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Bristol opens window on Tudor Ireland

Press release issued: 4 January 2006

Bristol’s customs accounts hold the key to understanding the development of Tudor Ireland, according to new research at the University of Bristol.

Bristol’s customs accounts hold the key to understanding the development of Tudor Ireland, according to new research at the University of Bristol.

Work by Bristol historian, Dr Evan Jones, and former student, Susan Flavin, has revealed that Ireland possessed a much more dynamic economy in the sixteenth century than had ever been suspected.

Previous generations of historians have always thought that Ireland was an economically underdeveloped country before the Elizabethan re-conquest of Ireland got underway in the 1570s.  It has always seemed that, while English colonization of Ireland was a brutal affair, it did at least create the political and legal stability that allowed Ireland’s economy to develop.  The Tudor conquest may have been cruel, but it allowed a process of ‘nation building’ to occur in what many regarded as a terminally backwards land.

Now though, all this has been thrown into doubt.  By reconstructing Bristol’s trade with south-east Ireland during Henry VIII’s reign, Jones and Flavin have shown that at least some parts of the Irish economy were developing rapidly before the conquest.

In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Irish textile manufactories grew and an ever greater share of Irish trade became controlled by merchants born in Ireland using Irish ships.  At the same time, the people of southern Ireland began to import a larger and more varied list of consumer luxuries from England, ranging from spices and spectacles to silk stockings, books and playing cards.

Far from being an economic backwater, plagued by cattle-raiding and civil war, southeast Ireland appears to have undergone an economic renaissance in the early Tudor period.  This challenges the notion that English colonialism ‘rescued’ Ireland from its interminably backwards state.  Rather, it suggests that Ireland was capable of indigenous growth but the pattern of development achieved in the southeast was to be stymied by England’s conquest of Ireland and the island’s integration into English markets. 

Dr Jones said: “Bristol and the customs records are the key to understanding Ireland in the sixteenth century because so few Irish records have survived – most having been destroyed when Dublin’s Public Record Office was burned down during the Civil War of 1922-23.  This means that the Bristol customs accounts, which record what was the chief branch of Irish overseas trade at this time, represent the best set of records that exist for analysing the development of Ireland before the Elizabethan conquest.”

To continue this research, a team has now been set up at the University of Bristol to investigate how Bristol’s trade with Ireland developed across the sixteenth century.  A three-year project, funded by the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), will investigate Bristol customs records now kept at the National Archives in London.

Dr Jones will lead the research team, with the assistance of Dr Brendan Smith of the University of Bristol and  Professor Raymond Gillespie of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.  Ms Susan Flavin will lead the research into the archives.  The project begins on 1 January 2006.

Further information is available on the project's website: Ireland-Bristol Trade in the Sixteenth Century

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