The Maritime Influence on Limerick History in the Eighteenth Century


Prime-minister William Pitt presided over the extension of the modern state, in terms of custom, revenue and police departments to all parts of Britain including the Shannon region of Ireland

There are two significant considerations which are often omitted in eighteenth-century studies of the Shannon region and which appear to me to explain much of the historical legacy of counties Limerick, Kerry and Cork.

These are the distance of the region from the seat of power in Dublin and London, and its relative proximity on the other hand to European influence by sea.

Some weeks ago I attended a historical conference during which we heard a paper on the social interaction among the different strata of society in Ireland during the eighteenth century. The speaker never once referred to the smuggling culture shared by gentry as well as peasantry. I believe that the culture of contraband and other aspects of maritime life made the counties of west Munster distinct because they modified the politics and sectarian conflict which existed elsewhere.

The poorest regions of Ireland, the land least desirable for settlement, were generally speaking those in the west.

Most of our mountains are situated around the edges of the country where there are also great and little sea inlets. The Norman and later settlements tended to be scattered, far scattered than in the midlands and east of the country. This settlement pattern had an undoubted bearing on the qualitiy of politics even if it is difficult at times to be definite about what this bearing was.

Louth, for example, a county with a high degree of gentrification, was opposed to Catholic emancipation in a manner which was inconceivable in Limerick and Kerry where the leaders of politics were liberal on the question of the removal of the penal laws against Catholics. The very liberal Protestant tradition of the Shannon estuary region is only now receiving attention among historians with the time and resources to look beyond the local and compare trends elsewhere.

After the turn of the nineteenth century Limerick produced the figure of Thomas Spring-Rice, Lord Monteagle, who, in addition to operating at near the highest levels of politics in London, had an unblemished record on Catholic emancipation and Irish educational initiatives during the 1810s and the 1820s. This is the same gentleman who was returned as the Independent canditate to parliament in 1820 for Limerick thereby ending the era of the Smith-Vereker grip on the corporation of the city.

Spring-Rice’s column dominates People’s Park near Pery Square today. It made sense that, surrounded by a sea of natives, the scattered settlement of the landed elite in the counties of west Munster should see their interests on the side of the native Irish.

The best of them stressed their residency and played down their absenteeism. Not that absenteeism was always a bad thing. Foreign residency was represented as necessary to introduce ‘improvements’ of an agricultural, architectural, educational or philanthropic kind.

When we consider the legacy of the Irish grandees we often forget their vision and planning to enhance not only their own stature in the counties but the environment in which their tenantry lived. They developed estate towns: Adare, for example, or Kenmare built in the middle of the eighteenth century by the Shelburnes, or Killarney by the Brownes, or the new Limerick (Newtown Pery) under the Pery family.

In the maritime counties of the Atlantic coast smuggling helped protect everybody from the full effects of poverty.

From the correspondence reproduced in ‘The Last Colonel of the Irish Brigade’, which is a recreation of the world of Daniel O’Connell’s uncle, it is clear that the population at many levels, including the parish gentry to the minor nobility, were intimately associated through smuggling.

Nobody was really complaining when the government was defrauded of revenue, except members of the merchant community engaged in legitimate trading who paid their taxes. Legitimate commerce protested to government about what was happening at the hidden coves of the south-west and about the sophisticated organisation of the inland trade in contraband, and they coloured their protests under a concern for the loss of government revenue.

The smuggling trade was aided by war between Britain and France, and when the biggest of these wars, the Seven Year War of 1756-63, ended officially the latent hostility of the French and British continued to provide a cover for the interruption of the fishing trade and a protection for smugglers.

The Freeman’s Journal quoted ‘a gentleman lately arrived from Kerry whose authority we can rely on’, in June 1764.

He reported that ‘upwards of 100 sail of large French boats’ were fishing for mackerel off the west coast, each with a ‘string of nets that extends upwards of three miles’. The local fishermen suffered because the Frenchmen, by ‘throwing the guts of the mackerel overboard’ were detaining the hake, cod and ling in deep water ‘which would otherwise come at the usual time to the feeding ground near the shore’.

Legitimate commerce complained that among the other effects of ‘this trespass of our inveterate enemies and avowed rivals in trade’ was the destruction of ‘the trade of the British dominions’ by the protection it gave to the transfer of Irish wool to France and the ‘smuggling tea, brandy etc’.(1)

Revenue officials struggled to recover control of the situation. When the members of a notorious family of law breakers broke out of Tralee gaol in 1767, a correspondent reported that ‘the people, among whom a general despondency seems to prevail, begin to attribute the non-execution of the laws to causes infinitely more powerful than either the corruption of gaolers or the negligence of the sheriffs’.

It transpired that the escapees, the Lawders, ‘a gang of freeboters’, were on the point of being released, ‘having been already reprieved at the request of the excisemen, who suggested that they would make excellent spies in the business of the revenue’, who planned to use them ‘on board the revenue cutter on the Kerry coast’.(2)

It was reported in 1784 that ‘the merchants and tobacco manufacturers’ of Limerick presented a petition to parliament complaining ‘the great loss and damages they suffer from the vast quantities of tobacco landed and smuggled into the county of Kerry and its neighbouring districts’. (3)

According to the presenter of the petition, Sir Harry Hartstonge, of the ‘Independent’ or liberal party, and brother-in-law of the Speaker Edmund Sexton Pery, the contraband was ‘carried openly and at noon-day through all parts of the country’ (i.e. the county, meaning Kerry).

A little over a year later Sir Boyle Roche spoke in parliament on the subject. He, described the enormities committed by the smugglers along all the coast, and through all the tract of country which reaches from the river Shannon to the Old Head of Kinsale, and which he called the grand mart of contraband trade.

In this part of the kingdom that lawless description of men, armed and accoutered, and regimented, march in open day, convoying their goods in defiance of all opposition, frequently encountering, and generally from their numbers overcoming the small bodies of troops detached against them. These excesses he thought called loudly upon the legislature to enact rigorous laws, which if rigorously put into execution, and if the members of the house were unanimous in a desire of suppressing smuggling, would put a stop to the evil, and double the revenue of the state without laying one new tax on the subject.(4)

The complaints of the fishermen and the legitimate traders of Limerick, Tralee and elsewhere were offset however by advantages which accrued to the maritime regions through forms of cultural exchange with Europe.

The south was more tied to Europe than elsewhere in Ireland by virtue of the numbers of men who entered the Irish brigades in the service of the Catholic monarchs, and the numbers of Irish seminarians in the Irish colleges of the same dominions. We always assumed that when these returned to Ireland they harboured smouldering resent against the Protestant hegemony of their native land, and that this feeling had been fostered during their stay in Europe by the Catholic powers who were invariably Britain’s enemies.

Now we are not so sure.

We think it equally possible that they were conduits of the European Enlightenment, which indeed preached redress of the wrongs done to the subjects of a king but which was more Protestant in spirit that Catholic. If the coming and going of human beings at the ports of the south and west was a positive exchange of Enlightened ideas, then it would be easy to see how the Irish and British governments would regard European influence as something which enhanced the quality of politics rather than something which necessarily encouraged revolution.

Jacobite Europe had ceased to be a threat to Britain from about 1760, something not reversed by the Seven Year War. Classical culture probably survived in an ambience of Catholic counter reformation better than in the increasingly secular society of Hanoverian England, something which educated Englishmen, with no vested interest in the removal of the Georges, regretted about their own country.

Finally, they also regretted that the picaresque literature and theatre of Europe, which produced Don Quixote in Spain and the novels of Fielding in England, was less and less reflected in the increasingly industrial world of late eighteenth-century Britain.

Another point to remember is that the society of the south of Ireland had little of the democratic revolutionary energy of the north, a region from which thousands of emigrants had for decades gone to settle in America where they brought the dissenter radicalism which fed into, and in many cases spearheaded, the drive for American independence.

The returning Jacobites were made very welcome by many of the gentry and minor aristocracy of the Shannon region, if we are to read again the accounts given in ‘The Last Colonel’.

They included foreign trained medical men as well as clergymen and soldiers. Hostility towards the British seems the farthest thing from the minds of many of them. O’Connell’s uncle, also Daniel, the eponymous ‘Last Colonel’, made the memorable claim that it would have been his preference to serve King George rather than King Louis if he had been given the opportunity when he came of age in the 1760s.

All of these factors which made up the social and geographical context for politics in the south and west may therefore go some of the way to explain why the rebellion of 1798 was never the serious event in the Shannon region which it was elsewhere.

But there was a limit to the brake which the toleration of smuggling and d?tente with Britain’s European enemies could place on the insurrectionary spirit to which the glaring inequalities of Irish society under the ancien regime gave rise, even in the less propicious atmosphere for insurrection of Shannon region.

Recent research has led us to see that insurrection, averted in 1798, matured some years later and combined with the old and endemic rural agitation against rents and tithes.

There was growing distress on estates throughout Ireland and England from the 1760s because of enclosures of common land. West Munster was affected like elsewhere by the resultant rural upheaval.

Indeed the ferocity of the rural insurrection organised by the Whiteboys in Limerick and north Kerry of the 1760s and 1770s, and that of the Rightboys or the 1780s, equalled anything seen in the other theatres of rural insurrection in Ireland, and it survived to the generation of the ‘Rockites’ in west Limerick during the 1820s.

Pressure was brought to bear on tillage farming as landholders enclosed the common land to meet the demand for beef and lamb in the new industrial cities and towns of Britain.

There was the parallel irish abuse of the subletting of farms to the highest bidder at auction. The consequence was the marginalisation of poor families to the poorest land and the driving up of rents. The enclosure of commonage and the denudation Irish midlands of its people is the background to Grey’s ‘Elegy’ and Goldsmith’s ‘Deserted Village’.

Arthur Young, the great agriculturalist, visited Kerry in 1776, described the state of the poor as ‘exceedingly miserable’, the result of lease speculation on the part of ‘land pirates, or men who offer the highest rent, and who, in order to pay this rent, must, and do, re-let all the cabin lands at an extravagant rise, which is assigning over all the cabins to be devoured by one farmer’.

Kerry labourers crowded the hiring fairs of county Limerick after 1800 and were attacked by the Limerick labourers. The unscrupulous middlemen in Young’s account who canted, or auctioned, farms and were therefore one of the principal culprits in all of this, looked on while the native Irish beat each other.

In this atmosphere the more carefully planned rebellions of the nineteenth century found a fertile soil on which to cast their seed.

The new travellers from Europe brought a French legacy utterly different to the Enlightened view they had learned under the benevolent monarchies of the eighteenth century. Their goal was no longer that of the Last Colonel: filled with the teachings of the French revolution they sought the overthrow of the Irish state founded on the Williamite settlement at the end of the seventeenth century.

1. Freeman’s Journal 2 2. Freeman’s Journal, 24-28 November 1767.
3. Speech in the Irish House of Commons by Sir Henry Hartstonge, reported in the Freeman’s Journal 28 February-2 March, 1784.
4. Speech in the Irish House of Commons by Sir Boyle Roche, reported in the Freeman’s Journal, 17-19 May, 1785.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *