From the end of the 17th century, Ireland was subject to the Navigation Acts common to all English colonies, but also laws concerning imports of wool (doc. A). Given the importance of wool in the agrarian economy, it is not surprising that the Irish sought to dodge these constraints, illegally exporting, or “running”, products to France (doc. B et doc. C).
These measures made to protect trade and factories were intended to better control incoming and outgoing goods, in order to balance public accounts by preventing imports from exceeding exports. And yet, in Ireland, the situation was rather the reverse. Admittedly, exports were limited, but imports of staple articles, raw materials and tooling, which were consumed by (Irish) farmers, workmen and artisans, were more regulated; whereas luxury products, consumed by the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and gentlemen, were duty free and unregulated.
Prohibited imports : finished products & foodstuffs
No glass or pottery could be imported to Ireland, no beef, pork or fish. Plantation and Caribbean products (sugar, tobacco, spices) had to transit via England before arriving in Ireland, and could only be carried by English ships manned by a majority of English sailors.
Severely controlled exports
Similarly, Ireland could not freely export its produce. Exporting live cattle or horses was prohibited, tariffs were imposed on wool and woolen exports (1698-1699) (doc. A, p. 1, doc. D, p. 10-11 et doc. E, p. 124-125), or again, the compulsory sale of Irish beef or sail canvas to England alone (Ireland was treated like other colonies) destroyed Irish livestock raising and the wool industry and led to an economic depression at the beginning of the 18th century.
Some, such as Lucius O’Brien, suggested that domestic consumption of Irish produce would better feed its “starving” people (doc. F, p. 32), whilst also admitting the advantage of keeping Ireland as a customer rather than a competitor (doc. F, p. 54-55). Others saw the source of revenue which the “compleat system of the revenue of Ireland, in its several branches of import, export, and inland duties…calculated for the use of all officers, merchants, masters of ships, and others concerned in the revenue or trade of” could generate (1737) (doc. G).
The only export which was freely allowed and even encouraged was that item which was abundant in Ireland: the workforce (see Emigration and Immigration).
1775-1780: a series of concessions which allow again Irish exports – including wool towards American colonies (1785) (doc. H, p. 4-7). In view of developments in events in North America, these concessions unfortunately occurred too late to have much effect. The Irish wool industry would not have time to recover before the interruption caused by American Independence. Secondly, controls over the reimporting of specie (gold and silver) into Ireland, sums of money which had been taken out of the country by the absentee landlords, and which were lacking in circulating currency, were relaxed.
A plea for unification
A survey of the restrictions imposed on Irish trade by English law published in 1779, by Sir James CALDWELL, (despite his title, Count of Milan, his family were Ulster Protestants who arrived in the early 17th century), argued that everything which concerned Ireland could only affect England, and that “the happiness and wealth of all” – use of these terms at that date can only remind one of the first lines of the American Declaration of Independence – would be increased if these laws were repealed (doc. I, p. 30-37). Political unity and economic advantage were intrinsically linked.