Fairs and Markets

Most agricultural produce was traded through fairs or markets, particularly in the early part of the century, before enterprises grew large enough to bypass them. In 1684 there were 503 advertised fairs, and 43 per cent of these were in Leinster. By 1770 there were nearly 3,000 advertised fairs and their distribution indicated the increased economic development of the country, for only 27 per cent of this greatly expanded total were in Leinster.

Fairs and markets of varying size and importance were the normal mechanism for the transfer of goods through­out the island. The right to hold a fair was granted by letters patent from the sovereign and could be vested in either a local landlord or a municipal corporation. The patentee was responsible for the conduct of the market and received its tolls.

Most fairs provided for the exchange of the goods of the region and for the barter or purchase of external necessities. As commerce developed certain fairs became specialised, for instance the livestock and wool fairs at Ballinasloe, the cattle fairs at Mullingar and Banagher, the butter market at Cork and the brown linen markets in various Ulster towns.

Fairs were usually held on a quarter- or half-yearly basis, and they combined hiring and carnival with marketing opportunities. Sideshows, competitions and games jostled with the more serious business of striking a bargain and arranging the ‘luck-penny’, or rebate given to ensure that all would go well with the deal. Individual and faction fights – a species of gang warfare – were normal social activities at fairs.

‘No fairs were ever held,’ wrote Lord George Hill of nineteenth-century Gweedore, ‘without some serious rows.’ This he attributed to the easy availability of illicit spirits. In the immediate aftermath of the 1798 rebellion, a man living in a town where a large fair was being held reported that ‘all was Peace and quiet for he had left them all fighting.’

Usually the Clerk of the Market was responsible for its organisation and oversight. Markets began and ended at specified hours. The patentee was responsible for ensuring that weights and measures were accurate and in conformity with the standard set by parliament. A feature of eighteenth-century trade was the standardisation of weights and measures throughout the country. A statute of 1695, 7 Will. III, c. 24, pointed out the discouragement to trade caused by the want of a clear measure for grain throughout the kingdom, and decreed that a set of standard measures was to be kept in the Exchequer.

All measures throughout the country were to be standardised on this set, and authenticated by being stamped on the edge or rim with the crown and HM’s initials. Sixpence only was to be paid for the stamp, with a penalty of £50 for false marking, £25 of this to be paid to the informer. Using non-standard measures carried a penalty of £10: £5 to the informer and the remainder for the benefit of the poor of the parish. However, in 1705, 4 Anne, c. 14, declared that in many parts of the country:

no true nor certain balance nor weights are to be had to weigh merchandise between buyer and seller … there shall be one weight throughout this kingdom … and all manner of merchandise shall be weighed by ballance [sic], so that the tongue of the said ballance be even without bowing to the one side or the other, or by puting [sic] hand or foot to touch or disorder the same.

A correct set of weights and measures made of brass and stamped AR, surmounted by a crown, was to be lodged in the Exchequer. Every county, city and town was to provide itself with one set ‘of just and true weights’ tested against the set in the Exchequer and sealed by the officer responsible for standard weights, who was to be paid 1d per weight. There followed a list of county towns where they were to be lodged. Subsequently, parliament passed a number of statutes further regulating weights and measures, but Wakefield found that variations still existed at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century the separate but complementary beef and butter trades had divided the pastoral areas of the country into breeding (with its concomitant, dairying) and fattening areas. Young cattle were first sent to the mountains and finally fattened on the richer lowlands. Cattle were transferred at the various cattle fairs, in particular Ballinasloe, Banagher and Mullingar. The right to hold a fair was a profitable privilege.

Irish cattle were small, averaging 4–8 cwt against the 10–15 cwt of contemporary English breeds. Much beef was shipped to the West Indies; and in 1778 Henry Heard of Cork warned Charles O’Hara that ‘the beef fit for the West Indies is generally from 5.5 to 6.5 cwt as none inferior will answer but prime quality.’ Any other kind was shipped to the French Islands or, in time of war, to the great Dutch market at St Eustatia. Improving landlords, the Dublin Society and various local associations all made great efforts to increase the size of cattle.

As the statutes show, marketing was closely supervised at all stages. It was usually unwise for graziers to attempt to dispose of their beef independently and increasingly links were established between merchants and graziers, which eventually short-circuited the fairs. The merchant would contract with the grazier to buy at a certain deadweight price. A butcher was then engaged, usually by the grazier, to kill and flay the requisite number of animals. Alternatively, the merchant might simply send the butcher to arrange the deal.

Slaughtering took place in the autumn and the beef was then carefully prepared under the eye of the exporter or his trusted servant, for the reputation of the house depended on the quality of the product in the barrels that carried its name. The barrels were supplied by coopers who, when they were packed, sealed them. Various laws were passed to regulate the beef trade, for example 9 Anne, c. 7 (later amended and made perpetual), ‘An Act to prohibit Butchers from being Graziers, and to redress several Abuses in buying and selling of Cattle, and in the slaughtering and packing of Beef, Tallow and Hides’.

Butter presented greater problems in quality control. Essentially there were two types: lightly salted butter for the English or Dutch market and heavily salted butter for the West Indian and tropical markets. Before 1770 the tropical market was the more important, but thereafter more consideration was given to developing the English market and consequently reducing the amount of salt that had preserved - and masked the poor quality of – the product. At the beginning of each season firkins and larger casks for the West Indian market would be delivered by the butter merchants.

The butter was prepared, under most unhygienic conditions, and heavily salted by the dairymen in the outlying districts. The filled casks were then brought on small carts or by packhorses, each carrying two firkins (about 100 cwt), to the public weigh-house in the appropriate port.

Here the city officials would officially weigh the butter.

There was also a brisk local trade in butter in markets up and down the country, often conducted by the women, who carried it to market in containers balanced on their heads.

Attempts to impose quality control on butter at first met resistance, but the trade was too valuable to risk market rejection and, following a statute of 1747, 21 Geo. II, c. 7, regulations were universally applied. Checks on freshness stopped the hoarding of butter for a rising market and enabled the merchants to know how much, and what quality of, butter was available. The method of checking was to take a bore out of the barrel or firkin and, having inspected it, replace it.

Further attempts to improve the market were made in 1769, when a group of merchants came together to assist the weigh-masters by appointing inspectors to grade the butter and rule on its consistency, salt content and freshness, and to classify it in a three-tier system. As usual the system started off well but gradually degenerated. Parliament repeatedly passed statutes to regulate the trade, ensure its efficient operation and prevent frauds: for instance, 22 & 23 Geo. III, c. 22, tried to remedy abuses in the Dublin market by insisting that all butter be brought to the public scales, where it was to be tasted and clearly branded first, second, third or inferior quality.

Any frauds in weighing carried a penalty of £5, and the taster had to take an oath that he would perform his function ‘without favour or affection to any person or persons’. From 1 May to 1 October the weighing machines were to be open from 5 to 11 a.m. and from 3 to 8 p.m., and for the rest of the year from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Dublin merchants had developed better marketing and presentation skills than many of the smaller ports, such as Belfast.

As Anglo-Irish trade came to dominate the economy during the eighteenth century, these controls were made with a view to improving the access to English markets for Irish agrarian goods. After the suspension of the restrictions on live cattle in 1759, the English market was increasingly open to Irish agricultural goods but the heavily salted Irish butter was not to the English taste. However, although the subsequent reduction in salt met with some opposition from the West India provision merchants, the scheme was successful.

Irish imports to Britain increased and the quality of butter improved, but even at the end of the century its market was confined to the growing working class, for whom its cheapness was a major consideration. When the restrictions on live cattle and other produce were finally repealed in 1774, Cork was exporting 34 per cent of all Irish butter destined for British markets and, by the late 1770s, the English market accounted for half of the butter exported from Cork. Although heavily salted butter continued to be sent to the West Indies and Portugal, increasing exports to England led to a decline in exports to other northern European countries.

The recurrent wars of the century, with their demand for military, and particularly naval, provisions, provided a further outlet that was not confined to Great Britain; French ships and French colonies were equally anxious to obtain these essential commodities. Indeed, France considered them so useful that between 1721 and 1741 the French mercantilist system was specifically altered to allow French ships to call at Cork on their way to the West Indies. Naturally these imperatives of supply and demand were not shared by the British mercantilists, particularly in times of war when provisions were of vital strategic importance.

From 1740 the Irish administration was instructed in wartime to prevent provisions from being either sold directly to French ships or shipped for the same purpose to some neutral European port such as Stockholm, or to the Dutch West Indian entrepôt of St Eustatia, so convenient for both the French West Indian fleet and the French islands, particularly Martinique and Guadeloupe.

At the outbreak of war the imposition of these embargoes often produced a temporary dislocation of trade. For instance, after the outbreak of the War of Austrian Succession in 1740, the Irish Lord Chancellor wrote in March 1741 to Lord Lieutenant Devonshire to enquire about rescinding the embargo placed on the export of beef and butter to Newfoundland, ‘for fear of its falling into the hands of the French or by means of the Dutch be conveyed to them’, as ‘the stink and odious smell that came from the dock was enough to infect the whole country.’ The smell must have been very strong, as the eighteenth century was not particularly odour-conscious.

However, by the middle of the century the Irish provision trade enjoyed a very favoured position in both peace and war. This was illustrated by the embargo placed on the export of provisions from 1776 to 1779 by order of the Irish Privy Council on the instructions of the British government. It caused a furore among the Irish parliamentary opposition, but their fulminations were not sustained by the scarcity implicit in the very high price of provisions during these years. Furthermore, in Cork alone the British government was spending upwards of half a million pounds sterling on the purchase of provisions. Thus government contracts for provisions probably more than outweighed any consequences of the embargo.

At the end of the century, the French wars of the 1790s and the ensuing Napoleonic wars similarly gave an inflated prosperity to the provision trade. As its centre Cork became very prosperous and, as befitted the indisputable second city in Ireland, by the middle of the century it had built or rebuilt an exchange, a customs house, a new cathedral and a corn market. The Mansion House was completed in 1767. The city had a network of canals and waterways to facilitate the transport of heavy and bulky goods, which could be brought in lighters directly to and from the merchants’ warehouses.

In 1748 it was estimated that 100,000 head of cattle were slaughtered in or around the city each year, mainly in the autumn months; this figure fluctuated to meet demand. This must have created, especially under eighteenth-century conditions, an enormous problem in municipal sanitation, in contrast to the city’s elegant walks, gardens and shops, and its reputation for good taverns and cuisine.

The provision trade produced a number of satellite industries such as tallow and hides. Although soap and candles were made for the home market, unrefined tallow was exported, as were hides, both tanned and untanned. Deforestation had resulted in a shortage of oak bark for tanning, and early in the century there was a considerable export trade in ‘green’ hides to the Netherlands.

But by the middle of the century Britain had become the principal importer of untanned hides, and by 1790 the local tanners were complaining of imported tanned leather. Nevertheless, although some tanned leather was manufactured locally for various purposes, such as horse-harness and brogues or shoes for the local market, tanning was not a major local industry, nor were tanned hides an export one.