Parliament was empowered only to accept it with whatever changes the Privy Council had worked on it or to reject it in full. Nor is this all. Irish Protestant properly had been threatened by the Catholic uprising in the wake of England's "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 (see n. 2 to "Proposal," below). Many of them--including the young Swift, who was then on the verge of taking his MA at Trinity College--crossed over to England in 1689. When they returned after the defeat of the Pretender's forces at Limerick in 1691, they refused to cooperate with the clemency of William III's treaty with the rebels. Instead they pressed for revenge against the Catholics, whose (revolutionary) Parliament had in 1689 provided for a sweeping redistribution of land. English permission for legislation to disable the Catholics was dearly bought, however: the Irish Parliament had to barter away its right to originate money bills--a power until then very jealously guarded. And it even allowed the English Parliament to impose that oath denying the doctrine of transubstantiation as a prerequisite for membership in the Irish Parliament. Fear of the Catholics made virtual political suicide worth the price to the Anglo-Irish, just as it would about a decade later (we may recall) to the Presbyterians.

As we shall see, the legal impotence of the Irish Parliament was not only humiliating but would eventually insure the country's utter prostration before the exploitative legislation of the English Parliament in response to powerful agricultural, industrial and commercial lobbies. Meanwhile we must keep in mind, as the Anglo-Irish certainly did, that it was England after all who pronounced and ruthlessly pursued the principle that "It is in the interests of...this country, that Ireland should be humbled." The member of the English Commons who declared that did not mean by "Ireland" the Catholic majority or the dissenting minority but all of Ireland, including the Anglo-Irish. And why? Because Irish prosperity meant competition for English farms and businesses. The following laws are a sample from England's systematic policy for destroying the Irish economy:

(1) During the reign (1660-1685) of Charles II, a series of Navigation Acts prohibited the exportation of goods to any English colony unless they were loaded in English ships (carrying English crews) at English ports. At first Irish ships could export Irish goods to America. Soon, however, she too was reduced to colonial status--as a place for unloading exports for specie and compelled as well to serve as a source of revenue for the mother country's shipping industry.

(2) The Cattle Acts (1666 and 1680). The many Irish who had depended for their livelihood on raising and exporting livestock to England were ruined when the latter outlawed the importation of cattle, sheep, pigs, and related (processed) items. Nor could they turn to other foreign markets, since the export duties on shipments to non-English ports were prohibitive.

(3) Ireland's most promising industry was all but demolished by the Woolen Act of 1699, through which the English Parliament absolutely forbade Ireland to export her woolen goods to any country whatsoever. It went further still, not only removing Irish competition at home and abroad, but providing to domestic industry an extra-cheap source of raw wool, by restricting Ireland to exporting unworked wool only to special ports in England, so that the English industry would not have to compete with others in order to secure Ireland's resources. This, of course, was classic mercantilism: all resources are geared to maximize the exploitation of the subject colony's raw resources and to minimize its threat in whatever markets are coveted by the mother country's enterprises. The result: weavers emigrated by the thousands; other remained and starve, in like numbers, or survived through beggary or crime.

There is no need to repeat here our remarks on Declaratory Act of 1720 or the corrupt attempt to foist off Wood's halfpence on the staggering nation. We have as yet made no mention of the phenomenon which Swift thought one of the most inexcusable contributions to Ireland's woes: absenteeism among landlords, who in order to escape the depressing spectacle left their estates in the hands of stewards and spend at least a third of their incomes (Swift calculated) outside of the kingdom, thus aggravating tremendously the flow of specie from the land. Not only were their stewards corrupt in their treatment of tenants, but the landlords continued to put most of their states into grazing even after the crushing of the Irish wool industry, and Ireland continued to starve untenanted peasants and to import grain from England.

Let us sum up by saying that by 1729 England had contrived, with the help of Irish venality, to wreck Ireland's merchant marine, her agriculture and her growing woolen industry. We might ask why Ireland did nothing to protect at least her domestic market for her own industry by levying protective tariffs, as Swift had urged in his boycott proposal of 1720. The answer is very simple. If you will recall the terms of the "Poyning's Law," you can to guess just what England did in order to maintain an "open door policy" for its mercantile interests in Ireland. The greed of Irish drapers who sold faulty goods and the vanity of a population who esteemed foreign items  and especially things English  as a mark of prestige: these did the rest. In 1718 the Archbishop of Dublin had written to a friend that "[t]he misery of the people here is very great, the beggars innumerable and increasing every day....One half of the people in Ireland eat neither bread nor flesh for one half of the year, nor wear Shoes or Stockings; your Hoggs in England and Essex Calves lie and live better than they." How much worse must conditions have been in 1729, when Ireland lay in the grip of a famine resulting from three years in a row of bad harvests. And yet Swift surely had a point when he remarked, in his Proposal that the Ladies Should Appear Constantly in Irish Manufactures, that "the three seasons wherein our corn hath miscarried, did no more contribute to our present misery, than one spoonful of water thrown upon a rat already drowned would contribute to his death."

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  This page last updated 28 March 1999.