The Provision Trade

The provision trade was to the southern counties what linen was to the north. Pastoral farming is the natural agrarian occupation of a country that predictably produces lush grass but has uncertain harvest weather. The provision trade started the century under the mercantilist restrictions of the Cattle Acts passed by the English parliament in 1663 and 1666. These prohibited the export of live cattle to England, and this encouraged the decline of the smaller coastal ports such as Galway, Kinsale and Youghal. However, it was more than compensated for by the rise of the provision trade.

Between 1720 and 1750, beef exports rose nearly 50 per cent. Cork, with its accessible hinterland, strategic location and fine natural harbour, became the principal beneficiary but Dublin, Limerick and Waterford also profited, and by 1794 these ports controlled 92 per cent of the provision trade in meat. The allied butter trade began more slowly, as in 1737–40, immediately before the 1741 famine, exports were only 15 per cent higher than they had been in 1683–6.

But after the 1740–41 famine the provision trade improved rapidly, and in the next 25 years exports increased by approximately 75 per cent. Butter followed a similar trade pattern to beef, and by the middle of the century the butter trade was also centred on Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Dublin.

The rise of the provision trade and the erratic harvests of the early eighteenth century encouraged a swing from arable to pastoral farming. Arable farming gave five times the amount of employment required for pastoral management, and in some areas considerable social dislocation was reported. Contemporaries felt that this swing was substantial, but it is difficult to gauge its overall extent, for even in the early eighteenth century the population was rising, although at a much lower rate than it did after the middle of the century.

Thus, it can be argued that there was little or no decline in quantity of arable production and that the provision trade carved out a new niche for itself, expanding in lands that were largely unsuitable for arable farming. Grain accounted for 2.2 per cent of total exports in 1700 and 2.0 per cent of a much larger volume of exports in 1750. Thereafter demand for grain rose internally as well as externally, and was encouraged by a series of laws giving bounties for its production. By the mid-1770s grain’s proportion of the export market had risen to 3.8 per cent; in the inflated wartime conditions of the mid-1790s it increased to 6.5 per cent.