Irish Sea and Coastal Trade

The port of Dublin handled by far the greatest volume of trade in the kingdom, but the out-ports had a busy coastal traffic carrying goods to and from the capital as well as across the Irish Sea and to and from the continent. A considerable amount of the food required to feed the growing capital came by sea, particularly potatoes and grain from Counties Cork and Waterford, while the Newry Canal carried butter as well as linen from the counties around Lough Neagh down to the sea at Carlingford Lough. From 1767 parliament decreed that a bounty on:

The carriage of wheat, flour of wheat, oats, bere [a type of barley], barley or malt from the northern and southern parts of this kingdom to the city of Dublin as also from any port or place southwards of Dublin to Newry, Belfast and Londonderry, by water coastways … will be further encouragement to trade and navigation.

There was an active trade backwards and forwards across the Irish Sea. Wakefield listed imports from Scotland such as coal, wheat, dried fish, horses, haberdashery, stockings, tobacco and upholsteryware. As Ireland and Scotland produced similar goods the trade was not large, but the proximity of the two countries ensured that it was busy. There was also a passenger traffic largely centred on Stranraer, where an infrastructure of inns and other necessities for travellers developed.

The cattle trade went to Port Patrick – an even shorter crossing but a less protected port than Stranraer. De Latocnaye, in the 1790s, found that ‘the number of cattle taken from here [Donaghadee, Co. Down] to Scotland is something inconceivable … on the day I crossed there were 400 horned cattle taken over to Scotland, and in the six weeks previous there had been transported nearly thirty thousand.’

He also considered that the boat owners held the farmers ‘in the hollow of their hands’ as ‘they ask as much as twenty guineas for a crossing’ and that the authorities should control this extortion. In the late eighteenth century six ships of 60 tons were employed in this trade, each carrying about 20 head of cattle. The trade was largely seasonal, from May to October. Cattle were driven to Donaghadee from all over Ireland to take advantage of the short sea crossing; many were destined for the English market.

Coal was by far the most important import. It was cheaply available from the west coast of England and Wales. In fact, apart from a small area round the mine itself, difficulties of transport ensured that before the canal and railway age the use of coal would be largely linked to the availability of natural water transport. By the end of the seventeenth century Dublin was already dependent on coal. As the city grew rapidly during the eighteenth century its fuel requirements rose accordingly. For instance, Young found that imports of coal into Ireland between 1764 and 1770 averaged 180,113 tons, but in 1771-7 the average rose to 204,566 tons. Most of this coal came from Whitehaven in Cumberland, but some came from Wales and Scotland.

A small quantity of Irish coal from Coalisland was shipped down the coast from Newry, and Ballycastle also supplied a little. After the opening of the southern branch of the Grand Canal, some coal came from Castlecomer, near Kilkenny. Although Dublin was the principal market for British coal in Ireland, much of the eastern coast, even country areas, shared this dependency. As early as 1725 Michael Ward of Castle Ward on Strangford Lough was told that there ‘will be great difficulty in getting ships to go for coals. They cost very dear but we must have coals cost what they will, we have not 20 tons.’

The masters of coal-ships, aware of this dependency, were not averse to raising the price by skilfully timing their deliveries, an activity that the Irish parliament repeatedly tried to control, for instance, 4 Anne, c. 8, 6 Geo. I, c. 2. In 1717 the House of Commons declared that ‘the keeping of coals at the quay in any gabbard or boat above eight days is a means to raise the price of coals and highly prejudicial to this kingdom’, and ‘the practice of bringing a gabbard or boat of coals from the ship to the quay of Dublin as a sample and then selling the rest of the cargo before it come up to the quay is a manifest breach of the statute and a cause of raising the price of coals.’ Furthermore, throughout the century, the captains insisted on being paid cash on delivery. They did not sail until they were paid, and this brought loud complaints about the drain of specie from the king­dom.

The endeavours of parliament to curb abuses were not helped by the fact that although Dublin was by far the busiest port in the kingdom, it had few natural advantages. In 1707 the Ballast Office was established in order to keep the port from silting up and to improve its facilities. The harbour was tidal and required constant dredging. Nevertheless, it was continually improved and in the course of the century the banks of the Liffey were lined first with wooden and then, after 1755, with stone quays. The up-river position of the Customs House and its lack of facilities created further difficulties, which were resolved by the building of the new Customs House, amid some objections, in the 1780s.

In 1731 the British parliament opened ports in Ireland to all articles not enumerated in any of the Navigation Laws, and Ireland’s trade with the American colonies grew during the period 1731-75, although the enumerated articles included such natural back-cargo as sugar and tobacco, while linen was often sent via England to collect the bounty. This in turn encouraged smuggling, and explains the numerous statutes aimed at preventing or controlling it, for instance the 1747 statute, 23 Geo. II, c. 2.

Belfast was the leading port for this transatlantic trade. Much of the trade was centred in the north, where emigration had created multiple business links: Belfast, Londonderry and Newry had strong links with North America. One of the most active firms in this trade was the Belfast-New York firm of Greg, Cunningham (5008)& Co. but there were numerous others including Robert Alexander of Londonderry and, more interestingly Edward (0495) and Isaac Corry of Newry, while another very active firm was William & John Ogle.

More widely based exports were provisions and salted fish to the West Indies from the southern ports. However, the American trade at its height accounted for only about 12 per cent of Ireland’s total exports, and many of these merchant houses, such as Daniel Mussenden’s, were also carrying on an extensive trade with the Baltic; he had agents as far away as Rotterdam, Trondheim and Danzig.

During the century Ireland’s import and export trade became increasingly centred on Britain. At the beginning of the century 45.7 per cent of Ireland’s exports went to England, but by 1800 the figure had risen to 85.4 per cent, while the volume probably rose about six-fold. The import figures were similar, if less extreme: 53.9 per cent in 1700 and 78.6 per cent a century later. Over the century, the official value of Ireland’s imports from England rose from £427,603 to £4,862,626 sterling, while its exports to England increased from £372,585 to £3,482,691.

The balance of trade was always in England’s favour, and while Ireland’s share of the English import market was normally under 10 per cent, it took under 11 per cent of England’s exports. The only decades in which these percentages were exceeded were the 1780s and 1790s for imports and the 1770s and 1780s for exports. In both cases they fell back in the following decade.

Proximity and mercantilist laws and theory encouraged this development, for the sea provided by far the easiest and cheapest method of transport. Consequently it was often simpler to ship goods from Great Britain to Dublin or other Irish ports than to attempt to bring them overland within Ireland; for instance, although there was a considerable amount of slate in the western half of Ireland, it was easier to import it into eastern Ireland from Wales.

But there was a demand in Britain for Irish marble, which was exported from various areas including the west to both Liverpool and Glasgow. Marble fire-surrounds were very fashionable, and near Kilkenny there was a factory that supplied them: £1 5s for a ‘common’ one, up to 4 guineas for a superior model. Michael Shanahan, the Earl-Bishop of Derry’s architect, building superintendent, son’s tutor and general man of all works had a marble business in his native Cork where he employed 28 marble carvers, and charged 60 guineas for his best mantelpieces.

Cork, on the river Lee, was the centre of the provision trade, which dominated the south and west of Ireland as the linen industry dominated the north. At Cobh, Cork had the best natural harbour in Ireland, although merchandise had to be transhipped at Passage before it could be brought to the merchants’ warehouses in the city.

Cork also attracted the coastal trade from the nearby ports of Kinsale and Youghal, whose harbours were less satisfactory, but whose hinterlands were served by the Bandon and the Blackwater rivers respectively. Its provisions made it a port of call for the British navy victualling for the West India stations. The French and Dutch also provisioned at Cork before the Atlantic crossing, and in time of war or of impending hostilities there was friction between the Cork merchants and the authorities, who placed an embargo on these visits. Parliament was then confronted with a spate of petitions.

In 1776 Young estimated that the Cork merchants owned between 70 and 80 ships, and it has been estimated that in 1791/2 this had risen to 123 ships accounting for about 14.1 per cent of the national tonnage of just under 70,000 tons. There was a consid­erable trade with mainland Europe, and Irish ships could be found not only in French or Spanish harbours but also in Baltic and Scandinavian ports. Most Irish-owned ships were used in the European rather than the British trade.

Apart from Cork the south coast had a number of smaller harbours – Kinsale, Youghal, Dungarvan and Waterford. Youghal had 52 locally registered ships in 1787 and this had risen to 146 in 1796, but at an average of 40 tons they were about half the average size of the Cork ships - the harbours at Youghal and Waterford had a bar that discouraged larger ships.

Waterford was for much of the century the third port in the country; visiting it in 1732, Loveday found that ‘the quay at Waterford is exceeding noble being in a straight line of great length, the stone buildings on it very handsome and nothing more beautiful than the view from the water.’ In relative terms the port declined throughout the period.

By the end of the century Belfast had rapidly superseded it as the third city in the kingdom. Galway declined most during the century, partly because of its isola­tion from the commercially dominant capital, the developing east coast out-ports with their Irish Sea trade, and the increasing orientation of Irish trade to Great Britain.

In the other out-ports the volume of trade was small and largely unspecialised. Many of the harbours had difficulties such as bars. But there was some regionally specialised shipping, such as the oyster boats of Carlingford and the potato boats of Dungarvan. Where there was wood available there was a tradition of small-scale shipbuilding in the coastal ports. At the beginning of the century Ringsend, Co. Dublin, was already established as a centre of shipbuilding. In March 1731/2 the launching of a large ship attracted such a great crowd that at least three people were severely injured.

Wakefield commented on a decline in shipbuilding at the end of the century, which he attributed partly to Ireland not having the necessary raw materials, although at the same time he pointed out, in an unequal comparison, that Holland ‘possesses neither timber nor corn, and its harbours are bad’. But there were exceptions as, foreshadowing its nineteenth-century greatness, William Richie had in 1791 opened a ‘large’ shipyard at Belfast.