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[Post Famine Ireland- Social Structure Ireland as it Really Was. Copyright © 2006 by Desmond Keenan. Book available from and]

Chapter Three


 Chapter Summary. This chapter deal with the next important aspects of an economy, namely transport and Finance. This was the period when the railways and canals reached their greatest extent. It was also the period when the internal combustion engine and the pneumatic tyre became to transfer transport back to the roads. The telegraph, developed in the first half of the century became essential to rapid and to long-distance communication, but telephones and radio began to take over from the telegraph. Goods once produced must be sold and money exchanged, hence the growth of markets and shops, and of financial institutions like banks. Improvements in transport led to growth in imports and exports.The hyperlinks immediately below are to the most important headings.

Roads and Vehicles


Water Transport


Financial Institutions

Markets and Shops

Imports and Exports

Trade Organisations



Ireland between 1850 and 1920 developed into a great manufacturing and industrial nation. To start with, it constructed its own railways which involved huge feats of engineering and iron-manufacturing. It produced its own rolling stock and often its own locomotives which were the equal in their classes of any produced elsewhere in the world. Its greatest triumphs were in ship-building, but these were not the only ones. In the making of giant telescopes Ireland was a world leader. Other works, like the construction of the new quays in the port of Dublin, were innovative and on a scale to equal what was being done elsewhere.

The new designs for the Belfast ships were adopted everywhere in the world. The pneumatic tyre was developed by a Belfast doctor. The development of the farm tractor owes an enormous amount to another man from Belfast, Harry Ferguson. Fans for industrial use were brought to such perfection that they were incorporated in German battleships. High quality machinery for the textile industry was produced in Belfast. Though Northern Ireland became world-famous for the manufacture of linen, in the quality of the products of the woollen industry in southern Ireland was extremely high. Outside the Belfast area the great industries were built around food processing, brewing and distilling. Other minor industries with a world-wide reputation were china, cut glass, scientific instruments, poplin, stained glass, lace, tobacco, and ropes. Other manufactures, though only of local repute, were farm machinery, organs, paper and printing, iron works, building, explosives and cartridges, chemicals and bleaches, tanneries and leather works. There was also some mining.

By 1850 Ireland had a complete modern infrastructure, canals, railways, roads, ports and docks in the eastern half of the island, and by 1900 in the whole island. It had a complete modern educational system, banking system, and a court system.[Top]

Transport and Communications

Roads and Vehicles

            There was an enormous improvement in road transport over the period. At the beginning there were only pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles. Then came trams, bicycles, and motor vehicles. The control of roads passed from the haphazard administration of the Grand Juries to the County Councils where systematic planning and direction became possible, and trunk roads planned and maintained. First with the advent of bicycles and then with cars closer attention was paid to the maintenance of the surfaces of the roads. In the cities, electric traction displaced the horse from the tramways.

            In the second half of the nineteenth century Ireland had probably the densest pattern of metalled roads anywhere in the world. These were roads where wheeled traffic could pass at any time of the year. Some were no more than narrow country ways, called boreens in southern Ireland and loanings in northern Ireland and lanes in England. The reason for this is that road-making and road-repairing were the works most favoured by Grand Juries for relief in times of famines and scarcities. The Central Government too pursued the practice of building roads and bridges in areas of extreme poverty where there was little economic but much social justification for building such roads. One of the last districts was in the Lettermore district in south Connemara, a notoriously distressed district. By a Government relief project in 1890-1 under Col. Peacock RE and completed by the Congested Districts Board a chain of bridges and causeways linking the impoverished islands was undertaken. This comprised a group of small islands on the southern shore of county Galway where the standard of living could only be described as medieval. The people slept on piles of straw or ferns, with little in the line of bed-clothes, as they had done for centuries, never leaving the islands, and knowing nothing of the outside world. They were then enabled to market their produce, their incomes doubled, and they freed themselves from debt to the moneylenders (Irish Industrial Journal 26 June 1920).

            The roads themselves varied greatly in quality. In and around the big towns and cities the principles developed by Thomas Telford and John Loudon McAdam with regard to easy gradients, good foundations, and above all drainage of the road surface, were doubtless adhered to. A feature of these roads was wide grassy verges. The surface stones should not be more than an inch in diameter, while the foundation stone could be made of broken stone up to three inches thick. The stones were broken into the smaller sizes by gangs of men using small hand-hammers weighing about two ounces. The smaller the surface stone the better the surface. Compacting was largely left to traffic the wheels of which were shod with iron. Rutting was still a problem, so there had to be constant maintenance. The roads were also extremely dusty in summer, and the progress of a motor car was signalled by a cloud of dust. When county councils took over responsibility for roads they invested in heavy steam rollers which compacted the surface better and made it last longer. Then came the practice of using tar, a by-product of the gas-manufacturing industry to bind the surface. The surface was compacted by steam roller, and then sprayed with hot liquid tar, and the tar was in turn covered with fine stone chippings from a mechanical crusher in the local quarry. It kept down the dust but it was not immediately popular. There were problems with the new tar-dressed surfaces of roads in Dublin; it stained varnishes on cars and motors; it penetrated the horse's hoof and injured it; it become slippery when wet, and after a while stones work their way through to the surface and remain there; it is supposed to keep down the dust; but the dust does less harm (Weekly Irish Times 26 June 1909).

            Though the railways monopolised all long distance traffic, and all traffic between towns that were connected by rail, horse-drawn transport had local roads to themselves, both for passengers and goods. Farmers and merchants would have had a cart for goods, and some form of trap, gig, or sidecar for their families. Some merchants would also hire out these, and some were owned by professional jarveys (hackney coachmen). Many pairs of towns like Thurles and Kilkenny, Newry and Dundalk, Kenmare and Bantry, or Tipperary and Mitchelstown had no direct rail connection between them. Goods and passengers delivered at railway stations had to finish their journeys to their destinations on horse-drawn transport. The railway engine, in fact, increased the number of horses required. Hotels in tourist areas found it useful to have a horse-drawn omnibus for excursions, though in Killarney the sidecar remained a favourite. When the internal combustion engine became reliable after 1900 horses were rapidly displaced from roads especially in towns.

Steam-driven road vehicles had existed since the early years of the 19th century, but their development virtually ceased after the passing of the Red Flag Act (1865) which set a speed limit for mechanically propelled vehicles of 2 mph in towns and 4 mph on country roads; each vehicle had to be accompanied by three men one of whom had to walk before the engine carrying a red flag. The speed of the truck would be limited to that of a team of horses at walking pace. Steam lorries carrying heavy loads never entirely disappeared, but could rarely compete with petrol driven trucks, when these were built.

            Horse-drawn omnibuses had appeared in Paris in the first half of the century. They were long, horse-drawn carriages with seats for up to fifty people. In America, they began setting iron tracks into the surface of the streets on which the horse-drawn streetcars (trams in the U.K.) could run. These replaced the omnibuses, until they were in turn displaced by trolley buses or motor buses. The earliest tram tracks in London after 1860 had to be taken up for carriage wheels got into the sunken track and could not get out. The track had to be re-designed and re-laid, and with granite setts in place of the macadam surface. The first horse tram in Ireland began operation in Fintona, Co. Tyrone in 1854, and soon systems were in operation in Dublin, Belfast, and Cork, with Galway and Londonderry following later (Encyc. Of Ireland). A Railway (Ireland) Act (1860) allowed compulsory purchase of land. The Tramways (Ireland) Act (1867) was passed to allow trams on country roads. There were various difficulties so a special Dublin Tramways Act (1871) was enacted. The first horse-drawn trams in Belfast and Dublin ran in 1872. Seventeen and a half miles of track were sanctioned. A box-rail was spiked to wooden longitudinal sleepers cross tied, and square setts were placed between and for 18 inches outside; this paving was done by the company, the streets previously being macadamised (Irish Engineering Review October 1904). The setts gave a better grip for the horses’ hooves. The horse trams were double-deckers but with the top open, and were pulled by two horses. The seats were wooden and there were complaints that they were often wet. Other companies were approved and in 1881 they amalgamated to form the Dublin United Tramways Company. Its director was William Martin Murphy, a formidable business man. In 1883 an electric tram was operated at Portrush (Co. Antrim) and in 1885 between Newry and Bessbrook in Co. Armagh. These were operated at very low voltage on the third rail system. Power could be transmitted on these for about a mile and a half. In 1884 the overhead trolley system was developed in Kansas City in the United States. The Tramways and Public Expenses (Ireland) Act (1883) allowed baronial Grand Juries to give guarantees to projectors to allow tramways and light railways to be built into areas where the costs of a standard railway could not be repaid from receipts. A tramway ran on public roads, while light railways, with steam traction, ran on their own railtracks. Over fairly short distances electric traction established its superiority over other forms. In 1896 the Dublin trams were converted to electricity. The overhead trolley system was adopted, a central generating station was built at Ringsend near the Dublin docks, and each tram had two 25 horsepower General Electric motors (op. cit.). The upper floor was eventually enclosed, and the trams proceeded at a steady stately pace. The electric trams had a peculiar side effect. They blew away the grit from the streets. Horses’ hooves had polished the granite setts, but they were safe so long as they were coated with grit. Several horses and cyclists fell on the smooth surface, which subsequently was replaced with tarmac.

Belfast Corporation also in 1896 wished to electrify its system but could not agree terms with the tram company. In 1904 the contract with the tram company expired and so the Corporation took over the running of the trams and electrified the system. William Martin Murphy was asked to supervise this change. He had already supervised the installation of an electric system in Cork City. The Belfast trams were built by the Brush Electrical Engineering Company of Loughborough in Leicestershire. The gauge was the standard British railway gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches; the tram was 28 feet overall in length, and carried 52 passengers. There were two trucks underneath each with four wheels of 32 inch diameter and the axles six feet apart, with springs and points of suspension of the trucks about 12 feet apart. This was a standard American Brill ‘truck’ system. There was consequently an overhang of 11 feet at each end. This arrangement was necessary to secure tight right-angled turns at street corners (Rush, British Electric Tramcars, 71). Electric trams ceased running in Cork in 1931, in Dublin in 1949 and in Belfast in 1954. Motor buses were more flexible. Like the stage coaches before them which also lasted a fairly short span they became icons of their period.

            The next vehicle to appear was the velocipede or bicycle. At first it was used purely for sport as the shape of the popular ‘ordinary’ or ‘penny farthing’ indicates. The mechanical principle behind the shape of the penny farthing is exactly the same as that behind the contemporary 8 feet single driver locomotive. The wheels were driven by short crank arms attached to the wheels. Intrepid young men could race each other, and not worry too much if they fell off. The velocipede was transformed into a vehicle which spread all over the world by two inspired inventors, James Starley and John Boyd Dunlop. Starley in 1871 designed the ‘safety bicycle’ basically in the diamond shape it was to retain ever after. The pedals were separated from the wheel, while a chain and cogged wheels transferred the drive to the back wheel. Steering was easily done by a handlebar connected to the front wheel. The gain in speed and ease in pedalling was proportional to the relative sizes of the cogged wheels to each other and to the rear wheel. The wheels were shod with solid rubber. Then in 1888 John Boyd Dunlop successfully developed the pneumatic tyre. The gain in performance was so marked that a local team of Belfast cyclists beat a team from Dublin in every race. Soon the Dunlop factory for making the tyres was transferred to Dublin, and then to Coventry, the great centre of bicycle manufacture in England. Later in 1906 the Dunlop Rubber Co. began the manufacture of automobile tyres.

            The bicycle became as much an icon of its age as the tram. It was relatively cheap and until after the Second World War was universally popular. It was used by men and women, clergymen, doctors, priests, the police, postmen, delivery boys, workmen and so on.

            The next invention was the motor car which followed from the invention of the internal combustion engine. In 1885 Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz successfully used a distillate of petroleum called gasoline or petrol in a gas engine. This was rich in utilisable energy and very portable, with the motor engine compared with the steam engine, very light. This would permit light speedy vehicles to be driven on roads, and in the air. In 1896 the Locomotives on Highways Act (1896) raised the speed limit to 12 miles and hour and the red flag was no longer required. The new king, Edward VII was a motoring enthusiast.

            The first car exhibited in Ireland was in 1896 and about the same time Horace Plunkett procured a car. He was regarded as the expert in such matters, and when the new king, Edward VII, in 1903 toured parts of the west of Ireland by car he was placed in charge of the expedition. Several Irish gentlemen including Lord Iveagh (Edward Cecil Guinness) imported cars or had them built in Dublin before a run in 1900 from Dublin to Killaloe on the Shannon over 100 miles in which 11 cars participated. The Motor Car Act (1903 raised the limit to 20 mph, and introduced the compulsory registration of cars. Taxation was imposed in the shape of an annual fee of 5 shillings for a driving licence, and a registration fee for the vehicle of £1; the Act was passed for three years, and a royal commission was appointed to examine it; since 1906 the Act has been renewed annually (Weekly Irish Times 29 February 1908). The new county councils and county boroughs were made responsible for the registration. In England, each county or city was allocated one or more letters to be followed by a serial number. Ireland was given the letter I preceded or followed by a county letter, the letters allocated to the counties in alphabetical order. The list was as follows:

Antrim IA; Armagh IB; Carlow IC; Cavan ID; Clare IE; Cork County IF; Donegal IH; Down IJ; Dublin County IK; Fermanagh IL; Galway IM; Kerry IN; Kildare IO; Kilkenny IP; King’s County IR; Leitrim IT; Limerick IU; Londonderry County IW; Longford IX; Louth IY; Mayo IZ; Meath AI; Monaghan BI; Queen’s County CI; Roscommon DI; Sligo EI; Tipperary North Riding FI; Tipperary South Riding HI; Tyrone JI; Waterford KI; Westmeath LI; Wexford MI; Wicklow NI; Belfast City OI; Cork City PI; Dublin City RI; Londonderry City UI; Waterford City WI (New Irish Jurist 1 April 1904). Later the cities of Dublin and Belfast were allocated additional letters with Z rather than I. Later a third letter was added as AIA, BIA, CIA. The county letters were followed by up to 4 numbers. The regulation of road traffic was assigned to the Local Government Board. It had also oversight of road signs which were provided for in the Motor Car Act (1903.

            The establishment in 1909 of a national Road Board by David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which was authorised to construct and maintain new roads and to make advances to highway authorities to build new or improve old roads, brought a swift improvement. The Board was established to distribute the money raised from motor licences and a petrol tax, and paid 50% of the costs of improving trunk roads. The money was not payable to rural district councils who had charge of local roads. The Automobile Association offered to put up road signs, but one council refused the offer unless the directions were in Irish as well as English (Enniscorthy Echo 16 December 1911). The tendency of all the councils was to improve their main roads; this reflected the growing importance of the motor in the tourist industry (Weekly Irish Times 20 June 1914).

            The Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Dudley, was a motoring enthusiast and so readily gave permission for the Gordon Bennett road race to be run on Irish roads at speed. When Dudley began to use his car to drive to the golf links nine miles away his police escort on their bicycles were left pedalling hard behind. They had to be provided with motor cycles (Fingall, Seventy Years Young, 280). At the time of the partition of Ireland in 1920 the number of motor licences in the six north-eastern counties equalled the number in the rest of Ireland (Church of Ireland Gazette 20 August 1920). By that date the advantages of road traffic over rail were becoming apparent even apart from the politically motivated strikes on the railways. In fact it had become cheaper to travel by road between Belfast and Dublin (Irish Homestead 24 July 1920). The electric trams brought about a reduction of the number of horse-drawn hackney cabs and other passenger vehicles in Dublin, but by 1910 many of those remaining were retraining themselves as motor cab drivers. The motor bus brought an immediate improvement in transport in country areas. The Post Office about the same time began adopting motor mail vans. The railways too began to provide bus services.[Top]


            By 1829 most of the features of a successful railway steam engine or locomotive were to be found in George Stephenson’s Rocket. Construction of the short Dublin to Kingstown Railway commenced in 1831. Between 1835 and 1850 great efforts were made to connect Dublin with Belfast, Galway, Limerick, and Cork and of course any intervening towns on those routes. Cork was reached in 1849, Galway in 1851, Belfast (except for the Boyne Bridge 1855) in 1853. These lines formed the basis of the three major groupings, The Great Southern and Western, the Midland Great Western, and the Great Northern Railway who between them swallowed up numerous local projects like the Dundalk and Enniskillen, the Londonderry and Enniskillen, and the Newry and Armagh (Middlemass, Irish Standard Gauge Railways). One result was that lines centred on Belfast and Cork served merely local areas.

Unlike steamships, rail transport had little effect on the Irish economy before 1850, but between 1850 and 1920 came to dominate the transport of passengers and goods. The Great Southern and Western worked 1121 miles, the Great Northern 560 miles, and the Midland Great Western 538 miles. Before being taken over by the Great Southern and Western in 1901 the Waterford, Limerick and Western Railway had a main line 222 miles long and a total mileage of 350 miles. This compares with the 326 miles of the Great North of Scotland Railway which worked north of Aberdeen. Even at the end of the period trains were light compared with Britain and speeds comparatively slow. Mainline expresses did not exceed 45 mph, or indeed 35 mph on the main line to Galway (Nock, Irish Steam 12-14). Most of rural Ireland was within 10 or 12 miles from a local railway station. Nevertheless the majority of the railway and tramway companies were very profitable, returning dividends of up to 5% p.a.

The Irish railway system, 3,312 miles of which 505 were of the 3 foot gauge, compares with the Scottish system of 3,804 miles. These latter travelled over 29 million miles with passenger trains compared to over 11 million miles in Ireland, and carried over 49 million passengers compared with over 29 million in Ireland and 67 million tons of goods and materials, compared with 5.7 millions in Ireland. Receipts from the carriage of livestock in Scotland were £237,960 while in Ireland they amounted to £282,849. The great difference is in the lack of mineral traffic. The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway with a mileage one sixth of the Irish system carries twice as many passengers, four times as much goods and received half as much money again as all the Irish railways put together (Weekly Irish Times 7 March 1907). Freight charges, particularly of coal and livestock, were higher than in Britain and Irish producers felt at a disadvantage.

As in Britain the railways suffered heavily from over-use and lack of maintenance during the First World War. The destructive activities of the IRA in the period following the War did not help either, and the Great Southern and Western Railway came to the verge of bankruptcy. The attempts of railwaymen to assist the IRA just caused the army to use motor lorries instead. Irish railways had to be kept going by means of a Government subsidy. Traffic on the Great Northern Railway in 1922 was only 70% of what it had been in 1913. Traffic on the Northern Counties Committee Railway had declined by 15% in the same period. The railways in Ulster were as much dependent on the transport of agricultural produce as in the rest of Ireland, most manufacturing being carried out near the east coast. Wages and the prices of materials had risen sharply during the War. Receipts fell because of competition from unregulated road transport. The pre-War dividends of 5% or 6% fell by 60% (Morton, Railways in the North of Ireland, 29). As in Britain, the railways in the Irish Free State were amalgamated in 1924. The railways in Ulster however remained independent until 1948.

            The building of the railways had itself a great effect on the Irish construction and iron industries. Even the greatest bridges and viaducts were erected by Irishmen with Irish labour. The iron industry expanded to produce most of the ironwork required. But the iron industry did not diversify into other areas or develop export markets, and contracted when the railways were completed. Some of the larger railway companies established their own construction works for locomotives and carriages, but mostly bought them from British firms like Beyer Peacock. The Great Northern Railway between 1875 and 1948 built 39 locomotives in Dundalk and imported 228 of which 152 were from Beyer Peacock. Seventeen of the engines built in Dundalk were the basic maid-of-all-work 0-6-0s (Middlemass, Irish Standard Gauge Railways, 67). The Great Southern and Western built most of their locomotives at Inchicore outside Dublin. The Midland Great Western built 73% of their requirement at their Broadstone works in Dublin. The heaviest locomotives ever used were the 4-6-0s of the Great Southern and Western, the other two major railways contenting themselves with 4-4-0s. When in the 1920s the southern railways were amalgamated, the locomotive stock amounted to 398 ordinary engines and 134 tank engines. (These latter were used on short runs, usually suburban, with the coal and water being carried on the engine itself instead of in a separate tender.) Of the 398 engines 227 were of the 0-6-0 type and 111 of the 4-4-0 type. There were 17 of the more powerful 4-6-0s and 11 2-6-0s. Because of the cramped site at Dundalk the GNR built only 0-6-0s and 4-4-0s and between 1875 and 1948 acquired 103 of the former and 90 of the latter which was a very high proportion. The Midland Great Western had 82 of the 0-6-0s against 21 of the 4-4-0s and 19 of the 2-4-0s. (In the Whyte system of classification the middle figure represents the number of coupled driving wheels, the first figure the number of non-driving carrying wheels under the front of the engine and the last figure the number of non-driving carrying wheels at the rear. Because of curving tracks 8 is usually the largest number of wheels that can be coupled together. Different layouts of wheels were used for different tasks. The 0-6-0 was the standard locomotive for low-speed goods trains like cattle trains. The 4-4-0s and the more powerful 4-6-0s were for express trains. The larger the number of wheels the larger the boiler and consequently the more powerful the engine.)

            A railway workshop was not confined to building locomotives. Everything mechanical was built there. The Dundalk works built engines, coaches, goods wagons, railcars, rail buses, road buses, lorries, station, hotel, and railway furniture, and carried out electrical work, carpentry, and repairs of all kinds (Mulligan, F., Irish Railways, 97). The standard of the work was very high. Engines of course had to be built of iron but carriages and goods wagons were chiefly built of wood.

Light railways were more common in Ireland than in the rest of the U.K. This was largely due to initiatives of the Government which was always anxious to relieve poverty in the West. All had to be constructed and managed by private companies. A light railway was one which was built to standards lower than those common elsewhere because they would never be used for heavy traffic. All but one of the companies adopted the 3 feet gauge whose chief advantage, apart from lower costs, was that it permitted smaller radiuses for turns. About 570 miles of light railways were built, being twice as much as all the rest of the British Isles put together. They were built by 17 different companies. Some, though called light railways, were more properly tramways because they ran on public roads. The largest network was in County Donegal where two separate companies covered the entire county. County Antrim had five short lines connecting with the main broad gauge lines. Under the Tramways and Public Expenses (Ireland) Act (1883) Grand Juries of baronies could give guarantees to make up shortfalls of revenue and claim back some of the disbursements from the Treasury. The Light Railways Act (1889) and another in 1896 provided for advances of public money from the Treasury towards construction. Some of these little railways were very badly managed but one in Donegal was highly profitable. The last stretch of narrow gauge railway from Letterkenny to join up with the broad gauge Great Northern Railway at Strabane was completed in 1909. But by 1914 they reached their high-water mark. In the immediate post-War period the total disregard of the IRA for other people’s property damaged the railways severely; this at a time when all railways in the United Kingdom were experiencing difficulties (Patterson, Great Northern Railway 65, 164-5). Closures started almost immediately and continued steadily (Prideaux, J Irish Narrow Gauge 5-11). The mono-rail Listowel and Ballybunion railway, always unprofitable, ran from 1888 to 1924. The Dublin and Lucan railway closed in the same year.

Railways were the most important factor in developing the Irish economy. Stations were often situated close to livestock markets and fairs so that animals could be loaded directly on to trains. Conditions at first were primitive. Gradually cattle were de-horned before being loaded into the wagons. Lairs or lairages where the cattle could be unloaded, watered and fed were increasingly provided at the great ports. Refrigeration was an area where the railways and steamship companies co-operated with the creameries. The Farmers’ Gazette reported in 1903 that there has been significant progress by the railway companies, the steamship companies, and some of the creameries in this respect in the past few years; refrigerated transport is now provided for eggs and butter, and the commercial creameries are nearly all provided with refrigeration; the Maypole Dairy Company led the way in this country (Farmers Gazette 6 June 1903). [Top]

Water Transport

            Canal and river navigation was not well developed in Ireland. Ireland, geographically, was a low plateau with narrow coastal plains. Most of its rivers fell off the plateau quite close to the coast. Rivers like the Shannon and the Bann which looked as if they should be navigable had falls and rapids in their lower reaches. Nevertheless considerable effort had been expended in the pre-railway era to develop canals and river navigations (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland 95-99). As elsewhere in the world, railways did not make canals and navigable rivers obsolete. They were still used to carry heavy or bulky cargoes where speed of delivery was not important but ceased to carry passengers. They also served areas where roads or railways were lacking. In 1905 16 % of the total of rail and canal transport was still carried by canals (Burke, Industrial History, 355). In 1903 the chairman of the Grand Canal Company noted that their business consisted entirely of goods traffic: feeding stuffs, coal, and building materials outwards [from Dublin], agricultural produce and timber on the return. They did not carry passengers or cattle which were profitable to the railway companies. He announced a half-yearly dividend of 3% (Weekly Irish Times 23 February 1901). But gradually, road transport in the twentieth century made canals and river navigations redundant. The Newry Navigation consisted of an inland section for barges connecting with Lough Neagh, and a lower section for sea-going ships connecting Newry with the sea. Traffic on the inland section reached a peak around 1858. This was however partly due to the decreasing output of the Tyrone collieries for the transport of whose coal the canal had originally been constructed. Another reason was obviously the growth of the railways. When coal began to be imported through Newry it was distributed first by rail and later by road. A spur on the railway connected with the docks (McCutcheon, The Newry Navigation, 475). The trade on the ship canal increased steadily. The total traffic handled by the port in 1831 was 103,000 tons and in 1888 it was 364,000 tons despite a halving of traffic on the inland side (McCutcheon, 375-6). By 1914 Irish canals and canalised rivers totalled 848 miles of which 304 miles were brought under the Canal Control Committee during the War. Traffic on the Lagan navigation connecting Belfast Lough with Lough Neagh increased steadily until 1914.

            Both ports and ships grew in size. The major ports in Ireland increased and improved their port facilities in this period and secured connections from the major railways up to their docks and quays. Dublin and Belfast in particular strove to have deep water berthing for the largest cargo vessels and cross-channel packets. The bed of the River Lagan on which Belfast was situated was suitable for dredging so it was always possible to provide for the largest ships. In 1909 dredging was resumed to allow the new White Star liners, the Olympic and Titanic to approach the quays. By 1913 another expansion of the Belfast docks was being considered. In the same year it was proposed to establish a car ferry between Larne, Co. Antrim, and Stranraer in Scotland. This was eventually to become the most important car ferry in Northern Ireland. The old quays of Dublin were progressively abandoned, and the River Liffey bridged over. Though the approach to the coast from the sea was always restricted by the great Kish sandbank off the shore, it proved possible to provide big new quays along the North Wall of the Liffey on the seaward side of Dublin. The Midland Great Western was the first railway to run its tracks to the North Wall but eventually the other major companies gained access as well.

The obituary of Bindon Stoney in 1909 virtually tells of the development of the port of Dublin in this period. He joined the Dublin Port and Docks Board in 1856, becoming chief engineer of the port in 1859, and holding the post until 1898. He developed the North Wall and city quays, changing Dublin from a tidal port to one accessible at any state of the tide. He built the quays with concrete blocks of up to 350 tons, laid on prepared foundations and continued up to the level of low water; above that the wall was built conventionally. He constructed the Alexandra Basin, the North Quay extension, the North Bull Lighthouse, and the wall of the Poolbeg lighthouse. For placing the huge blocks a special 'sheers float’ was constructed to his own design; he was also in charge of the re-construction of O’Connell bridge, the re-construction of Grattan bridge; and the building of Butt Bridge (Weekly Irish Times 15 May 1909).

            Improvements to the port of Limerick continued. A wet dock was completed in 1853 and a dry dock or graving dock in 1873. In 1903 ships of 3,000 tons could enter the harbour. Cork also continued its improvements. The main quays along the River Lee were built between 1864 and 1906, a deep-water channel was dredged up to the city, and deep-water quays were built 1877-84. Other towns and ports like Waterford and Wexford seem to have been in a state of stagnation. The improvements to the port of Newry were completed by 1850 and trade through the port increased substantially following the construction of the railways. The ship-canal was limited to vessels of less than 1,000 tons. Nevertheless, the cross-channel colliers could use the port. Newry’s port authority repeatedly petitioned Parliament to be allowed to dredge a deep-water channel in the river up to the town to allow vessels of 5,000 tons to reach the port, but was always refused leave (McCutcheon, Newry Navigation, 477).

There was a feeling that Irish ports and canals were not sufficiently utilised. An official enquiry into water transport in 1918 found considerable scope for improvement. The main defects they found were: 1) Insufficiency of discharging berths; 2) Lack of efficient and up-to-date equipment for handling cargoes; 3) Inadequate linkage of piers and harbours with railways and waterways; 4) At times insufficient depth of water in the approach channels (Weekly Irish Times 16 November 1918).

At the beginning of the twentieth century there were indications of further changes to come. One was the proposal for a car ferry in 1913 between Larne and Stranraer. Belfast built its first motor vessel, by Harland and Wolff for the Bibby line, and used diesel engines. The Belfast Harbour Board provided new bunkers for fuel oil; such will soon be necessary at all major ports and not merely for ships. A sign of the growing importance of the motor trade was the development of port installations at Sydenham Road, Belfast, in conjunction with four of the leading petroleum oil companies (Church of Ireland Gazette 26 February 1921).


With regard to ships there were numerous connections between Irish ports and those on the opposite side of the Irish Sea. The most important ports were those which were connected to a major British railway, and the major British rail companies liked to have their own connection with Ireland. The most important was the London and North Western Railway which had terminals at Liverpool and Birkenhead on either side of the River Mersey, and controlled the direct Dublin-London route with its terminus at Holyhead on the Welsh coast. Its train, the ‘Irish Mail’ carried mail and passengers directly from Holyhead to London. For many years it was the fastest train on the LNWR. ‘Sleeping saloons’ were introduced on this route in 1875. Their boats also ran directly to the North Wall and connected with the Great Northern and Great Midland and Western. In 1873 the LNWR developed the deep-water port of Greenore at the tip of the Cooley peninsula in Co. Louth hoping to provide an equally direct route to Belfast. It provided a hotel at Greenore for the benefit of travellers, and also at Dublin and Holyhead. This route however did not develop as expected into a major passenger one, but long remained a harbour for the export of cattle. The cattleboats were divided up into pens for the horses and cattle. The cattleboats also carried some passengers at a cheap rate. They notoriously lacked stabilisers and rolled badly in any kind of sea. But the Greenore route was more direct for many people in south Ulster and north Leinster. A shareholder in 1901 queried whether the carrying of passengers was making a profit. He considered it was not, but no separate figures were provided. The chairman considered that passenger traffic did make a profit as the route overall was profitable (Weekly Irish Times 23 Feb. 1901).

The Great Western Railway did not get established on the Irish route until 1903 when it extended its line to Fishguard on the Welsh coast, built a port, and helped to build the port of Rosslare in County Wexford. It claimed that this was a more direct route between Dublin and London and in fact there was only a few miles difference between it and the Holyhead route. Fishguard then became the port for connection with Waterford and Cork as well (Gordon, Our Home Railways, I. 55). The Midland Railway also wanted a direct route to Ireland. In 1903 it acquired the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway and built a Midland Hotel at York Road station in Belfast. It moreover developed the port at Heysham in Lancashire to sail directly to Belfast. Stranraer was developed by four English railway companies to sail to Larne, replacing the traditional Donaghadee-Portpatrick route of sailing and stagecoach days. Stranraer was on the Glasgow and South Western Railway, but the company did not have the resources to develop the port. The Lancashire and Yorkshire and the LNWR jointly developed Fleetwood also in Lancashire, and the L. and Y. R got running powers to send its cattle-trucks to Birkenhead.

Because of the emotions stirred up by Daniel O’Connell and the Repeal movement, the Government did not dare award the lucrative contract to carry the mails to the London and North Western Railway. Instead it was awarded to the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. The service was initiated with four paddle-steamers of 750 tons which crossed at 13 knots. Regularly the ships were upgraded, and in 1897 the mail contract was renewed and new screw-driven ships were acquired, one of which, the Leinster, was torpedoed in 1918 (Anderson, Sailing Ships 179-187). The mailboats set the standard which the railway companies had to match. They were long and thin, with raked funnels and the most luxurious furnishings. Crossing the Irish Sea took between three and six hours depending on the ports. The Midland Railway began to use steam turbines. The London and North Western ships could cross at 22 knots, they too having upgraded to screw steamers in 1897, and also introduced turbines. The Great Western boats went at 23 knots. The crossing time from Dublin to Holyhead was 2 hours 45 minutes. Altogether the LNWR had 17 steamers on the Irish Sea routes (Gordon, Our Home Railways, Warder 27 Sept. 1902.) The passenger ships were equal to any in the world.

These were the main passenger routes but there could be sailings from almost any port to any port especially in the coal trade. A route to Ardrossan in Ayrshire was much favoured by those travelling to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Nor did steam displace sail. Once a sailing ship had been built it could last for nearly a hundred years. Most cargo sailing boats were rigged so that they could be worked by a very small crew. They were also of shallow draught so they could reach very small harbours and sail up rivers. The survived all around the British Isles and the American sea coast until well into the twentieth century. Being constructed of wood they could easily be built and repaired at many small boat yards around the coasts. Not until the 1890s did the big Belfast yards stop building sailing vessels.

Up to 1850 overseas or foreign trade was usually carried out in ships of no more than 200 tons, and it was not unusual for such vessels to ply between Irish ports and ports in the Baltic, the Mediterranean, the American cotton ports, and the West Indies. But there were trends against that. One was the increasing use of much larger iron steam ships, the difficulty in filling those ships with Irish goods for the outward leg of the voyage, the use of derrick cranes and steam winches on steam ships which rapidly reduced turn-around time, and the increasing use by emigrants of third class accommodation on the great liners. But even in the 1850s and 1860s ships sailed from Belfast as far as India, China, Australia, and North and South America (Anderson, Sailing Ships, 3-4). Belfast ship-owners in particular had large fleets of ocean-going ships. Another popular route was to Canada for cargoes of timber. Some of these ships were four-masted steel barques of over 3,000 tons. But most were much smaller with a brigantine rig, i.e. square sails on the foremast and fore-and-aft on the mainmast. This was more manoeuvrable than the brig which was square-rigged on both masts. A number of Belfast ships were engaged in the ‘coolie trade’ carrying indentured labourers from China to the West Coast of America (op. cit. 21-25). More common was the tea trade to China with ships sailing directly to Irish ports. Dublin also had sea-going ships but quite early big ships preferred calling at Liverpool instead. Another important cargo was guano from Peru. Dublin had an enormous fleet of colliers importing coal which reached its maximum size in the 1880s after which steam ships took over most of the trade (op.cit., 71-77). These could be around 250 tons and carry a cargo of 450 tons of coal.

 Cork and Londonderry also had extensive trading across the oceans, and both were particularly noted for their emigrant ships. Waterford too had an extensive trade up to around 1860, but thereafter it was confined to cross-channel trade with Britain. Waterford did not prosper in this period, and the development of efficient cross-channel steam services more or less wiped out direct trading with foreign ports. The port of Limerick rapidly went over to steam-ships, and to the cheaper and more efficient trans-shipment in the major British ports. Wexford, like the others had an extensive coastal trade in the first half of the century and then ventured briefly into foreign trade before reverting to coastal trade. There was an extensive coastal trade all along the west coast of Ireland, largely carried in hookers. These were sturdy one-masted boats about 40 feet long and 12 feet wide with bluff bow and a cutaway stern (Anderson, Sailing Ships, 164). Sligo was the only western port to venture into foreign trade, trading with the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, but by the end of the century this had been given up. Galway, strangely, had little foreign trade in this period. There were smaller fleets maintained in small ports around the coast, most worthy of note being Arklow, Co. Wicklow, and Anagassan, Co. Louth (Encyclopaedia of Ireland, ‘Maritime History’).

By 1918 there were no fewer than 38 steamship companies operating across the Irish Sea, and most of these carried passengers as well as cargo. Most too were registered in Britain.

With regard to navigational aids, many lighthouses and other aids to navigation like marker buoys had been put in place in the first half of the century. An Act 30 Victoria (1867) constituted two bodies out of the Irish Ballast Board; these were the Dublin Port and Docks Board, and the Commissioners of Irish Lights, to whom was given the supervision of lights, docks, and beacons elsewhere on the coast. The Dublin Board added four more lights to the original Poolbeg lighthouse. These two bodies were financed by harbour dues paid by every ship entering and leaving a port. John Richardson Wigham was born in Edinburgh but moved to Dublin where he was employed by a gas lighting company. He was particularly interested in applying gas illumination to lighthouses, and developed a powerful 28 jet flame. The number of jets was increased successively to 108 jets with a total candlepower of 2,923. This led to an intense competition with the manufacturers of oil lamps. The Irish Commissioners favoured the gas system, but the English Commission at Trinity House was opposed. Wigham further developed the first system of group flashing to distinguish one lighthouse from another. He also invented a system of foghorns, and a lighted buoy whose wick needed attention but once a month (DNB Wigham, John Tyndall).

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is a volunteer organisation which operates lifeboats in Britain and Ireland. It was founded in 1824 by Sir William Hillary in the Isle of Man, and took over duty from local lifeboat groups. Also along the coasts were the coast guards whose primary duty was to prevent smuggling but whose boats were available for rescue work. Another shipping aid developed from the early 1860s was weather forecasts. As it was known that weather normally passed over the British Isles from west to east, a chain of meteorological observation stations was established around the coasts. One was at Valentia Island, Co. Kerry and another on Malin Head, the most northerly point of Ireland. Observations were telegraphed to the Admiralty (later the Meteorological Office) in London which could then, also by telegraph, issue storm warnings, especially to coast guard stations. Among the earliest radio stations established were those along the west coast of Ireland, the first of which was constructed by Marconi himself. Among the first uses envisaged for the new radio broadcasting in Morse code was safety at sea. In practice, most of the traffic was commercial such as hotel bookings by incoming passengers on the big liners.

Aircraft had little direct affect on Ireland. Their first important use was with the military, but planes developed as bombers could easily be transformed into air liners. This did not occur until after the First World War. Irish gentlemen were not left behind in the desire to develop aeroplanes and as befitted an advanced economy they were in a position to do so. In 1903 two bicycle-manufacturers in the United States became the first people to achieve ‘controlled powered flight’ by a heavier than air machine. There had already been successes with balloons and gliders but these were to have no future except for recreational purposes. The secret of the Wright brothers’ success was the small, light gasoline engine. Apart from that all that was needed was basic skills in wood-working.

A Lilienthal glider was demonstrated in the grounds of Trinity College, Dublin in 1895 by the professor of natural philosophy, George Francis Fitzgerald (Fitzgerald, Encyc. of Ireland; DNB). Harry Ferguson around 1900 at the age of 16 established a small motor garage in Belfast to service motor cars and motorcycles. He was proficient in tuning engines for racing. Another man in Dublin was building a plane but Ferguson got his completed first, while several aeroplanes were being constructed in Belfast, and an Irish Aero Club was formed (Weekly Irish Times 23 Oct., 13 Nov. 1909). In January 1910 he became the first man in Ireland to fly using a monoplane he had designed himself with a tricycle undercarriage. Steering, as in the Wright brothers’ plane, was by wing-warping. Mr Ferguson's aeroplane performed the first flight, flying over 100 yards. The flight took place at Lord Downshire’s park at Hillsborough (Hillsborough Castle). The weather conditions were bad with wind of 28 mph. Some of the time he was actually being blown backwards (Weekly Irish Times 15 January 1910). The first Irish aviation meeting was held at Leopardstown at the end of August 1910. Several planes were exhibited; the weather was perfect on the day but there were several heavy showers and it was slightly squally aloft (Weekly Irish Times 29 Aug 1910). Planes of the period were built of wood, usually spruce or fir, and covered by fabric. The first flight over Irish Sea recalled the first attempt at a balloon crossing. Mr Loraine in his bi-plane had to wait several days for suitable conditions (Weekly Irish Times 17 Sept. 1910). In 1912 the Irish Aero Club organised a race between Dublin and Belfast. None of the planes completed the course because of a heavy storm (Weekly Irish Times 14 Sept. 1912). In 1909 the Short brothers in Kent purchased a licence to build Wright planes. Ferguson was persuaded by his wife to give up flying because of numerous flying accidents.

Though civil and recreational aviation came to a standstill during the First World War military aviation prospered. Harland and Wolff, the shipbuilders, also built aircraft, including the aircraft engines (Church of Ireland Gazette 18 June 1920). Most of the Irish linen production during the War went into the construction of aircraft for the Allies as it was the only fabric sufficiently strong. Immediately after the ending of the War the huge aircraft industry was wound down. Of 1,529 companies making aeroplanes in 1918 only 25 survived in 1925. Harland and Wolff, with a full order book for ships, saw no need to continue what was now an unprofitable line. The manufacture of aircraft was recommenced in Belfast during the Second World War when Short Brothers of Kent started a joint venture called Short and Harland. [Top]


            The introduction of the pre-paid post, or penny post, in 1840, together with the use of the railways to carry the mail, transformed a minor branch of the Revenue into one of the most important features of business and social life. Every town and village had its post office, and the Post Office devised more and more services which could be transacted through its branches. In particular it became possible to send sums of money by means of postal orders (1881), and the old age pension could be paid in this way (1908). Postal orders became the favoured way for workers in England to send money back to their families. A man could purchase a postal order, say for 10 shillings at a post office in England and post it to his wife. She cashed it at her local post office. It became possible too to send parcels (1883) so mail order firms sprang up. The Post Office reached parts of the country that banks did not. People could hold their savings in the Post Office Savings Bank (1861). Gradually, too, letters began to be delivered to individual homes, and collected from special post boxes. Postcards were invented in Austria in 1863 and were adopted world-wide. Trains made next-day delivery possible for distances of up to 400 miles, and this meant that most places in the United Kingdom were within this distance of each other. As elsewhere travelling post offices for sorting the mail were introduced on the lines between Dublin and Cork (1855) and Dublin and Belfast (1865) (Encyclopaedia of Ireland ‘mail conveyance’). A world-wide Postal Union was established in 1875 by which member countries agreed to forward each other’s letters. There was thus a direct postal link between Ireland and the United States. Letters, postcards and telegrams were the great means of communication. The Post Office began a trend by employing women as clerks, hitherto a male occupation.

A very important development was the introduction of the cheap telegram by which even poor people could for a small sum send brief urgent messages of up to 15 words such as announcing the death of a relative. Unnecessary words were omitted The War Office used this facility during the First World War to inform the next-of-kin if a soldier was killed, wounded, or captured or missing. This humane measure at least let relatives know what was happening. Not all armies did this. Telegram messages received at the local post office were carried to the recipient by a telegram boy, usually one of the children of the local post master, on his bicycle. In rural areas the sight of the telegram boy often brought a feeling of dread or foreboding. (Typical was the first telegram I remember our family receiving which said starkly ‘Jim killed in action 28 April 1945 will write later Elizabeth’ or words to that effect. Jim was my mother’s nephew and my first cousin. Elizabeth was my mother’s sister-in-law.) The extension of the telephone system to every post office allowed telegrams to be sent to every home in the country, and to be sent from every post office.

            The electric telegraph relied on the fact that a small electric current passed through a wire could be detected at the other end whether by the deflection of a needle or later by a sound. The earliest in the British Isles was the 6 wire Wheatstone telegraph used extensively by railway companies for directing and controlling their trains. The Morse code where letters were represented dots and dashes was much simpler once one had memorised the code and was universally adopted, and later adapted to radio transmission by Marconi. In the second half of the 19th century it was used extensively by newspapers for collecting news. The latest information on the prices of stocks and shares and commodity prices could be obtained by businessmen. A telegraph required a telegraph office at either end of a long wire. As railways companies had obtained powers to acquire land in roughly a straight line between pairs of towns the wires were run alongside the tracks. Old photographs of railways show the telegraph wires. It quickly proved possible to send the wires under the sea and Dublin was connected with London in 1852. The wires were re-laid in 1853. Over a long distance it was necessary to re-transmit the message at intervals. The physics to determine how a long submarine cable could work were determined by the Belfast-born physicist, Lord Kelvin. The first attempt at transmitting by telegraph across the Atlantic was made in 1858 but it failed after a brief time. Kelvin supervised the manufacture and laying of the next cable in 1866 which worked successfully (DNB Thompson, William).

In 1860 the Government, regarding telegraphs as a public service, decided to take control of all public telegraphs and gave control over them to the Post Office. The English and Irish Magnetic Telegraph company formed by John Watkins Brett in 1852 to establish a telegraph between London and Dublin was among those bought out. Brett had previously laid a cable under the English Channel, a shorter distance. Later the Government was to do the same with telephone companies.

            The telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. Like the telegraph it depended on the flow of a tiny electric current through a wire. The pressure of sound waves on a diaphragm produced variations in the electric current and this in turn could produce vibrations in a receiving diaphragm at the other end which realistically mimicked the voice. During this period up to 1920 the telephone had nothing like the influence of the telegram on Irish society. Nevertheless businesses acquired telephones, and the Post Office connected even rural post offices to the system. So the public could make phone calls or send telegrams from their local post office

            Telephones required a stronger current of electricity than the telegraph so at first there were only local services, chiefly in towns with separate systems in each town. But the technology was rapidly evolving. In Britain three major telephone companies developed, the National, the Mutual and the New Telephone Company as well as the town and city companies. It was in everyone’s interest that these should link up. In Dublin and suburbs the first system used overhead wires but by 1900 these were being replaced by cables under the streets where the local authority gave permission. In Dublin and Rathgar 4,562 miles of wire had been laid under the streets (Weekly Irish Times 20 January 1900). In the same year a telephone connection was made between London and Paris, going 21 miles under the Straight of Dover. In 1901 Glasgow in Scotland already had 4,800 subscribers and had planned to accommodate 12,000. Already the Postmaster General for the Government was getting involved, and in 1900 considered that it was too expensive to connect the leading towns in south of Ireland to Cork, but was prepared to consider proposals from chambers of commerce or other bodies who would guarantee a return for at least seven years. The Post Office Act (1891) enabled a rural sanitary authority to assist in the provision of postal or telegraphic communication for contributory places within their districts by undertaking to supply any lines (New Irish Jurist 24 June 1904). This was a variation on the baronial guarantee to light railways (Weekly Irish Times 18 January 1902). A deputation was sent from Limerick to London to see if the Post Office would reconsider (County Councils Gazette 20 July 1900). The rich people, it would seem, could make their own local arrangements for by 1903 there was a telephone connection between Dublin and Lord Dunraven’s house in Adare, County Limerick.

It was recommended that when giving the number you wanted to call to the telephone girl nought (zero) should be pronounced O (oh); 1200 should be one, two, double O. The quality of sound was far from perfect and 5 was often confused with 9 (Warder 5 Jan. 1907). In 1911 the line rental to farmers was reduced to £3 a year if five farmers joined in a subscription for a shared line. This was regarded as useful to creameries of which there were then 380 with an annual output of £2 million and also to egg and poultry co-operatives (Enniscorthy Echo 27 May 1911). From 1901 onwards the Post Office co-ordinated the various local companies and finally bought out the National Telephone Company giving itself almost complete charge of telephone services in the United Kingdom except in Kingstown-on-Hull. In 1914 the new telephone cable from the Welsh coast to Howth was being tested; at 64 nautical miles it the longest submarine telephone cable yet laid. On the British side it will be controlled from Manchester. The land part of the scheme linking London and Galway has been erected as far as Mullingar. At present phone calls between London and Dublin are routed through Carlisle and Belfast. The undersea distance between the north of Ireland and Scotland was about 25 miles while it was about 60 miles between Dublin and Holyhead. The difficulties in using long submarine cables because of the high resistance have now been overcome (Weekly Irish Times 3 Jan. 1914). By 1920 most of even the remotest towns and villages had been linked by telephone so that police stations, coast guard stations, village post offices, labour exchanges, most of the larger businesses and gentlemen’s houses were connected. Very quickly too doctors’ and priests’ houses were connected. An essential preliminary to a terrorist attack was to cut the wires, while an infallible guide for a stranger to find the nearest town was ‘to follow the wires’.

            Ireland was in the very forefront of the effort to develop wireless telegraphy and wireless telephony, radio. Part of the reason was the Guglielmo Marconi’s mother and wife were Irish. He was born in Bologna in Italy, but in 1896, encouraged by his mother he moved to London where it was easier to raise finance. For him the big challenge was to send a signal across the Atlantic arguing that radio waves would actually follow the curvature of the earth. This proved correct but not necessarily for the reasons that influenced Marconi. The first radio report of a live sporting event took place at the Kingstown, Co. Dublin regatta when Marconi sent reports in Morse code to a newspaper in Dublin (Encyclopaedia of Ireland, Marconi). In 1901 he successfully transmitted a single letter across the Atlantic to Newfoundland. Monsignor Molloy, vice-chancellor of the Royal University assisted his fund-raising (Warder 6 Oct 1906). He then set about making a much larger transmitting station near Clifden, Co. Galway on the far west coast of Ireland. The Irish station was just a few sheds and eight tall masts facing seaward with interlaced wires. The message is tapped out of an ordinary telegraphic instrument. Amid thunderous noise and flashing of sparks which are repeated on the wire outside, the message jumps the Atlantic. The power is produced by a 300 horsepower steam engine fired with coal and local peat and several batteries. The current is first sent to the condenser where metallic plates intensify its transmission and reception power a thousand fold. The receiver has a telephone attached to enable him to hear the dots and dashes. At present only press messages, arranged by contract, are being sent (Weekly Irish Times 26 Oct. 1907).

            It was envisaged at an early stage that wireless transmitting and receiving sets could be carried on board ship as hitherto there was no direct means of communicating with a ship out of sight. Wireless equipment was installed on the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic, distress messages were sent out, and were picked up by the Cunard liner Carpathia which arrived in one hour and twenty minutes. It was the unexpected speed of the sinking that caused great loss of life. The wireless traffic was also picked up by the Marconi office in New York which kept everyone informed about the tragedy as it unfolded. Soon Marconi had six stations on the Irish coast, the most important being at Crookhaven, Co. Cork, for ships going round the south of Ireland and at Malinhead, Co. Donegal, for ships going round the north of Ireland. In an Article on wireless telegraphy as a profession it was pointed out that the busiest station in the United Kingdom was a remote telegraphy station in Co. Cork 400 feet above the Atlantic. These remote stations have to have their own electricity generators run by steam. The purpose of the station was to keep track of ships which were due. The operator has to tune to various frequencies to gather the big Cunards or North German Lloyd ships. In the meantime a continuous stream of messages is being sent from Clifden, and Poldhu in Cornwall. The messages from the latter are sent to ships and consist of news for appearance in the ships’ newspapers. When the German ship is about 400 miles from Fastnet she begins transmitting, sending about 60 messages, mostly bookings to various hotels in Europe, but also some messages back to America. They all have to be written down and taken by hand to the local post office (Weekly Irish Times 15 October 1910). In March 1919 clear speech was heard across the Atlantic from Ballybunion, Co. Kerry, to Cape Breton Island 1,800 miles away. In fact this occurred before the first telephone cable across the Atlantic was laid. In 1921 radio broadcasting was licensed in England and the London station 2LO began broadcasting from the roof of Marconi House in London (Weekly Northern Whig 5 September 1925). Irish public broadcasting commenced in 1926 when the station 2 RN was established, and the state took control of broadcasting. (The publicly controlled BBC was established in 1927.)[Top]

Finance and Trade

Financial Institutions

            With regard to currency, Ireland from 1826 shared the common currency of the United Kingdom, the pound sterling. Like the Scottish banks the Irish banks retained the right to print their own notes, but though commonly circulating in Ireland, they were not legal tender in the rest of the United Kingdom. Indeed they were described as a form of advertising. Those wishing to travel outside Ireland provided themselves either with gold sovereigns or Bank of England notes. These latter were legal tender in Ireland.

            The great monetary event in the 20th century was the great inflation during the First World War. The United Kingdom had maintained a ‘gold standard’ between 1821 and 1914 meaning that a £1 note or similar note would be exchanged for a fixed weight of gold; in the case of the £1 note one gold sovereign. The currency had been stable since the Napoleonic Wars but between 1914 and 1919 the pound depreciated by 50%, £2 in 1919 being roughly equal to £1 in 1914. Figures for wages, profits, sales, and deposits must be cut by about half to get comparable figures for 1914.

Ireland had no Central Bank for the chartered Bank of England played that role for the whole of the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, the chartered Bank of Ireland provided the banking services for the Irish Government. The Bank of Ireland acted as a lender of last resort to the other banks and was prepared to import bullion if necessary if the joint-stock banks got into difficulty. (A central bank was established in Eire in 1943.)

Joint-stock banks provided the chief means for savings and exchange. Up to 1820 Ireland had a very poor banking system. The Irish Parliament had imposed severe restrictions on private partnership banks. Even the best-managed bank could get into difficulties for often its assets were not liquid. If on a given day a bank failed to pay all the claims on it a run on the bank occurred immediately as every depositor tried to withdraw his money at the same time. (The same could occur with British and American banks.) In 1824 an Act was passed allowing joint-stock banks to be established outside a limit of 50 Irish miles (about 64 statute miles) from Dublin, the region around Dublin being reserved to the Bank of Ireland. By the Irish Bank Act (1845) the fifty-mile limitation was removed, and certain restrictions were placed on the amount of notes they issued (Keenan Pre-Famine Ireland 113-9).

In 1850 there were 165 branch banks in Ireland, in 1910 809 branches, and in 1920 1,255 (Burke, Industrial History 355-7). Banks were woven into the fabric of the Irish economy. Deposits and cash balances held by the banks in 1850 amounted to £5.5 million and by 1910 ten times that amount (Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine). In 1903 the joint-stock banks were the Bank of Ireland, the Hibernian Bank, the Royal Bank of Ireland with several branches in Dublin and Kingstown, the Munster and Leinster Bank, the Provincial bank, the National Bank, the Northern Banking Company, the Belfast Banking Company, and the Ulster Bank. The three latter had head offices in Belfast, the Munster and Leinster in Cork, the Provincial, and National in London and the remaining three in Dublin (Whitaker's Almanac 1903). There were only two bank failures, the Tipperary Bank in 1856 and the Munster Bank in 1885 (DNB Shaw, W.; Sadleir, J.). The latter was quickly re-formed as the Munster and Leinster Bank in the same year.

Perhaps because of the safety of the banks people tended to leave their money on deposit, and the Irish banks have been criticised for not being adventurous enough in lending to infant industries as they were for many the sole source of capital for development. Deposits in Irish banks rose steadily between 1886 and 1900. The point is discussed extensively by O’Grada who concludes that banks lent extensively to established businesses (Economic History 349-75). The question why farmers kept so much of their money in banks when they could be using it to improve their lands was discussed in the Farmers Gazette, but another writer claimed that the farmers invested in too many small and unprofitable creameries (Farmers’ Gazette 9 Feb. 1904).

The deposits in the joint-stock banks on 31 Dec. 1903, at £45,399,000 exclusive of £1,917,000 Government and other public balances in the Bank of Ireland, was an increase of £949,000 over the previous year and was the highest thus far recorded. This does not indicate a state of prosperity; indeed these unused balances rather indicate the contrary. The estimated balances in the Post Office Savings Banks was £9,547,000, and in the Trustee Savings Banks £2,457,000, the two combined amount to £12,004,000. The number of bank notes in circulation has remained fairly constant since 1860 despite the fact that the deposits have increased by 200%; the spread of banking facilities and the adoption of other systems tend to limit the demand for notes (Farmers’ Gazette 2 July 1904). Cheques were subject to stamp duty, and an ordinary post stamp of the required value had to be stuck on it. Crossing cheques with two parallel lines made them non-transferable. Without it a person could pay a bill with a cheque he himself had received. Such cheques could be stolen and used, so the issuing bank finally printed the crossed lines on all its pre-printed cheques. The crossed cheque had to be paid into a bank where its number was recorded and so became traceable (Weekly Irish Times 6 March 1909). The deposits in the Irish banks in 1914 amounted to £66,168,000, and in 1919 to £136,134,000 or about £68,067,000 in 1914 values (Burke Industrial History 357).

 O’Grada discussed the collusion and lack of competition between the banks. The banks, like the railways, were very profitable giving an annual return of 10% to 12% which was equal to the best Irish companies (Irish Homestead 25 Aug. 1900). The recollections of an old bank clerk who recalled former times were given in the Weekly Irish Times. In his youth there were qualifying examinations but not competitive, which left a discretion to select the sons of other bank officials. Each one selected had to find personal security for the sum of £2,000 (Weekly Irish Times 19 Nov. 1904). Without a relative in a senior position in the bank his chances of promotion were small. The system naturally led to conservative and risk-averse banking.

The two other chief means of saving were the trustee savings banks and the Post Office Savings Bank. Savings banks commenced in Ireland in 1815 when one was started in Dundalk. The idea was that a worker could set aside small sums each week when he was employed which he could draw out when unemployed, ‘put aside for the rainy day’. Loan societies were institutions which accumulated a body of capital from which the organisers could lend out small sums at reasonable interest to workers who might need to buy tools or yarn. Credit unions which combined these two, were formed by groups with similar needs, and lent out small sums at interest to members of the group. Savings banks were regulated by the Savings Banks Act (1817). In 1861, Gladstone introduced the Post Office Savings Bank for small deposits. This encouraged thrift, got usable money for the Government, and payments and withdrawals could be made at any post office. It proved very popular and was soon to eclipse the trustee savings banks. In 1870 deposits with the savings banks were £2,062,758, and with the Post Office £633,000, which combined were £2,695,758. In 1900 the deposits in the savings banks were £2,295,000, in the Post Office £7,791,000, and combined £10,086,000 (Portadown Recorder 29 Sept. 1900). On 31 December 1908 there were 546,560 Irish depositors on the books, and on 31 December 1909 only 138,022, the decision having been taken to remove the names of those accounts into which nothing had been paid for five years. The savings banks remained independent until the 1960s when there was a series of mergers which resulted in the Trustee Savings Bank in 1992 (Encyclopaedia of Ireland ‘banking’).

Very interesting were the numerous local attempts to continue the efforts of the loan societies to enable poorer people to get credit on reasonable terms. Among these were co-operative or agricultural banks of which in 1900 there were 50 or 60 in Ireland. From 4 to 6 men can join to form an agricultural bank, and then can borrow from the larger banks at 4 %; these banks were started on the Continent 20 years ago and have proved very beneficial; their great strength is that they know their local customers intimately, usually from childhood (Irish Truth 9 June 1900). The interest they would then charge was 4% plus a small charge, very much less than what a money lender would charge, and the larger banks would not lend at all to that class. The Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS) commended these banks, which were promoted locally by a gentleman or clergyman. Already in 1900 there were 10 in Mayo, 7 in Galway, 3 in Donegal, 1 in Kerry and 1 in Roscommon (Homestead 19 May 1900). In the 20th century many of these banks became known as credit unions, but at the start many were called Raiffeisen banks after Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen who is credited with starting the credit union movement in Germany. Credit co-operatives were formed by organised groups of people with some common bond who, in effect, save their money together and make low-cost loans to each other (Encyclopædia Britannica 2005 ‘credit union’). The Homestead commented on the Raiffeisen banking principles. Raiffeisen considered the difficulty of lending to a person with no security, so he made a point of making the employment of the loan for some productive purpose, under the control of the bank an essential condition, not loans to cover events like funerals; this plus the honesty of the borrower was the security. This was in accordance with IAOS rules for co-operative banks. It gave a profile of Henry Wolff of the Co-operative Movement in England. It was due to him that the credit societies were started in Ireland in 1894 (Homestead 25 Aug; 3 Nov 1900).

The Co-operative Credit Associations were commenced in the rural districts in the South and West of Ireland by the establishment of a “bank” at Doneraile in County Cork. By the end of 1902 145 of these rural banks were registered. In these societies each member is equally, jointly, and severally responsible for any losses, which leads to very careful management; a profit is not expected, only the avoidance of loss; the benefit is from the productive use of the money. The Department of Agriculture and the Congested Districts Board advance loans of £50 or £100 to get the enterprises started; they also serve to provide a kind of central credit and advances of capital to local loan societies. Practically all the capital obtained on loan is borrowed by small farmers to buy young stock; in this way they can get a return of from 25% to 150% on the money borrowed, which makes them attractive; it has been pointed out that many of the migrant labourers actually have land, but not the capital to stock it; the Raiffeisen banks provide some of this (Farmers’ Gazette 2 July 1904).

Around 1920 the value of the advances by the Congested Districts Board through the IAOS was questioned. The editor of The Homestead referred to a remark of Mr W. Russell regarding the loans made by the Congested Districts Board to co-operative banks in the west of Ireland that they were now worth 2/6 in the pound. That reckless remark could not be directly contradicted at the time. The IOAS made every effort to see that the money was recovered; in 1910 it was considered that 60% of the initial loans would have to be written off, but by 1920 all the capital and interest had been repaid, but for three shillings and one penny. Those who felt that the loans would not be re-paid by the very poorest of the farmers in Galway, Mayo and Donegal underestimated the honesty of those people (Homestead 21 Feb. 1920).

With regard to others sources of credit there was an enquiry into agricultural credit in 1912. One witness, a large farmer, said that the larger farmers did not usually need credit; but the smaller farmers did; they got loans from the joint-stock banks, butter merchants, creamery proprietors, and got credit from shopkeepers. Dr Kelly, RC bishop of Ross said the joint-stock banks made loans as small as one pound, and one on a fair day had advanced £2,544 usually at 5% (Weekly Irish Times 6 April 1912).

Among the legal moneylenders were the pawnbrokers. Pawnbroking among the weekly wage earners in Dublin was of vast extent, and most workers in Dublin were now paid weekly. Pawnbroking was made legal in Ireland in 1786, and at least 5 million tickets are issued annually by pawnshops in Ireland. The interest was fixed at one halfpenny on every two shillings or part of two shillings for each month or part of a month, i.e. 25% at simple interest [six pence on 24 pence over a year]. However as most pledges among the weekly earners are for weeks or less than a week the actual interest is 108%; also as the pawnbrokers were not mentioned in the Currency Act 1826, for interest purposes 2/- is counted as 2/2 Irish; the effect of this to invoke the clause 'part of 2/-' which allows the pawnbroker to charge for 4/- instead of 2/-. In Britain the legal interest on pawns is 108% (Weekly Irish Times 19 August 1905).

 Money-lenders known as gombeen men charged what they could get away with. It should be noted that their actual rate of return on advances might be considerably less than the nominal rate because of bad debts. O’Grada quotes a study which concluded that interest rate charged by shopkeepers in the congested districts was between 10 and 15%. But then the debtor would be obliged to sell his produce to the shopkeeper at a lower price than what he could get elsewhere. His conclusion that the co-operative banks failed because they were charging too low an interest rate would seem to be incorrect, as shown above. Rather there would seem to have been a clash of personalities between Horace Plunkett and T.W. Russell who succeeded him at the Department of Agriculture in 1906 (O’Grada, Economic  269). It was normal in most countries for the very poorest people to spend their whole lives owing money to money lenders, not merely because of natural disasters, but because some events like weddings and funerals had by custom to be celebrated lavishly.

Insurance companies existed in Ireland as long as they did in England, for the English companies established branches in Ireland. The first native Irish company was formed in 1771 and by 1815 there were six companies operating in Dublin. The expansion of insurance companies matched that of banking, and insurance rates in Ireland matched those in England. The great English Insurance companies tended to buy up the smaller Irish ones. Notable among these was the Sun Assurance Company. This insurance was with regard to life, shipping and property and was managed by private companies. The much later health and unemployment insurance were Government schemes. Some co-operatives ran their own insurance schemes for members, especially farmers. The marine, property and fire insurance had been around for centuries, life insurance only started in the second half of the 19th century. The most famous of these was the Prudential Assurance Company, and the ‘man from the Pru’ who called weekly to collect the premiums was a familiar figure in Ireland as elsewhere.

Building Societies (in the United States savings and loans associations) commenced around the middle of the 19th century. They were mutual benefit societies not limited companies. They were like the smaller loan societies in that they were owned by the members. One joined a building society by opening an account and depositing some savings. After an agreed limit a member was eligible to obtain a loan for the purchase of a house in the form of a mortgage which he agreed to pay off over a number of years. Building societies were hedged about with regulations, but commonly gave a better rate of return on deposits than the joint-stock banks. There was one in Dublin before mid-century, and after that several were formed.

The Irish stock exchange was founded in 1793, and at first traded in a very limited number of stocks such as those of the canal companies as well as Irish Government stock. Gradually, in the course of the 19th century, gas, banks, mining, and railway companies were floated and successful businesses formed themselves into limited companies.[Top]


Markets and Shops

            All the usual means of trading, towns, markets, shops, banks, roads, railways, canals, ports and shipping were in place in Ireland by 1850, and even the peddler on foot or in a light cart reached out into remote areas. In the smallest village there was a small general store usually with a pub attached. In 1841 there were 27,000 travelling hucksters and dealers in Ireland against 18,000 shop-owners and shop assistants who worked from fixed premises (O’Grada, Economic History, 265). Huckster is the feminine of hawker, indicating that the majority of traders in temporary stalls or with barrows were women (see spinner/spinster, baker/baxter.) In the course of the next seventy years shopkeepers with proper shops began to predominate. Shops began selling more factory-made and imported goods like clothes, boots, and bread. The changes in the goods sold in country towns as disposable income gradually increased are described by O’Grada (266-8). As the whole of Ireland came into the sphere of the commercial economy in the second half of the century following the spread of the roads, railways and canals, so small local general stores usually combined with a pub, and often with a sub-post office, spread over the whole country. In smaller towns some of the shops stocked luxury items which were likely to be bought only by the gentry. In the big cities, department stores, selling a wide variety of goods in different departments made their appearance. In Belfast there were Robinson and Cleaver’s and Anderson and McAuley’s while in Dublin there were Arnott’s, and Cleary’s. Mr. Edward Robinson JP was one of the founders of Robinson and Cleaver's; originally from Ballymena, he was apprenticed to a draper. In 1870 he joined with Mr Cleaver in establishing the business, which was famous for its linens. He developed the sale by means of the post which allowed the business to grow enormously (Weekly Irish Times 10 Mar. 1906). Another phenomenon was the chain store where the same merchants opened identical shops in several towns. A pioneer in this was Sir Thomas Lipton from Co. Monaghan. Mention must be made of the kiosks of W. H. Smith on railway platforms all over England. Eason and Son was originally the Irish branch of W. H. Smith, whose Irish manager was a Somerset man called George Eason. When Mr Smith become Chief Secretary in 1886 he transferred the business to George Eason, and it was made into a limited company in 1888 (The Irish Newsagent 6 Mar. 1920).

            With regard to public houses and the sale of wines, beers, and spirits, the first licensing Act was passed in 1635, and in 1737 the licensing power was transferred to the Commissioners for Excise, and then by the Act of Union (1800 the power was transferred to the justices in quarter session, except in Dublin where it was vested in divisional magistrates. The power of the magistrates was unrestricted. In 1833, the 3rd/4th William IV, the foundation of the present legislation, empowered the justices to refuse licences on three grounds; the unsuitability of the applicant, of the premises, or the excessive number of existing premises; the Excise still administered the rules; renewals could be granted on the production of a certificate of orderliness signed by six householders. An Act of 1854 made the renewal depend on a certificate signed by two or more justices in petty session; licences are thus granted at quarter sessions but renewed at petty sessions. The editor commented that there were far too many public houses; in Tralee there were 117 houses for a population of 5,367. The premises were poor in many cases; they do not have to be of a minimum rateable value; mostly they sell no other refreshments like tea, and no solid food. With regard to the misuse of powers by the justices of the peace, this was notorious; canvassing and packing of benches flourishes; the number of justices who may attend is large and variable; 60 or 70 may attend and the county court judge is a mere figurehead as the justices do not accept his ruling even on points of law; new licences are granted recklessly (New Irish Jurist 21 March 1902). (The Grand Juries decided, not the judge.)

            There was also the off-licence or spirit grocer's licence which enabled those selling tea, cocoa, chocolate, or pepper, to sell spirits up to half a gallon for consumption off the premises; they were predominantly found in Dublin and Belfast, and mostly sell beer, including ale and porter as well (op.cit. 4 April 1902). The Intoxicating Liquors (Sale to Children) Act (1901) prohibited the sale of alcohol to children under 14; there was an exception regarding the sale of liquors in corked or toppered bottles. The Minority Report recommended the extension of Sunday closing in pubs to the five exempted cities, Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Limerick and Waterford. The journal noted that it applied to Londonderry which with its 39,873 population was creeping up on Limerick’s 45,806, and was larger than Waterford’s 27,947; the application of the Act in Londonderry was a great success. Both Reports agreed that the bona fide rule was being abused (op. cit. 11 April 1902). This rule applied to genuine or bona fide travellers. In practice the traveller should have travelled at least three miles to arrive at the public house. The advent of the bicycle made this rule ineffective.

             The editor cited from the Lenten pastoral of Dr MacRedmond, bishop of Killaloe who observed that £15 million a year is spent on alcohol; this equalled the agricultural rents and the imperial taxation combined; drunkenness is often regarded as Ireland’s national vice… In 1845 there were 15,000 licensed premises for a population of eight and a half millions; now there are 18,751 for a population less than half that size. He had hoped that the appointment of magistrates from among the ranks of the people [namely Catholics] would lead to an improvement in this respect, but he asked his vicar general and was told that the new magistrates rarely attended petty sessions at all, and then only the licensing sessions where they either canvassed votes or took bribes (New Irish Jurist 28 Feb 1902). It was noted that the licence which was purchased with a virtual right to renewal was at times more valuable than the premises. There was some improvement regarding the renewal of beer licences. Until 1869 in England anyone could apply for a licence to sell beer and expect its annual renewal; in 1869 in England and in 1889 in Ireland the rateable value of public houses was raised resulting in the closing of hundreds of beerhouses, 557 in Dublin alone (The Witness 30 April 1920).

            The work conditions of shop assistants and the hours that had to work were gradually set out in law under the various Factories and Workshops Acts. The earliest of these was the Irish Sunday Closing Act (1879 which was sponsored by Charles O’Conor Don (DNB O’Conor). This was normally an issue which preoccupied Lord’s Day Observance societies.

            Markets and fairs were held regularly. Markets originally were quite small in size physically, and each stall-holder would probably have a small portable table about two or three feet square, but they and the stalls became larger. Markets had to be held on different days so that the stall-holders could attend several of them in the course of a week. In the nineteenth century, prosperous towns like Newry obtained permission to build eight large walled markets, for cereals, seeds, flax seed and grass seeds, for potatoes and root crops but also poultry, for pigs and sheep, for hay, straw, turf etc., for butter in firkins and crocks but also flax, for lump butter, cheese and eggs, as well as fruit and vegetables, for furniture old and new, wearing apparel, and marine stores, and a hiring market (Canavan, Frontier Town, 159). Fairs were more ancient, probably dating back to the Bronze Age, but at first the selling or exchange of animals was only incidental. Fairs could be held perhaps once or twice a year, and attracted purchasers and sellers from long distances, and they could last several days. But gradually in Ireland the word fair was applied to sales of livestock, though hawkers, hucksters, peddlers, and entertainers also attended. Though fairs were often essential for purchasing young stock in the spring and selling older stock in the autumn it meant that all buyers were buying at the same time driving up prices, and then all selling at the same time driving down prices. Also as dealers all arrived on the same train and stayed at the same hotel, there were abundant opportunities for price fixing.

The Farmers’ Gazette in 1904 observed that the auction mart was rare in Ireland, and some regard this as sign of backwardness; in Britain the fair has been completely replaced by the mart. The auction system is a far better one than the individual purchases at the fairs; fairs are an enormous waste of time. At marts it is stated beforehand what kind of animal is being sold, and the farmers and buyers know when and where to attend. There is also ample provision for the holding, watering and feeding of the animals, unlike the fair to which the animals are driven, often in the heat of the sun, without shelter. Animals are mixed freely in fairs so diseases are widely spread. Co-operation is as easily applied to marts as to anything else; all is needed is for a group of farmers to form a company and employ an auctioneer. The benefits of the system can be seen in the Dublin mart where incredible quantities of livestock are disposed off rapidly, more in a quarter of an hour than in a whole day at a fair. Fatteners can dispose of their fat cattle and buy stores the same day (Farmers Gazette 19 Jan. 1904). Stores were animals kept or acquired for fattening.

            Since the Middle Ages strict laws and by-laws were passed to prevent abuses. In the 19th century markets and fairs were regulated by the Markets and Fairs Clauses Act (1847) but this was extended by different Acts in the course of the next half century. The Public Health Act (1878 conferred large powers on all urban authorities to regulate fairs and markets; the Public Health Act (1896) extended the scope to all town commissioners under any public not private Act who were not sanitary authorities. The result was that all towns and boroughs in Ireland were placed on the same footing. By the 1878 Act the local authority was enabled to purchase existing markets, and this power was also given by the Local Authority Act (1898). The Public Health Act (1878) authorised the making of by-laws in towns to control all markets and fairs, prevent nuisances etc; and town commissioners have similar powers under the same Act respecting markets and fairs controlled by them; subject to the condition that all such by-laws must be approved by the Lord Lieutenant in accordance with the Towns Improvement Act (1854) (Irish Law Times 20 Jan. 1900).

The Hawkers Act (1888) was a consolidating Act, and required all hawkers to purchase an annual licence for £2. The Act allowed for exceptions: commercial travellers, one selling his own goods, those who vend fish, fruit, vegetables, or coal, and those selling in markets. Under the Markets and Fairs Clauses Act (1847) those vending therein do not require a licence but must pay the market tolls (Irish Law Times 28 April 1900). In 1900 an agent for the Singer Sewing Machine Company was prosecuted for selling machines without a hawker's licence (Constabulary Gazette 3 Feb. 1900).

The Irish Times in 1900 commented that in recent years a number of well-managed restaurants had been opened in Dublin for the accommodation of businessmen and visitors; provision earlier was appallingly inadequate. Provision of decent places for workingmen was still lacking; the poor quality of the others can be seen even by looking at the windows (Weekly Irish Times 21 April 1900). Hotels, by the year 1900, were quite widely spread over Ireland. This was largely due to the expansion of the railways, which allowed anglers to travel to the remotest places, commercial travellers to visit every town, and cattle dealers to attend every fair. Describing Gort, Co. Galway the Farmers Gazette said it was regarded as one of the oldest towns in Ireland; the town is of the usual Irish type, one long street, a market square, a couple of hotels, a Protestant church, a Catholic chapel, and a police barracks (Farmers’ Gazette 14 June 1902). The temperance movement also led to the development of temperance hotels. Some of the hotels near railways had formerly been coaching inns. It was noticed that girls preferred working in hotels or restaurants than as traditional domestic servants. The formation of the Irish Tourist Association helped to raise the standards in hotels. [Top]

Imports and Exports

            Ireland was a large island but was an integral part of the United Kingdom. Consequently a large part of what was internal trade was carried by sea. Irish nationalists regarded trade with Britain as being under the heading of imports and exports. They were imbued with mercantilist theories that the wealth of nations could be computed by the excess of exports over imports, a fallacy famously exploded by Adam Smith. The collection of official figures was discontinued in 1825 when the last of Irish duties against British goods were discontinued. However, even then there were great difficulties in determining their exact value (Keenan, Pre-Famine Ireland, 106-7). At the beginning of the 20th century the newly-formed Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction began to compile statistics. The Irish Times reported the Department’s statistics of imports and exports in 1904, the first collection for 80 years. It was admitted that the classification was not ideal. The total aggregated trade through Irish ports was £101,754,638, but as the quantities of manufactured goods both imports and exports were imperfectly registered the total may exceed £105 million; imports totalled £55,148,611 and exports £46,606,420 (Weekly Irish Times 17 Nov. 1906). In 1911 the Enniscorthy Echo reported the combined figure for 1904 as £104 million and for 1909 £126 million. Linen exports went up from 973,000 cwts in 1904 to 1,230,000 cwts in 1909; exports of bacon in the same period went up from £1,159,000 to £2,933,000 (Echo 25 Aug. 1911).

The Irish Homestead edited by George Russell in 1920 was a bit sceptical about some of the figures. He severely criticised comparative trade figures which did not take inflation into account. He maintained that the pound had fallen to 10 shillings since 1914, so there was been no progress at all since 1904 if inflation is taken into account, but agreed that the increase of [farm] exports over imports had benefited the farmers. Imports were £55,350,000 in 1904 and £126,018,000 in 1918, which, by his calculation, was only £44,168,000 in 1904 values, or £11 millions less. He made a similar calculation with regard to exports and found only a slight increase over 14 years (Homestead 10 Jan. 1920). The gaps between imports and exports can mean either greater savings or inflation of prices of imports. More important than the actual figures was the fact given by O’Grada that exports of Irish agricultural produce did not rise sharply between 1914 and 1918 when their Danish and Dutch competitors were largely kept out of the market but rather declined in real terms. Irish farmers prospered in terms of cash and the domestic market absorbed much of their output. Nevertheless they allowed American suppliers to compensate for the fall in Danish and Dutch imports into Britain (O’Grada, Economic History, 391).

The figures, which we can assume to be sufficiently correct for our purpose, do give us some indications regarding the state of the Irish economy and its various sectors. The Homestead noted that at £18 million the poultry industry now almost equalled the value of the export of fat and store cattle combined.

Exports of poultry products etc. in 1919; official figures in £s


eggs                             15,603,000

poultry                          2,750,000

feathers                               96,310

total poultry                 18,449,310


cheese                            921,051

butter                           5,436,739

condensed milk            1,204,437

total creamery              7,562,227


fat cattle                      13,951,179

stores                            7,749,315

milch                            1,017,601

total cattle                   22,718,095


shipbuilding                 10,147,000


linen goods                  32,438,805

(Homestead 6 Mar. 1920; these were post-war prices and should be divided by 2 to get approximate pre-War comparisons).

In general, import and export figures just confirm what we know from other sources, like studies of agriculture and manufacturing, that Ireland was very successful in producing a limited range of products for export, and imported everything else. It may very well be that free market principles and the free movement of people produced the optimum solution for the time by allowing the Irish almost cost-free emigration to areas of the world where they do better for themselves than by remaining in Ireland. Yet the question still remains why did other places on the east coast not do so well as the Belfast area? [Top]

Trade Organisations

            In various towns and cities in Ireland as elsewhere were to be found Chambers of Commerce also called Commercial Associations, or local Boards of Trade. These were voluntary organisations of business firms, public officials, professional people, and public-spirited citizens primarily interested in publicising, promoting, and developing commercial and industrial opportunities in their areas; they also seek to improve community schools, streets, housing, public works, fire and police protection, parks, playgrounds, and recreational and tourist facilities. In Ireland they were also political forums, either nationalist or unionist. In 1916 Sir Edward Carson remarked that almost every chamber of commerce in Ireland supported the Bill applying Greenwich Mean Time to Ireland. They also acted as an employers’ forum when dealing with trade unionism especially of the violent type fostered by James Larkin. An Irish Farmers’ Union was started in 1919 to counteract the activities of labourers’ unions. An Antrim and Derry Egg Merchants Association was established to improve the quality and standards of Irish eggs being sent to the British market. The Irish Power Loom Manufacturers Association dealt with wages and conditions in the weaving industry. The Tourist Development (Ireland) Ltd Company was established to promote tourism. There was also a Hotel Proprietors’ Association equally anxious to develop the trade.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.