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.’ 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 an iron works for rolling and splitting iron, and a third was used to grind wheat. 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.