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Consuming Ireland

Susan Flavin

Susan Flavin

The Matthew

The Matthew

16 May 2009

Susan Flavin, in the Department of Historical Studies, shows that dramatic changes in consumer consumption can occur in the most unlikely of societies

Flavin’s research examined changes in the nature of Ireland’s trade with Bristol in the 16th century. The customs accounts and Port Books of Bristol are an outstandingly detailed record of Anglo-Irish trade, recording as they do in minute detail what was the most important branch of Ireland’s overseas trade. The records are particularly invaluable because the public records office in Dublin was destroyed in 1922. No other economic records of equivalent value survive in Ireland, or elsewhere, for examining Ireland’s economic development during this period.

The nature of the Irish economy meant that Ireland remained dependent on imports for the vast majority of every-day goods during this period; the accounts therefore paint a very detailed picture of the evolving nature of Irish material culture and of changing patterns of consumption. Many of the items that appear in the accounts are the kind of low-value consumables that normally do not survive in other sources. However, such detail allows Flavin to look at important social and cultural issues such as changes in the rituals of the table, in hospitality, in the preparation and presentation of food, in defense, fashion and leisure activities – even down to how the inhabitants of 16th century Ireland coped with such annoyances as constipation and intestinal worms.

After 1575, the accounts tell us the exact port at which goods were arriving in Ireland, and also the domicile of the merchants, which is a vitally important detail as it throws light on the probable diffusion of goods after their arrival on the Irish coast and on the commercial relationship of the Irish coast and its hinterland. The analysis conducted so far reveals that there was a dramatic increase in the range and volume of luxury goods imported from Bristol, which rose from just 60 basic items in 1503 to almost 400 by the end of the century. Growth has been identified in two main areas: the increasing diversification of product types – buttons, for example, evolved from a single category to a large range of sub-types – and the appearance of entirely new items, such as soap and spectacles, an increasing variety of luxury European cloth and foods, and a range of items described as being specifically for children. These goods were widely distributed throughout all the main towns in the south-east of Ireland, and also further west to Limerick and Galway and north to Dundalk and Drogheda.

Ireland remained dependent on imports for the vast majority of every-day goods

These findings are surprising because it is widely accepted that the ‘birth’ of a consumer society in Britain did not occur until the 18th century, in line with growing industrialisation and commercialisation. Ireland in the 16th century, which is still seen by economic historians as a colonial backwater, is a very unlikely place to find significant changes of this nature. One major social upheaval that might explain such changes was the creation of the Munster Plantation. Munster was a province of Ireland where land seized from the Irish was given to colonists (‘planters’) from Britain. These 3,000 ‘New English’ settlers were an attempt by the Crown to both stabilise and anglicise the country. This, however, did not begin until 1586/87 and the accounts suggest that major changes were under way well before then, making it necessary to consider organic reasons rather than colonisation for these apparent changes.

While one might expect the growing range of luxury items to reflect increasing wealth in Irish society, the overall value of the Bristol-Ireland trade seems to have collapsed at the same time as luxury imports increased. The 1575 account shows the greatest increase in terms of the range of goods being imported, but also the lowest recorded gross value for trade. It seems that while the variety and, in some cases, the volume of small luxury items was going up, there was a corresponding fall in staple goods such as broad cloth, saffron and raw silk, which together made up the largest part of the gross value of import trade in the first half of the century.

Teazles are used to draw out the ends of wool to make a fine, high-quality cloth

In order to understand this dichotomy, Flavin has examined Ireland’s exports, in addition to its imports (the accounts record both). Found among these in the later part of the century are commodities such as marmalade and wine which make up almost a quarter of the value of Irish exports in 1594. Indeed, in that year Irish merchants exported four times more Spanish hat wool to England than they did Irish wool, and by 1600, Seville oil made up 11 per cent of Irish exports to Bristol. This suggests well-developed Irish mercantile contacts with Spain – a commercial relationship that is backed up by qualitative evidence in the State Papers. It seems that Irish merchants were being increasingly drawn towards European markets, which helps explain the decreasing value of Ireland’s trade with England.

While Irish consumers remained for the most part dependent on imports for everyday manufactured goods, it is apparent that some of their growing needs were being met by domestic production. Evidence of this is seen in the importation of teazles – plants used to draw out the ends of wool to make a fine, high-quality cloth – which began to occur around the same time as the increase in luxury cloth imports. The Irish also imported an increasingly diverse range of haberdashery items, including specialist needles and threads, along with items such as shoe-makers’ knives. Flavin is not suggesting that 16th century Ireland showed all or even many of the features of a modern consumer society, or that it underwent a ‘consumer revolution’ of the type claimed by historians of 18th century Britain. Nevertheless, analysis of the Bristol customs data points to a dramatic shift in the nature of Irish consumption by the last quarter of the 16th century, indicating both a growing sophistication of tastes and an increasing prosperity in Ireland.

While statistical data are at the core of this study, Flavin’s remaining work will focus on using qualitative sources such as wills, inventories and state papers to explain how these commodities were interpreted and perceived, and what they tell us about identity in Ireland. Such records can throw light on the cultural identities of the consumers of these goods, the changing role of women and children as consumers, and the ways in which Irish material culture was affected by colonisation in the final decades of the century.

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