Buying Irish: Consumer Nationalism in 18th-century Dublin
Sarah Foster offers a fascinating account of how Irish identity, with its sectarian implications, asserted itself in the manufacture and purchase of luxury goods.
Eighteenth-century Dublin was an important centre for the design and production of luxury goods destined for the home market. These had to compete against imports, mainly from England and France, so design and workmanship had to be of the highest standard. Earlier in the century, commentators remarked on the time-lag of fashions between London and Dublin, but by the 1790s this was hardly apparent.
Most buyers of luxury goods whose papers survive were members of the Ascendancy. This nebulous class did not include all of the Protestant quarter of the population; it was linked specifically to Anglicanism, and could be of Norman, Old English, Cromwellian or, very occasionally, ancient Gaelic descent. The grander Ascendancy families usually held peerages from Britain as well as Ireland, and often intermarried with the English nobility, thus acquiring English lands. There was a. certain fluidity within the ranks of the Ascendancy; poverty or recent conversion from Catholicism were not great handicaps.
Throughout the eighteenth century, embryonic 'Buy Irish' campaigns sought to politicise the choosing of goods; the colouring and decoration of clothing, glass and furniture reflect the economic and political turmoil of the 1780s and 1790s, and yield insights into the formation of nationalist and unionist identities. The historian Tim Breen has argued that consumption of British goods first helped to anglicise the American colonists, but in the 1760s imports took on a radical new symbolic function, as the boycott helped unify the thirteen states. The campaign to support Irish manufactures may not have had dramatic economic effects but it did help feed into a new Irish identity towards the end of the eighteenth century.
Whereas in the nineteenth century national identity was tied up with authentic Celtic objects, the issue in the eighteenth century was one of workmanship, rather than style; the objects could be of imported materials – silk, mahogany, cotton – and in the idiom of Western European high material culture, but still be recognisably Irish. The Dublin consumer wanted luxury goods to be modern, not derived from earlier demotic objects. In this context, silver and glass creamers and butter tubs based on the 'piggin' (a small pail) are the exceptions that prove the rule; otherwise, the shapes and engraving were neo-classical, albeit with an Irish inflection. The objective was to conform to international neo-classicism in order to outdo the British imports and benefit the Irish economy. Those receptive to the rhetoric of economic nationalism could buy native manufactures as a gesture of solidarity with the 'patriot' party.
The architectural historian Edward McParland has suggested that Irish public building was motivated by two forces: an urge to do things bigger and better than London, and to snub London by looking to other foreign sources, particularly France. In Irish decorative arts, the French influence was particularly strong, partly because the Dublin Society schools, where many craftsmen received a free training, looked to France for their inspiration.
When the relationship between material culture and nationalism is considered in a nineteenth- or twentieth-century context, the emphasis is on authenticity: so, in 1830s England, A.W.N. Pugin rejected classical styles because of their Greek and Roman origins, and declared medieval Gothic building to be the most recent instance of a truly English architecture. Peasant material culture is the touchstone for most European nineteenth-century national styles. In Ireland, this manifested itself in the use of Celtic models such as the Tara brooch and four main national symbols: the shamrock, the harp of Brian Boru, the wolfhound, and the round tower. These harked back to a Golden Age before English rule, the period which produced the book of Kells, the Tara brooch, and Cormac's Chapel.
The contrast between neo-classical forms and the more insular national style embodies the differences between the eighteenth-century 'patriot' brand of gentry nationalism, which did not wholly reject the imperial system, and the later more radical Catholic movements which sought to establish a separate Irish nation-state.
The key issue in eighteenth-century debates on Irish manufacture, then, was where objects had been made, and by whom, rather than their appearance. The need to support Irish-made goods was first raised in print by Jonathan Swift and Arthur Dobbs in 1729, at a time of severe economic depression. At this time, legislation drafted in Dublin was still subject to approval by Westminster; trade restrictions on British colonies were thus easily maintained, as bills aimed at improving the Irish economy could be vetoed in London.
The Dublin Society, founded in 1731 to encourage agriculture and manufactures, sought to foster Irish textile industries by granting premiums to the makers and sellers of linen, cotton, wool and silk. One of the society's founders, Thomas Prior, transformed the wearing of Irish linen scarves into a political statement; they were first donned for the funeral of Speaker Conolly in 1729, to encourage the linen trade. George Berkeley in The Querist had called for the fostering of home industries so that the majority of Irishmen should have shoes to their feet, clothes to their backs and beef in their bellies, even though squires would be condemned to drink ale instead of claret and fine ladies would have to sacrifice silks and laces.
In 1734, resentment of the selling of English goods at a time of hardship among Dublin artisans was so strong that:
A mob of weavers of the Liberty rose in order to rifle the several shops in the city for English manufactures, and stopped at the houses of Messrs Eustace and Lindsay, woollen drapers in High Street; who, having notice of their coming, shut up their shops... They forced off the hinges of Mrs Eustace's shop windows with hammers and chisels... At length the army had to be brought against them, and a fight ensued, in which one of the weavers was killed.
In 1745, the first organised petition by weavers against imported textiles heightened awareness of the need to buy Irish products; high duties were imposed on French silk goods, and Mrs Delany records a ball given by the viceroy, Lord Chesterfield, at which many ladies were dressed in Irish stuffs. Throughout the 1750s, non-importation boycotts were threatened, though not put into effect; it was not until the economic downturn of the late 1770s that the campaign against foreign goods really took off.
The American War of Independence affected Ireland in a number of ways. However, the Irish campaign for parliamentary 'independence' was seeking the restoration of lost rights, not the granting of new ones. 'We are in watercolour what they are in fresco' was the metaphor used by an Irish MP to describe the parallels with the British colonies in America; already linked by ties of emigration and trade, they now had economic grievances against Britain in common. It seems likely that more rigorous Irish boycotts of British goods were inspired by the American example.
The Volunteers, a defence force of 'Protestants headed by men of property, well trained and better armed and clothed than the regulars', was formed to protect property and sup- press riots in the late 1770s. After France and Spain joined in the war with America in 1778, the Volunteers increased in number; they became involved in the intensified campaign for 'Free Trade', as Anglo-Irish relations deteriorated. Both Houses of the Dublin Parliament were well rep- resented; the Duke of Leinster and Lord Charlemont, well-known patrons of the arts, had high profiles as leaders of Volunteer corps.
The urban depression in Dublin and Cork intensified in 1779, and a number of non-importation resolutions were passed at grand jury and country freeholder meetings. A group of guild politicians in Dublin organised a trade boycott of British goods; James Napper Tandy, later to help found the United Irishmen, was one of the leaders. Names of those not co- operating were publicised, and several newspapers supported the campaign. A spate of pamphlets denounced the evil results of the commercial restrictions, as having ruined the Irish woollen industry and caused rack-renting. Losses in the woollen trade were supposedly offset by encouragement of the linen industry; yet no Irish dyed or checked linens could be sent to the colonies and if sent to England they attracted a duty of 30 per cent, while Irish linen had to be shipped to England to receive an export bounty. However, trade restrictions were not the sole cause of the economic crisis, which was in fact cyclical and exacerbated by the wars.
On November 4th, 1779, the anniversary of William III's birth, the Volunteers massed outside the Irish Houses of Parliament and called for 'Free Trade', while a 'patriot' group of MPs threatened to withhold assent to finance bills until the demands were met. Feelings ran high in Dublin; journeymen tailors refused to work with cloth not of Irish manufacture, saying that the Irish taste for foreign goods had drained the country of cash and forced artisans to emigrate.
The British government, under Lord North, decided to remove the regulations which prevented the export of Irish goods abroad. However, English traders and manufacturers, already suffering from the loss of their American market, petitioned the British House of Commons, which then modified the legislation so that it was little more than a gesture. At the beginning of 1780, acts were passed allowing Ireland to import goods directly from the colonies, and export woollens and glass. By this stage, however, it was considered by many that free trade could only have real meaning if it were controlled by an Irish parliament.
National self-confidence increased, linked to pride in the gorgeously attired Volunteer Army, as it was felt the Free Trade campaign was beginning to make progress. By 1780, Volunteers are thought to have numbered between 30,000 and 40,000. Faced with such a large force, the government chose to provide them with artillery and co-opt them into national defence plans. Francis Wheatley's painting of the rally in College Green captures the spectacular appearance of the massed ranks of scarlet uniforms, although it omits the pro-Free Trade placards and banners draped over the statue of William III.
A split in the Volunteers themselves became apparent in 1780, and the more militant formed a separate corps under James Napper Tandy. The Irish administration was also riven with discord, as pressure mounted to repeal the constitutional restraints. The 'patriot' party was seeking a new position for Ireland within the British Empire, not a separate national identity; the eighteenth- century brand of economic nationalism had its limits.
In 1782, an act was passed giving legislative independence to the country and establishing a new assembly. Under pressure on several fronts, the British government had started to ease the 'penal laws' against Catholics; the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 removed restrictions on Catholics holding long leases, and four years later another act allowed them to buy and bequeath land in the same way as Protestants. Many hoped that the Catholics could now contribute to Ireland's economic growth, 'excited to every mode of industry that could relieve the drooping commerce of this declining country'.
One of the wealthiest Catholic merchants, John Keogh, fulfilled this hope, boasting that the Dublin Society had just awarded him their highest premium as the 'greatest Purchaser of Irish Silks in this Kingdom, by some Thousand Pounds'. By 1780, some one-third of Dublin merchants were Catholic, and in 1783 Catholics contributed about one-tenth to the capital of the newly establish Bank of Ireland. Few Catholic traders had premises in the smarter streets, though, and the urban Catholic middle class did not become a significant force until the early nineteenth century.
Throughout the early 1780s, the Volunteers continued to seek for Ire- land 'an honourable station in respect to Commerce, as well as constitutional Liberty' and called for foreign artists to come and establish manufactures in Ireland. The attempt to settle skilled Swiss artisans at a 'New Geneva' near Waterford was much talked about in newspapers of the day, but eventually fizzled out. While calling for legislative reform, the Volunteers were still innately conservative, breaking up demonstrations of journeymen claiming the right to form combinations. The 'buy Irish' campaigns of the 1780s are evoked in the jingle:
Ye noblemen in place or out,
Ye Volunteers so brave and stout,
Ye dames that flaunt at ball or rout,
Wear Irish manufacture.
Gentry support for Irish manufactures took the form of wearing Irish silk and poplins, and Volunteer leaders such as Charlemont and Leinster made a point of buying Irish goods; a ball at Leinster House was, unusually, catered entirely by local cooks. The viceregal court stipulated that guests at Her Majesty's birthday ball 'be dressed in the Manufactures of this Kingdom'. The extent to which this had previously been regarded as mere lip service is suggested by a report that Lady Temple wished this notice to 'not be considered, as heretofore a mere Hint... but that they will literally abide by it... such being the only way of effectually helping the distressed manufacturers.' Theatres also participated, by kitting out their casts in costumes of Irish cloth. The euphoria following the measures of Free Trade and Free Legislation in 1783 is captured in a description of a Castle ball where the ladies were 'all in the manufacture of a Country, rising in Commercial as well as political Consequence.' It is clear, however, that Castle dress was strictly in the style of St James'; Dublin makers of court dress employed London hair-dressers, mantua-makers and trimmings experts, and sent note-takers to gala balls in London. The silk may have been woven in the Liberties, but the cut was copied from London.
In June 1784 the Kildare Street 'Funny Club' held two balls for the benefit of Irish manufacturers. Newspapers of the time speak in glowing terms of the eventual economic benefits of aristocratic campaigns to support Irish textiles. As a corrective, Lady Morgan's novel The O'Briens and the O'Flaherties (1827) suggests how some gentry at the time may have regarded Castle support for Irish goods: Lady Knocklofty remarks of an unpopular Lord Lieutenant that 'he does everything to please them – he scarcely ever goes to bed sober, and he bespoke tabinet furniture the other day to an immense amount'. The campaign itself is dismissed as 'a mischievous chimera', 'the voluntary or compulsory preference of dear or bad articles of home manufacture, to better or cheaper goods brought from abroad'. These two extremes represent the poles of public opinion as the buying of Irish cloth became a political act; the non-importation agreements of the early 1780s may have had some effect, as statistics show that imports of English cloth fell, but politically it was counter-productive.
The Order of the Knights of St Patrick was installed in St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, on St Patrick's Day, 1785. The choice of St Patrick was a conscious attempt to claim the allegiances of Catholic and Protestant alike, and contribute to a distinctive and cohesive national identity. Earl Temple, the Lord Lieutenant, hoped that this new Irish Order could help re-orientate Irish loyalties, by appealing to the Catholic interest which was largely excluded from the mainly Protestant Volunteers. This was another occasion on which to demonstrate support for the Irish silk industry, as Faulkner's Dublin Journal makes clear:
The Robes to be Sky-blue – as each of the sixteen Knights is to have three Esquires, and all of these must, by an express Statute. be clothed in Robes manufactured in Ireland, it may easily be conceived what a prodigious and immediate market this will give to our Manufactures.
In fact, although the silks were got in Dublin, Clements the jeweller had to rush to London 'to prepare the Collars, Medallions etc. which were found impracticable to procure here in proper Time'. As these were costed at £200 and £300 each respectively, this was quite a loss to Dublin's jewellers. The medallion was the 'cross of St Patrick', a red saltire decorated with a green shamrock bearing three crowns, one on each leaf (representing the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland). Each year thereafter, the viceroy entertained the fifteen Knights to dinner at the castle, and there was a levee, ball and supper afterwards, at which guests were encouraged to appear in Irish manufacture, with the shamrock much in evidence as an emblem of the day.
The shamrock was also a motif used by the Volunteers, much in evidence on toasting glasses. it also appears on a Dublin silk pattern of the time, and in the plasterwork of Glin Castle, Co. Limerick. The cabinet-maker, William Moore, who may have been a Volunteer, decorated his furniture with inlaid shamrocks. As a symbol, then, the shamrock was not purely 'Gaelic' or Catholic, but could be used by government and Volunteers alike to signal their own brands of national identity.
In 1784 a new, four-year non- importation agreement was drafted, and implemented by shopkeepers swearing affidavits. Adherence to the agreement was used as a selling point by many advertisements published that year. This campaign was conducted more viciously; the extent to which importation of English cloth received sole blame for poverty and unemployment among the Dublin artisan class is suggested by the Liberties weavers' tarring and feathering of drapers accused of selling English cloth in the 1780s. Such an action was probably inspired by the American colonists' treatment of customs officials. In January 1774 the Commissioner for Customs in Boston had been tarred and feathered, led to the gallows and forced to drink great quantities of tea, inspiring a number of satirical prints.
Britain wanted to keep the Irish economy ticking over, producing the goods she needed – fine linens, coarse woollens, butter and beef – not competing with the struggling English silk industry, which had suffered badly from the loss of its American market, as well as the vogue for cotton. Pitt's 'Commercial Propositions' to equalise trade barriers were defeated in 1785, although many of the proposals eventually came about in the late 1780s and early 1790s, when Ireland was allowed into the East India Company monopoly and permitted to re-export colonial goods to Britain.
Some goods carried political meanings in a literal way, for example, a wine glass of 1780 engraved with 'Liberty' and 'Free Trade' on two flags, and a shamrock where they cross. The Volunteers clearly saw the importance of harnessing material culture to unify their followers – the cap of Liberty, elaborate uniforms and banners, glasses, pottery, even a furnishing fabric. The Irish Furniture Cotton and Linen Warehouse in Werburgh Street advertised this linen as:
... finished from Copper plates, a Volunteer Furniture, an exact representation of the last Provincial Review in Phoenix Park with a striking likeness of Lord Charlemont, as reviewing General; and every other matter fully represented that was worth observation at that review...
These scenes were also transfer-printed onto earthenware. jugs, with slogans calling for Free Trade and Success to the Irish Volunteers. Several engraved glass goblets carried a version of the Volunteer rally in College Green, possibly copied from engraved prints of the Wheatley painting.
Colours alone carried symbolic weight. When the new order of St Patrick was being designed, the choice of blue was a reference to the field of Dublin's arms, and a deliberate contrast with the orange ribbons draped on William III's statue on November 4th, each year.. The wearing of green handkerchiefs became a sign of patriotic sympathies, adopted by the United Irishmen; according to Lord Cloncurry, while troops were encamped on the Curragh of Kildare, Lord Edward Fitzgerald rode past in a green neckcloth. Ordered by a group of officers to remove this 'obnoxious garment', Fitzgerald replied by inviting the whole party together, or singly, to come and take the handkerchief from his neck, if they dared.
The demarcation of orange as Protestant and green as Catholic became more entrenched after the founding of the Orange Order in 1795. Travelling in Co. Armagh in 1796, De la Tocnaye met a troop of Orangemen with orange cockades, engaged in 'obliging' people to take off anything green they wore. An English traveller, John Gamble, recalls this scene in a Drogheda haberdashers in 1810:
One or two women bought gowns, and I observed that the colours they preferred, were all different shades of green – a very elegant stuff, of a pale yellow was shown them – the youngest seemed pleased with it, but the other whispered something in Irish, and laid it aside. I remarked the shopman smiled, and asked what she said: 'Don't have anything to do with it, it is a Protestant colour.' Green, in all its shades, is Catholic – Orange is Protestant.
Just as silks woven in Ireland were used to interpret the fashions of Lon- don or Paris, other artefacts of the time were made to conform to the international 'antique' style. The consensus is that Irish decorative arts were made in a neo-classical idiom, but with some distinctively Irish inflections; sometimes a matter of engraving style, or use of a motif peculiar to Ireland.
The aim was to produce goods of the best Irish workmanship, capable of competing at a European level. In eighteenth-century Ireland, economic nationalism was not allied with the Gaelic heritage; most patriots came from an Ascendancy background, and few felt able to identify with the native Irish language and literature. Towards the close of the century the interest in the antique led to an examination of the Irish past, and archaeological excavations were carried out; the Royal Irish Academy was founded in 1785. Magazines of the 1790s include descriptions of Stone Age tombs and debate on their origins. Irish musical instruments, particularly the harp, were taken up. Studies of Gaelic culture by Catholic scholars such as Charles O'Conor, Sylvester O'Halloran and John Curry later fed into the Celtic revival of the early nineteenth century.
In late eighteenth-century Ireland, as in the American colonies, the buying of goods became a political act. Shamrocks and shades of green, blue and orange signalled different identities, paving the way for a more aggressive, separatist design vocabularly informed by the rediscovery of Ireland's Celtic heritage in the early nineteenth century. Luxury goods such as printed linens, toasting glasses, and fine furniture apparently conforming to the canons of neo-classical taste also carried messages about a nascent Irish nationalism. Not identifiable visually as Irish, but nonetheless of Irish workmanship, they represented the separate economic identity being striven for by the politicians who called for Free Trade, the artisans who boycotted British goods, the weavers who attacked the shops selling foreign furniture and textiles, and the radicals who tarred and feathered drapers who flouted non-importation agreements.
Sarah Foster is a lecturer in the history of design at the Crawford College of Art and Design, Cork, and the National College of Art, Dublin.
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